Portland-based stripper and Tits and Sass contributor Elle Stanger has compiled an anthology of personal stories from strippers from across the U.S. Strange Times: Tales from American Strippers includes pieces by Tits and Sass co-founder Kat, contributors Lily Fury and Red, and other notable dancer literati like Lux ATL. Stanger has this to say about her compilation: “There are so many stripper tell-alls, and each important in their own right, but I really wanted a collection of voices that focused more on the ability to witness humanity from varied perspectives, that wasn’t solely about the protagonist herself… When I began speaking with current and former strippers around the country, each woman was unique, and yet there was a commonality among them. A shared kind of insight.” We’ve posted a selection by Clementine below.
Most hours I’m just passing—waiting for that one opportune moment—the mythical lapse in which something finally gives and I find my mind, my body, my heart—all in agreement with the preponderance that now is the moment when the most viable option is simply to let go. In most narratives, this might be when the writer would let the audience in on their little secret—saying Oh, but it wasn’t always this way. Let me tell you how it happened… But the truth is it has always been this way. When your childhood bedtime stories consist of a weeping mother recounting the day her daddy walked out of the bathroom frothing at the mouth after sticking a needle full of enough barbiturates to sedate a room full of psychotics into his arm, mere moments after sitting her on his knee and playing a duet of “Heart and Soul” on the decaying and out-of-tune upright. When that same woman threatens to leave you to fend for your three, four, five-year-old self—because you didn’t love her enough to clean your room or you asked for something in the store, suicide becomes the embroidered throw pillow, the family dog, the security blanket. It has always been this way. Chances are, at any given moment I’ve been pondering new methods—like a researcher high on theory; those moments when I’m staring wistfully out the window… I’m devising the perfect formula.
The man to my right at the bar had been patiently awaiting my answer to his question—one I had heard again and again in just six short months; “Why did you start dancing?” His eyes trailed over my bare thighs and ass, landed on the sheer blue of my lace bralette where my nipple was visibly contorted—if Picasso had spent his Blue Period in strip clubs, these are the images he would have painted. He was fulfilling a fantasy, imagining slipping his cock in between my thighs, snaking his tongue over my rosebud areola. He saw my creamy white legs splayed out on a hotel bed; I visualized a silver blade on the edge of a bathtub, a night spent under the stars with a bottle of cheap gin and six months worth of valium, the look on the face of a veteran paramedic when he can’t find the pulse on the soft wrist of a twenty-something. I cocked my head to the side and poised myself—coy, another second for posterity. “I decided I’d prefer to regret doing something rather than spend my life wondering what it might have been like, and I actually really love it.” I smiled.
The man spun a lone ice-cube in his scotch and casually freed the two top buttons on his collar. “Well, that’s good. What did you say your name was again?” I raised an eyebrow inquisitively—“Your name is Michael! And you don’t remember mine? Tsk-tsk. It’s Clementine.” Before he could start in on his personal rendition of “Oh, My Darlin’” my name boomed over the speaker: “Welcome to Lucky Devil Lounge ladies and gentlemen, up next we have the lovely Clementine on stage for you!” I stood slowly and pivoted on my toe as I turned to walk to the stage.
It was true. I did love dancing, and when the end of your life could happen at any moment, when you have a disease that hijacks your cognitions and makes death feel as cozy as a hot mug of tea—well, you learn to take things as they come and to live when you can, to take any opportunity that may present some memory, some experience, some relief from the incessant whispers that send chills through your bones as you walk down the street. I stepped onto the stage and grinned at the three men sitting at the rack. The music started—not your typical stripper song, but that’s why this was the club I worked at. Moreover, this is why I worked in Portland. There is no such thing as a typical stripper here and I relished that. My flats were coming apart at the seams, the tip of my toenail was visible through the threadbare black cotton. All of those nights I spent dancing in my room as a kid, it was exactly like this. An escape, one of the few times when the hurt dissipated, when my mind was allowed a foray into a world I would never know. I pointed my toes as I traveled across the metal rack, I felt the arch spread from the soles of my feet, up my calf, into my spine—I felt musculature bend and pull beneath my skin, smooth like oil, the heat rose in my body and blossomed out through my mouth, settled deep in my gut and I felt my solar-plexus expand with true breath. For the first time in days, I was whole—no longer in a battle with my nervous system, everything was flowing and humanity was again a place with which I could identify. And for the next seven and a half minutes, I was free.
