Now, I don't know what that means,
but I know that I mean it" -Atmosphere
Seated, my hands rested on my bare thighs and crossed legs as the young man looked earnestly in at my face. He was searching my expression to the question he had just asked, "When are you going to get a real job?" On stage, Gabriella queued up her movement to the pounding beat of Atmosphere's song, her shiny stilettos fluttering across the shiny marmoleum as a dozen unfamiliar faces stared in blank anticipation of her naked body. Friday night, and it was only ten o'clock. I had seven dollars in my lockbox, carefully tucked away in the downstairs dressing room. And for the second time that evening, a stranger was asking me what I intended to make of my life.
I hadn't intended to be a stripper for very long. But the recession happened. For the first time in generations, college degrees and qualifications were irrelevant to the companies that couldn't sustain themselves, or write paychecks. In the summer of 2009 when I first stepped through the dark doorway to Lucky Devil Lounge in SE Portland, a stripper approached me as I signed the audition paperwork. "This is a great job, and you'll get some good exercise, but this is the worst time to be stripping. Just so you know," she told me. I wasn't really listening to her gentle warning. I was fascinated by her slender stomach and fluffy underwear.
In the "old days," (i.e., anytime before the market crash of 2008) dancers could make a career of stripping because it was lucrative. Lap dances have cost $20 for the last couple of decades, despite the cost of living having increased steadily. $20 in 1993 had the same buying power as $32 in 2013. The explosion of free streaming content on the Internet makes it easy to view pole dancing or pornography in the comfort of your home. Text messaging and Snapchat have minimized the prevalence of intimate, face-to-face interaction and the manners that we were all taught in kindergarten. Say please and thank you. Keep your hands to yourself. Don't ask incredibly personal questions that are none of your business.
A stripper formerly known as Belle always did a fantastic job of hiding her frustration when asked that dreaded question, "When will you get a real job?" Belle is a professor at a local university.
And stripping is a real job. It's true that I've yet to find something that comes close to the adrenaline rush that accompanies leaping from the stage to the pole, or the cheers of dozens of human beings as you swing from your knees at the ceiling, or the gratitude you find when a woman tells you, "You've helped my marriage. Thank you for always treating my husband so well." But the crowd never sees the stage burn, broken fingers and staph infected knees, glass cuts on toes, or what it's like to pull a rib out of place on a busy night. It's real work to keep a polite smile on your face when a well dressed man asks you if you fart when you pee, or a woman tosses a quarter at your stage because she's too insecure to be at the establishment. It's difficult to maintain your diplomacy when the drunk man who was trying to lick your neck for three songs begins to argue that he doesn't feel he should pay you the agreed upon price of those dances. It's not fun to wonder if that car has been following you a little too long on the highway as you drive home at three a.m., alone.
It was Friday night, and two guys had been seated at my otherwise empty stage watching me smiling, pole dancing, and disrobing. Each had tipped the minimum required to park your ass in a seat: $1 per song. At the end of my set, I gathered my $5 for eight minutes of nude acrobatics and overheard "You just took ALL HIS MONEY!!!" This humorous yet sad statement is a summation of the attitude with which we are met; being made to feel as if we should be guilty for "emptying an already bare bones wallet.I certainly have never coerced anyone through the doorway of a strip club. Yet all too often my coworkers and I have heard, "I don't have any money." This is not only when we are attempting to sell a lap dance, but any yahoo deciding to seat themselves at my stage, or stand and stare for minutes or literal hours. Staring is stealing, where the output of our efforts and injuries don't even begin to match the input of our income through tips. We call those, "Mini-nights." That is when the dancer leaves with minimum wage. Or less. Keep thinking that I'm getting rich, please.
And so for many girls who had considered paying their way through school, or just making a living off of adult entertainment, we are suddenly considering other options. That minimum wage plus tips waitressing gig becomes more attractive, because if I'm going to leave a six hour shift with $100, at least I haven't been harassed by strangers while in my underwear and giving myself bursitis on a filthy stage.
Yet the conundrum faced upon re-entering the conventional workplace is explaining that gap in employment history. Despite how liberal Portland considers itself, as a college graduate with a nearly pristine employment history and references, writing down Stripper (Lucky Devil, 2009-2013) is the nail in my interview coffin. I can easily list a few of the work skills gleaned from my dancing gig: communications, advertising, time-management, multi-tasking, and sales.
Even upon successfully concealing previous work experience due to social stigma, every few months there is a news story about a person (typically a woman) who has been "outed" for her past work in the adult industry. As if when I am done with my dancing, I will hang up my shoes, throw away my thongs and climb into a casket. Of course, most men and women who worked in the adult entertainment industry whom are able to keep their past a secret, do so because society would see their new skills as irrelevant.
People love to hate us. On January 2nd, a Cleveland stripper, Lauren Block, fell from a VIP balcony, dying a week later in a hospital. On June 15th, a Cirque du Soleil performer named Sarah Guillot-Guyard died after falling from her netting. And yet the comments left in online news boxes read very differently. It is a stark realization that if I were murdered tomorrow, or raped in my home, the sensationalism attributed to my death would be in part due to the fascination and vilification of what I do for a living.
Or they treat me like a leper.
You see me move back and forth between both.
I'm trying to find a balance.
I'm trying to build a balance."
Atmosphere was still rapping furiously, scolding those who would dare disagree with him. The club was filling up. The man was still looking in to my face. I decided I didn't have the patience to be insulted for free – maybe another night. Not tonight. I uncrossed my legs to stand, and gave a gentle laugh. "A real job? Mister, look around. This is as real as it gets."
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