Unequal Desires by Siobhan Brooks (2010)

by Mona Salim on January 26, 2012 · 13 comments

in Race, Reviews

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.

Much the way the film industry easily categorizes black women into tropes—Jezebels, Mammies, and Welfare Queens—the strip club landscape renders black women “easy,” “undesirable,” “exotic,” or “invisible.” Brooks shows through her research that the desire industry is just another place where racism is performed.

This racism has ripple effects. Because of hiring practices at “high end” clubs, many women of color end up working in heavily policed neighborhoods. As a result, they’re more susceptible to raids and arrests. When black women do work at high-end clubs, they are often given inadequate stage time, reducing their earning potential in relation to lighter-skinned dancers.

As a dancer of color, Brooks’ analysis rang all too true to me. I remember a dark-skinned black dancer, Brandy, telling me that I was lucky to be Indian: “Us black girls have to flash our Fallopia to make a dollar. You just have to show up.” Brandy’s comical quip is spot-on, calling out the ways strip clubs are racialized in the ways that Brooks describes. Black dancers are erotically available, while an Asian woman like myself is shrouded in presumed virginity.

Brooks focuses almost exclusively on the white-black binary, and tangentially on the experiences of Latina dancers. In reality, though, strip clubs are multi-racial and interethnic, at least in my experiences throughout New York City clubs. With Pakistani managers, Bangladeshi bus boys, Greek house moms, Brazilian bartenders, and Chinese dancers, I wonder if focusing on the black dancer vs. white dancer experience overlooks the rest of us and the ways we experience race at work. The book seemed to be more about black dancers’ erotic capital rather than race in general in the stripping industry.

Yet the book is a crucial voice in the sex work literature. It speaks directly to the troubling claims of second wave feminists that we ally around a universal notion of “womanhood.” Brooks shows how womanhood is not a vacant category, but one that’s infused with class, race, geography, and sexual orientation.

Mona Salim is a graduate student, educator, and stripper in New York City, where she has lived for almost a decade. She hails originally from India. When she’s not dancing, she’s studying race, capitalism, multiculturalism, and gender in U.S. cities. She blogs at Civil Undressed.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Essence Revealed Essence Revealed January 26, 2012 at 11:15 am

I am now looking forward to reading this book. I’d reached critical mass on reading stripper memoirs (which I od’d on for a period of time). However, as a black dancer, this sounds interesting. Thanks Mona!

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Jolene January 26, 2012 at 11:30 am

If this book is by who I think it is, she was at the Lusty a LONG time ago, before it was unionized or made into a co-op. The Lusty is now one of the most racially diverse clubs I’ve ever seen. Granted, we make a lot less money than we used to pre-recession, and so it is definitely not high-end, but it never was.

I’m getting a little tired of outdated information about my business being used as proof of a modern problem. Yes, racism in strip clubs & in the sex industry overall is awful and rampant, but not at the Lusty.

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Wendy Lyon January 27, 2012 at 1:48 am

I believe she was involved in the unionization. She wrote an article about it called “Organizing from Behind the Glass”.

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Julie January 26, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Does the fact that these issues aren’t as prominent [to you] at the Lusty now, invalidate the fact that race affects the way dancers of color see their profession? I’m sorry you’re tired of “outdated information,” as if the Lusty being a better situation for its dancers means that these problems have been permanently solved everyplace else.

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Elena January 26, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I wonder if her conclusions would be different if she was dancing in a majority black city, like Atlanta (where I’m currently located.) We have mixed clubs like the one I work at, but the real “prestige” clubs that everyone knows about are the ones rappers make songs about – Strokers, Magic City, Onyx…
I also find it interesting that she says less stage time = less money. That might be the case at the Lusty Lady, which I understand is more of a peep show, but at many clubs around the country, dancers will pay the DJ to stay off the stage because they make more money hustling on the floor.
Like the author, I’m kinda interested in this topic. I’m a dancer of East Asian heritage – there aren’t a whole lot of us out there – and I’ve never really felt like I fit in at any club. Hell, even the customers aren’t sure how to deal with me either, other than occasionally asking if I’d “love them long time”.

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Al January 27, 2012 at 12:45 am

First, I should say I love this blog! It provides a first-person perspective of the sex industry from those who work in the field. In regards to the book, I have to read it. I’ve known strippers who’ve worked at all-white clubs, as well as, black. The joints were located in Tampa. Based on what was said to me, they got mad respect (and tips). Maybe it depends on the location of the club; who knows?

