If prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, stripping may very well be the second oldest — it all depends on exactly when the first uptight humans decided people shouldn’t walk around with their most enticing bits flopping nakedly in the wind. As soon as clothing became the norm, taking that clothing off became a profitable gig for anyone willing to learn how to do it well.
But despite the venerable legacy of this career, and the utter ubiquity of strip clubs in our modern cityscapes, most people know very little about the realities of dancing naked (or naked-ish) for money. So Cracked sat down with exotic dancers from across the United States: Emily, Laura, Zoey, Layne, Helen, Meredith, and a male stripper named Salvatore. Here’s what they told us:
#5. The Customers Can Be Dangerous
We’ll let one of our dancers, “Emily,” sum it up:
“I’ve had guys finger me unwelcomely, pull their dicks out or their pants off. We’re equipped to deal with it, but it gets shitty when they decide they don’t have to pay because you aren’t doing what they want you to do. I know girls who have been pinned down in champagne rooms.”
Yeah, there’s something about women who are willing to show off their bodies without shame that enrages a very specific sort of terrible person. It’s like they can’t stand the idea of the performer retaining any kind of power at all. “If I’m paying to see her body, I should get total access, regardless of what she says.” Every customer service job requires dealing with entitled dicks, but we’re guessing you’ve never had to deal with that.
It’s only a minority of customers — every dancer we talked to said that — but you interact with a lot of customers. That means that women who work at strip clubs will be assaulted at some point in their careers. And we’re saying that studies show it was 100 percent of the cases they sampled.
And in case you think they skewed the stats by, say, declaring truckers wearing “Free Mustache Rides” baseball caps to be a form of assault, let us break it down: 61 percent of strippers report experiencing someone trying to penetrate them via finger, 82 percent have been punched, and a balls-out terrifying 56 percent reported having a customer freaking follow them home at least once. Holy shit, guys, what the fuck are you doing?
And then there are the non-violent clients who hand over their tips with a healthy side dish of “crazy.” Another of the dancers we spoke to — Zoey — said one customer tipped her with a package of tube socks. Another guy, “always came in with old-school bra and panties sets, trying to give them to the girls. He just had huge bags in his car full of really ugly lingerie, like something your mom would wear.”
If your reaction to all of this is, “Yeah, men sure are terrible!” know that the female customers can be equally bad, sometimes worse. Zoey and Layne both reported women as being more likely to get “handsy.” Zoey remembers one girl who, “… was so handsy with all the dancers, and we’re trying to keep her hands off us without seeming like a bitch in front of all these customers. The second or third time she tried to grab my ass, I moved her hand away again and said ‘Seriously, you cannot do that, you have to stop,’ and she was like, ‘Oh what does it matter, you’re just a stripper.'”
Still, other than the bullshit from the occasional drunk/crazy dude, this is pretty easy money, right? It’s a few hours’ work for all the sweaty dollar bills that can fit in a G-string. Well, keep in mind …
#4. The Work Can Kill Your Body in a Whole Bunch of Ways
As Meredith put it:
“The toll of being on your feet for six to ten hours, basically doing squats and wall sits in heels — it’s going to fuck up your body. My knees crunch and pop when I kneel down now, years later. It’s high-impact exercise, and you’re doing it in fucking heels.”
And remember, stripping is the kind of job that brutally punishes having an “off day.” Most of us who aren’t heart surgeons or Special Forces operatives have the option of slouching through the odd day or two at work. Sometimes you’re in a shitty mood, or just coming down with something, and that can happen occasionally at most jobs without hurting your bottom line. Not so for strippers — they’re getting paid in sweaty, wrinkled tips, and customers won’t throw money at the dancer giving them anything less than their full attention:
Emily: “Dog die? Good luck paying your bills. Or, an example from my life, friend dying of cancer? Too bad, rent is coming up. It’s why there is a lot of drinking / drugs in the industry. Being able to act is a huge part of the job.” Speaking of which, guess what else strippers are required to do all day? Be around alcohol and drunk people, and making everyone involved feel like they’re part of the celebration. So good luck, if you’re the type who has a problem with it. “I drink every night at the club … it’s a huge part of the job,” says Emily. “If they don’t drink, some girls have a code-word at the bar. Some men want to have a woman to drink with, want to feel like they’re on a date. So saying ‘I don’t drink’ can hurt your money. So you ask for a house special and that means ‘no booze, please.'”
