‘You’re not still working at that club? You know the one...’ my friend said, a concerned look on her face.
Of course I knew the one. I'd only worked there for a month, the infamous strip club dubbed ‘where strippers go to die’, not just among the stripping community, but somehow the general public as well.
‘Nah, I quit. Missed my old club too much,’ I said.
‘Good,’ she replied. ‘I told a girl at a party that you worked there and she scrunched up her face and said it was where only the dodgy strippers dance.’
Was I taken aback? Of fucking course I was.
The rise in ‘stripper culture’ has become pretty damn evident over the past few years. While I’d seen the world shifting slightly for a while, I knew for sure things had changed when I started hearing Cardi B everywhere. Only months beforehand, she had been an artist none of my friends had heard of, and I’d listen to her alone as I got ready for work.
It seems, though, that only certain attributions of the stripping industry have become fashionable, and only those existing within socially acceptable confines.
Not too long ago, Dolls Kill was posting pictures on their Instagram of models wearing stripper heels. A considerable amount of strippers displayed outrage over the use of an aspect of our work as a fashion statement without actually supporting us (especially when they didn’t comment on the SESTA-FOSTA bill that was being passed in the states, which now compromises our rights online). When I called the site out, Dolls Kill deleted my comments, as well as those of other strippers. They also told us to ‘calm down’ on an Instagram story. Obviously, stripper heels were the height of cool but strippers were not allowed to voice their concerns and be treated as people with feelings and rights.
It has definitely sent a message to society. A lot seem to underestimate and disregard how hard we work, and makes stripping seem perceivably attractive, while our lives boast a lot less luxuries than outsiders may assume. Walking around a club drinking champagne in shiny eight inch heels and a sequin bodysuit might sound glamorous to some, but what about being mentally and emotionally drained from talking to men all night? What about bruises, blisters and sore limbs? A body clock that doesn’t align with the norms facilitated by the rest of society? Being more susceptible to attacks due to dehumanisation? Potentially jeopardising relationships with your loved ones? Being at risk of having someone deny you a job or a lease because you are/used to be a stripper?
The deceptive allure of the stripping industry has now caused strip clubs to become viewed more as a novelty than a workplace, often becoming filled with more dancers than customers. It’s thrown the balance of supply and demand completely in the bin, making it harder for pre-existing dancers to make money. A lot of customers also take advantage of the increased amount of newcomers and attempt to barter with or bribe girls, knowing there is more pressure and more competition than before.
A number of girls suddenly entering the industry seem to miscalculate the required skill and effort due to this misunderstood level of glamour. There’s a sudden ideal that you can just slide on some Pleasers, dress up in a three-piece set and make a stack of money, but it’s not that simple. Don't get me wrong; everyone has the right to become a stripper if they wish, but newcomers should be mindful of their impact on the industry. Stripping ‘because it’s cool’ rather than for money is an act of privilege. Those who enter the industry to simply follow current trends jeopardise the earnings of women who have relied on stripping as their sole source of income due to disadvantages such as class, violence and illness (I must clarify, though, these dancers are still in the industry by their own choice and still have the autonomy to leave at any time if they wish—if one needs to criticise these decisions, they should instead criticise the way society has been structured in order for these decisions to be made). As a woman who has suffered from mental illnesses for a large portion of her life, stripping is the only job which has allowed the kind of flexibility to deal with the symptoms accompanying these illnesses. If my post-traumatic stress disorder worsens, I can easily take a week off. I can’t say the same for many other methods of employment.
The night I walked down the stairs to my first strip club interview, I was twenty and had almost no money to my name. I had to pay rent and buy food with no job, and due to a complicated family situation, it was difficult to be approved for any form of Centrelink. Stripping saved my ass, and it concerns me that a girl in the same situation entering the industry at this point in time will not have the ability to change her life as drastically.
Of course, despite the rise in popularity of stripping as a method of employment, it’s only considered acceptable if dancers work at certain clubs. I’ve spent most of my stripping career working in clubs which fit the label of ‘strip club’ rather than ‘gentleman’s club’. Although both types of clubs boast the same services, those which label themselves gentleman’s clubs are generally classier, and attract a more formal crowd. I have always found it interesting how these clubs are defined as gentleman’s clubs rather than strip clubs, as though they are somehow trying to deny what their services and separate themselves from the rest of the industry. The name also seems to imply that one can only be a gentleman if they have money, rather than maintaining the personal qualities that technically define a gentleman. Besides, the term gentleman’s club always reminds me far too much of the concept of the men’s club in The Stepford Wives. I think that says enough.
A few years ago, I briefly worked in London and tried out for some gentleman’s clubs. I got turned away from all three. One told me it was because of my red hair, another told me it was because I needed to lose weight (I’m still annoyed about this now, I was a size 6/8 at the time, and I haven’t been that small since), and another club just said no without giving a reason.
I didn’t come from a wealthy family. I wore $10 Big W shoes to my public school and I was the last of my friends to get a mobile phone. It was almost as though some club owners could smell it on me, and no amount of the Vera Wang Princess my prosperous uncle once bought me could cover it up.
After London, I ended up working at a few ‘lower class’ clubs in the UK. These included a club in Manchester with a dressing room floor that was about to cave in and a club in Brighton that made girls hand out promo cards in their own time and clean the change room after their shift, instead of paying for those services. Despite this, after my stint in London I’ve avoided gentleman’s clubs at all costs. I don’t even know why I decided to try out for them in the first place.
I don't doubt my own hustle. I did and still do look after my presentation and make sure to always appear approachable to customers. But somehow it wasn’t enough to earn the alternate label of working at a ‘gentleman’s club’ rather than ‘strip club’. I didn’t have the money to dodge that particular stigma, or avoid the divide between other dancers and me due to the clubs I had worked at. I was to remain exactly where I fit in the whorearchy.
Having said that though, I am writing this as a white woman. My experiences with stripping vary immeasurably from what they would be if I were not white, so I am coming from a place of privilege myself.
I've realised that I love working at places which are unashamed of what they are. They don't try to dress it up with fancy chandeliers and a bar full of rare whiskeys. While strip clubs are never as seedy as they are implied to be, I appreciate how ‘dodgy’ clubs come across as though they don’t need to justify anything to the wider community, how they aren’t embarrassed by what they do.
We’re all doing the same work. At the end of the day, whether a stripper is wearing Agent Provocateur or something out of a box from an adult store, they’re being paid to take it off. The only difference is the clientele. Any dancer who thinks otherwise should consider whether they should be in the industry at all.
Carly Smith is a writer and stripper based in Brisbane. While she is located in Queensland,
she has worked at strip clubs in all different kinds of places. She’s been interested in
dismantling the stigma surrounding sex work ever since she entered the adult entertainment
industry. She’s also incredibly tired of being referred to as ‘the only stripper who will read
books in the change room’.