by Ivy Downer
The momentum has recently grown for stripper visibility, especially for women of color. Celebrities are making it easier to come forward and talk about these experiences. But as a former stripper, I still feel uncomfortable saying I took my clothes off for money. Even writing it out feels taboo for me.
At the time, I was lucky to have someone in my life who was understanding and picked up her phone at 4AM to listen to me vent as I walked out of the club. But, even with supportive friends, I still think about how I am affected by the stigma and the way it impacts my day job, the respect of my sexual partners and even family.
But, as Black feminists have been pointing out, there is important work to be done to help spread messages about stripping as intensive labor, self-love, and body image By raising awareness of our society’s misogynistic misconceptions of stripping, we can address the deep-rooted sexist and racist issues in our society about what is treated as acceptable work and what is not.
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Women of color are devalued in the workforce and are much more likely to receive less compensation for their labor, while being discriminated against in every sector. To make matters worse, sex work is not considered a legitimate form of labor in the United States. Sex worker is a term used in reference to a person who works in any aspect of the sex trades. Women and trans people of color who do sex work are on the receiving end of a lot of criticism and violence.
Sex work includes certain kinds of labor that are less stigmatized than others. Stripping is seen as less stigmatized because strippers are given money for dances, while criminalized sex work, like escorting or getting clients off the street, is the most stigmatized. A lot of this is due to the fact that society views sex workers not as humans doing work, but as either grungy objects who will do anything for money or rescue projects.
However, what many people don’t know is that sex workers have agency. There is no type of sex work that involves the sale of a person, but always a service. The sex work that we perform does not define us as individuals.
Stripping as a form of sex work holds its own misconceptions. Beyond the stigma of stripping being “dirty” or “wrong”, there are serious misunderstandings about what stripping entails and what kind of labor it requires. Just like any other job, stripping is difficult to get into, it’s a labor-intensive job, and it requires lots of training. It is so frustrating to me when people treat stripping like it is grimy and easy.
People, specifically clients, have this obsession with finding out why people strip and many times their curiosity comes off as demeaning. Several of my customers would ask me if I really needed to strip and I said, “yes.” It was almost as if they felt bad for me. What they fail to realize is that like many women of color, I was overworked and underpaid at my full-time job. My plans for my future were expensive, and it was crunch time. But we’re not all working for the same reasons and strippers shouldn’t need to have another job outside the club or be ‘working towards college’ in order to be respected.
Getting respect inside the industry is hard enough. The amount of work it takes to even look acceptable in the sex work industry is greater than most people even know. While you’re taking shots and pre-gaming before the club, we’re hustling from our 9-5 to make it in time to be your entertainment.
The time it takes to mentally, emotionally and physically prepare is also part of the work. When we go home from a long night in heels and contact with sweaty bodies, we’re counting our money and blaming misogyny for helping with these misconceptions.
Nightlife expectations are cruel, especially for women of color. Just Google “stripper” and what do you see? A sea of blonde hair, blue eyed women with huge breasts in 10-inch heels. Strippers of color are poorly portrayed in the industry. We either have to be super thick or possess some type of ‘exotic’ talent. At the end of the night, stripping is difficult labor and to dismiss us and the work we do is wrong.
Many groups have been coming together in support of sex work and the normalization of the job. Recently in Chicago, activists gathered in protest for Alisha Walker, an escort who was wrongfully convicted for stabbing her client in self-defense. This protest, along with other forms of activism, is just the first step in highlighting sex work visibility.
In order to normalize the sex industry, we must first start with holding each other accountable for our words. We need to stop people in their tracks when they are about to put sex workers into a box just because of the work that they perform. All laborious jobs are difficult, especially those in the sex industry. Sex workers of all types are still fighting for basic rights that mainstream groups have yet to recognize. To diminish the work of a stripper is wrong and only helps with oppressing us.
Ivy Downer is a proud Lesbian, Feminist from NYC who is unapologetic in her words and opinion. Follow her rants on misogyny and queer issues on Twitter @ivy_downer.
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