But that “no booze” request isn’t as common as employee livers would probably prefer. One study reported that 100 percent of women who work in nude-only clubs self-reported drinking during a shift and/or within the last three months. Half of those women reported using “other substances,” a phrase which here applies to both “smoking some pot” and “straight-up crack addiction.”
Bear in mind that they’re doing this during a job that involves upside-down 360 spins, six feet in the air, on an oiled pole.
Salvatore — our male dancer — said, “… most of the time I was working, I was usually under the influence of some sort of recreational drug … couple that with the fact that you may have some self-esteem issues, and couple that with the fact that you want to get done as fast as you can because you are disgusted with what you do sometimes.”
And that’s the thing — it doesn’t matter how positive the dancers may be about their work (and we’ll get to that in a moment), society undeniably acts like exotic dancers should flee the club every night with their faces covered in shame, while villagers pelt them with rotten vegetables. Salvatore assumed every woman there thought he was either a drug addict, someone with mental issues, or someone who made some “bad life choices” to get where he was (or as he put, thought he was “… a total scumbag”).
And yet …
#3. It’s Not a Field of Desperate, Broken People
All of the above would seem to confirm what society says about strippers (and all sex work, really): that it’s a desperate last stop for damaged people — mostly women — with no other options. But one consistent sentiment among our dancers was that it’s actually a pretty good gig, all things considered. And in general, strippers report remarkably high job satisfaction whenever someone takes the time to ask. A study in Britain found a majority of women in the industry like their job, and took home as much as $74,500 a year for their de-clothed efforts. And scientists (the best sort of scientists, we’re thinking) have conducted surveys on chatrooms where strippers gather, and found that non-monetary motivations were discussed nearly four times as often as monetary ones. Which means they did it for reasons other than “staving off starvation.
For instance, no stereotype about women who choose to remove their clothing for money is more prevalent than “you must have daddy issues.” We’ll let Meredith field that one:
“Trauma didn’t lead me to stripping; it was the lack of trauma. You have to have self-confidence to do this job. People who were abused don’t handle being sexualized very well. Usually it’s something you have that makes you good at this job. Not something you didn’t have.”
Again, of course someone in the field might be compelled to lie about that in order to make their job sound better than it is. But it does appear that sweet lady Science backs her up: one study found that 66 percent of dancers were raised by both their mother and father (only slightly less than the general population), and 91 percent reported being close with their parents. And 78 percent reported no exposure to nudity or pornography as children whatsoever. We’re going to go ahead and guess more than 22 percent of the people reading this right now at least saw some porn as kids (“Mommy! These people wrestled their clothes right off!”).
You can no doubt find plenty of stories from strippers who were in fact runaways, or dropouts, or women with low self-esteem who felt they had nothing else to offer the world. Some of you might even be surprised to talk to one who didn’t fit that profile. But that kind of raises a good point about why, in our society, we consider sex work to be so low and disgusting that doing it is automatically considered a tragedy. Especially considering that…
#2. For Many Clients, It’s a Form of Therapy
You might be thinking, “Hey, I’m an attractive person. I bet I could strip like the dickens if I was willing to do that kind of work. How hard can taking your clothes off and gyrating be?” That’s exactly what Laura thought when she started work as a dancer at her local dive bar. It didn’t go well:
“… my very first night, I made about $28. It was discouraging. I was so shocked I got the job, so excited about the fact that I’d gotten to that point, that I didn’t pay attention to the other girls … You have to learn the art of flirtation, and balancing between being direct and learning when it’s OK to beat around the bush and when you must be direct.”
In other words, a key skill is learning how to simply hang out with clients and make them feel comfortable. Despite what you hear about how men primarily are all about looks, a lot of guys go to strip clubs for more than ogling boobies — they miss (or have never known) having a woman in their life, and for whatever reason this is the only place they can get something a little like that.
Emily says, “A lot of guys would just want you to talk to them, cuddle them. A bunch of times I’d walk past girls just sitting, with some guy lying down with his head in her lap, just happily snoozing away … I danced for another guy who worked for the mob… He was a weird guy, but nice. His wife used to lie on top of him when he fell asleep. So whenever she was away, he’d come in, get a champagne room, and pay for me to lay on top of him so he could sleep — that was the only way he could.”
