On the treadmill at the gym today I read a really good and fascinating article* written by a young woman who had been a stripper for years, hated it, ultimately left stripping and now runs an organization created to support women I’ll call “exiting” strippers (sort of like “exiting” cult members; based on the reading I’ve done, there are quite a few comparisons which can be made in terms of what insiders suffer while they are inside, whether they are stripping or in a cult, and what they suffer when they exit).
The young woman who wrote the article, who went by the stripper name “Monique,” was raised by a well-meaning, but, it sounds like, a mostly struggling, poor, preoccupied, and — for many years — cocaine-addicted single mother. She was molested by older boys and men as a child and got into trouble as a teenager, finally moving in with an older man who didn’t contribute much financially to the household and who mistreated her. When she got in over her head in debt and financial obligations, someone suggested stripping to her. She was tempted but went to several adults whom she hoped, actually, would talk her out of it. None did. A male teacher she respected reassured her that stripping didn’t need to go on her resume. Of course this guy later showed up to check her out in the club once she finally took a job stripping. She continued to go to college while she was stripping, unlike the other strippers, of whom she said:
They were aspiring actresses, students and single moms. Some were drug or alcohol addicts, others used drugs just to help them get through a shift at work. Most … had given up their ambitions oustide of stripping… My friends were not happy women.
The article describes some of Monique’s experiences as a stripper:
[She] did her best to maintain her dignity. When a man started throwing stacks of dollar bills on the stage, she realized “he was getting off on seeing the women crawling all over the floor to pick the money up.” When it was her turn… she refused to bend; he kept throwing more. “At the end of my dance I asked someone to bring me a broom; I swept it all into a garbage bag and left.” She’d snagged $800 in singles– all from that one man.
Men propositioned her almost every night. “I told them if they wanted a hooker they should go to Sunset Boulevard. I’d say it loud to humiliate them because I felt humiliated. ” Sometimes she had to get aggressive when customers groped her. Once a man licked her body … she beat him on the head with her shoe. Another time as she danced, a man yelled, “Come here and bend over, b****.” She flicked her foot and tipped his drink onto his lap; when he cursed at her, she punched him in the face.
But beneath her toughness was a despondent woman. While the other girls danced to loud, fast songs, [she] chose sad cuts by Erykah Badu, Sade and especially, Rickie Lee Jones, whose forlorn, streetwise air she identified with. [She] remembers the lyrics of one song she performed to, “It’s OK, it’s not that bad,” and the irony of the words rang true for her. It wasn’t OK… She was in a state of almost constant dissociation– “it was like taking a Vicodin; I was numb all over” — and she was stuck… There was always some financial emergency, always a reason not to quit.
…Once … she invited her mother to the club and got a supportive response. “Mom told me I brought art into dancing.” …
[Older dancers] often had bad plastic surgery and [would] have to have sex with customers because they weren’t in demand as dancers. They’d put a tablecloth over their lap and let a man put it in.
Monique made a decision to leave stripping after attending an evangelical church meeting. She describes having had a sort of epiphany when she realized she had told herself she would only strip for a couple of months, but in fact, she had by then been stripping for three years. The next morning she quit her job and left her boyfriend.
She went on to get her degree and became involved in the church, meeting and marrying a young man she met there. She went to Mozambique with a church group and volunteered at an orphanage for a month. When she returned, she enrolled in the social work program at UCLA (paid for by scholarships). As part of a research product, she studied the lives of prostituted women and strippers and learned they suffered high rates of domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, drug addiction and depression. She hatched a plan to fill and deliver gift bags, donated by cosmetics companies, to women in various strip clubs around Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Inside the bags she included literature which didn’t pressure women to quit, but which offered stories of women who had quit as well as a hotline strippers could call 24/7. She befriended bouncers, telling them she was part of a strippers’ support group and asking whether she could give the strippers the bags, telling the bouncers she had once been a stripper herself.
The calls began to trickle in on the 1-800 line. Monique would listen, paying attention to women’s specific needs and referring them to other resources if necessary. She sought out alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs to which she could refer the strippers and sent sexually and physically abused dancers to organizations which could help them.
Her organization started with a budget of zero but now operates with a $10,000 grant and with the help of 100 volunteers. The office is located in Monique’s home; by day she works as a social worker; evenings and weekends she works with exiting strippers. Volunteers accompany the women to their first drug or alcohol abuse counseling sessions, assist with resumes and job referrals, and if necessary, meet with them, even in the middle of the night, if they need to talk. The organization is now receiving calls from women leaving the porn industry as well as strippers.
What strikes me in particular about this amazing and encouraging story is:
- Monique repeatedly sought out trusted adults who she hoped would talk her out of stripping, and none did, not even her mother. One asshole, of course, showed up to watch.
- It was becoming part of a religious community which provided her with the material and social support she needed to quit.
What I take from this is, we should not hesitate to offer our strong, radical feminist, anti-prostitution, anti-stripping opinions to girls and women who ask for them. The men and women who encouraged Monique to strip did her no favors.
Then, following on that idea — since I’m betting Monique not only would have liked to be discouraged from stripping but also would have liked ideas and support in solving her financial and other problems — I wonder how many young women, heck, old women, involved in prostitution, pornography or stripping might leave that work if they could find ongoing support in the form of women’s community. It’s so disheartening and unfortunate that the kind of support women need in these situations is readily available only in evangelical churches, thinking now of material help, ongoing, enthusiastic support, counseling, child care, service opportunities, and a ready-made circle of friends. Without this kind of support, how are women to get free, build new lives? And how many women might get free if there were communities of women to which they could turn, like this one Monique began, but without connections to conservative religion?
Last year at Michfest I facilitated an intensive workshop on creating intentional women’s communities. I urged the women in my workshops to create communities right where they were, in their own homes or apartments, or at the library or in the park, in the summertime, on some basis, even if they could only open their homes for one afternoon or evening a month. I challenged them to begin making the kind of connections which ultimately might result in women finding the strength they need to leave destructive relationships, habits, and behaviors behind. I truly believe that if, as women, we are to move beyond our outrage over the degradation and dehumanization of, not only prostitution and stripping, but over all of the indignities women suffer because they are poor, disabled, single mothers, underemployed or unemployed, old and alone, and on to making revolution in women’s lives, we have to begin at home, begin small, with the creation of women’s communities to which girls and women can turn — grass roots communities, networked for support. If we can begin to create these connections right in our own homes, with zero money, as Monique did, then prostituted women and struggling women everywhere might find themselves with choices beyond prostitution, beyond marrying a man, and beyond becoming a church member.
I find this story inspiring and encouraging, and yet I wonder whether women can create the kind of solidarity we would need to offer real support to exiting prostituted women with no motivation other than that we care for women and want them to be free. The work begins with the idea, and so I offer the idea.
* The article I read is in the January 2007 issue of Glamour Magazine. (!) I hadn’t read Glamour since I was in my 30s or so and was pleasantly surprised; there were articles on diet but which emphasized health and eating well and which featured photos of women of all sizes who were unapologetic about their weight, on rape, on how a woman responded to white supremacists when they moved in next door, on the lives of Muslim women, and this article on leaving stripping. I picked the magazine up because there was nothing else interesting in the basket at the gym and was glad I did.