This article is written in response to Hustling the Hustlers by Jenny Hedley published in Verity La in November 2020.
From my late teens until the end of my twenties I worked in the sex industry.
I worked in the same strip clubs across the same years that Jenny Hedley purports to have sold gowns and lingerie along King Street.
At the time, it would never have occurred to me that the women who sold me clip-on skirts and halter neck bras would later define my experience as empowerment.
So let’s talk about the reality of stripping.
I, too, saw strippers wet themselves because of drug and alcohol addictions. I, too, had to quickly grab my clothes away to stop them from being soiled by encroaching piss, vomit or blood.
It’s true, these clubs do not knowingly hire addicts. They create addicts. Then they fire them.
Showgirls, Miss Nudes and adult models make up just a fraction of the strip club corpus. In fact, they often have a very different trajectory to the average stripper, seeking their own form of fame and opportunity in the entertainment business.
Showgirls also do not perform the majority of the labour that occurs within the strip club. They earn their money from choreographed “sets” and modelling appearances, which means they have a baseline income and a small but palpable level of autonomy.
From memory, showgirls also do not pay house fees — those exorbitant lump sums or debt bondage each “dancer” is forced to pay just to go to work.
Far more common, and in far greater number, are the ordinary women and girls who have neither Instagram followings, Penthouse Magazine spreads or ballet training.
Ordinary strippers who typically start “dancing” at a young age (between sixteen and twenty-five) and are promptly taken under the wing of the “house mother”.
In the first few weeks, the new girl is given “training”, which amounts to little more than the slow breaking down of her normal boundaries, by ensuring that she is mollycoddled and passed from regular to regular. She gets the impression that stripping is safe and easy. In the sex industry, trauma is designed to accumulate slowly.
If a stripper develops a drinking or drug problem in response to the work, she risks being fired or lambasted as a “problem”. This is despite the fact that, night after night, these clubs are saturated in people taking and offering drugs. This is despite the fact that many of these young women have not yet reached full cognitive maturity, which occurs around age twenty-five.
While it is laudable that some clubs are now offering drug and alcohol counseling, it is accurate to say that they have eschewed responsibility for decades and left many victims, to whom they extend absolutely no responsibility or care.
Victim. Why does this word offend so many women nowadays? It means sufferer, injured, casualty, the tricked or duped. A person who is passive in the face of misfortune. A living creature killed for sacrifice. Joan of Arc was a victim, as was Rosa Parks. The word is grounded in the ability to recognise injustice.
It should be noted that it is possible to be both victim and willing party when you are indoctrinated.
While only a children’s book, the novel Galax-Arena eerily describes the phenomenon I witnessed while working in strip clubs, wherein collective trauma becomes a shared identity.
In Galax Arena, children are forced to perform gymnastic stunts for aliens who feed off their adrenaline. The children create their own pidgin English and sub-culture, which sustains them. Which they defend.
The mentality I developed while being a stripper was similarly myopic. Another word for that mentality is groomed.
While customers continue to age, dancers stay the same age, thanks to the revolving door of new recruits who unknowingly replace the wasted, the used and the sacrificed.
The men who enter and leave these clubs remain wealthy and privileged by our society, no matter how much cash they part with in supposedly “transgressive acts”.
In contrast, the women who work these clubs rarely achieve the financial freedom they crave. I will not make a rule out of exceptions.
Yes, Jenny Hedley, there are pimps “waiting in the wings” of strip clubs, they just appear innocuous. They wear smiles. But even those dancers who manage to sidestep all perpetrators will still struggle against state sanctioned abuse.
After one year an individual dancer will have to pay tax on her “estimated” earnings every financial quarter, and these estimates are exaggerated and enforced. She may also have to pay GST on her product — her physical self. She passes from human being to commodity.
Therein a dancer has to work harder than ever just to cover her quarterly tax bill, stipulated in advance before she has even touched the floor.
The same situation is true in brothels and independent sex work. As tax obligations increase, choice diminishes.
As reliance on an inflated income develops, pressure rises.
Those who don’t declare their earnings not only risk investigation by the tax office but have no legitimate way to save toward the future. They leave the industry in the same socioeconomic bracket as they arrived, except a few shoes and handbags richer, burdened with PTSD at rates higher than war veterans.
It should also be noted that it is virtually impossible to declare all your earnings as a stripper. Wallets get stolen. “Fines” are deducted. Yet many clubs (particularly in NSW) keep financial records on each and every dancer present.
In hindsight, I realise this was probably a lie they told, but it was an entrenched lie; one used to keep women in line with the threat of exposure.
But if that wasn’t enough, there was always the threat of violence; admin assistants could pull a dancer into a “private show” with a known abuser.
The idea that strippers are kept safe by protective bouncers is misguided. It is a notion that fails to see the full structural workings of the strip club. It is a notion that men will keep you safe from men.
While the presence of security may deter some misbehaviour, when these clubs are full there is never enough security to cover every dancer and every customer. Customers know this. Assault and rape can and does happen. That some men can be thrown out does not mitigate the (often delayed) effects these attacks have on young women’s psyches. In fact, by insisting that security handle it, these clubs sidestep any real justice and obfuscate the statistics around violence in the sex industry.
Superficially, it may look like strippers are having the last laugh, milking men’s wallets dry through flashes of skin and subterfuge, but this is an illusion.
Rape and sexual contact is often brushed aside because, unknown to dancers, many of these clubs have brothel licenses.
Clubs and brothels are venues that prioritise men. Men are given the power to say no, to judge women on scales of 1 to 10, to choose who they give their money to, who they do not, and even taunt impoverished women by dangling money in their faces. They have the power to slap asses, assault and rape without legal consequences all in the name of a “fun night out”.
Empowerment and liberation are not words that characterise my experience of being a stripper. They are words that define my customers’ experiences.
From the strip club I was lured into prostitution and trafficked (something activists insist is distinct from “real sex work”).
As a now older woman, I question the happy narrative being presented so often and so forcefully about the sex industry. Similarly, I question the pursuit of decriminalising what can only be described as one of the biggest human rights abuses on earth.
Sex work activists tend to speak over the real voices of sex industry survivors, but if all sex trade survivors were able to speak, in their true and huge numbers, then I believe the conversation would change.
If sex work is really work then exotic dancers should wear boots instead of stilettos, hi-vis instead of lingerie and have safety mats around the poles, if there are poles at all.
If sex work is really work, then its “veterans” should be entitled to federal compensation for PTSD.
If sex work is really work then sex buyers can sue for “unsatisfactory sex”.
If sex work is really work then within the context of a “booking”, physical, verbal and emotional abuse exists on a spectrum of acceptable services, and consumers who trick or coerce women into providing sexual services against their wishes are no longer rapists but frauds.
In a country where we do not even tolerate smoking on train platforms, it is incredible to me that we are insistently blind toward the safety and welfare of women and girls.
Thankfully, survivors do speak: they speak as part of organisations like the Coalition Against Trafficking Women, SPACE International and Nordic Model Now! that many “liberal” and “progressive” voices brand as ignorant.
But who is really ignorant?
It is laughable to me that criticism of the sex industry will now get me branded as a SWERF, alt right, or worse.
The buck of stigma may change its direction but not its target.