That’s an adorable story. But when vulnerability comes into the picture, things don’t always go so well:
Laura: “I had a cokehead give a particularly Nice Guy-esque rant when I asked for my money after a three-hour champagne room session. I would not go home with him, so I was an evil conniving bitch who took advantage of nice guys like him … It took me and the bartender about another two hours to get my $600.”
Also, this is intimate work — and we don’t mean in a physical way. When you’re a sex worker, sometimes you get to be present during pivotal moments in the erotic lives of your clients. Emily tells this story:
“I was on stage and a couple came in — conservative, middle-aged, they looked extremely uncomfortable. Clearly never been in a club like that before, tentatively looking at the stage, and when I got off, this guy came over and awkwardly said, ‘I’m sorry to bother you miss, but my wife — we’ve been married for 20 some odd years, and I just learned she likes women and she says you’re her dream girl. Would you dance with her?’
“She was so excited — he watched, she was nervous and shaking. I told her to relax. At one point she asked, ‘Can I touch your boobs?’
“‘For you? Yeah.’
“By the second song, she was getting really into it, they got excited. Then they were all over each other by the end of the dance. Hands down each other’s pants, running for the door as fast as they could. This couple had just figured out something new about themselves.”
If it seems weird that the couple was partaking together, well, there’s some evidence that strip clubs actually help the marriages of their patrons. A female anthropologist who spent six years working as a stripper for a study (hey, anthropologists do not fuck around) concluded that many men used her services because, while visiting a strip club wasn’t seen as “good” behavior by their wives, it wasn’t “bad” enough to get them in real trouble. This allowed the men to walk on the wild side without risking their marriages — it was a chance to get it out of their system without having an affair.
But look, we’re not here to paint an unreasonably rosy picture of the exotic dancing profession. No job is without its requisite amount of suck, and you can absolutely wind up getting taken advantage of. For example …
#1. They Can Get Screwed on Their Pay (Even Worse Than Most Jobs)
Did you know most strippers pay for the privilege of working? As Meredith says, “Most clubs have a house fee, like $50 or $150 or $200, depending on the place and what time you show up for your shift. So if it’s slow, and you don’t make that much, you can lose money.” Emily backed her up on that: “One night you make a lot, and the next night, you’re out $100. It depends on a lot of things — time of year, club, etc. In December and January, I had several nights in a row of losing money.”
That sounds weird, right? You don’t have to throw down $50 to get behind the grill at McDonald’s or start fixing cars at a mechanic’s shop. The reason strippers must pay to work — and the primary source of injustice in the “naked dancing” industry — is the fact that strippers are nearly all independent contractors. This means no guarantee of income, but also no coverage for injuries sustained on the job*, or healthcare.
Lots of people work as independent contractors in America, but the strippers are in a real gray area here. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, you can’t be considered an independent contractor if your employer demands a specific hourly schedule, sets a dress code, or determines the price you can charge clients. In other words, all the things strip club owners do. There is good news, though. In 2013, the class action suit of “Several Strippers” versus “Rick’s Cabaret” succeeded in suing for years and years of unpaid minimum wage. Rick’s owns some 40 clubs across the United States, so it’s possible we’re on the verge of a bright new age of “fairly paying exotic dancers for their work.”
Now raise your hand if you had an involuntary roll of the eyes just then — is it hilarious, the thought of a bunch of strippers standing before a judge and demanding some basic rights on the job? Hell, Chris Rock did a whole bit about that:
But … why is it hilarious? Again, why do so many fathers wake up in a cold sweat at the thought of their daughter doing this kind of work? “Because men treat strippers like shit! You said so earlier!” Right, but why? See, we’ve done a few articles on sex workers and porn stars (including a woman who has sex with a ventriloquist dummy on camera) and we keep coming to the same conclusion:
A) The demand for these people’s services is enormous;
B) The vast majority of us partake in some form or another (by consuming porn, if nothing else);
C) They thus fulfill a basic need in a way that the world would sorely miss if they stopped; and
D) We fucking hate them for it. Like, to the point of violence.
Why? We’re honestly asking. Someone let us know.