A Review of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers

NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews Bernadette Barton’s Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (New York & London: New York University Press, 2006)…

In the debate over the morality of stripping, each camp typically puts forward a one-sided image of the exotic dancer as victim, slut, or feminist heroine. Bernadette Barton, a sociology and women’s studies professor at Morehead State University in Kentucky, wanted to break through this impasse and look more closely at the complexities of strippers’ lives. This highly readable and even-handed book consolidates her five years of research, based on interviews with exotic dancers and first-hand observations. She visited more than thirty strip clubs in San Francisco, Honolulu, and a medium-sized Southeastern city she renames “Silverton”, taking care to include both working-class and upscale venues.

Barton found that many strippers are intelligent, self-aware women who are making an understandable choice from the limited options available to them. However, both the fledgling dancers and society at large underestimate the hidden costs of the profession. These include harassment by customers and management, social stigma, discrimination in housing and employment outside the sex industry, difficulty forming intimate relationships, and a workplace environment that encourages substance abuse. The longer a woman stays in the business, the more the negative factors outweigh the positives. Barton found that the balance shifts after about three years (p.7). By this point, though, the stigma and the lure of fast money with flexible working hours have made it harder for such women to transition to a normal job.

This time-lapse effect helps to explain the predominance of “sex-positive” attitudes among young women who dip into the sex industry during college or graduate school. Unlike the average stripper, they have other professional options and do not remain in the business long enough to become demoralized or trapped.

Barton puts stripping back into its economic context, which is too often obscured by individualistic discussions about women’s “choices”. Sex work shares common hazards with other low-skill jobs, which also tend to be repetitive, undignified, and lacking in creative fulfillment. Whereas a stronger defender of the sex industry would use this observation to minimize the toll of stripping–after all, it pays better than McDonald’s–Barton argues that stripping is just one instance of a wider problem, namely the unsatisfying options open to women in a male-dominated culture where housing, health care, and education are priced out of many people’s reach (pp.141-42).

The long-term costs of stripping are especially acute, even compared to other low-skill jobs, because the intimacy of what is being sold allows the dehumanization to penetrate deeper into the dancer’s psyche. She is not selling hamburgers but herself. Barton writes:

Like employees selling anything from wireless service to timeshare rentals, dancers experience frequent rejection. Anyone who has ever done sales work understands how exhausting and debilitating it is to be perky, pleasant, and positive when the phone is slammed down in your ear or when someone closes a door in your face. Imagine how much more of a strain it might be to maintain a friendly, seductive demeanor and high self-confidence when the product the customer refuses to buy is you.

The constant necessity to maintain a cheerful front in the face of rejection is a particularly painful form of what sociologist Arlie Hochschild describes as emotional labor in her book The Managed Heart. Hochschild defines emotional labor as face-to-face or voice-to-voice contact that “requires one to induce or suppress feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others.” Hochschild theorizes that this form of labor exacts a high cost from the worker. Constantly reminded that a woman’s worth in the world is tied to how beautiful and desirable she is, a stripper must also learn to dissociate from the full personal implications of that knowledge. Basking in the glow of a great tip, a dancer may feel like a queen. But she has to be ready at a moment’s notice to don her protective armor against abuse and rejection. Hence, dancers experience both positive reinforcement and rejection daily for the same reason: their sexual bodies. Managing the conflicting combination of compliments and abuse on her physical form requires a tremendous amount of emotional energy. (pp.65-66)

Barton calls this precarious balance “dancing on the Möbius strip”. She chronicles the coping strategies that dancers use to handle the strain. Dissociation, mentioned above, is common. Stage names and personas create internal boundaries between the dancer’s real self and the one she exposes to customers. Over time, though, it is difficult not to internalize their reduction of her to her sexuality. Boundaries erode because customers and management are always pushing women to perform more services than just dancing, and dancers who resist lose business to those who comply. “Stripper stigma” means that one’s work as an exotic dancer overshadows other aspects of one’s identity. In the media and society, a woman is a stripper first, a fully rounded human being (mother, daughter, activist, student, artist) second or not at all (p.88).

