Unequal Desires is a long overdue work that (finally!) focuses on race as central in the lives of strippers. While some of the literature on stripping focuses on race as a footnote or tangent, for Brooks, race is the central concern. Everything from everyday micro-level issues (hiring decisions, shift availability, and stage sets) to the very large-scale (zoning laws, likelihood of arrest) are explored in this book, with the conclusion that stripping is deeply racialized. Brooks uses interviews with dancers and customers as well as her own observations to confirm what she began to suspect during her time at the Lusty Lady: The strip club is another site where the black female body’s inferior position is reinforced. Through everyday actions, customers, management, and strippers all participate in its systematic devaluation.
The strip club presents the black woman’s body in strangely contradictory terms. On the one hand she is thought of as readily available, sexually. Customers may prefer a “black” club or an individual black dancer because they assume they can get more sexual contact than with a non-black dancer. On the other hand, the black female body is systematically made invisibilize or rendered unattractive. Brooks analyzes the pictures on strip club websites as evidence of this invisibility.
Brooks does attend to the clubs that may be considered “black” clubs. She considers the various, complicated motivations that black dancers have for wanting, or perhaps being forced, to work at these clubs, and simultaneously considers the social capital a “high end” (implicitly, not black) club carries as well. For many of the black dancers, hiring practices prevent them from getting in the door at clubs where they are in the minority. If they make it through the hiring process, discriminatory practices prevent them from staying.
Chanel: When thinking about Miley’s horrible performance at the VMAs, I let out a big sigh. Where do I begin? There was so much wrong with her performance. It wasn’t tasteful or well-choreographed. I wasn’t expecting her to slip back into her role as Hannah Montana and give the VMAs a sweet and boring show, but I sure wasn’t expecting that.
As strippers, we perform on stage for one to three songs per set. Sometimes routines are choreographed well to music and other times it’s short and sweet and then it’s over. When it comes to twerking, it’s about more than just having a big round booty. I’ve seen white women and black women and every color in between shake it well on stage. There’s no huge thought process behind it but it’s hard when you don’t know what you’re doing, just like any other dance move. When (most) strippers shake it, we know it’s for entertainment, so it should be good which can mean extra tips on stage and off stage in terms of lapdance sales. When Miley shakes it, it’s because she’s trying to shock us with her uncoordinated hip wiggles. She’s not like the strippers in her song lyrics. I’ve seen those women, and they are much better than she will ever be.
The show was much like her video, complete with human accessories. I wasn’t shocked that there were big booty black women dancing on stage with her. It wouldn’t be the first time people have accessorized with black women (or women of any race) for entertainment. Countless hip-hop and rap videos use black heavy-bottomed women as accessories. As a black mixed woman, I’m offended by Miley’s choice to do this. I’m not sure what she’s trying to prove or say by hiring black women to act as her friends in the “We Can’t Stop” video and on the VMAs. It’s more than the bad pancake booty twerking. It’s the selected parts of black culture she attempted to portray though her song and dance. There’s more to black and hip-hop/rap culture than what she is picking apart and glorifying. She only glorifies ideas from the way black and hip hop/rap culture is portrayed in the media—grills, twerking, big butts, getting high, being surrounded by hot women and acquiring money. Her performance and song lyrics show that she is completely unaware of what actually defines black and rap/hip hop culture.
Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum: Two names you should know but probably don’t. Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum were 19 and 18 years old, respectively, two young women who were brutally murdered on September 18th. Their bodies were found in Duval County, Florida, reportedly thrown off an overpass, by passerby in the wee hours of the morning. Little has been said about the murder of both of these young women, and what has been said either glosses over or luridly magnifies one very important factor in this case: Tjhisha and Angelia worked as exotic dancers.
Over at PostRacialComments on Tumblr, the blog not only redacted the information about Mangum and Ball working as dancers, but proceeded to break down for readers questioning its motives why they would not include, comment, or discuss the girls’ work or the criminalization of the girls by the few media outlets to highlight the story of their murder.
In “Black Girls Murdered (But Do YOU Care)” from Ebony Magazine, Senior Digital Editor Jamilah Lemieux says, “Someone(s) apparently murdered two women and left their bodies on the side of the road for the world to see. We shouldn’t need for them to have been “good girls”—or White girls, or, perhaps good White girls—for this to be cause for national concern. There is a killer, or killers, on the loose.”
In “Rest in Peace: Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” from GradientLair, owner, activist, and blogger Trudy writes, “As I’ve stated before, Black criminals are treated like monsters. Black victims are treated like criminals. This further complicates, in addition to the dehumanization and criminalization of Black bodies, because they are Black women. Black women regularly go missing and at times are killed; our stories are underreported or shaped as “criminal” even when we are victims.”
