Why strippers and sex workers are fighting for the love of their jobs
When I first meet Maia* and Olivia*, they give me huge hugs and smiles, and tell me how excited they are to share their experiences. On paper, they’re both uncannily similar to me: the same age, the same occupation (students), the same city. One difference? Their part time jobs: outside of university, Maia and Olivia are strippers.
Maia started after her first year of study. “I was struggling to pay rent, and I was working two jobs at that point. I’ve been a dancer my whole life. I was looking at pole classes. I went to a class, and [an ad] came up. And I was like, I could learn how to do pole for free, and maybe even make some money. The club was super busy. It really got me hooked, basically. It was just really, really fun.”
Olivia has a similar story. “I started when I was 19, about two weeks after I had just broken up with my long term boyfriend. And it was a very thrilling experience. I sucked at hospitality, so I was like, ‘Okay, let’s get more money. And let’s reclaim my sexuality.’ I wanted independence from my boyfriend who was very controlling over that kind of stuff. It’s a massive ‘fuck you’ to absolutely love [stripping].”
On the surface level, it might seem that both Maia and Olivia got into sex work because of the money. However, looking beyond that, into their answers, that’s not the sole truth. What is clear is these two women in front of me are not vulnerable women being forced into the industry out of desperation or coercion, the way that sex work is widely characterised in the media. They’re there to make money, but also because they have a passion. Olivia and I get to discussing the commonly held bias that all sex work is out of necessity, and the notion that the women involved in it are “selling their bodies.”
“I’ve definitely run into some people who will say, ‘I support sex workers. But isn’t it kind of fucked up that we have sex work as an industry like stripping?’ And I’m like, not really, actually. There’s nothing inherently sexist about stripping. We have male strippers, as well. It’s a job, and one that has a special place in my heart. I get really uncomfortable when people say, ‘Oh, you’re selling your body.’ When they’re selling their body too! You don’t want to be at a café, making coffee for eight hours. Your feet are sore, you’re tired, you need to nap when you get home. You’re selling your body and your labour to your job.”
Both women speak of their love for dancing, and their love for the sisterhood that they’ve found within their clubs. Olivia says, “I truly feel that when I go to work, it’s like, one of the most exciting parts of my day, and has like a sisterhood sort of back that I haven’t felt since like high school. It’s a really beautiful environment.”
However, both women acknowledge that it’s not all glamour. It’s gritty, hard and terrifying work, even though neither of their clubs perform “full service” sex work. The problems start with the absence of worker protections available to them. On paper, most strippers are independent contractors, like Maia and Olivia. They’ll pay their own taxes, and their own ACC, after they’re paid out by their employer.
But, for many strippers, this is about where the liberties of being treated as an indepent contractor stop. Normally, independent contractors have the ability to work “freelance”. Their hours are flexible, on an “as-needed” basis. However, Maia and Olivia are rostered onto regular, weekly shifts at their club. When asked what happens if they don’t make it into a shift or want a different one, Maia comments, “I have seen people get told to leave, if they’re late, despite the fact that we’re independent contractors. They’re babysitting our own hours.”
Olivia echoes this: “We have to go get a doctor’s certificate if we want a night off because we’re sick. It’s even more controlling than other employee situations. Like, if we were really independent contractors, we just wouldn’t go to work? I actually [suffered a minor injury] at work. And I didn’t want to leave work, because I was kind of concerned I would get fined if I left work early. I had to get my manager to reassure me that I wasn’t going to get fined…that’s the most vulnerable position I’ve ever been in at work. And that says a lot, considering what I do for work!”
Independent contractors have the ability to profit on their own account as a tradeoff for lack of access to paid sick leave, holiday pay, and personal grievance or redundancy protections. However, Maia and Olivia can’t set their own rates, and their club takes 35% of all their gross earnings, including all their tips. Maia comments, “I don’t see anything that goes through the bar. I don’t see anything that comes through the doors.” Olivia adds, “The reason that people are coming into our club is because we’re there and they feel entitled to take 35% of everything. Someone at our club calculated a very rough estimate [of what our boss makes]…she estimated he probably makes nearly two grand a week. We’re only open three nights a week. And he’s not there three nights a week. So why is he making more than me?”
