When my co-director Drew der Kinderen pitched this show to me I wasn't sure about it. I was immediately conflicted. My instincts were on one hand to feel disgusted by the stripping industry with immediate images of old, sleazy, gross men ogling at young women - the epitome of patriarchal dominance. This was an industry providing women and their bodies just for the pleasure of men, an industry that dehumanises and objectifies.
On the other hand I felt I was being unreasonable in this judgment. Who am I to comment on other women's decisions? I am absolutely supportive of female sexual empowerment and totally against the culture of 'slut-shaming'.
So how was I to reconcile these conflicting opinions?
After much deliberation I realised my own conflicting ideas were a blessing – without one dominating opinion that would colour my work I would be able to explore more objectively and present a work to the audience that doesn't tell them what to think, but rather asks them to think.
So here's what I learnt from my time exploring the industry, which of my preconceptions turned out to be misconceptions and how this project has helped me define my own concept of feminism.
Firstly I realised how 'black and white' my original ideas were. There is so much more to the industry than the dichotomy of exploitation vs empowerment. Yes there are empowering and exploitative elements to the industry, but there's a whole lot of grey in the middle. And just as the range of women who choose to be dancers is vast, so is the range of patrons. The stereotypes of 'older sleazy male' and 'blond, angry stripper' certainly do exist, but they are not the norm, nor the majority.
I spoke to several dancers and found the same response on many blogs describing the pleasure and confidence of being desirable. They enjoyed being able take on a character that is bold, sassy, sexualized and accepted. Completely accepted, in fact expected, in this environment - a sexual version of themselves that doesn't fit anywhere in their daily lives. They felt in control and empowered.
However, something else I learned is that each interaction is coloured by the patron. So while there may be enjoyable empowering encounters with certain clients, there will inevitably be negative experiences. Another dancer spoke of clients who seem to have an undercurrent of hatred in their interactions with dancers. They seem to relish the idea of making a girl 'demean' herself for money. There are good days and bad days, and extremely varied experiences in just one shift, like any work environment.
Another misconception was my idea of the behaviour of men at the club. I had images of groping, grabby men, of dancers being violated and putting up with it. However, I have never seen such well-behaved men as in a strip club. The rules are written all over the walls, literally, (you can touch from the bellybutton up, but not the inner thigh) the prices are clear (15 minutes for $70), there are 'lap-dance controllers' (yes that's a real job, and you must do a test and get a certificate) who monitor the behaviour in the private rooms and there are bouncers who will kick you out if you break them. I found myself wishing there were such explicit rules in other clubs and bars!
Another element that surprised me is how supportive the community is. Now this is coming from my experience working in just one strip club – I cannot attest to other venues – but at The Candy Club, our venue for The Touch Industry, they offer the dancers financial advice, budget plans, and plenty of tips on how to make money, how to identify goals and achieve them. From my understanding most girls don't go into the industry expecting it be a long term career. They want to get in, make some money, and get out with some sweet savings. There is a huge online support community with plenty of blogs offering advice and you can even subscribe to "Stripper-School" online for $20 a month to get the best tips on personal presentation, identifying wealthy patrons, how to 'upsell' and 'close the deal'.
A concept I hadn't heard of before taking on this project was the idea of 'emotional labour'. A dancer's job is not just shaking her booty and collecting tips. It involves interaction and conversation, paying a client attention, and making them feel noticed, wanted and validated. Depending on how much a patron is willing to spend, a dancer may be willing to invest more of herself and her time, sometimes verging on the role of unofficial councilor. A friend of mine once told me about a client who paid her $500 just to talk to him. The interaction became more than the product of her body, but the service of her time, her companionship, and her compassion.
My friend, let's called her Cherry, said that she enjoyed these interactions. She liked talking to these men and it made her feel good that she could provide some kind of support for someone who was obviously lacking intimacy in their life. Another dancer, let's call her Cindy, had the opposite reaction. She couldn't stand the conversation and duration of these interactions and the emotional labour involved. She just wanted to get in there, smash out some lap-dances, disconnect and earn some cash.