Thursday, February 26, 2009

A dancer's right to shoes

My first pair of dancing shoes weren't really dancing shoes. Huh? What? Erm, how could that be??? ... Well, it so happens that the closest thing I've come to wearing a heel was having a large wad of gum stuck under my shoe. So, the idea of putting on a pair of stilettos was particularly frightening to me, almost frightening enough to keep me from dancing altogether! Seriously, the idea of baring my chest in a room full of people was less daunting than the idea of walking (forget the gracefully part) in a pair of heels.

When I was toying with the idea of dancing, I called a club I was interested in to ask what their audition requirements were. The guy said, "Bring an outfit and six inch heels." I dropped the fantasy of becoming a dancer for a few weeks.

But alas, I found these chunky heels in a Union Square shoe joint that were really high but looked really sturdy. There were straps on the shoes and all. They were like the SUV's of high heels. So I bought em and used them for my audition, and danced in them for almost a month!! But then the other girls were like 'Honey you really should get stilettos.' Some of the girls were even nicer, like "Do you want to borrow my shoes until you can afford a pair of your own?" And some of the girls were really nasty, like "You should get stilettos, it'll distract from all your flab." Either way, it was clear I needed real dancing shoes!!!

So I went to this place that sells stripper stuff and looked at their least intimidating shoes. In my mind: Still. Really. Intimidating. But I settled on this clear pair that had little rhinestones across the top. (Note to self: these little rhinestones may get caught in fishnets, leading to three things: 1) Torn fishnets. 2) Broken shoes. 3) Potentially embarrasing fall on stage mid-set. -- Only 1 and 2 actually happened, but 3 was a close call.) Anyway, I walked around in them at home for a while but they still scared the crap out of me. I got used to them, though, and I make a habit of taking my shoes off during lapdances so it's not like I am wearing them the whole shift. I also run around the club with the shoes in my hands when I'm feeling casual (aka my feet are killing me!) and want to come across as the quirky fun-loving gal you just want to throw money at. (Guys are always surprised by how short I am without them!)

But like 7 months later, those shoes started to fall apart. And for some reason, all the stripper shops in town had limited stock of shoes, so I couldn't be picky and choose the friendliest pair. Well, I got this black pair that had monster high heels and a HUGE platform. They are like stilts! And they have these little silver heart detailing, just what horny bankers like to see before they shell out the big bucks, right? I realized that my shoe phobia had just been dormant for a while, but was still definitely there. That pair was the best I could do, though, and I really wore out my clear pair until I had no choice but to go to the new pair.

Well, good news, once you go black... Okay, forget it. What I mean to say is that these stilt shoes are way more comfortable than the clear and superficially friendly ones! Maybe it's the extra padding from the platform, or maybe the height of the platform translates to a "net" heel height that's actually lower (any stilettomaticians out there?), but whatever it is, knock wood, these shoes are nice! At some point, I'll upload the pic I took of them with my camera phone.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Tricky situations...

Tricks happen. Sometimes they happen intentionally (a condom left precariously in the VIP room might be evidence of that) and sometimes they happen accidentally, believe it or not (you'd be surprised how far a little fully clothed friction can go!). I'm not sure what constitutes a trick, exactly... Fondling? Fingering? Handjobs? Handjobs through pants? Customer masturbation during a low-contact lap dance? High contact lap dances? Kissing a customer? The definition in the eye of a dancer, customer, and most importantly, a law enforcement officer, is constructed, shifting, and unclear! That said, there are some things that clearly *are* tricks and not stripping (sex and blow jobs, for instance). And some things that clearly are stripping (no-contact lap dances, for instance -- provided the guy isn't pleasuring himself). I've been really interested in watching dancers negotiate who's turning tricks and who's not.

I've seen fights break out in the dressing room between girls where the lowest insult was "at least I'm not giving $30 blow-jobs in the champagne room, bitch!", or "how many broke as n*'s did you f* today in the back?" Clearly, whether or not one is engaging in sex work is something associated with shame. I often wonder how successful an organizer would be in my club if (s)he were trying to recruit dancers/sex workers who work there for a rally, or a conference, or any type of organizing around sex worker rights. These girls who *are* having sex for $350 in the back hardly identify as sex workers, and in fact use the term as an insult, are highly unlikely to be game for any type of organizing! Yikes, but I don't want to go hollering "false consciousness" either...

As a girl who's not doing the BJ's, HJ's, or home runs, (and apparently, easily pegged as a girl who's not) I hear a lot from my sisters-in-arms. Here are some snippets...

"That guy took me to the champagne room last week and just wanted to suck and kiss my neck the whole time. It left a hickey and my boyfriend was so pissed! He called me a whore, and said I'm probably doing all kinds of stuff at work. And I'm not! I mean, you know, a guy who kisses on your neck is harmless, a dream come true in here. But Sam was so pissed! And I started thinking, god, I'm just like those girls who work here who are whores. I mean, they give away sex, but I'm not different than them. I just give away a different kind of intimacy. I just felt so depressed after that whole thing, I couldn't bring myself into work on Tuesday."

"There whores need to stop doing this stuff here! I found a condom in the VIP yesterday... I mean, if the cops come and raid the place we're *all* going to get arrested, not just these girls. They should just take their customers outside instead of doing it here."