A dancer may also stigmatize other dancers, insisting that “other women” are crossing sexual boundaries she herself would never cross, and thereby ruining the image of the profession. Again, this is something strippers have in common with other marginalized people. Members of racial or sexual minorities may turn against the least assimilated members of their community, in order to alleviate anxiety about their own vulnerability to oppression. (“As long as I don’t behave like that, I’m safe.”) This strategy is ultimately a dead end because the outside world does not perceive these fine distinctions (p.85). Thus, other women have chosen the opposite path, bonding with fellow dancers through workplace activism or lesbian relationships, in order to maintain an intimate life that is separate from commodified male-female sexuality. These bonds are among the main sources of fulfillment for longer-term dancers, once the highs of quick cash and male attention wear off.

Barton carefully dissects common notions of sex workers as victims–that strippers are rampant drug and alcohol users, for instance, or that most sex workers are child abuse survivors–yet finds that there is some truth behind the stereotypes. She is anxious to avoid reinforcing stripper stigma under the guise of feminist analysis. One of the most valuable features of this book is the way that she constantly challenges our focus on stripping in isolation from other professions. Do we only see what we are looking for? We may not even bother to seek statistics on women in less fascinating but equally marginalized jobs, creating a skewed image of sex workers as uniquely affected by addiction or trauma (p.37). After all these caveats, Barton says her research supports the conclusion that “there is, on average, at least 20 percent more childhood sexual abuse cited as experienced by sex workers than by women in the general U.S. population.” (p.38)

With similar restraint and nuance, Barton lists the special pressures that encourage substance abuse among exotic dancers–the toll of emotional labor, plus the club’s incentive to make customers buy drinks–while noting that self-medication for stress is widespread in the American workplace. She makes this point not to minimize strippers’ addictions, but once again to suggest that they are simply the most visible and extreme sign of a pervasive problem with labor conditions. In strip clubs, where the usual rules against on-the-job drug and alcohol use do not apply, we see what a lot of workers would do if they had the chance. An overly narrow focus on the pros and cons of sex work has distracted us from a systemic critique of our economy.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) estimates that 8 percent of full-time American workers are current users of illegal drugs. The rate of drug use is highest among construction workers (16 percent), restaurant employees (11 percent), and laborers and machine operators (11 percent). Alcohol use is even higher in each category. Consider how many people you know who need four cups of coffee to get going in the morning, who drink a six-pack or smoke a joint after work, who are on antidepressants or sleeping pills or Ritalin, who guard their smoking breaks religiously, who get high before work….How many people do you know who have stressful jobs? If each one had the opportunity to drink alcohol or smoke marijuana during work, and see an improvement in job performance and income level, would she or he use? (p.59)

Barton presents a wealth of evidence that the application of market values to women’s bodies produces long-term damage to their lives that outweighs the short-term benefits of stripping. For most of the book, she’s willing to follow the implications of her findings for the economy as a whole. Therefore, it’s disappointing and a bit surprising that she concludes, “I have always felt that my own feminist work is to increase options for women, not remove them. Because of this, I do not agree with the radical feminist position that sex work should be abolished. Sex work may be the best option available for a woman at a certain time in her life, even though it may become damaging to her self-esteem over time and, more generally, reinforce patriarchal conditioning about women’s sexuality.” (p.165) But one could say that about other choices that society has decided are against public policy: selling cocaine, babies, human organs, or one’s self into slavery. Those might look like the best short-term economic options for a lot of desperately poor people, but the social cost of normalizing them is so high that the government tries to take the temptation out of people’s hands. Despite this last-minute lapse into “choice” feminism, Stripped is a balanced and well-researched study that should be required reading for activists on all sides of the debate.

See also:

Valley Advocate Website Announces 2008’s “Best” Adult Entertainment Club; Holsopple’s Inside Report on Stripping (explicit language)
Women report that they have to have the right attitude to make
money (Ronai 1992). This ordinarily was described as being drunk, high or numb (Forsyth and
Deshotels 1997). Others feel it required tolerance. “The ability to ignore customers for just being there.”

