“I’d never date a stripper. They have no self-respect.”
Raise your hand if you’ve heard that one before.
When you are a sex worker, sometimes to be loved feels more like a privilege than a right. Many of us, myself included, grew up internalizing society’s negative messages about sex workers–that we are dirty, disgusting, shameful, untrustworthy, unfaithful to our partners, incapable of love, and, therefore, unworthy of loving, respectful relationships.
The social stigma against sex workers is deadly. Across the globe, many sex workers–mostly femme, trans, and queer sex workers–are murdered daily by their own relatives, partners, or clients.
I’ve been a stripper for seven years. I have multiple intersecting privileges, including the support of my friends and most of my family, as well as access to mental healthcare, which have all converged and allowed me to be public about my stripper status since my first shift at the club in 2014. But even I, with vast amounts of privilege compared to many of my colleagues, understand that, although my own loved ones support me, I expose myself to danger by publicly admitting what I do for work.
Still, to have full reign over who enters my own private life is a freedom that many other sex workers never taste. For me, it’s simple: if you want to be in my life (or in my bed), you will respect me, and I mean all of me.
“Whorephobia can be defined as the fear or the hate of sex workers…It also embraces paternalistic attitudes that deem us a public nuisance, spreaders of disease, offenders against decency[,] or unskilled victims…who need to be rescued.
In its most violent form, whorephobia kills.”
Thierry Schaffauser for The Guardian, 2010
Because of whorephobia, many sex workers don’t have the social or cultural freedom to be open about their job. They lie about it to the people they date, because the alternative would be a life of isolation, or even death.
There are a lot of sex workers out here who could easily date people who respect them, but they have so deeply internalized whorephobia that they date people who openly or covertly stigmatize sex workers.
Internalized whorephobia doesn’t just disappear when you become a sex worker. You have to consciously wring it out of your system. I’m really lucky; at the time I began stripping, not only had I already been a life-long marcher to my own drum, but I happened to be in an emotionally safe relationship with someone who supported my choice to start dancing. What may well have been disastrous for my stripping career (and my self-esteem) is if I’d been dating a jealous, whorephobic asshole.
“He asked me for a lap dance. When I said no, he said he thought it ‘comes with the territory’ of dating a stripper.”
In addition to stripping, I’m also a life coach for queers, creatives, and sex workers. Simone is one of my current clients who is considering stripping/sex work, and navigating how to bring this information into their dating world. On a recent call, they told the group, “I’m dating this dude. He says he’s fine with it if I become a stripper, but his actions show me otherwise. Also, he asked me for a lap dance. When I said no, he said he thought it ‘comes with the territory.’”
Actually, what “comes with the territory” of being a stripper is that our romantic partners often think we owe them free lap dances.
In my seven years dancing, I’ve had three relationships–the first, in my mid-20s, was with the aforementioned partner who treated me well and supported me emotionally as I stepped into the world of stripping. The next partner, in my late 20s, was an abusive, controlling nightmare. At 32, my current partnership is the healthiest I’ve ever known, and is medicine for my queer femme rebel stripper soul.
At some point, all three partners have asked me for a lap dance.
To all three partners, I said no.
Let me tell you why.
“I’m not sexually aroused, I’m fiscally aroused.”
Ilana Wexler, Broad City
Lap dances are something I do for customers for $20 a pop, and hopefully a tip. They make me rich; not horny. They are part of my job, and I don’t mind them–in fact, I’m really grateful that in 3 minutes and 30 seconds (the length of a standard strip club song), I make more than I used to make in 2 hours at most of my jobs before. But, to me, lap dances are a service I provide for my paying customers, not something I perform on request for my romantic partners. It’s totally cool if you–stripper or not–dance for your romantic partners. It’s just never been my thing.
During my abusive relationship, I turned down my partner’s lap dance requests for an additional reason, though: if I gave them an awesome lap dance (which I am known to give), I knew they would become jealous of my customers. Their jealousy was a dangerous, volatile thing, which I knew would lead to them trying to pressure me out of my job, or pressure me out of my self-esteem. I wasn’t ready to fully admit to myself that I was in an abusive relationship, but, deep down, I knew the truth. Because of that, I knew I couldn’t let them fuck with my money. If they fucked with my money, it would be more difficult to escape.
