One of the brightest spots of sex work activism is when some bright-eyed bushy-tailed sex-worker-to-be finds her way into the space and wants to know the best way to get into our sordid business. “Come, little one! Join me in the fresh hellscape that is the business of selling sexual services,” I declare, fancying my mentorship style half old-school brothel manager chain-smoking Virginia Slims, half Archimedes the uptight but good-hearted owl from Disney’s Sword in the Stone. But one of the darker spots of the same situation is when these apprentices say things like, “I think I could start with something easy like stripping.” Oh, girl. You did not.
It is times like this that I wish I had this story in my back pocket to pull out and give to would-be strippers that think dancing is the Diet Coke of sex work. It is the story of a man with a shit-eating grin and a monumental sense of entitlement calling the police on a stripper who denied him sex in a VIP room in the appropriately named city of Butte, Montana. To recap, this man believed that the denial of sex from a stripper was not only a criminal offense but a criminal offense worth escalating to involvement with law enforcement. The sense of entitlement to sexual services beyond the ones on the official job descriptions are ones to which strippers are subjected regularly. While it is newsworthy because the guy actually called the cops, strippers know that boundary-pushing clients are part and parcel of the sexual and emotional labor of stripping.
For those that do not provide extras, such expectations mean being in a permanent state of feigned-friendly negotiations to continue earning from the client but having your boundaries pushed, often to the point of feeling endangered. For those that do provide extras, there is the expectation that you must provide them to any client under any circumstances. Yet, strippers who do provide extra services selectively offer them to regulars or at specific price points. As a firm believer in the “you do you” model of having zero expectations from my fellow workers about how they conduct their business, I still hope for a work environment in which everyone’s boundaries are respected by clients.
In watching the celebrity nude photo scandal unfold in the last few weeks, I can’t help but compare it to the relentless onslaught of clients that think it’s just a hoot (owl reference intended) to secretly photograph sex workers, take screenshots without permission, and otherwise collect unauthorized and unpaid for memorabilia from their sessions. Their sense of entitlement mirrors that of the largely male group of self-professed experts in internet privacy that make the argument that if Jennifer Lawrence didn’t want her nude photos shared, she should never have taken them. Similarly, sex workers from across the industry who are pressured, assaulted, or worse are told that if they didn’t want to perform particular acts, well, then, they should have never performed a sexual act in a transaction in the first place. Didn’t they realize that any act made them available for all acts, even in the absence of a negotiated price, in perpetuity, until the end of their wretched little sex worker lives? For those that think that this sounds hyperbolic, I dare them to ask ten random strangers on the street if it’s possible to rape a sex worker.
It is stories like the one from Butte that also make me wish that more strippers identified as sex workers and joined the ranks of sex worker activists. Despite the relative legal safety of the strip club, there are still a number of dangers and opportunities to be stigmatized by the very public nature of the work. Of course, my “you do you” model also prevents me from forcing the title of sex worker on those that do not wish to adopt it, but it is something to hope for as the movement grows.
I am someone who has worked in different sectors of the sex industry and I’ve found stripping to be the most emotionally and physically taxing, the sector in which I’ve been subject to the most degrading language and boundary pushing. I know that strippers have something of a Regina George reputation among sex workers as many deny they are sex workers at all, considering themselves above the designation. Some strippers have been unkind trolls to Belle Knox and other porn performers on Twitter. Strippers are also arguably among the most likely type of sex worker to be denied the label by our clientele, mostly because strip club customers don’t want to have to identify as clients and they can deny that status more easily if we aren’t identifying as sex workers. But the expectation of explicitly sexual services is absolutely built into the idea of the VIP room, and it means that negotiating and/or denying various forms of sexual labor is part of the job.
This constant onslaught of demands for sexual services make the work of stripping much more than a set of training wheels to prepare for “real” sex work. And to negotiate those boundaries in six-inch heels and half a pair of underwear, alone in a room with a man who considers deodorant and dental hygiene as optional, is arguably harder than pulling a magical fucking sword out of a rock that was put there by a wizard. Apprentices, you are on notice.