The women in this study condemn the men associated with stripping and the impact stripping has
on them as the worst parts of stripping. Women do not like the way customers treat them (Thompson
and Harred 1992). Furthermore they say they do not like talking to customers, asking men for money,
and resent having to have to deal with them at all. They find customers irritating because they are drunk
and have negative attitudes towards women. Women characterize customers as scum, psycho mama’s
boys, rapists and child molesters, old perverted men, idiots, ass-holes, and pigs. Strippers are largely
disgusted by customers and describe them as pitiful and pathetic, stupid and ignorant, sick, controlling
and abusive.

Strip Club Tips: How to Savor an Exquisite Blend of Fantasies, Lies, Exploitation and Despair (explicit language)
For a stripper’s perspective, we present a selection from 37 Stripper Rants, as posted in March to gripe site Ofuzi…

The Truth About Lap Dancing: A Performer Speaks Out
The key fact is that everyone knows they can make more money by
breaking the rules. In a culture where you are literally selling yourself
for cash, and you are working on commission, then you’d have to
work very hard indeed to stop people going for extra money if they
know they can make it…

Getting drunk was considered by many to be the aim of the night as
well as making money. If you had managed to get drunk on other
people’s money then you had done well…

I now realise that lap dancing is one of the hardest things I ever did. I
found it tough, soul destroying and it had begun to strip me of my
humanity. I began to see everyone in terms of how much I could get
out of them. I had begun to really hate men, to be bored in their
company. I stopped caring about people around me because I was
surrounded by this atmosphere of constant mistrust.

Carolyn McKenzie: Undercover with the Viewing Booths; Disease, Intoxicants Prevalent Among Strip Dancers (explicit language)
I’ve had wives call me and say, “I’m reading the credit card bill, and
there’s all these strange expenses on it, places I’ve never heard of.”
Well, those places are the cover organizations for the clubs, or the
massage parlors, or lingerie services that their husbands have been
frequenting. The next question I get is, “Well do you think I need to
get a physical check-up?” And I say, “Yes, you do.” I can’t tell you
how many of them call me back and say they have turned up positive for
an STD. I also want to tell you about these 39 women that we have
helped to get out of the industry. Out of that number of 39 women, only
6% were married. 90% were single moms trying to support their kids…
75% of them had STD’s when we took them in for their medical check-ups.
16% had felony records that they were working with and 25% had
misdemeanors. 95% of them were using drugs and alcohol, and three of
them had addictions so severe that we had to put them in long term
rehab programs.

Former Stripper Tells Easthampton Hearing about the Life: It Stinks

Profitable Exploits: Lap Dancing in the UK
…club owners tend to absolve themselves of any responsibility if
sexual services are found to be on occurring or being arranged on the
premises, yet at the same time there is some indication that they
encourage the dancers to project an air of sexual availability to
customers. By making it difficult for the dancers to earn an adequate
living legitimately, through requiring the payment of ‘rent’ for each
shift worked in the clubs, and by hiring excess numbers of dancers at
any one time, club owners and managers also create a series of
structural conditions that can lead some dancers to offer sexual
services in order to survive financially. This is not to say that there
is evidence of significant numbers of dancers engaging in prostitution
activities, but that the clubs are run in a way that both implicitly
encourages the customers to seek sexual services from the dancers, and
means that some dancers will offer them…

Strip Clubs: Dancers Pay to Work There
…the girls who work there, the dancers…pay $150 to $200 a shift for
the privilege of working… I asked one guy in the business, “What’s
the biggest risk to your business model?” He said if the
government stops immigration from Eastern Europe.

