Sex & Relationships

Is Stripping a Feminist Act?

If a woman chooses to objectify herself -- shedding her clothes to obtain power through money -- is she helping to eliminate gender inequality or simply degrading herself? A former adult entertainer shares her story.
A popular narrative about sex work, earnestly discussed in Women's Studies courses throughout the nation and represented in countless "I stripped my way through college!" memoirs, is that adult labor is automatically, and by definition, feminist.

The argument goes like this: By using sexual stereotypes professionally, by "owning" them (using them consciously), and by "subverting" them (choosing which stereotypes to exaggerate and which to discard), a sex-working woman is participating in a feminist reclamation of both personal and economic power. Her deliberate use of gender-drag turns wearing a g-string and gyrating on stage -- or behind glass -- from an act done merely to pay her rent into a strong, assured and transgressive statement more akin to political performance art. You can't objectify me -- I am objectifying myself, shrewdly and self-consciously, in order to obtain power through money, and control through being considered sexually desirable.

It's almost as if sex work is the most feminist thing a women can do -- because if women are objectified every minute of every day against our will and without any personal benefit, why not grab the reins on that process and make a decent living wage at it? If women's bodies belong to everyone, some feminists argue, why not be the ones to profit from our own bodies instead of being consumed for free?

If we're going to be forced to sell regardless, we may as well name our own prices and take comfort in pocketing our own net gain. It beats working a minimum-wage job forty hours a week while performing a second, unpaid, full-time job as visual erotic entertainment for society at large, simply by existing as a female in the world. Why not demand payment for that second shift?

And, as it turns out, that second shift pays far more than minimum wage -- and all you have to do to claim your paycheck is to agree to perform a ritualized acknowledgment of your status as entertainment by revealing your body or performing sexually. Goodbye polyester smock and plastic nametag -- hello tuition payments!

This was my view of sex work when I started stripping in the mid-90s. I'll admit it: I was a Nouveau Feministe. I thought sex work was exciting, real, raw, and powerful. I enjoyed shopping for fishnet stockings, ornate wigs, false eyelashes, and the other assorted accoutrements of my new profession. Why not? I figured. It wasn't like I felt less sexually objectified working as a waitress. I was young and angry. I wanted reparation for all the times I'd been stared at, yelled at, touched without consent.

Also, I wanted to control the desire I'd been denied as a fat and homely child. I wanted to be the Hot Girl for once in my life! I wanted to feel that power, even if it was a joke that only me and my coworkers were in on, made up of fake hair and makeup and seven-inch platform heels. I loved the idea that by giving men what they wanted in a way that was so completely stylized -- a portrayal of sexual pleasure and abandon so overstated it became insultingly ridiculous, or so I thought -- I was taking my customers' money and using it to fund my life as a feminist. I bought groceries, paid my rent, traveled, read, took walks, took naps. For the first time in my life, I was making a living wage. It felt powerful and important.

Meanwhile, my mother -- an old-school 1970s-era feminist -- believed that my work was actively harming feminism. Never mind that I was finally able to afford an occasional meal out and pay my utilities without worrying about an overdrawn checking account for the first time in my life. To her, no amount of money or lack of financial stability was worth what I was doing: selling myself and other women out. She loved me, but she found what I was doing to be politically untenable.

The opposing narrative about sex work is that it's never a feminist act -- that by collaborating with the enemy (i.e., the patriarchal view that women's bodies are, by definition, public entertainment), women harm themselves and enforce old, harmful views about women as erotic property.

According to that line of thinking, a woman who strips to pay her rent is doing so at great personal and societal cost: She is either knowingly or naively working against feminism (the implication being, she's either a heartless mercenary, or too emotionally damaged to be held accountable for her actions). Because she hews to sex industry standards of appearance in order to maximize her income, she reinforces the societal view of what constitutes female beauty and health. She profits at the expense of other women who are held to the same standards of physical appearance, but can't or won't make the effort to achieve the same heavily rewarded cookie-cutter "Barbie"-esque look.

And no matter if the sex worker isn't actually white, thin, young, blond, and busty herself -- by working in an arena in which that represents the ideal, the argument goes, she legitimizes and normalizes society's tendency to judge women by their appearances, rewarding the women conveying the most convincing semblances of sexual availability.