Maia sighs. “My club is really good in terms of strip clubs. Terrible in terms of employment. I’d love to be able to work just when it’s busy. To come in for a certain amount of hours and then leave again. I would love to be able to get more of my percentage pay.”
I’ve heard a lot of people in my lifetime disparage the amount that sex workers get paid. After listening to the stories of Maia and Olivia, I don’t think they’re paid enough for the weight they take on. Much like any other work, if you’re taking on a high level of risk and responsibility for that work, you should be paid highly. For strippers, the risk and the power imbalance is through the roof.
When baby strippers (stripper newbies) come into the club, Maia tells them this: “When you’re in the club, every single man there is predatory. They’re in the club for a reason. They can’t get a girlfriend, they can’t get attention. They’re getting a divorce. All sorts of things. Recently, a guy came in to celebrate the birth of his newborn baby. You have to be really on guard for every single man that comes in, so we have rules that we set out at the very beginning of each dance. Which is, don’t lick, don’t kiss, don’t touch between the legs, don’t get your dick out. And you can add any rules to that that you want. Some girls don’t like their nipples being touched. It depends on the girl, we make it ambivalent, as long as you stick to the like, ‘we’re not a brothel rules’.”
Of course, their rules are often ignored by the men that come through the club doors. Maia tells me she’s had a man kiss her thighs because he didn’t think it was “on the mouth.” Olivia says, “It’s honestly like a little treat when they don’t try to push [the rules] which is horrible. Yeah, the bar is in hell.”
“I’ve been assaulted in lap dance rooms in clubs that have had management pressure me to do lap dances for people I didn’t want to give lap dances to…I’ve known friends who have been sexually assaulted and raped. Everyone deals with it differently; some tell management, some don’t because they feel disempowered or like they won’t be believed. When this was the case for me, I was scared to tell management that something had happened for fear that they would fine me, or other girls would be mad at me, for doing ‘extra’ services, or not being upstanding enough. I asked the person to pay me more money to keep me quiet, even though I had the intention to keep quiet anyway because of the complicated dynamic from not being protected in the first place. I still feel a lot of shame for this and worry about what other girls would think if they found out.”
The pain Olivia shares is an important reminder that this is not work to be romanticised. Many women like her deal with fear, shame and trauma just by virtue of trying to do their jobs. In their current clubs, both women say they can walk out of a private dance if someone is breaking the rules, and that there’s usually security nearby. However, this is so often not standard practice in other clubs, or feasible if a man physically overpowers them. When asked what measures they think could be taken to improve their safety, both women thought that panic buttons in private rooms would be an asset. Olivia’s experience highlights that things can so easily go wrong, and very quickly. Where there’s a real threat of danger, there needs to be a real response.
When asked why they stay in the work in spite of all the risk, both girls echo that it’s because of the community. Maia says, “I have had some really good experiences with guys that have been really sweet. I think sexual touch is really important for humans. I think it’s something that everyone needs…I think that’s why I stay. Because I think [emotional intimacy] is really important.” Olivia comments, “I always feel backed up by my club. Yeah, like you walk out of the room if someone’s pushing your boundaries, even light for one second, and you keep your money. That’s a good feeling.” But, she’s quick to add, “I’m really proud to share my positive experiences with management at my current club, but it’s not always been that way for me, and still isn’t for many girls. In short, it is not an industry standard to have management that cares about your boundaries.”
Both girls say they plan to leave stripping behind after they finish studying. Like most other university students, the job they have right now is to get them through their studying. But, unlike most other university students, most of the time they love their current job, too.
The reality is, sex work is always going to be around. The people doing it need to feel safe and protected in their community. Walking away from these interviews, it’s clear that Parliament and those with influence over the industry need to stand up and make changes to employment safety regulations, and that need is now.
*Both their regular and work names have been changed to protect their anonymity.