I started stripping two years ago. I was twenty-seven, which seemed old to me, especially in comparison to many of my coworkers. Most of the women I dance with are younger than me. Some are barely twenty-one and have already been dancing for a couple of years. In some clubs, it’s not uncommon to see a dancer wearing a bracelet to notify the bartenders that she’s under twenty-one, and therefore should only be served mocktails. In other clubs, they won’t hire girls who are younger than twenty-one—though it’s not uncommon for young dancers to find ways around this rule.
I started working at 18, too, but it wasn’t in the strip club. I grew up in a family where we didn’t have a lot of money. My parents tried to play their money anxieties close to the vest, but it was something I was always aware of. Even though I technically didn’t “have to” work in college, since I received a full scholarship, I worked anyway — saving up for a rainy day (or, in my case, a sex ed certification and graduate school) being one of the core family values I learned at a young age. I hated working in health care, which blends the “customer is always right” mentality of retail with patients’ genuine anxieties about their health, and makes it very difficult for workers to assert their boundaries or advocate for being treated with respect. Combine the fact that—in my experience at least—doctors think very little of their administrative staff, and it’s an environment where burning out is easy to do. Yet I worked as a healthcare administrator, miserably, for almost a decade.
Over the course of that decade, I don’t know that I thought very often or very seriously about stripping as an alternative, though there are instances that prove I must have been at least a little curious. When I was in college, I bought a coupon for ten Intro to Burlesque classes with the famous Jo Boobs—but for some reason or another, I was never brave enough to go to even one of them. It wasn’t a case of stage fright: I’d performed a lot in high school, and once even choreographed a pseudo-strip tease to the musical number “Big Spender”, which in hindsight maybe should have cued me into my stripper potential. If asked, though, I would have cited a slew of things that kept me out of the strip club: I was mostly a morning person; I didn’t want to ruin my chances of getting hired at a “real job” later on; I didn’t want to spend my time flirting with a bunch of dirty old men. But the fact is, I didn’t know any strippers, or any other sex workers for that matter, though I’m sure some of the people I went to college with were doing sex work and keeping it under wraps. Since even for a city girl, I would consider my upbringing to be fairly sheltered, if I thought about stripping at all as a young adult struggling to save up and make ends meet, I thought about it in some pretty negative terms: as a last resort for people who aren’t qualified to do anything else; as something that you had to be kind of broken to want to do; or as something risky, dangerous, and shameful.
The fact is, there is some risk involved in dancing—especially for the type of young person I was: naive, sheltered, and only learning to speak up for herself and enforce her boundaries through painstaking—and often painful—trial and error. Now, nearly all the men I interact with at work try, to some degree, to test the limits of what I’ll allow. For me personally, navigating that at eighteen, nineteen, or twenty would have been exponentially more difficult than it is now. All in all, it’s probably best that I started in my late twenties. Still, I sometimes regret not starting earlier. What might it have been like to start at the height of being a lithe and guileless ingénue? (I’d be a better pole dancer now, for one thing.) What if I had skipped the near decade I spent working for $10 or $12 an hour as a medical assistant and receptionist, often being bullied by doctors and patients alike, in order to become a professional party girl as I worked my way through college? What took me so long to decide to become a stripper?
Looking back on it now, the only explanation I can think of—even as a lifelong (though imperfect) feminist—is simply, whorephobia. For me, whorephobia took the specific form of feeling judgmental at the idea of accepting money for the performance of sensual or erotic acts, though it encompasses much more than that. The fact that I was often involved in sexual situations where I was being valued very little—monetarily or otherwise—went totally over my head. To me, sex and sexuality did not mix with money. To do so would be dirty, wrong—and worse, it would make me dirty and wrong, too. Times have changed. I’m so glad that I know better now.
Whorephobia, like transphobia and homophobia, is defined not so much by fear of sex workers but rather by hatred and disdain for sex workers, which works to rationalize violence against us. When I did a Google search to see if there was a definition I felt confident about, the first result, from SJWiki, was pretty solid:
“Whorephobia or whoremisia is the hatred of, oppression of, violence towards, and discrimination against sex workers; and by extension, derision or disgust towards activities or attire related to sex work.”
Now you know what whorephobia means, here’s how it functions.
The Madonna/Whore complex
One of the first feminist lessons I ever learned was how to identify the Madonna/Whore complex. Both highbrow and mainstream pop culture are rampant with it: Maria and Anita in West Side Story; Willow and Buffy vs. Faith and Cordelia; Betty and Veronica; movies from campy slasher/horror flicks to Hitchcock; and current feminist fan favorite, The Handmaid’s Tale. In general, the virgin—pure and good—has earned her right to survive until the end of the movie. The “whore,” by contrast, is usually one of the first to die—but not before she puts on a show for viewers.
Pop culture didn’t invent the idea of the dichotomy between “Virgin” and “Whore”. In the early 1900s, Sigmund Freud came up with the Madonna/Whore complex, though he was mostly talking about men and their sexual problems (surprise!)—basically, men being unable to reconcile the fact that they wanted a lady in the streets but a freak in the sheets. To me, though, the true damage of the Virgin/Whore complex is the way it impacts feminine folks—we can either be one or the other, and the messages we receive about which is preferable (or simply just SAFER), are something that we’re bombarded with every day.
