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I Thought Sex Work Was Anti-Feminist. Then, I Became A Stripper

Credit: Ronny 80/Shutterstock

Sex work wasn’t something that initially interested me. I accepted that sex work was damaging, believing that sex workers were recreating early childhood abuse. I had no interest in makeup or dancing and no idea how to “use” my sexuality or femininity to get attention from a guy. I grew up a tomboy and a feminist. 

One day, I found myself reading a book called “Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire,” where the author, Sarah Katherine Lewis, describes how she felt constantly humiliated or burned out at her service industry jobs. The general gist was, “If I’m getting objectified anyway, shouldn’t I be paid more? Why shouldn’t I be a sex worker?”

If I’m Getting Objectified, Why Shouldn’t I Get Paid For It?

It made sense to me. I was getting yelled at while working at a call center. I was encouraged by the fact that she described herself as someone who never wore make-up, shaved her pubic hair, or even used deodorant before trying sex work. It made me consider whether sex work, namely stripping, would be a reasonable option for me.

While money was one of my primary motivators for stripping, it wasn’t the only one. I’m not alone: A 2006 dissertation by Lisa Monchalin found that women cited pride, a strong work ethic, enjoyment, and the sense of power felt while stripping as reasons for choosing their profession.

I remember being in awe the first time I went to a strip club. As All The Right Moves by OneRepublic came on over the speakers, a woman came out on stage. Her grace struck me as she hung from some kind of aerial get-up. She had something I envied.

My first lap dance was nerve-wracking, but I left the club that night and flirted with the male vendors as I bought a sandwich at 3 AM. Being surrounded by music instead of yelling was fun. 

The Stigma Has An Impact

However, the boost in confidence I got from the validation and the amount of money I made was short-lived. It didn’t matter if some guy told me he thought I could be a model or that he couldn’t believe I didn’t have a boyfriend. They didn’t know me. It was great to have cash in hand, but challenging to choose between hiding my job or being judged for being open about it. 

Meanwhile, I met women stripping because they were in debt or their partner pressured them. I also met women who enjoyed stripping and expressing their sexuality in that way. I met men who came to the club seeking a hug or conversation and those who spent their entire paycheck at strip clubs. When I disclosed my occupation to friends, I found out that some were interested in or doing sex work themselves and that one worked as a full-service sex worker. I just didn’t know where I fit in this world. 

The hypocrisy that “civilian” women see the sex trade with bothered me. I heard women talk about how they wouldn’t date a man that used the services of a prostitute or went to a strip club, yet it was normalized that “all men watch porn.” Were these things so morally different?

Being A Sex Worker Isn’t A Manifestation of Trauma

How much of sex already feels transactional? We debate whether men should pay on a first date and when to have sex. Many carry sexual shame from childhood. For some, that’s a reason to engage in sex work and benefit from the existing situation. I soon discovered I didn’t want to lean into anything that felt inauthentic or required me to pretend to be something or someone I was not.

The hypocrisy isn’t only from women outside the industry. One example that stood out was when I wanted to volunteer in an organization that helps women leave the sex industry. The interviewer seemed interested in having me until I mentioned briefly working in strip clubs. Her eyes narrowed when I said I didn’t feel harmed by my experience. I got the sense that she thought I was in deep denial and would hurt the women they aimed to help.

Statistics on the percentage of sex workers with a background of childhood sexual abuse vary, particularly when one compares street-based sex work to other forms, both online and off, “high-end” and survival sex work. A study comparing porn actresses to a control group found that they did not have significantly higher rates of sexual abuse in their past as compared to civilian women.

While I don’t remember sexual abuse in my childhood, I had my fair share of childhood trauma and never learned to stand up for myself. That’s a risky trait in an industry where many men will try to push your boundaries. 

Prude or Slut, Women Can’t Win With Sexual Respectability Politics 

However, we can’t disconnect the notion of sex work from the sexualization women face in society. Growing up, I often felt pressured into having sex. I remember that young age when everyone entered puberty at different paces, boys making comments about our bodies and asking if we masturbated.

Movies and songs made it clear that sex is something boys and men want, or ought to want, from us. Weaponized terms like “prude” and “slut” made it clear we should give it to them, but only under certain conditions, in fear of being seen and treated like “damaged goods.” There is no winning as a woman.

While my overall time spent in sex work spanned months rather than years, I visited at least three clubs and had a stint in web camera work. I attended a protest when strip clubs were closed down in my country. I even spoke on a radio show and to a reporter making a documentary. My livelihood wasn’t at risk, as I wasn’t doing sex work then and was still conflicted about it, but I spoke up as I genuinely believed that removing options wasn’t the right way to help women, even those who wanted to stop doing sex work.

Sex Work Is A Worker’s Choice 

I was lucky in that I was easily able to stop stripping when I wanted to. I realized that I didn’t really want to learn how to become comfortable with men staring at me. And while the industry was there, whether I participated or not, I was not comfortable providing cheap intimacy. I couldn’t shake being sad if a man paid me for a hug or a conversation.

My gut feeling is that the way we talk about stripping is still keeping us talking in circles, avoiding many of the real issues. Using absolutes like “stripping is empowering” or “no woman can enjoy stripping unless she is damaged or lying to herself” helps no one. Sex work is complex and personal: some people love their work and others just do it to survive.

Ultimately, I’m still not sure how I feel about sex work. I could feel sad about the men who rushed to the strip club as soon as they got their paycheck because they had no idea how to connect.  I could feel horrible for women who were stripping despite hating it because they could not imagine any other future for themselves. I understood how many women preferred dancing at a club to sitting in an office. I could see that it is one choice among many, a choice that may cause irreversible harm to some, but taking away that choice was probably not the best way to go about it.