I actually didn’t know who Christy Mack was until I started seeing articles about her attack flying around the internet last week. But her story is one that is familiar to me. Intimately familiar.
I stripped for eight years, in a dozen clubs across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and Georgia. I met strippers who were also full service sex workers inside or outside the club, sugar babies, cam girls, and adult film stars. I’ve seen co-workers “graduate” into Playboy and Hustler. I’ve seen every combination of education, economic background, race, size, upbringing, parental status, and religion, so when I overhear non-sex-workers talking like we’re all a certain type, I can only laugh.
But one thing we all seem to have in common is an abuse story, either one of our own or of someone very close to us.
One thing I noticed early on in my career is that stripper locker room talk is brazen and honest. There is some high speed bonding that goes on over trays of eye shadow and half-finished drinks. As a more-or-less good girl going to state college on my parents’ dime, I was no stranger to boozy heartbreak stories, but stripper stories almost always went somewhere darker, faster. Without even knowing a co-worker’s name, I might hear the details of how her ex-husband broke into her house, or how she was borrowing a phone from another girl after receiving threatening texts from a stalker. I’ve had girls show me pictures of men on their phones with the warning, “If he shows up, tell the bouncer and come warn me. I don’t care if I’m in a VIP, just come tell me.”
There’s this recurring theme in our love lives— a man will admire us for our independence and freedom, and of course, our money. We’ll thrive on the attention for a while and we’ll enjoy spoiling him with gifts or trips. Maybe he moves in because his roommates are irresponsible, or maybe we move in with him because we’re sleeping over all the time anyway. And then the fights start.
“Where the fuck were you until five in the morning?”
And we’ll be surprised. He knew we were strippers when we started dating. Hell, maybe we met AT the strip club.
“I was at work, where else would I be? And then I got Denny’s with the crew. Like I always do on Wednesday nights.” And we shake it off. That was weird.
[Editor’s note—trigger warning: description of abuse and abusive rationalizations follows.] But the fights escalate. Maybe he refuses to give us rides to work, or maybe he insists on giving us rides and picking us up so he can account for our whereabouts. He reminds us that most guys wouldn’t be so understanding about our line of work, that most guys think we’re diseased and damaged, just one night stand material. He needs more money, because he lost his job because he was so distracted worrying about us all day.
It’s our fault he’s drinking more. It’s our fault he’s smoking more. It’s our fault he stayed up all night sharpening his knife collection. It’s our fault he was too tired to take the dog for a walk, and so the dog shit on the kitchen floor, and do you think he enjoys putting our face in dog shit?
We talk about these things at work, with an air of resignation. It’s not that bad, it wasn’t in the face. Good thing the red lights cover bruises. But an older girl pulls us aside one day and says “Look, I know you’re young and you think this is some fairy tale shit and he’s gonna change his act, but he won’t. You need to leave. Like yesterday. Don’t end up like me,” she says as she parts her hair just over her ear and we see a thin, ropey line of scar tissue.
We don’t leave. Not yet.
No, it takes a few more fights, a few more close calls, before we can really admit how bad it’s gotten. Maybe it’s when we go out on a rare night off from work with some friends, and he ruins the night by calling and texting every minute, demanding to know who you’re sucking off behind some dumpster, you fucking whore. Or maybe it’s when he plans an actual date, just the two of us, like old times, but before we can even get out the door he criticizes every outfit for being too slutty, and you want other men to know what you’re doing behind his back, don’t you?
So we leave. We sneak out a few articles of clothing at a time and stash them with a co-worker. Or we find a motel room on the other side of town. Or we take our chances and sleep in our car because we have nowhere else to go. But so often, leaving isn’t the end. It’s the beginning of a new fight.
If we had any property that was shared, we calculate how much it was worth, how much it will cost to replace, and how much personal injury we’re willing to risk. If there were children, multiply by lawyer’s fees and court costs and the risk of him painting us as bad parents because of our job. Oddly enough, it’s times like this that we’re grateful for the jobs we have because we have more room to control our schedules and almost any manager has had their own interactions with the legal system and they know.
But there’s always the risk that the fight won’t be contained by legal channels. There’s always the risk that he’ll bring the fight to us, long after we thought it was over. There’s the risk that he’ll show up at the club or at our new apartment or at our “day” job or at our school. And that’s when we start having really shitty nights, curled up with a kettle of coffee or a bottle of wine, wondering if we should write our own obituary so if he does come back again and finish what he started, we won’t be reduced to the “troubled woman” by the press.
I escaped. It took a few thousand dollars, 500 miles, and seven months of lawyers playing “Dueling Fax Machines,” but I got out.
It looks like Christy Mack got out too, though not unscathed. Hopefully a restraining order will be filed and her abuser will lose not just his freedom but also his social license, the all important screen that’s composed of equal parts charisma and plausible deniability that allows abusers to get away with it for so long. It’s easy to abuse people behind closed doors when outside those four walls everyone thinks you’re just an aw-shucks, salt-of-the-earth, average Joe.
The shittiest thing about being abused when you’re a sex worker is, of course, the abuse. But the second shittiest thing is feeling like there’s no one you can talk to about it, outside of other sex workers. I should know, I tried. Even after I quit stripping to save the relationship, people would tell me, “Well, given your history, it’s going to take a while before he can trust you, just try to be patient with him.” Thanks for almost getting me murdered, assholes. When you’re trying to escape a whorephobic abuser, and all the the people who are theoretically in a position to help are ALSO whorephobic, you tend to stick with the devil you know.
And now, being on the other side of the story, as the survivor, I’m in the shoes of that long ago coworker with the scar over her ear. And I see how useless it is to scream “LEAVE” at someone who’s already getting screamed at every day. So I’ve tried to take a gentler approach: “You’re a delight to work with and it makes me sad that someone doesn’t see you the way I see you.” And for closer friends, “If you ever need a pick up at three in the morning, call me. No questions asked.”
We’re a long way from ending domestic violence of any kind, but something tells me that if tomorrow morning all the senators and all the police chiefs in the US woke up with their balls on fire to actually start protecting victims, they’d still leave sex workers out in the rain. We’re not “good” victims. We weren’t standing demurely in the kitchen baking a cherry pie when our abuser decided to kick us in the face. Our work plays into other people’s insecurities, and somehow it’s our job to manage and soothe those insecurities to prevent our poor powerless abusers from abusing us.
So we have to protect ourselves, and protect each other.