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Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap Dancing (2011)

Jennifer Hayashi Danns says she wrote Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap Dancing “to give a voice to women who have direct experience of lap dancing but are often unheard, and to peel away some of the gloss surrounding this industry”—a laudable goal in an age in which pole-dancing classes are offered at every gym but the exploitative aspects of the strip club industry go largely unexamined in the media.

Danns is herself a former lap dancer and the first section of the book, “Experiences,” includes a series of personal stories by dancers, all of which speak complex truths about working in the industry. Most of the contributing dancers started stripping because it was the only way they could pay for college, and their stories chart familiar trajectories: starting out clueless, learning to make decent money, getting burnt out due to exploitative management, poor security, competitive new girls, and/or pressure to push boundaries, starting afresh at a new club, etc. Most look back on their stripping careers with mixed feelings, appreciating the financial benefits and maybe the friendships, regretting much of the rest. Some of them reflect that in hindsight they could’ve—should’ve—avoided the industry and gotten through college by taking on more debt or living more humbly—a tough choice that many people face on a daily basis.

Striptastic! (2017)

Anyone who knows me will tell you I struggle with nuance.  Different people have different ways of expressing this: two of my friends describe me as a typical Capricorn, I’ve been called an “angry bumblebee,” “strident,” and “ideologically rigid” by some of my best friends.  They aren’t exaggerating! I’m capable of nuance, especially when talking about my own experiences, but when I see good things said about the sex industry without any mention of the bad, my internal alarm starts screeching.

Which makes me a really weird pick to review Jacqueline Frances’ (AKA Jacq the Stripper) celebration of strippers, Striptastic!, right?

Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness (2015)

afastgirlSuzy Favor Hamilton’s autobiography, Fast Girl: A Life Spent Running From Madness, catalogs the Olympic runner’s experience with mental illness, her career shift from professional mid-distance running to high-end escorting, and her eventual outing and diagnosis as bipolar. Following the birth of her daughter and her retirement from running, Favor Hamilton found her career path fraught and unsatisfactory, its travails amplified by her growing problems with postpartum depression and bipolar. Eventually, the media outed her as a sex worker, exacerbating her struggles.

From growing up picked on by her bipolar brother in small town Wisconsin, to her love/hate relationship with the athletic talent she built into a career, and the way that relationship shaped her psyche and primed her for sex work, Fast Girl covers a wide range of material. It is also one of the more honest memoirs I’ve seen on the day-to-day struggle of being bipolar, and how the disorder can escalate.

I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. My thoughts upon reading the book were filtered through my own experiences with the illness: some of these ideas may seem strange if you haven’t lived with bipolar disorder, or lived with someone who copes with it.

In my experience, an important thing to understand about living with bipolar disorder is that it doesn’t always make sense to those who don’t suffer from the disease. Triggers might be minor, like someone looking at you wrong. You might never find out exactly what association triggered your most recent bipolar episode. Sometimes you do know exactly what the trigger is, but even when you know, you can’t really stop it, only remind yourself your perceptions aren’t reflecting reality.

At times, bipolar made my work in a strip club a hell in which I was irrationally afraid of accepting drinks, terrified that every customer was laughing at me. It made me second guess every moment so thoroughly that suicide sometimes felt like a logical post-shift endeavor. At its worst, this illness makes me question everything about myself: my agency, my sanity, my humanity, my very perceptions. My body and mind became communal property- things for others to manage without my input, sometimes overriding my preferences.

Accepting treatment for a mental illness like bipolar can feel like a violation to me. I have to accept that it’s not about me, it’s about what people around me want for me. Maybe I want it, too, but accepting that treatment means accepting I won’t be the arbiter of what’s “right” for myself. That is left to the family members who can no longer handle my outbursts, or the doctor who thinks that no matter how I feel now, it’s worth reaching for something even better by shifting the med dosages, even at the risk of the new doses making me sick.

That level of outside authority is one that women who’ve grown up in a patriarchal society are already used to. We’ve had it enforced from birth that our wishes and agency are second to the men around us, second to our families, second to the comfort of our community, etc. Favor Hamilton’s story is rife with that conflict, even in instances unconnected with her mental health or sex work. From the other department’s coach in college who videotaped her breasts as she ran, with no negative consequences; to the coach who dictated her sex life after her marriage; to the spectators and competitors who claimed her main talent was her beauty; to her dad’s pushiness and embarrassment in response to her swimsuit calendar modeling, the list goes on and on.

Ariel Levy’s Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture (2005)

I can’t quite say I disliked Female Chauvinist Pigs—though as a sex worker I feel like I should, as it grossly misunderstands and oversimplifies my industry. Author Ariel Levy discusses how women’s participation in modern “raunch culture” is a step backwards for both feminism and the sexual revolution. While earlier generations focused on sexual freedom as related to pleasure and intimacy, the supersexualized post-Girl Power years seem to be more about sexual commodification and performance. As Levy says, “The glossy, overheated thumping of sexuality in our culture is less about connection than consumption.”

