I know this isn’t what you pictured for me at 26, but it’s a job, and it’s the best job for me.
You’ve been wondering about me. I’ve been distant this past year, avoiding your calls and deflecting your questions. You suggest a weekend vacation, just me and you. As we drive out of the suburbs, the tension between us is momentarily forgotten. We’re laughing and gossiping until you ask, “Can I come visit the bar you work at?” You pause and add, “I promise I won’t embarrass you.”
I hesitate. “The bar is crappy Ma; you won’t have much fun.”
An uncomfortable silence creeps between us. You think I’m acting callous, but inside I’m reeling with guilt because I’m not embarrassed by you, far from it, but I don’t want you to come to the bar because I don’t work there. I work down the street at a topless club. I work as a stripper.
Your first thought: “Are you safe?” You fear that I’m choosing a job that will leave me vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. A choice people make out of desperation, not coming from a place of privilege. You didn’t have the easiest childhood. Shuffling between section 8 housing and the trailer park exposed you to people turning tricks for basic needs of survival. You were hoping your flight from poverty would have kept me away from sex work, the stain of the lower class, as you’ve said.
Saddled with student debt, my options were bleak. But I had choices; please know that, although limited, I still had a say. Yes, sex work pays for my essential needs — groceries, loan, rent — but it is not a last resort nor a place of horror.
Stripping has fostered friendships with people from all over the world. It has given me the freedom to travel and enjoy my twenties. After all, I can take the ferry down to the shore and see you any day of the week. But most of all, it has kept me afloat despite an unjust loan, providing the flexibility to pursue different careers and even accumulating a bit of savings.
That first year out of college was not easy for either of us. Each month, I asked for help with my ghastly payments, and you understandably became bitter. You gave up so much of your time, energy, and money investing in my future — but I was still bleeding your accounts. It was my choice, after all, to attend a private school. So I left home, determined to secure financial independence.
I decided to try out at a strip club one night. I walked into the dressing room and started to panic, “I can’t dance, I’m not feminine!” Fumbling as I penciled the blue eyes we share, I considered calling you for support. After a few minutes, though, I stuffed my nerves aside and stepped onto the floor, full of confidence, with three dollars in my savings account and a week before my payment was due.
Talking to customers came surprisingly easy. I quickly discerned that underneath the smiles and giggles, fierce negotiations were occurring. I was reminded of when you took me with you to buy a car. The salesman smirked when you marched up in high heels with freshly highlighted blonde hair, thinking he’d had an easy sell. But his smugness quickly wiped into dismay as you refused each offer until he relented to the lowest deal he made that month. I shrunk away in embarrassment, wondering why you always had to haggle. How little I knew! I understand now that you didn’t have a choice. If I don’t hustle, the club will swallow me whole. Hustle or be hustled — your lifelong struggle, and now, mine as well.
That first night, I smiled and giggled and sipped champagne, all the while firmly haggling. I earned my monthly payment and a myriad of opportunities unrolled before me. It wasn’t easy work — long hours, grating hustle. Some of the customers were nice, others rude — but you prepared me to maneuver spaces safely.
Remember food shopping for my ninth birthday party? You reached into the freezer to grab ice cream, and a man stepped too close behind you, eyeing your backside with greedy eyes, glancing at my developing body in a way I didn’t yet understand. I reached for your hand, but you pushed me away, spinning around and laughing in his face. You didn’t say anything. You didn’t have to. He cowered down the aisle, speechless.
I’ve watched you get catcalled, followed down the streets, pursued in grocery stores, and I’ve seen you handle it with more power than anyone I have ever met. You never question your outfit choice or blame yourself. You reduce them to dust as they feel the sting of their insignificance. Men have always been drawn to you. Yet your fearlessness is what defines you. It’s a quality you passed on to me by showing me the simple yet radical belief that it’s okay to stand up for myself.
I won’t sanitize the industry for you Mom. Sometimes managers and customers are pushy and calloused. Sometimes I drink excessively. Sometimes men and women grab my boobs so hard I cry out. Sometimes rideshare drivers pick me up with creepy grins. Sometimes, I call you after a bad night, but I always hang up.
When I left the house for my first sleepover, excited and giddy, you pulled me aside as I loaded my belongings into the car. You crouched down, meeting my eyes, “Remember no one is allowed to touch you, even if they are an adult. Your body is yours.” Sensing your anxiety, I flashed my gap-toothed smile, but I felt your fear — every mother’s fear for her daughter’s safety.
I am sorry for the added burden of worry I have given you. But I need your support and your strength. My job is not easy, but I excel at it because you showed me how to stand up for myself, recognize deceit, and guard my boundaries.
The first lesson you taught me was never to let someone touch me without consent, and I never forgot it.
I walk out of exploitative clubs and dismiss customers who push my boundaries. I thank you. I know how lucky I am.
We slow down as traffic thickens before the Delaware River. You ask about the bar again, and I craft a flimsy lie. I pull a piece of skin off my finger, drawing blood. “Ma, I–” I start to explain, but I recoil.
So here I write, laden with regret that I never told you about my first pair of heels or about the funny customer who used to pay me to squeeze his nipples. All those shared giggles, aghast responses, laments over the grueling nights, all lost in an ocean of silence.
The waters between us are murky with differences in history. I will never know the shame of poverty you endured. But your past runs through my blood. Your pain is my pain. And I kept my job a secret because my confession is dialing you back to the narrow project lanes you once called home.
You gave me so many gifts Mom: birthday parties, vacations, tuition, gymnastic classes. You provided access to opportunities you didn’t have. With my loan, however, those opportunities were threatened; my choices thwarted. Stripping is difficult — but it encapsulated me in the social position you fought for — to live the life you dreamed for me.
This isn’t what you pictured for me at 26, I know, but it’s a job and it’s the best job for me. I transform into a primped, brazen stripper three days a week. Yes, your clumsy daughter climbs to the top of the pole and swings down effortlessly.
You’d be proud if you saw.
Image via shutterstock.com.
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Reese is Brooklyn-based stripper and journalist. She frequently travels for work and has dabbled in other parts of the industry. She reports on sex work-specific challenges, migrant issues, and the secret lives of women with autism. She is one the founders of the FckShameProject, which is a space for sex workers to voice trauma without condemnation. Follow Reese on Twitter.