Can sex work ever be truly radical when money is involved? Exploring how feminists and feminist sex workers are often forced into opposing camps, Natasha Forrest argues that a simplistic ‘for or against’ divide does not reflect the true complexity of the issue.
When I first started stripping, I constantly felt the need to justify my work as a feminist decision. ‘I’m exploring my sexuality.’ ‘I’m doing research for college.’ ‘Stripping can be subversive and liberating for women.’ Anything but let people believe I’m ‘just a stripper’. In debates with feminists who disapproved, I parroted the usual ‘sex positive’ arguments without really thinking about what they meant to me. I immersed myself in writings by sex worker feminists, clinging on to anything that would make me feel radical, as opposed to treacherous, for working in the sex industry. By showing my vagina I was challenging the patriarchal taboo against female nudity. By deploying femininity as a tool I was exposing it as a construction. By making men pay to see me naked I was making the economic power dynamics underlying normative heterosexual behavior explicit. I conscientiously conducted interviews with women at the club where I was working and wrote a dissertation on the subversive potential of strippers’ gendered performances. In thinking, talking and writing about my job, I slotted my latest theories onto my experiences and disregarded the parts that didn’t fit.
Meanwhile, I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the impasse between ‘pro-sex work’ and ‘anti-sex work’ feminists and the fact that the sex industry always managed to divide me from friends with whom I agreed on every other issue. I felt that they were refusing to make concessions because they didn’t want to admit that sex work could be anything other than gender oppression. My own reluctance to engage with criticisms leveled at my profession, however, made my view of the sex industry equally short-sighted. It was almost as if I felt that I could not be a feminist and a stripper unless my motives for stripping were purely feminist.
It has therefore taken me an embarrassingly long time to admit that my reasons for going to work are less to do with liberation, subversion and sexuality and more to do with paying the rent. Sure, I get the occasional buzz from being the commercial sex object I always fantasized about being, but quite honestly there are less strenuous ways to live out one’s fantasies. I would not starve if I didn’t strip, nor am I rich because I strip, but unlike working a regular nine-to-five job, stripping allows me the time, flexibility and mental energy to do things that really interest me. And what’s more, in admitting that my motives are not entirely pure, I do not waive the right to rant and rave about the sexist, exploitative aspects of the sex industry as much as the next feminist.
Sex radical whores like Carol Queen and Annie Sprinkle are my heroes. Their conceptualization of sex workers as revolutionaries, struggling against the patriarchal sex-negative forces of censorship and conservative family values to subvert gender and sexual norms, leave me inspired. Their accounts of queer, perverted and totally feminist interactions with clients who have struggled to accept stigmatized fantasies make me wish I was as cool as them. Their vision of a world where prostitutes are honored for the physically and emotionally demanding work they do, instead of despised, abused and locked up, motivates me to keep fighting. Never having been a particularly spiritual person, I kind of have a hard time with the ‘prostitute as sacred goddess’ stuff, but I respect its role in the movement to destigmatize sex work. Anyway, despite the fact that I continue to be inspired by sex radical ideology, I have to admit that I have trouble relating it to my own experiences. Perhaps this is because I’m just a stripper. Stripping is hardly the most taboo area of the sex industry – it’s practically endorsed by pop culture these days. Guys who patronize mainstream clubs like the one where I work have not struggled with difficult and embarrassing fantasies or rebelled against society’s restrictive sexual norms in order to step through the door; they’re just doing what ‘normal’ guys are supposed to do. And while stripping is still not regarded as a legitimate profession in most circles, it is fast becoming a trendy pastime for the contemporary college girl.
