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.