Investigates Human Trafficking and Prostitution in the US; Valley
Advocate Advertises “Foreign Fantasies” Where “Everything Goes”

2 years ago a 20-year-old university student [Katya] signed up with a
friend to study English abroad in a program that involved waitressing
in Virginia Beach, but the girls would never reach Virginia. And they
wouldn’t be waitresses…

…they were told that, you know what?
Plans have changed. You’re going to be going to Detroit. You need to
get on this bus… They didn’t even know where Detroit was. They didn’t
speak much of the language…

[Katya:] They brought us clothes.
It was strip clothes and shoes. And they say, you guys gonna work at
the club named Cheetah. And you guys gonna work Monday to Saturday,
double-shift, 2:00 A.M. to 2:00 P.M…

[Katya:] I was threatened
every single day. When we go, go into work, in the car, he was telling
us, you’re gonna have to make 1,000 a day. If you’re not making this
money, we’ll find a way when you can make this money. That was really
scary too. He was telling us that he can sell us to any country, to any
person any time…

[Katya:] Almost every girl who I knew was sexually abused, raped…

The 12 hour shifts yielded up to $1000 a night but the women saw none of it…

[Katya:] I was even thinking about suicide many times because I didn’t have a choice to get out…

Alex’s father, he knows my mom. He knows where she lives [in the
Ukraine]. And he visited a couple of times after I ran away. He
threatened her. He used very aggressive words. He said, if I will not
stop talking, that will blood come out from me…

“Waitressing, I cleaned the floors and I own a box of men’s
wedding rings that I found on the floor.”

I cannot tell you the lie and the fantasy that [strip clubs are] for men.
Waitressing, I cleaned the floors and I own a box of men’s wedding
rings that I found on the floor…

The degradation and
inferiority and humiliation of being presented as two tits and a hole
for entertainment was not as bad as the sexual harassment I received
from the management of these places. Customers are not allowed to touch
you, but management can and does. You cannot complain to the Labor
Board because they say you put yourself there willingly, and usually
it’s under the table…

The Science Behind Pornography Addiction (explicit language)
[Performers in the sex industry] have high rates of substance abuse,
typically alcohol and cocaine, depression, borderline personality
disorder which is a particularly serious disorder and dissociative
identity disorder which used to be called multiple personality
disorder. The experience I find most common among the performers is
that they have to be drunk, high or dissociated in order to go to work.
Their work environment is particularly toxic. One study on strippers
indicated that they were likely to be punched, slapped, grabbed, called
cunt and whore and to be followed home or stalked…

Testimony in Minneapolis: Porn and the Death Spiral of a Marriage
About this time, when we went out we started meeting his friends at wet
T-shirt contests, amateur strip nights or elsewhere–we would meet
together as a group–or pornographic adult theaters or live sex shows.
Initially I started arguing that the women on stage looked very
devastated, like they were disgusted and hated it. I felt devastated
and disgusted watching it. I was told by those men, if I wasn’t as
smart as I was, and if I would be more sexually liberated and more
sexy, that I would get along a lot better in the world, and that they
and a lot of other men would like me more…

Amnesty International UK: “Lapdancing is just girls having fun and being sexy, isn’t it?”
a study by the Lilith project for the Borough of Camden in 2002-3,
where several lap-dance clubs were operating, the female rape rate was
three times the national average and had increased by 50% across the
year. Indecent assault increased by 58%. The director for Environmental
Health in the Camden Borough said that some streets had turned into “a
no-go area for female shoppers and male passers-by’.

Crime, Nuisances Motivate Cities to Regulate the Location of Adult Entertainment Uses
…The City of Kent, Washington had similar experiences with the Roadside
Inn Tavern. Prior to its forced closing, the Roadside Inn offered
topless dancing and table dancing in conjunction with its selling of
alcoholic beverages. Kent police investigations conducted in the summer
of 1981 revealed a very high incidence of criminal activity at the
Roadside, related primarily to sex crimes (prostitution) and drug
related offenses. As a result of 57 hours of on-premise investigation,
162 charges were brought against 21 persons by the Kent Police
Department. The report filed by the police stated: “The total time
involved, and the number of charges, break down to a time expenditure
of slightly more than 20 minutes per charge, attesting to the relative
ease by which the subject of prostitution arises within an environment
such as the Roadside.” In September, 1981, the Roadside Inn Tavern was
closed by the City of Kent.