Is it possible for stripping (also known as exotic dancing) to be seen as an empowering profession for women? Or is it just flat out exploitation?
It is a provocative question that author and commentator Marc Lamont Hill raised and discussed recently on a segment on Huffington Post Live. Joined by Sheila Hageman, author of Stripping Down: A Memoir, Steve D**k an owner of New York City nightclubs and two full-time strippers and/or sex professionals, Hill explored if everything we thought about working as Cleopatra at the Pyramid (shout out to Frank Ocean), particularly the rampant misogyny, sexual abuse and exploitation, is an accurate description of the world of exotic dancing.
According to one of his guests, Quiana Colbert, aka Ms. Dimples, an exotic dancer of two years, while stripping has a negative connotation, she has never felt oppressed by her choice to dance naked for a living. In fact, Colbert asserts that she has never been sexually assaulted and feels like she receives the utmost respect in both of the clubs she currently is employed by (including The Diamond Club in Atlanta). Said Colbert,
“It is all about your mindset as a young adult. You know what you are getting into when you sign up for this. You know what type of people you’re going to be surrounding yourself around – pimps, drug dealers, all types of different people. But it is about what you actually decide to put yourself into.”
She also stated that there is definitely an element to self-empowerment in the business, particularly the ability to help establish a woman’s financial independence. And it is up to women to take advantage. “I’m a stripper, I’m not a victim. I am a woman and I can stand up and say, hey well I put on heels at night but I take my baby to daycare in the morning time and I’m proud of myself.”
Every stripper isn’t a w***e. And if a stripper just so happens to be a “w***e,” it doesn’t mean that every “w***e” is oppressed or being exploited. That is an important distinction to be made as it is a widely believed misnomer that any woman with a liberated sense of sexuality is considered to have some deep rooted issues with their fathers or have been a victim of sexual abuse. Chris Rock once joked about as much when he said that a dad’s only role is to keep his daughter off the pole, which gives credence to the idea that women who strip for a living have some unresolved emotional issues.
What Colbert and others on the panel speak to is the empowering feeling, which comes from being able to walk into a strip club of your free will for work as opposed to being lured off the streets by a pimp and having your decision dictated to you. Control and having a choice are both major aspects of being empowered. Financial independence is a major factor as well. While it is true that in both situations – the chooser and those who had the profession of stripping chosen for them – the women are the object of someone’s gaze, thus making them objectified, as Hill noted during the program, men are disempowered in these situations, as they are burning through paychecks at the bequest of a beauty dancing naked who usually has no interest in them for anything else. And once the rain-making stops, so does the dancing of these naked women.
With that said, it is hard to fully consider stripping empowering when there is a financial interest as motivation. People regularly do strange things for change. Reality television shows, particularly the ones involving people doing stupid stunts for cash prizes, is the best evidence of this phenomenon. With that said, there is still for many women the very real nuance that stripping is something that they do when they feel they have no other options for gainful employment in more traditional areas.
Human sex trafficking is a real thing. Some places around the globe, most notably Canada, have recognized the link between escort human-trafficking and sexual-exploitation cases and have gone as far as to ban foreign workers in strip clubs. And as Sheila Hageman pointed out, there are women with deeply rooted issues, which they bring into their job as exotic dancers, who find themselves caught up in the seedier side of the business – although Hageman would later reiterate that the possibility of sexploitation alone is not enough reason to assume that all women in the industry are being taken advantage of.
What was also interesting about this discussion is how even in this seedy world, there still exist a need to create and abide by a moral code, which in essence, creates the standard distinction between good girls and bad girls. For instance, during the discussion, Tara Reign, an Adult Video star and occasionally featured exotic dancer at “higher end” strip clubs, took exception to being lumped in with the stereotypical Gentlemen Club scene of pimps and drugs. Said Reign,
“I’ve never been in a situation of any kind where I’ve been surrounded by…I think you used the word “pimps and drugs… All of my girlfriends are either Adult Video stars or strippers and I don’t feel like any of them have that particular experience. I’m not saying that it is not valid or not true I just thinking that sociology, I feel like you need to look at more of a generalization. And I don’t think that is the whole or the general, I think that is very specific to your environment, maybe to your particular strip club but more so to your lifestyle.”
At first I thought she said this because she was a white girl being lumped in with Colbert (aka Ms. Dimples), who is an African American dancer. However, even Colbert routinely during the discussion would reference her children and husband. In one part of the program, Colbert reminds us that while the adage, “can’t turn a hoe into a housewife” makes it hard for some women in the sex industry to have long-term relationships, we shouldn’t think that everybody is a h*e. It just goes to show you that even in an environment where it appears that women are the most uninhibited, there still is this need to protect one’s virtue by traditional standards of womanhood as set by society.