And you wanna know what? I was absolutely right. Eventually, there did come a moment where a major, dramatic, life-saving escape was necessary. If I’d been broke, it would have been much more difficult to get away–let alone take care of my mental health in the aftermath.
More simply put: stripping saved my life and got me out of an abusive relationship.
Walk with me, if you will, back to a moment in time.
(Content warning: the following contains graphic descriptions of partner violence)
It’s 3:30am on April 6, 2018. My shift has just ended. I stuff my g-strings, plastic stilettos, and a couple thousand bucks into my duffle bag. Exhausted but cash-happy, I tumble out of the club and into my car, where my (abusive) partner is waiting to drive me home.
They start a fight.
They scream at me the whole way home and into our house. We’ve been together over a year and my life has become an unpredictable hell; I am constantly being berated, physically harmed, and screamed at.
They continue to dog me as we enter our home. To escape, and because I am filthy with strip club grime, I close myself into the bathroom for a shower. As I undress, they continue to scream at me through the door. This time, in the disorienting haze of being attacked during the wee hours of the morning after a full shift at work, I have the clarity of mind to press record on my phone’s audio feature. What I capture will be the only keepsake that remains from that relationship. What I capture I keep with me to remind me of where I will never return.
Here is what is on that recording:
BANG! The bathroom door slams open as my partner forces their way in.
Shocked, I try to cover my naked body with a towel.
My partner, fuming, yanks at my towel, trying to reveal my flesh.
They demand, “Oh, what, so everyone at work can see you naked, but not me?!”
The next 45 minutes is a deplorable mess of me sobbing on the dry tub floor, wearing nothing but the towel, begging my partner to please just let me shower and go to sleep, while they stand over me, scream at me, and slap me in the head.
If you think you or someone you love might be in an abusive relationship, or you are coping with the aftermath of having been in one, I invite you to check out my recent podcast episode, which outlines the stages of abuse and explains why it is so difficult to disrupt the process once it’s begun. You can also visit TheHotline.org, and, to learn more about/get help recovering from queer partner abuse in particular, visit TNLR.org.
It is relevant to share that that partner, at the time, identified as a masculine-of-center lesbian. Though they were an abusive freeloader who was happy to roll around in my stripper cash rent-free, the one thing they’d never done before was disrespect how I earn a living. It’s true that they were often quite misogynistic (regularly accusing me of cheating on them with my cis male and masculine-of-center friends, calling me a “stupid bitch” during arguments, hitting me, choking me, etc.), but they’d never before dared come for my job. I understand now that that’s because my job paid their rent, but at the time, I was still operating under the illusion that, because they could identify on some level with the femme struggle, they understood that even though I get naked for a living, it’s just a job.
I was wrong about that; they had no empathy for my femme struggle, and they were willing to use my stripper status against me. But here’s the more important piece of information: they couldn’t use it against me, because I am not ashamed to be a stripper.
There’s a reason they waited a full year into our relationship to try that tactic. They don’t actually think stripping is shameful; they’re just a misogynist who believes whomever they date is their property. They wanted to control me by any means necessary (if you would like to learn more about queer misogyny/abuse, here is a link to a previous article I wrote for Boston Hassle on the subject). My abuser often used different tactics to try and shame me into submission; this time they tried attacking the “respectability” of my job to see if it would work.
After that fight, I sent them a copy of the recording I’d made, and made it clear that they were wrong and I’m not budging. I’m a stripper–deal with it, or don’t, but that’s not something I’d change for anyone. So, for the rest of our relationship, they continued to rely on the other manipulation tactics they knew would work, and mostly left the stripper stuff alone. Later that year, they tried twice more to shame me for my job, but it was the pathetic last-ditch flailing of a narcissist who realizes they’ve lost power and control.
But why am I telling you all of this, my dear reader?