Of course, I believe that women who want to sell sex should be able to, and I cringe at the use of the term whore, ho, and trick. But then, I wonder about the spaces women are putting themselves into and the risks it exposes them to. Shayla, a dancer, said the cops busted a club she was working in once and almost arrested her. She said she explained that she has a kid and has to be home and isn't among the girls who turn tricks, and the cops were "nice enough" to release her.

So, how do I resolve this tension? Women who are fortunate enough or simply not willing to or interested in turning tricks are exposed to punitive action because other girls in their clubs are. Yet, those women who are selling sex shouldn't be criminalized to begin with! What's the solution?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Getting started...

Before deciding to go into dancing, I had been to a strip club once, as an undergrad, years ago. My roommate and I thought it would be fun/funny to see what the big deal was. (Or, as neither of us was willing to admit to ourselves or each other, we were probably a bit curious about women...We were in a heteronormative space where admitting that seeing women undress piqued some curiosity would have sentenced us to some type of ostracism by our pious girlfriends.) The commercial, un-intimate, and artificial setting in the club was somewhat comical, and guys kept on hitting on us and trying to buy us cigarettes. We had good laughs about it afterward, but neither of us ever returned.

But I'm always asked by friends and customers at the club why I decided to start stripping. (FYI, some people think "dancing" is the politically correct term, and stripping is derogatory. I feel that, but I'm trying to 'take it back'! Here, I use the terms interchangeably. Plus, I don't do a whole lot of squats, butt-cheek movements, and flirty gestures is more like it. Poles scare me.) Anyway, it's hard for me to pinpoint why or how I started... I have a good friend who was an escort for a while, and she totally revolutionized and forced me to rethink the way I view any type of sex work. It seems the mainstream is divided into two schools of thought: 1) That all forms of the sex trade are evil and dangerous and should be eliminated, or 2) That the women in these industries have no other choice and are often exploited, victimized, or don't know any better. Of course, each of these viewpoints is simplistic, problematic, and don't fully represent the range of experiences of women throughout the sex industry. I thought about it more and began to feel very disappointed with most representations of dancers, sex workers, escorts, and trafficked women. More importantly, I noticed that those categories (and the fractures within them) were hardly distinguishable for most people.

I realized that according to popular representations, there was something inevitably oppressive, objectifying, exploitative, and unsafe about women selling their bodies for sex. Yet, these same popular representations overlooked the ways women are often necessarily oppressed, objectified, exploited, and endangered by factory jobs or domestic work, and the manifold ways women sell sex without it being labeled as such. Furthermore, I began to notice that sex work as a type of labor was invalidated by these representations. Sex work, by occupying a place in the social imaginary of an immoral AND exploitative industry, became an easy target, while other types of labor were precluded from being critiqued on the same level. I wonder why people ask me about resolving any ethical dilemmas I may have about being a dancer, but my corporate attorney brother is never asked the same questions, nor is my cousin who's a p.r. rep of a pharma company. What is it about "sexual" ethics that comes to occupy a particular place, and how is this process linked to other socioeconomic processes?

I also learned very rapidly that the law is hardly on the side of women in the sex industry, while men who pay for various types of sex are often untouched by these draconian laws. The way that sex work is defined and policed unfortunately perpetuates much structural racism, sexism and classism (I use those categories intersectionally and not separately/additively). The more thought I gave to the place the sex industry occupies in the global economy, the more I realized that it was a critical site of many of the biggest socioeconomic injustices. We can understand a lot about how power works - imperial power, race power, gender and heteronormative power - by understanding the positioning of the industry. Along with blogging about mundane anecdotal stuff about my day-to-day experiences here, I hope to get at some of those issues too. (Don't worry, you'll also get to hear about the 60 year old lawyer who can come in his pants just from hearing you say the word "pussy" during a lapdance!)

Of course, I wasn't the first to think about these injustices. I was shocked to find a huge corpus of white, highly educated, tenured women professors who had made a living off of writing about sex work and stripping, many of them in a very sex-positive way, a way that encouraged the decriminalization of sex work. Yet, their involvement with any type of the sex industry was often as privileged voyeur. Some of them gave lapdances at high-end clubs for a while, but many resorted to standard sociological methodologies like interviewing escorts, hanging out at strip clubs, and conducting focus groups among johns. Also, they often glamorized the idea of 'choosing' to be in sex work as some necessary component of the work these women do, overlooking the range of privileges and disadvantages faced by women who sell sex. The elitism around scholarship and activism in the sex industry was, again, another site of some of the gravest inequalities. Of course, I was pleased to find some scholarship about the agency of women of color in the sex trade, such as work written by Kemala Kempadoo. Her work, for example, gives nuance to the complexities of the experiences and realities of being a sex worker.

I've never kept a regular blog before, and I understand that it might seem a bit presumptuous to assume I have anything of import to tell whoever stumbles upon it. Yet, at the same time, I think writing and processing work in a somewhat interactive setting might be useful in a number of ways. I hope to report on everything from racial dynamics at the club, the recession, the niche that stripping occupies in a neoliberal economy, religion, the constructed division between sex work and dancing, the law, citations and articles about stripping, cute guys who come to the club, creepy guys who come to the club, cattiness between dancers, sisterhood between dancers, stilettos, hair, and a whole lot more!