In an attempt to ignore this uncomfortable reality, I initially placed great importance on the fact that I took my clothes off for money. Unlike the teenage divas who titillate by simulating pole dancing on Top of the Pops without revealing any controversial body parts, I was the real thing: an actual sex worker. For me, the key was in the label. As long as I was a sex worker I was doing something radical, breaking a patriarchal taboo; the label prevented me from being just another girl getting by on her looks instead of her brain. I turned up my nose at fellow strippers who wanted to get into modeling or go-go dancing in order to earn a little respect. ‘Come on girls’, I thought. ‘We’re showing our vaginas here. That’s feminist. That’s radical. What do you want to go and become a model for? That’s just… sexist!’ Ditto go-go dancing. As far as I was concerned, dancing in a bikini was just as bad as being a manufactured pop star, i.e.: a misogynistic hypocrite in complete denial of the fact that people are only interested in your body. Who’d be a good girl when she could be a bad girl? But just as we’re always trying to tell the guys who categorize us as either virgins or whores, if you look closely there’s really not much difference between the good girls and the bad girls. Just as strippers arguably expose the not-so-hidden truth behind models and pop stars (sex), models and pop stars return the favor by exposing the equally obvious truth behind strippers (appearance). And it’s difficult to be all that feminist when you’re dealing in appearances.
Not everyone can be a stripper; to suggest otherwise would be absurd. It’s true that a lot of people have an exaggerated idea of how thin, blond and busty one has to be, and it’s also true that there are many women out there stripping who are not sufficiently youthful or starved to fit most people’s image of a stripper. However, while degrees of ‘perfection’ vary hugely from upscale gentlemen’s clubs to dives, to make a living getting naked it is necessary to be close enough to young, close enough to thin and close enough to pretty to pass as the stripper type. Moreover, just as race and class are highly influential in the cultural construction of the desirable female body, so a girl’s background often affects the type of club she can work in and consequently the amount of money she can make with her body. Inside the club, the tipping system ensures that unfairness prevails.
Appearances are certainly not the sole factor affecting earning potential, and ‘unconventional’ women can make fortunes through emotional labor, but in general the better one is able to imitate the culturally prescribed feminine ideal, whether it be through sexy moves, submissive behavior or the possession of a pair of perky breasts, the more likely one is to receive approval in the form of cash from the male gazers. This is not to deny that there are plenty of occasions when we lie around, fool around or tell customers what we really think of them, but deviation from the professional feminine role is more likely to occur when we have either already made enough money not to care or else given up hope of squeezing anything out of the stingy bastards. In other words, as long as our wages rely on pleasing our customers, gender subversion can only go so far.
Since the tipping system so severely negates the subversive potential of strip clubs, I used to reassure myself that in the ideal feminist strip club which I would one day open, tipping would be prohibited. Instead the girls – and boys, and women, and men, who would incidentally represent a wide range of sizes, ages, sexualities and ethnic backgrounds – would earn an equal and decent wage to disrobe in front of, well, anybody, because there would certainly be no elitist cover charge at such a feminist establishment. When pitching this business plan to curious friends and family I was usually met with sympathetic skepticism: ‘Would anyone actually go to such a place?’ ‘Don’t people go to strip clubs to see their fantasy girls/boys?’ ‘Would we really pay to see the average person on the street naked?’
Personally, I think people would go to my ideal feminist strip club. However they would certainly not be the ultra-straight, wealthy males who patronize mainstream strip clubs, nor would the strippers who chose to work there be the women who compete for tips in your average non-feminist T&A establishment. In fact, something not so far from my crazy vision already exists in the form of neo-burlesque, and it would be an understatement to say that it seems to be drawing the crowds. Burlesque dancers, while admittedly still mostly female, use creativity and originality, rather than youth and beauty, to charm their audiences, and do not rely on their ability to turn people on for the bulk of their wages. However the sequins, tassels and choreographed dance routines of burlesque are not generally the preferred option for unemployed single mothers or illegal immigrants in need of a quick, simple buck.
Don’t get me wrong, I am a fan of the burlesque revival. I think it’s great that women are using sexual performance to explore issues of female sexuality and objectification in progressive, unique and hilarious ways without having to pander to the desires or demands of their audiences or management. Burlesque performers are sex workers too, and as far as I can see the main difference between them and us is not so much in what they do but in how their performances are read and interpreted: burlesque ironically pokes fun at traditional gendered sexual roles while stripping relies on these roles for its core existence.