Furthermore, by participating in a system in which men can buy sexual entertainment from women, the sex worker perpetuates the poisonous idea that erotic bliss is a thing that can be achieved without love, from vendors who do not require respect or even civility -- only dollars, folded lengthwise and inserted under an elastic garter belt. What do women want? Not political parity, not to be seen as human beings, imperfect and whole -- just money. Dollars. By smiling and courting our customers' wallets, sex workers mock the demands of feminism and allow ourselves -- and all other women -- to be reduced to no-account caricature. See? I told you they were all whores.

And these two opposing narratives present a real conundrum -- a stalemate. Because you can either be a savvy, self-assured entrepreneur who uses gender stereotypes to enhance her own personal power -- and by extension, the societal power of other women -- or you can be a victim/collaborator trapped by gender stereotypes, profiting by making sure that other women remain trapped too. Right? Or is it possible that there's a bigger issue in play, one that encompasses both narratives without embracing either as the complete truth?

I tried to live on food service wages and failed. I was constantly exhausted, humiliated, and terrified of getting sick, because getting sick might mean losing my apartment. One bad month stood between me and desperate poverty. And, as any person who's ever been in similar straits knows, there's nothing that makes you feel less powerful than the constant daily fear of not having enough money to live on.

When I wasn't able to afford the things I needed to live, I didn't feel like a feminist. I didn't feel strong and proud -- a sister in struggle to the kind of college-educated white-collar women who would run me ragged and then sail out of the restaurant without tipping me. I didn't even feel human. There is nothing more objectifying than poverty.

When I began working as an adult entertainer, for the first time in my life I was able to pay my rent and to buy groceries without fear. I gained the leisure to read and write and travel, to sleep and to visit museums and to take long walks. A few years ago, I was able to invest in the rich luxury of regular periods of uninterrupted time to myself. I took time off, lived on my savings, and used that time to write my first book.

Now I can do the things that feed my work as a published writer. I can travel across the United States, lecturing on college campuses about my work and what I think it means. I'm not rich -- not by far, and some months I still eat much more Top Ramen than I would prefer -- but I can afford to spend a morning writing an article on feminism and sex work, sipping hot tea and choosing my words, instead of rushing off to a minimum-wage job or a few laps around the pole at a local gentleman's club.

Because of the money I saved, and because of the time I was able to take to write my book, I now have the luxury of more time; precious hours and minutes in my day, all mine, ransomed back to me by my decade-plus as a dancer, a dominatrix, a fetish model, and a bodyworker. Is this kind of autonomy specifically feminist? Is the self-determination I enjoy now rooted in the economic parity I achieved during my career in high heels and lace stockings, impersonating Hot Girl-ness for folded dollar bills?

Or is the freedom to write I have now somehow in spite of my work as an adult performer? Did I help myself or harm myself by the choices I made? Are the lace stockings banners of my liberation -- or are they part of my oppression, visual trappings of my captivity? Did I help other working-class women by writing a book that exposes some of the hypocrisy and immorality of adult labor conditions? Or did I do irreparable harm, simply by living the life that I wrote about?

I find it interesting that the very people who complain about the objectification of women's bodies are the ones who have little to say about the objectification of poor people's bodies, of all genders. And I don't know if the economic stability I gained when I started working in the adult industry is feminist or not; all I know is, I couldn't have written my book or become the writer I am without the income I made as a sex worker.

Do I feel "empowered" by the very nature of the work I performed? No. Do I feel like sex work is an inherent vehicle for feminist expression, or a way to address historic gender inequality? Possibly. But not because I think it does any woman any particular good to prance around in complicated footwear, flirting with men for cash.

No -- it's the money, honey. The unglamorous truth about my experience as an adult entertainer is that I felt empowered -- as a woman, as a feminist, and as a human being -- by the money I made, not by the work I did. The performances I gave didn't change anyone's ideas about women. On the contrary, I was in the business of reinforcing the same old sexist misinformation you can see in any issue of Hustler or Girls Gone Wild DVD. I wasn't "owning" or "subverting" anything other than my own working-class status. Bending over to Warrant's "Cherry Pie" didn't make me a better feminist. It just made me a feminist who could afford her own rent.

I was raised to believe that feminism means respecting the choices women make for themselves -- particularly the ones concerning their own bodies and their own lives, as full members of a fair society, whether or not I agree with their choices. And every month when I write my rent check -- subtracting the money from my checking account without the teetering, free-fall sense of dread I remember from when I worked long hours on my feet, waiting tables and making espresso, desperately trying to make ends meet -- I am thankful for the freedom I had to choose sex work, in all its polarizing complication.
Sarah Katherine Lewis is the author of Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire (Seal Press, 2006).