I closed my eyes, the red light flickering under my lids as I snaked by body around the pole, my feet left the ground, I rose on air—seemingly abandoning the rules of gravity, leaving behind the years and years of weight that I had grown accustomed to hauling around, that perhaps, was the reason why I took such small steps, stayed so quiet, felt so small. But not here. Here, I was full, grown, sensual, the one place where I found safety in womanhood, a loophole within a society that has taught women to fear their power, to never bare their teeth, let alone their breasts. I often closed my eyes while on stage, the customers, the club, the world, melting away, becoming enmeshed with a sound wave, a vibration, a light beam. The music, that penetrating red glow, my body, and wherever it was my mind had wandered to. “You thinking ‘bout fucking the dudes that watch you get naked, aren’t ya?” I blinked and turned toward the voice—an older man, dirty fingernails, a baseball cap with a bent rim. He smelled acrid, like rolled cigarettes and cheap vodka. I’ve never trusted men who drink cheap vodka; it’s too easy, there’s no thought in it and I’d found that a man was often well-reflected in his drink. I laughed and sidled my panties halfway down. I’d offer my ass over my eyes any night. Eye contact is something earned and it takes more than a crumpled dollar bill.
The man let out a satisfied grunt and my mind flowed backward into a memory. A lover stood in the rain head bent, a long-stemmed red rose dangled at his side. The neon from the theatre lights reflected in the puddles, uncertainty reflected in our eyes. Electricity ran between us even from twenty feet away. My hands were on fire, pressed hard against the pole. Gillian Welch’s words trembled through the speakers: my first lover… No, I hadn’t been thinking about “fucking the dudes that watch me get naked.” I had been thinking about the first time I made love, the first time I found myself feeling inexplicably wine drunk while my glass held only water… Quicksilver girl and she’s free… I pulled my now completely nude body up from the stage floor and gathered my lace panties and a handful of crumpled bills. I felt a little shattered. My mind was still in that boy’s bedroom with the musical hands, my heart still in his lovely, sharp teeth. I stood completely nude in front of strangers. I worried, not that they had seen my flushed labia and naked breasts, but had any of them seen even a flicker of emotion cross my face? At that very moment, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find warm, sticky-sweet blood on my fingers when I pressed them between my ribs. I wondered if they could see it too. Man #1 leaned back in his chair and happily scratched his groin, man #2 counted his money with furrowed brow, and man #3 looked into his beer as if his entire future might be held in the dull yellow foam. Some nights you could be dying in front of thirty men and they’d never even blink.
With my chin held high I walked off stage, I pulled the sheer curtain of the dimly lit private dance room back and let my full weight collapse onto the vinyl bench in a graceless sprawl. I arched my back and stretched, cracked my toes against the floor, rubbed the purple and red bruise that sprawled along the inside of my thigh like spilled paint. I pulled my panties on and held my knees to my chest, smiled and drew a finger over the velvet fleur-de-lys as I gave one last moment to that lost lover. God, it was a disaster—but it was a perfect disaster and I wouldn’t take one second of it back. Not everyone can revisit something so raw and come away from it with a mouth full of nostalgia, sweet and thick like honey.
Out on the patio the fireplace flickered. A languorous orange tongue licked the air. Hoisting myself onto the red glittered bar stool I crossed my tired legs at the ankles and brought a cigarette to my lips, stretching my fingers across the cocktail table towards an open book of matches that held a lone matchstick. Striking it against the black strip, the heat burned into my thumb, I inhaled deeply and let my shoulders sink back into the metal frame of the chair. An obviously inebriated but happy looking couple stumbled through the door. Their initial bewilderment at having discovered the fire and dimly lit alcove was soon replaced by the giddiness of a shared secret. I observed them quietly until they noticed me—I’d almost hoped they wouldn’t—it was creeping towards one o’clock and things would either pick up or continue to drawl by. Half of me had already mentally packed up and gone home. The woman’s voice was shrill but not overtly obnoxious and they wore matching bands on their ring fingers—these are the details you learn to look for. “Oooh, honey! Isn’t she pretty?!” I allowed them to look me up and down. I was being sized up and priced—this was how the system worked.