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Lilly Muse January 27, 2012 at 10:59 am

Great review, Mona, thank you. This book sounds like a worthy read, though I’d have to agree that there are probably some significant pieces of the puzzle missing. In cities where black clubs are the go-to places (Atlanta, Houston), these girls are considered highly desirable and make mad money. I also assume in many predominantly white clubs, the occasional dancer of color would be considered a novelty, though that sort of “exotic” edge is just based on stereotypes and used by club promoters to their advantage: black girls are a chocolate treat, Latinas are spicy sex machines, Asians are virginal and submissive. Blegh, it sounds gross even saying it.

That said, I’ve never stripped and am unfortunately ignorant to the realities of club work, but I’m curious how race issues parallel in the escorting world.

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story story January 27, 2012 at 10:07 pm

Great article, Mona. Too bad the author didn’t go beyond white and black as the two major racial categories (leaves a lot of people out and paints a picture of society that is just too…black and white). My experience (as a white stripper) dancing across the country in clubs with a white majority, is that management found it desirable to always have at least one “exotic” girl along with one fat girl and one girl with a bush and one older broad and one girl that looked twelve. These girls were meant to pander to the fetishists since they weren’t “normal”.
Without having read the book, I’d be interested in knowing how the author deals with the perspective of women of color in the clubs. Does she address how or if they internalize themselves as “exotic” or whether and how they choose to use their skin color to their financial advantage?

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Jolene January 28, 2012 at 5:38 pm

To reply to Wendy and Julie, let me clarify my meaning. I in no way meant to say that because race is treated differently at the Lusty now than it was in the past, mostly because of unionization and the cooperative system, that race is not an issue in strip clubs. On the contrary, race in most strip clubs is an extremely sensitive and important issue, and dancers of color are at a disadvantage in many areas and clubs.

What I meant to say was that I’m getting tired of outdated information being presented as relevant, recent information about a business that I’m a part owner of, and take great pride in. Siobhan Brooks is quoted often speaking about her experience at the Lusty, and treating it as a situation that is still current,

As a peepshow, the Lusty is a very different workplace than the average strip club, as there is no customer contact, no lapdances, and hourly wages based on seniority. Less stage time means less money, when you’re working for an hourly wage.

As a bigger girl (at least in the sex industry), I’ve worked in mostly black/multi-ethnic clubs when not at the Lusty, as the mostly white clubs will not usually hire a 5’11”, size 12, pierced and tattooed dancer, whereas the black clubs seem to be more accepting of different looks, sizes, and styles. There is discrimination all over the place in strip clubs, based on age, size, color, body art, and any number of completely subjective circumstances. It all boils down to what the hiring managers think will make them the most money, and often outdated ideas of what sells in the sex industry keeps some types of women from being hired at different types of clubs.

I’m sorry if I was not completely clear earlier on my meaning, I just wish that current information was more widely known.

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Melissa Gira Grant January 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm

Why am I not surprised that someone from the Lusty is ascribing racism in stripping to individual clubs, and not systemic racism in all employment?

The reality is, the Lusty has hid behind unionization and co-operative ownership to hold up hiring practices that discriminate based on size and race. Maybe this has changed since I was fired illegally in 2006 for organizing around these issues?

http://www.sfbg.com/2006/09/26/lusty-lady-loses-its-innocence

All that said, the Lusty isn’t unique in this, and this isn’t to pile on the Lusty — only to say, in recent history, this was still going on there, in a club that is spoken of both by its workers and outside supporters as a model. In many ways, the Lusty is a great model. In others, some progressive practices adopted there are just cosmetic.

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Jolene January 31, 2012 at 12:19 pm

In fact, yes, this HAS changed since 2006. Six years is a long time. I myself have been there for three, and have served on stage, as support staff, in the madam office, as well as on the BOD (my current position). In every hiring cycle I’ve witnessed or participated in, race/size are carefully taken into consideration so as not to end up with a boring, Barbie clone-like stage. We want ladies of all possible shapes, sizes, colors, backgrounds, styles, and attitudes. And scheduling is done simply by seniority & stage variety, not by scheduling more “conventionally attractive” (skinny & white) dancers so as to raise revenues.

The Lusty is far from perfect, but once again, your experience was a very long time ago. Almost no one that worked there then is still there now, and the community & workplace culture has changed.

And still, I am being misunderstood. Yes, racism, sizism, and many other -isms are rampant in strip clubs and the sex industry overall! But I don’t like to make sweeping generalizations about places and businesses that I’ve never worked in or visited. I have no idea what it’s like to strip anywhere outside California or Texas, or to make porn outside of the SF scene, or do any sex work that I haven’t tried. I won’t speak for an experience I’ve never had.

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Jessica P January 28, 2012 at 9:16 pm

On a similar note, there’s a book I’ve been meaning to check out that has some pretty decent reviews on Amazon…it’s called Money Shot: The Wild Nights and Lonely Days Inside the Black Porn Industry, by Lawrence C. Ross Jr.

Just thought I’d share for anyone that likes going off on sex industry reading tangents like I do…

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