I’m glad that funny and talented women are able to make money using their bodies to comment on a patriarchal system, but this type of subversive performance is, and will probably always be, part of a small subculture of the sex industry, performed by and for a privileged elite with time and money to invest in feminist textbooks and dance classes. Meanwhile, a whole lot of women without degrees in performance art or postmodern thought are making a great deal more money working within the system and, quite understandably, turn up their noses at the suggestion of sacrificing half their wages for a little feminist integrity. No matter how progressive certain sectors of the sex industry become, most women get into sex work because they are able to earn substantially more pounds for substantially fewer hours than they would in other unskilled professions. Stripping can only be as lucrative as it is, however, because of the unfair and certainly unfeminist tipping system which pits women against each other as competitors and discriminates so ruthlessly along axes of class, race, age and size.
Ex-call girl and prostitutes’ rights activist Tracy Quan has argued that sex workers represent the free market and that the very term ‘sex work’ denies that we are engaged in business, rather than labor. (1) Although I can see her point, to use this as an excuse for neglecting to deal with the most harmful and exploitative aspects of the industry is like suggesting that activists and union workers should stop protesting the exploits of Nestle and Enron just because capitalism is clearly here to stay. To take a libertarian stance on sex work, proposing a decriminalized free-for-all without any form of state intervention, is, to me, just as neglectful as adopting the abolitionist view that, since the sex industry will always exploit vulnerable women and discriminate on the grounds of race, age, size, and class, we should get those women the hell out of there… but, if they are unwilling to leave, then it is against our ideological world view to offer any kind of support to them in their workplaces. This is why I get so upset when feminists criticize the progress that sex workers’ organizations are making towards increasing the rights, safety and agency of women working in the sex industry. It’s not because I think that sex work is so fabulously radical or that I’m trying to start the next sexual revolution by twirling round a pole; it’s because some of the most vulnerable and oppressed women in the world work in the sex industry, and feminists cannot afford to support these women conditionally.
There is no one perfect solution to the complex problem of mass exploitation and oppression within the worldwide sex industry. Just the other day I overheard a discussion between a couple of women in the dressing room at work. One was complaining about the extortionate house fees which strippers are forced to pay to work in some upscale clubs, and proposing that the government should put a stop to this illegal behavior, while the other argued that state regulation of strip clubs would only force illegal workers, like herself, to work in dangerous underground clubs. This is only one example of the many dilemmas facing political and activist organizations trying to find the most practical ways to improve the lives of sex workers all over the world. Sex worker activists do not agree on everything, nor do we have one ideological vision; some of us are socialists, some of us are spiritualists, some of us are libertarians and some of us are feminists. Some of us believe that a world without a sex industry would be ideal and some of us believe that a world with a radical queer feminist socialist spiritual sex industry would be ideal, but most of us realize that neither of these ideals are just around the corner. In the meantime we are taking small steps to improve the lives of people working in the sex industry now, in this reality. We would really love the support of all feminists.
I suppose I’m not a typical stripper, but then, who is? Stripping originally occurred to me as a possibility because of my interest in feminist theories about the sex industry and a desire to explore my love/hate relationship with being a sex object. One and a half years later it seems to have become something of an addiction, as it tends to do, while my feminist interest in the sex industry has evolved into a passionate commitment to the sex workers’ rights movement. Mainstream strip clubs are not the progressive hotspots for gender subversion that I initially raved about, nor are they likely to become so in the near future. In fact, my feminist self sometimes finds aspects of my stripper self hard to stomach, but it is a balancing act that I have so far been able to sustain without disintegrating into an emotional wreck. Like some of my colleagues who toy with the idea of getting a ‘real’ job and then think better of it, I have decided that, for the moment at least, I am willing to tolerate spending my working hours with a bunch of (mostly) unenlightened stockbrokers who sometimes upset and anger me, in exchange for the flexibility, freedom and money that stripping provides. So I guess that makes me ‘just a stripper’ after all.
(1) Tracy Quan, ‘Sex Work’? (a letter to the editor) in The New York Review of Books, Vol. 39, No. 18, November 5th 1992