With the advent of such things as Slut Walk and Sex and the City, feminine-identifying people have been taking back our right to be seen as sexual beings (so-called “whores”) who are simultaneously worthy of respect and care (“virgins”). But mainstream feminists who criticize the Madonna/Whore complex seem to extend that solidarity to everyone except actual sex workers themselves. (And just for future reference: the words “whore” and “prostitute” are being reclaimed by full-service sex workers; so if you aren’t one, those aren’t your words to use.) A recent example of this was the way the Women’s March organizers flubbed whether or not they were going to include sex workers under the umbrella of intersectional feminism in the days leading up to the March.
The reason for this might actually be the only real phobia in whorephobia: The fear that if you can’t control whether or not you’re included under the “whore” umbrella of the Madonna/Whore complex, you’re basically “asking for” the violence that being a “whore” entails. Not that any feminine-presenting person can really free themselves from this perception under patriarchy — how many times have do we hear about a woman “asking for it”, regardless of her profession, or what she was doing or wearing at the time she was violated? The perceived sense of safety that comes with “playing by the rules” is an illusion, though partaking in it can feel soothing. Yet punishing sex workers by ostracizing them and not including them under the banner of intersectional feminism doesn’t keep you safe in a cis hetero patriarchy. By contrast, joining with sex workers to fight for sexual liberation for all people regardless of how they use their bodies for work, or for sex, is perhaps riskier, but goes a long way to that patriarchy for the good of everyone.
Sex work IS work
I’ve written before about the weary but unfortunately necessary rallying cry that #SexWorkIsWork. Some arguments used to invalidate sex work as an actual form of labor are that it’s “easy money”. (Sure, Jan, then why don’t you try it?). Others claim that it’s not a “real job”—perhaps because, in best case scenarios, you can make your own schedule, take sick time or time off when you need to; for example, you can more easily juggle being a single, working mom than in other non-sex work “real jobs”. Others claim that sex work can’t be considered work because money changing hands means that violence is inherently taking place—rather than an agreed-upon service being performed, with its unique boundaries and limitations (full-service sex work: not a free-for-all, y’all).
In my opinion, the most insidious argument that sex work is not real work has more to do with cultural conceptions of what tends to be feminized labor—or, at least, labor that is performed by marginalized folks, including queer, trans people of color, who often make up the most marginalized and most vulnerable members of the sex work community. Invalidating care work, emotional labor, sexuality, sensuality, and healing work is not only whorephobic in the context of sex work, but also smacks of internalized misogyny more broadly, and needs to be examined.
“Dirty” vs. “Clean”
The sex work community itself is not immune from whorephobia, though when it occurs among sex workers, it’s called lateral whorephobia. Lateral whorephobia is related to the whorearchy (hierarchy within the sex industry), otherwise known as whorephobia and respectability politics in motion. It is the idea that certain iterations of sex work are more “respectable” than others. (Hint: In the eyes of the patriarchy, at the end of the day, they’re not, and we’re all just a bunch of sluts who deserve violence, same as non-sex working folks who experience gendered violence or violence for “deviating” from the cis hetero white supremacist and patriarchal norm.)
Some examples of lateral whorephobia include distinctions between “dirty” and “clean” work: strippers who consider themselves “clean” because they don’t do extras (aka, anything beyond the scope of a no-contact dance) in the club, and full-service workers who “rate shame” (ostracize lower-income workers) but don’t bother to familiarize themselves with the multitude of factors that dictate what people can charge (racism, transphobia, ableism, fatphobia, and geographic location) or the ways in which they experience privilege in the ability to dictate their rates and keep themselves safe.
Lateral whorephobia, like other forms of respectability politics, can be tricky to spot. For example, strippers who don’t perform extras in the club might cite the dangers of increased risk of raids or of customers expecting more for less. They might argue that strippers who do offer extras are being “selfish” or “irresponsible” or even deliberately causing harm to the club atmosphere as a whole. But, especially in the light of SESTA/FOSTA—which harms all sex workers, but most severely harms full-service workers (particularly BIPOC queer and trans outdoor workers)—consider the alternative. What’s safer: Working indoors, within the relative safety of a club, with bouncers present? Or doing outdoor full-service work, with fewer options for screening clients and increased risk of violent encounters with the police?
The clean/dirty dichotomy is just another iteration of the Madonna/Whore complex, wielded by privileged members of an already marginalized community against those with even less power. And like all other forms of whorephobia, it’s damaging, dangerous, and has no place within any feminist movement that claims to be intersectional.
Unlearning whorephobia, like unlearning any bigoted viewpoint, is a process. It can be a difficult one, because American culture is so apt to create divisions between each other that we then become invested in sustaining — for safety, or for the benefits that being seen as “more respectable” supposedly gets us. Whorephobia in particular is so widely normalized that recognizing it, let alone correcting it, is challenging — and the continued stigma against sex work & sex workers also serves as a barrier to unlearning whorephobia. Sex workers are mocked and discredited for telling their own stories, and non-sex workers who try to advocate for us often tend to get it wrong. Yet even sex workers are not exempt from perpetuating whorephobia. As the world becomes more dangerous for sex workers, though, it’s important to remember that centering the needs of those most vulnerable among us is where change starts, and fighting for sex worker liberation frees us all.