“I’m not comfortable dancing topless,” the girl on the phone said. I tried to remember which girl I was speaking to while hiking up a dirt mountain near Occidental College. I hoped it was the brunette with big lips gyrating on a beach in a turquoise bikini, not the young one who sent me full frontal vag shots or the Asian girl in the YouTube clip slithering to techno music on top of a lime green Pontiac GTO—the one whose meth-drip I could taste through my monitor. I was being ambushed by naked girls because I was casting extras for a strip club scene in a movie for a low paying background role that involved standing in seven inch plastic stilettos and dancing topless for pretend customers in a faux strip club for fourteen hours. “Well, thanks for calling,” I said. It didn’t matter which girl she was. Other actress types were calling and I needed to click over so I could secure my fifteen extras by tomorrow.
“I mean, I can dance, but I’m not comfortable on a stripper pole,” she said. I heard shuffled sounds of fishing for cigarettes, pills or a handgun. I felt queasy and sensed danger, like the initial tremors of an earthquake. I wanted to tell her to run. I wanted to piss her off so she would slam the phone down. But she kept talking: “It’s just that, I hate myself when I do these hundred dollar jobs—especially the nudity ones.”
Hang the fuck up.
“There are lots of other, fully clothed, better roles out there,” I said. If I hired her, I could tell she’d be my new migraine. She’d complain about her costume showing too much of her ass. She’d whine about having to eat granola bars and warm apples from craft services while the regular crew got made-to-order omelettes. I wanted to tell her she would make it out of here alive.
But, she won’t. She was already losing her backbone. I could hear her resolve evaporating in the face of pressure: her no-matter-what’s slipping into so-whats and I was not about to shove her down that slippery slope.
Go away, I thought. The tangerine sun limped away as I climbed up to the top of the ridge, dodging gopher holes and slippery rocks. Then she told me she could dance. She offered to show me. I was at the top of the hill now, looking down.
“No, that’s okay,” I said.
She sighed the miffed sigh of a girl used to being picked. Tears fell down my cheeks and I angrily rubbed them away. I imagined flames licking the San Gabriel Mountains inches away from where I stood. My skin felt hot.
“You deserve better,” I said, and hung up on her.
The brunette and all the ones after her said they were about twenty-seven, which was the age I was when I started giving hand jobs in the strip club where I worked back in San Francisco. A week prior to giving hand jobs, I was contemptuous towards strippers who cranked the shank even though they all snickered at me for being a “clean girl” and paid their stage fees in less than ten minutes. I proudly left the club with my wad of come-free bills even though it took me a few hours to come up with the $180 stage fees. Then I realized every girl in that club was doing the rub and tug. I was the stupid one. As usual, I leaned against the wall in the audience, feeling ridiculous, like I was a plushy at a DAR convention. I led a guy into the back room, where nude dances happened in curtained off rooms that reminded me of Motel Six shower stalls with antibacterial gel containers on the wall instead of showerheads. I made one-sixty in a three-minute song.
I didn’t analyze production levels or consider geopolitical strategies. I didn’t say to myself “tonight you’re going to get with the jack off program.” I thought of myself as a pro-porn feminist who was just “working it,” but like the other girls, I was just a girl doing a service job, and that job demand more and more of me and I had no say in the matter. I could touch dick, or find another club, audition and be told:
Let me see your body.
You’re on stage in two songs.
I don’t mean to suggest doling out hand jobs like Altoids is morally wrong. It’s not that I think receiving money for said service is wrong either. It’s just that as a young woman, I clearly didn’t want to have to give handjobs and in that club at that time, I kind of did have to. And if a woman on the other end of the phone gave me some maternal bullshit about “deserving better,” I would have told her to go fuck herself and found the next pole to climb, the next John to nuzzle up to.
I didn’t consider the unintended consequences of loose boundaries. But, my body knows things that I don’t know.
Walgreen’s Peach body spray.
Black Suede Cologne.
At the club I began to float. My skin tingled and I was outside of it like I was watching a movie from above. The hours pulsed like a sore tooth. What’s wrong with you? I thought. After all, I had efficiently increased my cash flow and that meant I was valuing my time more. Valuing my time was empowering. But something else happened. My trust in myself got wobbly, and then was burned in the fire.
As Janna Malamud Smith wrote, “We cannot give ourselves over to a process and preserve ourselves from the way our choice alters us.” Sometimes the process by which I made decisions derived from a part of me that was sad. And sometimes that piece of sad had the last word, like the time my resolve burned in the fire. Of course, that’s not the whole story.
For years, I wanted to quit stripping. Not because the job sucked but because I wanted to be something more than a well-read stripper with a few college degrees and a rectus smile. I got a job in a harm-reduction facility that didn’t pay enough. I Catered. I Nannied. I Organized Closets. But to make ends meet, I resorted to what I knew how to do. It’s not specific to sex work. Bartenders and teachers all return to what they know in a pinch. So I fell back into being a stripper, a Pro Domme and got a job at a tantric massage parlor. I’ve never been resistant to working hard. One of my jobs was an HIV counselor to the porn industry and it enabled me to connect with other performers. It didn’t take long to agree to a “show.” I found that sex work was impossibly hard to let go of. My determination and confidence was chiseled to soft sand.
We like to think that work is this other thing that we do to pay bills. I wanted to believe that my job was not the real me; the real me existed outside the realm of sex work. But we also know that is malarkey. How do we undo the work that we have become? How do we untangle the identity with which we have defended and upheld, based our whole self-supporting lives? How the fuck?
I dream about stripping and wake up edgy and exhausted. A girl I don’t like anymore is next to me and we are choosing music and walking and there are legs and the backs of heads. Waiting for money. Frantic to be picked. Even now, as I write this, I feel the pull of stripping tugging on my skirt like the leper kids in India with their finger nubs pulling at my t-shirt. There is a club an hour way that the girls say is “pretty good right now” and I’m thinking about my car payment. And I’m thinking about my health insurance, wondering how I’ll come up with it all.
I need money and I am scared.
But I remember being a young girl and choosing to strip and even if I made that decision from a sad dark place where I felt I wasn’t worth protecting, it was still a decision that made me who I am. I became public property, every man’s girl. Hurled my body at men. One day I didn’t ache anymore. That was the worst day of all, the day that my feelings were burned in the fire, impossible to excavate.
I cling to mornings where I wrap my arms around the guy I love who loves me back. I’m holding a ridiculous tiny buzzing ball of power in my hands—Me, in charge of hiring these tremendous and beautiful young women who will decide their next move. They have to decide. Some of them will burn.