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.
Standing alone, these first-hand accounts would have served as a powerful counter to the overplayed image of stripping as fun and—that cursed word—empowering. The problem is that Danns doesn’t let them stand alone. She has a very specific agenda. Danns co-wrote the book with Sandrine Lévêque, who worked as Campaign Manager for “Stripping the Illusion,” a campaign by the UK activist group Object that persuaded the British government to change licensing laws to make it more difficult for strip clubs to open. According to the campaign, “lap dancing clubs normalize the sexual objectification of women, create ‘no-go’ zones for women [are strippers not women?], and are a form of commercial sexual exploitation.”
In the “Analysis” section, it quickly becomes clear that the authors are more interested in promoting these ideas than analyzing the dancers’ actual experiences. For example, despite the fact that all the contributing dancers cite financial need as their primary reason for going into the industry, Danns ignores that important piece of the picture and instead suggests that young women’s “willingness to be involved in stripping may be a deluded form of feminism.” By harking on and on about the fact that stripping is not “empowering” after all, Danns conveniently skims over what the industry does offer to women on the poverty line, women with hefty tuition fees to pay, and others: a means of financial independence, a way of getting by.
Instead of discussing ways to empower dancers and make strip clubs safer and fairer, Danns and Lévêque seem obsessed with proving that stripping is sex work and that prostitution occurs in strip clubs, to which end they say embarrassing things like this: “Melissa Farley, a psychologist, states that there is no significant difference between porn stars and prostitutes, and that stripping is a form of prostitution.” OK, can we leave Melissa Farley out of it for a moment and just agree on a few things, one former stripper to another? Yes, stripping is sex work. Yes, prostitution often occurs in strip clubs. Yes, most strip clubs are run in an appallingly exploitative way. And no, like most jobs, stripping for the most part is neither fun nor empowering (except in a financial sense, and financial empowerment is no small thing). And now, having agreed on these things, can we get to the point?
The point, according to Danns and Lévêque, seems to be that stripping is becoming too socially acceptable. They want to warn us all that the mainstreaming of lap-dancing culture is luring innocent college women into thinking that stripping is just a bit of harmless fun and then, OMG, they end up as prostitutes! It’s almost as if they are OK with the sex industry existing but only if it remains stigmatized, so that only the most desperate of women—and, presumably, the most awful of men—end up participating in it.
This may explain why the “Experiences” section contains not only dancers’ stories but also stories of women “affected by” the industry. They include a journalist who sets out on a quest to discover whether stripping is good or bad for women (it’s got to be one or the other, folks!) and appears to have no ethical qualms about sending a male reporter undercover as a customer to catch dancers on film offering sex for money. She is later surprised that the end product turns out to be “little more than a salacious piece of soft porn.” It also includes a cringe-worthy account by a woman struggling to come to terms with the fact that her husband got a lap-dance at a bachelor party. Seriously. And in case you don’t understand the havoc this incident wreaked on her marriage, she provides ten pages of unedited email exchanges between her and her husband as they work through their hurt feelings. At this point, I lost any respect I ever had for this book.
In the end, however, despite her free-and-easy quoting of abolitionists like Farley and Julie Bindel, Danns seems to recognize that an outright strip club ban is not the answer. Instead she proposes having lap dancers speak to school kids about the realities of the industry—an interesting proposal, but one that is hard to imagine being carried out with any kind of nuance.
In an attempt to end on a positive note, I’m going to leave you with a line from Topaz’ story, which made me laugh out loud, because this is what every stripper I’ve ever met says about every club she’s ever worked at: “Under the new manager, the club turned into a horrible, vile, sleazy place to work. The first change was new girls.” Damn those new girls! Of course, Danns uses this recurring theme as proof that the stripping industry is disintegrating into a hellish den of prostitution. I prefer to take it as proof that nothing changes.
Rachel Aimee is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. She co-founded $pread Magazine, where she worked as editor-in-chief for four and a half years. She was a stripper for many years and continues to organize for strippers’ rights via the outreach project We Are Dancers. Find more of her work at rachelaimee.com.