I went back to enjoying my cigarette while the woman cooed and batted her eyes at her husband. They looked at one another excitedly before turning their gaze back to me; “Are you going to let me get naked and crawl all over you?” I offered sweetly. The man exchanged a glance with his wife before shoving a twenty dollar note into my palm. “Just her, I’ll get caught up on the details later.” He winked at the woman and she blushed a deep pink. I took her hand and led her back inside to the private dance room. She sat primly in the slouching chair, her palms pressed flat against the sticky vinyl, legs crossed, eyes drawn towards the floor—she peeked at me through her blonde fringed bangs. “Shhh, just relax— I know what I’m doing.” I took her small hands and laced her fingers through mine, parting her legs gently with my knee, I slid my leg between her thighs and pressed my breasts against her sweater, inhaling deeply. She smelled sweet and musky. I exhaled heavily on her soft neck as she closed her eyes and her body went limp beneath me.
There are few things I have experienced that are as gratifying as bringing a woman to orgasm: next to that is imagining bringing an otherwise seemingly straight woman to orgasm during a dance. I slid my body against her supple breasts. I imagined her with soft brown hair shorn close to her ears and small breasts with nipples that could cut diamonds. A soft moan escaped from her raspberry lips as I pulled the blue top over my head, licking my pointer finger and tracing the outside of my nipple. I envisioned this new woman prone, legs spread before me, caressing her inner thigh with my mouth, sucking the soft skin where thigh meets cunt, enveloping an engorged clitoris with my thirsty tongue, feeling her muscles contract around one, and then three fingers tighter and more frenzied with each thrust until my lips glistened with her musky wetness. The song ended and I opened my eyes to find the blonde woman, still clothed, out of breath and looking dazed. “Th-thank you,” She stuttered. “That was amazing.” I replied with a sideways smile and a nod, “My pleasure, I’m glad you enjoyed yourself.” She placed another twenty dollars on the bench next to me before waving and stumbling out of the room.
I rushed down to the dressing room to change my now-wet panties before my name was called and I was due back on stage, bounding up the stairs and pointing out two short songs for the DJ to play for my final set of the night. I danced quickly and happily through the next five minutes and collected my ones at the end of the set, pulling my bottoms on as I waited for the next girl to take over on stage. I made my way toward the bar with whiskey on my mind. A gentlemen sat in the corner; even better if I didn’t have to pay for my drink. He offered to buy my cocktail and the bartender waited for my order; he was a perfectly complimentary mix of stern and maternal. I asked for Bulleit on the rocks. She gave a quick nod and poured with the lightning speed that comes with having done something a thousand times.
I thanked her and turned toward the man. He offered his glass to toast. “To new beginnings—I just moved here three days ago.” I welcomed him to Portland as our glasses clinked together, nudging the fat bottom on the bar for good luck. “Where did you grow up?” he inquired. I took a long pull on my bourbon. The truth was I had grown up here—not here as in Portland, but here at this club. I thought back to my audition; I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror clothed, let alone enjoy the beauty of my figure nude in front of a dozen strangers. My voice would drop to a whisper when I spoke about sexuality. Even saying “sex” aloud was painful. It was here that I learned what it meant to be a woman, to claim space, the necessity of self-worth in the midst of a hundred hungry eyes. Here, that I came to understand that there is no shame to be had in standing up for yourself, in testing your limits, in keeping yourself safe. Here, in the company of a dozen of the strongest women I had ever known, I finally fathomed the power held within womanhood. Something I was raised to fear, lest I be called out for shining too brightly or abandoned and accused of obstinence. Here, I learned to listen to myself and to trust. Here, I learned that you’ll never know where home might turn out to be. Whether they knew it or not, the women I danced with pulled me up and through them. I saw my strength, learned to wield it like a powerful weapon, to sing it like a melody, to walk in its rhythm and to dance with it every single day. Where was I from? “Oh, I’m from here,” I replied. I felt the warm burn flow down into my belly as I swallowed the last of my whiskey. “Thanks for the drink, and welcome to Portland.” I set my glass down and smiled.