While both pieces were necessary and both began to address the case of Tjhisha and Angelia’s murders, they are certainly the anomaly in terms of the majority of the coverage. Even in the case of “Black Girls Murdered,” a mostly positive portrayal, I thought to myself, “Why are we not acknowledging their work? Why are we pretending their work doesn’t matter? Why is their work becoming the elephant in the room?” I walked away from most articles I read feeling both shameful and shamed, as if they were written to say, “News reports say they were exotic dancers, quick, let’s fight to erase that so the girls can appear deserving of our sorrow and rage.”
At Salon, writer Ian Blair penned “Grisly Murder Ignored: How We Failed Angelia Mangum and Tjhisha Ball” and went so far as to completely erase input given on this case by sex workers. Not only did Blair not reach out to any sex workers, he neglected to quote any of a wide pool of us who have been posting regularly about these girls for nearly a week straight. Blair’s piece barely nods to and briefly namechecks “the sex work activist community,” with no mention of the YouCaring fundraiser Melissandre (@MeliMachiavelli) and I set up to fund the victims’ funerals. The piece reads as if Blair simply copied and pasted information he read online and didn’t bother to interview a single person for his article. There is no acknowledgement that much of his information came directly from current and former sex workers on Twitter. Salon’s writer fails to point out that neither Ball or Mangum’s families have enough money to bury the girls and the YouCaring fundraiser exists solely to help them with this endeavor. Blair prattles on, without much reference to Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum themselves (the subjects of said “failure” on “our” collective part), instead devoting most of his column space to regurgitating words of well known and more respected Black people; quoting Ta-nehisi Coates at length; discussing Ferguson; Mike Brown; #IfTheyGunnedMeDown; Daniel Holtzclaw; Marlene Pinnock, and seemingly anything other than what the Salon write-up ostensibly set out to address: two beautiful young women who were brutally murdered and who also happened to work as strippers. This offering from Blair also casually ignores the reports that each of Daniel Holtzclaw’s alleged victims, save the last woman he is accused of having victimized, were also either sex workers, drug users, or both.
In fact, in the cases of Tjhisha Ball and Angelia Mangum, as in the case of Daniel Holtzclaw and his alleged victims, the idea of sex work as an important factor in the crime continues to be obscured by other supposedly more important issues, watered down to nothing in order to be considered palatable to sensitive audiences. The few conversations I’ve seen on Twitter, Tumblr, and the occasional news articles and blogs focus only on the collective (non)reactions of people when a Black woman is the victim of violent crime. I do not want to take anything away from that analysis. I know it’s absolutely true: Black women are the least and the last in line for anger, rage, justice, pity, sympathy, and empathy.
“murder of a white woman: there must be an investigation.
murder of a black woman: there must be an explanation.”
Black women are upset, we are incredibly sad, we are begging to be cared for, and we have a right to feel this way. We are completely correct in our steadfast refusal to simply disappear into the ether when we are violated, when our lives are snuffed out. We are justified in our anguish and in our anger. We are righteous in this, and I am not here to take away from it. I am here standing with my sisters and speaking out too. We are the most spotless of lambs, sinless in our desire to simply be seen as just as important as anyone else. But, what I am also here to say is this: in the midst of the tangible and thickening silence from what could arguably be called one of the most vocal corners of twitter, Black Feminist Twitter, and even Feminist Twitter as a whole; in the midst of the silence from virtually everyone and everywhere: where is the outrage for two teenage girls who were brutally murdered? Is the outrage lacking because of their race? Definitely. Is it non-existent because of their reported interactions with law enforcement? Absolutely. But it is also lacking because they were reported as working as exotic dancers. This cannot be denied. It is unfair and unethical to say anything different.
I am excited to see more and more gentlemen’s club/exotic dancers taking this business seriously enough to take matters into their own hands. I think for far too long those of us in the adult entertainment industry have gotten engulfed in the socially acceptable invalidation of stripping as actual work, so that we’ve allowed ourselves to neglect so many of the labor violations, discrimination, and downright illegal actions by management, patrons, and staff that just couldn’t fly in other legal businesses.
I remember seeing dancers getting sexually and physically assaulted by patrons, while the bouncers employed because our naked bodies afforded them that job would do absolutely NOTHING. I recall one time a patron ejaculated on my ass as I gave him a standing lap dance at the bar. I went to the bouncer on duty at the time. He shrugged his shoulders and dismissed me.
The male staff who were employed by the club as stage managers or bouncers were also known to sexually violate us. Although they were employed by the same space we all occupied at the same damn time, they felt they were entitled to free feels and who knows what else from the dancers. If it was a nice day, they’d just insult you for even working in such a grimy industry.
