That Awkward Conversation About My Stripping
In 15 years of working as an exotic dancer, I’ve had to navigate the world outside the club in a thoughtful way. One question always came up. I learned to dodge it, and when I couldn’t, to spin artful answers to cover up the awkwardness it might provoke. Unfortunately, it’s one of the most common questions in American culture: So, what do you do? I became grateful for its longer versions, which gave me a second or two more to prep an answer: “What do you for a living?” or “What do you do for work?”
I understand why people ask. It’s a way to connect, an attempt for a stranger to figure out who you are: Are you more numbers and logic, or artistic and creative? Would you sacrifice passion for pay, or pay for passion? Do you work with your mind or your heart, or both? But I came to find the question invasive. It distanced me from people, rather than making me closer. Let’s say you meet a guy at a bar. Let’s say you’re catching up with a friend in a crowded elevator. Let’s say you’re at a wedding, and talking to someone’s grandparents. What do you say? I learned to tell versions of the truth. “I’m in customer service,” I sometimes said, with a secret wink. Then I would dash off to the dance floor or ask where to find a restroom. I was a master at diverting attention.
But that was tiring, too. I began avoiding social interactions on my nights off, especially if I was too exhausted to keep bouncing the conversation ball out of my court. I became an expert in the moment when the question arrived. If someone didn’t ask the question upon our first meeting and I knew I was destined to see them again, anxiety would tick until the bomb was dropped. I would sit in the dentist’s chair or purchase coffee from a nosy neighborhood barista who saw me sluggish every evening, and think to myself, “Here it comes, it always comes,” and boom it always did. That question haunted me, even though I was so proud of the answer.
At the beginning of my career, I found it liberating to tell anyone who would listen. I had discovered that visual stimulation paired with physical touch can have amazing healing effects on the human psyche, and I was happy to have a job that contained so many skills under one umbrella: I was counselor and consoler. Teacher of body and sexuality. Master of negotiation and sales. I dealt with conflict resolution. I was a team player and an independent contractor; an actress/dancer/entertainer. An athlete. I provided the escape, the safe place to land, the ease of transition. Of course, on my résumé, it just said “stripper.”
But I learned that most people didn’t understand the depths of such a shallow word. It was hard for them to wrap their minds around what exotic dancers really had to offer. How could they? Strippers are punch lines and cautionary tales in the media. We’re considered low lives, women who are taboo. People actually apologized when they called me a stripper, asking if I preferred the term “exotic dancer.” To me, it’s like police versus cops. One term sounds more formal, but it’s the same job. Either way, my line of work is frowned upon. We’re perceived as being weak-minded or so desperate that we’re reduced to selling our bodies. However, in my own experiences, I found the opposite to be true. My flesh baring co-workers turned out to be strong, intelligent and secure. Not to mention the most caring breed of women I’ve ever come across.