Levy brings up good points about the way that mainstream society has appropriated the sex industry, and how women have began imitating the douchiest of men in their objectification of one another. She talks about misogyny within lesbian and trans communities, and some of the general failings of the modern feminism and the sexual revolution. “Raunch” poses as a result of  both movements, but actually betrays them. According to Levy, “This is not a book about the sex industry; it is a book about what we have decided the sex industry means … how we have held it up, cleaned it off, and distorted it.”

I agree with the general assertions in Female Chauvinist Pigs: L.A.-style hetero porn culture (which has seeped into mainstream Hollywood culture) has messed up our heads and sex lives. Looking and acting like a sex worker, without actually getting paid, has become hipper than ever. I find this particularly irritating for actual sex workers: it devalues what we do as work and performance, rather than the acute narcissism and approval-seeking that’s fashionable in pop culture.

Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus (2016)

MARYWEPT_cover300Canadian comic artist Chester Brown is probably the most well-known punter-writer our there. His latest, Mary Wept Over The Feet of Jesus: Prostitution And Religious Obedience In The Bible, is an analysis of the Bible as a graphic novel. (Maybe Brown likes illustration because most clients need pictures in their books.) This review of his newly published book is composed of an edited version of an email and g-chat conversation between Tina Horn and Caty Simon.

Caty: I was surprised by Chester Brown’s Christianity as demonstrated by this book. In its afterword, Brown explicitly identifies himself as a Christian, albeit one focused on mysticism who’s “interested in personally connecting with God, not in imposing my views on anyone else.” His avowed, classic libertarianism in his sex work client graphic novel memoir Paying For It (2011) would’ve had me assume that he was a fervent atheist a la Richard Dawkins. His libertarianism does come up at an interesting point in this book when he puts the words “it’s none of your business how other people spend their money” into Jesus’ mouth when he chides Judas for judging Mary because she spent money on anointing oils for Jesus’ feet rather than on charity.

Tina: Especially when you consider that he ran for Canadian Parliament in the Libertarian Party! This was in the years right before Paying for It came out.

Caty: So he’s actually having Jesus Christ parrot his party politics—that’s ballsy.

Tina: When I was a teenager, I thought Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis was the shit, because it taught me more about what the Bible actually teaches than most of the aggressive Christian kids at my high school. Mary Wept puts me in mind of C.S. Lewis: a Christian highlighting the hypocrisy of other Christians through rational interpretation of their text.

Caty: When people say that Judeo-Christian values oppose prostitution, it gets me fuming, because it’s a lot more complicated than that. There are plenty of heroic whores in the Bible, and many more Biblical heroines who explicitly had transactional sex at some point in their stories. So I enjoyed how Brown highlights the stories of women like Rahab, the prostitute who sheltered Hebrew spies from discovery when they scouted out the city of Jericho, and Tamar, the woman who whored herself out to her father-in-law in disguise in a complicated plot to expose his hypocrisy. I only wish he’d included the story of badass Judith, the woman who beheaded the general Holofernes as he lay drunkenly asleep in her tent after possibly purchasing her services, ushering the Hebrew army to victory.

Maybe Brown felt like he just couldn’t compete with all the exquisite Renaissance and Baroque era artistic renditions of Judith in her moment of triumph, like this one:

Trophime Bigot's "Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes" (via Wikimedia)
Trophime Bigot’s “Judith Cutting Off The Head Of Holofernes” (via Wikimedia)

But I think the real reason Brown didn’t include tales like Judith’s is because he seems more focused on outlining these sex work-related Biblical narratives in order to glorify sex workers’ clients. He has a convoluted thesis going about men whoremongering as a transcendent challenge to rigid religious dogma. This ascribes nonexistent significance to an activity which is really morally neutral, and it obscures all these awesome sex working Biblical women in stories which are about them. In a memoir about being a sex work client like Paying for It, centering the client perspective makes sense. But in a book like this, it feels beside the point. I’d love to see how this material would look tackled by a sex worker amateur Biblical scholar/comic book artist.

Tina: The book does explore the subjectivity of the clients more than that of the women. Brown’s reinterpretation of a lot of these stories seems to amount to, “God totally says it’s ok to be a whoremonger!” Which is great, but I would love to see more, “God says it’s totally cool to be a whore!” Not because I personally need the validation, but because undermining Christian values with their own text is a longtime favorite sport of mine.

Caty: So, what do you make of Brown depicting God as some sort of Biblical version of a WWE wrestler? His God is BUILT.