Then there was the highway robbery in fees the club would charge the dancers who were coming in there to work—i.e., bring the establishment business. When I was in the game in the 90s, house fees were only just being implemented. They went from $5 to $20 in what seemed a matter of weeks.
Public perception often shapes law and policy, and vice versa. Without legal precedent or social acceptance we become prey to shoddy business practices.
I was 17 years old when I entered the clubs. I started with Al’s Mr. Wedge in the Bronx. It was the club I worked at exclusively then for a few reasons: Another club, The Goat, was closed by the time I got in the game. And besides, the legendary talk around this club sounded as if it was just too much for my bougie ass. For some reason, I just didn’t like Golden Lady, because its size and structure intimidated me.
And all my attempts at auditioning at clubs like Sue’s Rendezvous and whatever the name of the juice bar near Dyre Ave proved fruitless. I was too dark.
I recall once I went into Sue’s with a friend of mine, this mixed chic by the name of Jackie. Tall, light skinned, sorta looking like a young Mariah Carey, she was half White and Black. I went into Sue’s with her with the confidence that I would be allowed to dance in another club and increase my chances of making money. Young and naive, it didn’t dawn on me that when they told me Jackie could audition and I couldn’t it was the result of discrimination against my complexion.
Jackie ended up working at the high-end clubs in the city. Me and my Black ass had to keep it gutter and stay where they were not too picky.
I want people to stop being surprised that racism, colorism, and other biases against womxn (and Black people/or anyone with “dark” skin) exist. Determining who is worthy of making a living can be as superficial as how far from Whiteness they appear to be.
Editor’s note: All references to “Bambi” and “#FreeBambi” below only refer to Lily Fury’s fictitious and stolen persona. There is a real Bambi out there who deserves our respect and consideration.
It’s 3:45 PM Eastern Standard Time and, thankfully, I’m off work from my job at a grocery store—this means, just like on any given, average day off, I’d be able to enjoy my day how I would like: writing, playing X Box, binge watching Netflix, whatever floats my boat, really. That was my plan today—until I clicked around online to find out more about #FreeBambi and if we had enough extra money in our checking account to be able to donate today.
Listen: for over 15 years now, I’ve been involved in the sex trades in one way or another. For the last three years, although I’ve been officially retired from sex work, I still write, think, and talk about it often. I donate quietly and as often as I can to whatever crowdfund or offering plate passing I see on social media or hear about from friends. I send and receive plenty of love from friends who are or have been in the business. In short, it’s very much still a part of my life and, if I were to have talked to you yesterday, “it will always be a part of my life,” is absolutely something I would have said—with no trace of irony present.
I loved sex work. I loved how I was able, while living with PTSD and depression, to provide for myself and have a life. I loved how I was able to choose when I could work and not worry about being terminated or written up if I called in sick—hell, there’s no calling in sick in sex work, there’s just… not working today. I loved being able to work as far as my energy would take me while still honoring my body and spirit—and also knowing if I didn’t have it in me, it was ok. I loved it—and still some days miss it. I miss working hard, making my own rules, setting my own boundaries, and using the tool of my desirability (as perceived by others) to craft a life for myself. It feels funny now, to say “I loved sex work.” I never thought I would say that, but here at 37 years old, it rings true and authentic for me—and it’s an important part of what I’m about to say next, because I did truly love the work of it.
What I never loved and have never made bones about is, well, pretty much everything else. I never loved the sex of it, the struggle and poverty, the sexism, the weight (and fat) shame and abuse, the open and safe space for pedophiles and predators, the lies and lying, the homophobia and discrimination, or the racism, gaslighting about racism, and justification of racism of it. I never loved being part of an industry where I knew that, simply because of the arbitrary, human notion of race, I would never be able to live the full life I’d dreamed of in that space. I figured out through talking with other Black and Latina sex working friends—this wasn’t an imaginary ship I was sailing, and I wasn’t alone in it. We were all together in it: full service girls who were turned away from brothels because “We already have a Black girl,” or dancers who, no matter how high they flew in tricks or how hard they twerked on the floor, could rarely (unless they were in a predominantly urban space and a wealthy party showed up—which is once in a very blue moon) make enough money to afford paying nightly/weekly fees to work at the clubs. Full service outside girls who dealt with rapes and sexual assaults by cops—knowing they could never report because they would never be believed (or worse, they’d be targeted later) because Black women are often considered both hypersexual and undesirable and, thus, un-rape-able. I never loved those parts of it, and today, while we talk about racism, the sex industry, and Black women who are sex workers, we need to talk about how #FreeBambi has a role in it.