Because most dating scenes, queer or hetero, still default to whorephobia. Far too many sex workers, including beloved friends and coworkers of mine, get sold short in their romantic lives. Too many strippers and sex workers get into relationships with people who, through word or action, reveal their prejudices against us. Too many of my own friends and colleagues have either left their jobs because their partner doesn’t want them doing sex work, or they come to work anxious and on eggshells, because their partner shames them for it when they get home.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here are stories from just a few sex workers who wrote to me when they found out I was writing this piece:
“It’s so patently obvious that my partner thinks his job is better and more valid than mine. He feels entitled to talk to me about his ‘work drama’ of, like, not sending the right emails to the right person, whereas I can’t share my ‘work drama’’ of literally not being able to earn money while I visit my family because I have to protect them from the knowledge that I’m a dominatrix.”
“Before my former partner found out [I was a stripper], we were on a date and watching a movie scene with a stripper. He turned to me and said, ‘that’s a rough lifestyle, isn’t it?’ And I was all, ‘I need to tell you something.’ After we cleared the air, he kept referring to it in terms of something that I was going to stop doing eventually.
“When I first met my now-fiancé, he was supportive of me dancing, and was throughout our entire relationship. Now that we have a child together, he isn’t anymore. He says he doesn’t want his son to grow up getting bullied. He’s also started making comments every now and then, hinting that he doesn’t approve of sex work overall. It’s honestly shocking how someone who started out seemingly supportive can change so dramatically.”
And, finally, here’s a story from another of my coaching clients. Hers is an all-too-common tale, which I’ve seen play out with many of my friends and colleagues: the strip club customer becomes romantically involved with the stripper, and suddenly, hypocritically, wants the stripper to stop stripping!
“I met my ex one night while I was dancing at my club; he was a customer. Eventually, we became a couple. He was fine with my dancing at first, but soon there were problems and points of contention.
He became nasty and distant on nights I would work. He started to get mad at me for things like applying coconut oil to my body before I went to work; he was angry I was doing that ‘for random guys’ and not for him. He would demand pictures of me constantly, and would pressure me into wearing my work outfits for him.
Anything related to or reminiscent of the bar would make him angry. He would talk down to me about my choice to ‘shake my ass and tits for money,’ and even called me a ‘dumb bitch.’ Eventually, he (a former customer, remember!) told me to choose between him and dancing at the bar.”
So…can sex workers ever have a healthy dating life?
Because whorephobia is such a pervasive phenomenon across cultures, generations, and social identities, most people have never knowingly dated (or even been friends with) a sex worker. It’s pretty normal for “civilians” (as I call non-sex workers) to have a lot of questions when they do start dating one of us. That’s okay! As long as the civilian is willing to do their own research, confront their own whorephobia, and take responsibility for their own insecurities, there’s no reason why your sex worker status should affect your relationship. The civilian has a responsibility to make one of two choices. Either they work on themself until they are comfortable and confident staying in the relationship, or they acknowledge that their own insecurities, wounds, and triggers would make it unsafe for them to stay. Either they take responsibility for themself and stay, or they take responsibility for themself and bow out. What is NEVER okay is for someone to blame your sex worker status–past, present, or future–as the reason why they can’t date you.
Before I depart, dear reader, here’s a tip for you:
Whether or not you are a sex worker, screen your partners and potential partners for whorephobia. Find out, as early as you can, how they feel about sex work. If they reveal anti-sex worker biases, that is a solid indicator that they also have anti-femme biases. If you yourself are femme-presenting, or they perceive you as “feminine”, that spells trouble for you. Find out if they’re willing to take responsibility for their biases and heal whatever insecurities are causing them to feel this way. If they’re not, cut the cord and move along!
Oh, wait, one last thing before I go (I’m the queen of “one last thing,” lol). I’ll be here every month for another edition of Penelope Says. If you want advice on anything related to sex work, relationships, or how to thrive as your best anti-capitalist self, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll answer your questions in next month’s column!
P.S. To my editor, Katie Bircher: thank you for your invaluable help with this piece in particular and my writing in general. You out-Virgo my Virgo, which is an incredible feet (see what I did there haha).
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