You’ve probably heard the expression that strippers are like therapists. And we are! Not for every client, of course: People decide to see sex workers for a variety of reasons, and not all of them have to do with the need for nurturing or guidance. Some people see sex workers because it’s easy to arrange. Others might see a sex worker because it can take pressure off of a personal relationship. Some people see sex workers because the services offered by the worker are something they can’t get in their personal relationships. If someone is in a relationship where they can’t be honest about their kinks and fetishes, they might see a sex worker. Some people have difficulty forming romantic or sexual connections—for any number of reasons—and seeing a sex worker is a lower stakes way of getting what they need.
My customers come to see me for many different reasons; and as someone who loves psychology, this fascinates me. I’ve written before about how I’m studying to become a therapist, and I’ve also had positive experiences in therapy for the past five years. So I can certainly see similarities between interactions with certain strip club regulars and interactions with therapy clients. In my experience, most of my customers who come to the club regularly to see me are seeking something. Usually, they’re lonely. And whether they know it or not, they value the experience of being seen by someone who is kind and non-judgmental, someone who—for the duration of their visit—is paying attention only to them. Very much like a therapist.
For strip club customers (and even for some male therapy clients) the boundaries of the focused and affirming attention from a feminine-presenting person can be confusing. The nature of a strip club with its booze, loud music, and general party atmosphere makes it especially important to be firm and clear in defining the nature of the relationship. I make it clear to my regulars that our relationship will only ever exist in the confines of the club: I’ll never go out with them during the day, and they’ll never take me to dinner.
On the nights when I feel good—when those boundaries are being respected without any whining or wheedling, when I’m being compensated fairly for my time and efforts—it’s easier for me to be curious about these relationships, which are so different from anything I’ve experienced in any other part of my life. When I’m with a therapy client, I have to learn what they need from the space, what it is they’re seeking to receive help with or to heal within themselves. In many ways, strip club regulars come to see me for similar reasons, though the outcome is more about fun and relaxation than accomplishing any real therapeutic work. Still, the vibe is undeniably similar.
So, how else is a stripper like a therapist?
One of the first things you learn in therapy school is the phenomenon of transference. Transference is, to put it very simply, a fantasy. How does the client fantasize about the therapist? This can include, but doesn’t always include, sexual fantasy (which is called erotic transference). But more commonly, the fantasizing has to do with the role the therapist serves for the client. In my work as a therapist-in-training, I’ve played many roles. I’ve served as big sister and mentor. In one instance, a client told me I remind her of her grandmother—not because of my age, or how I look physically, but because I was the only other person besides her grandmother who she could talk to so openly. The shape and function of the relationship was similar, and that is what defined her transference to me.
Transference is a way for a therapy client to transform “blank slate” of the therapist into the role they need to heal something within themselves. Strippers are often “blank slates” too. And if you can figure out what kind of experience a customer wants—innocent flirting with the girl next door or downing shot after shot with a buxom girl gone wild or slinging back beers with a girl-bro in ripped fishnets and stilettos who will transition seamlessly into an aggressive yet no-frills sexpot—the easier and faster you’ll secure the bag that night.
At the strip club, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that most transference is erotic transference. I am the dream girl, the fantasized nurturer with no emotional needs of my own, young and beautiful and—most importantly—present, with a bottomless interest in the minutiae of a customer’s daily life. One of my regulars says to me, often, that I “make him feel like a teenager again.” Maybe I remind him of a first love, or even just a feeling of youth and vitality, which is the gift that keeps bringing him back to the club.
Emotional vulnerability and healing
It goes without saying that you should be able to open and vulnerable with your therapist. If you can’t be, then the “work” of therapy can’t take place. What I wasn’t exactly expecting when I started stripping, however, was how many men would come to be emotionally vulnerable with me: The customer who works twelve, fourteen, sixteen hour days, and goes home to an empty apartment, sending money as he can to his wife and small child abroad, who looks at me blankly when I ask him what he does for fun, or whether he has any friends. The customer who came in on September 11th and sat at the bar, not looking at any of the dancers, and asked me simply for a hug that night, explaining, sadly, that he’d lost a lot of friends years ago in the terrorist attacks.
The difficulty with emotional vulnerability in the strip club is that sometimes, customers and dancers alike aren’t always prepared for it. To witness and hold another person’s vulnerability is a skill. As people who are socialized feminine, and who are operating within the highest femme gender presentation as a stripper (everything about our femininity is exaggerated to almost drag performance levels in the strip club), we might have a bit of an edge when it comes to receiving such vulnerability. But it’s not for everyone. Customers, too, can be taken by surprise when they open up in unexpected ways. Some react with anger, suddenly dismissing me as “just” a floozy stripper in it only for the money. (I mean, it’s my job, so yes, money is at the forefront of my concerns—but therapists, too, won’t see you if you don’t pay them for their services.) Others become frustrated or confused, because most times, when men experience emotional vulnerability and lust together, it’s within the context of a romantic or sexual relationship. When they realize that just because I can be empathetic, it doesn’t mean we’re going to have sex, they don’t know what to do.
Acceptance of so-called ‘deviant’ desires
It happens less often than I like, but being able to be a safe presence for someone’s sexual hang-ups is one of my favorite customer interactions. It usually involves the most basic of kinks: hair pulling, a firm hand to the neck, some light spanking, if the customer has dominance fantasies; slapping a customer, stepping on him or calling him names, if he’s more submissive. Or even just receiving some loving attention to my feet from the foot fetishists, which feels great after stomping around in eight-inch heels for hours. It’s also a reminder to me as a queer sex worker, just how sex-negative heteronormative culture is, that even these things, which seem so harmless to me, have men coming to the club week after week to do with strangers what they’re often too afraid to share with their partners.
One of the things I love about these interactions is how easy it has become for me to firmly and concisely establish the exact boundaries and rules for such interactions. I get to teach men not only that it’s okay to want these things, but that these desires are more common than they’re aware of, and are not at all shameful, provided that they’re enacted in a way that everyone participating is consenting to. I taught one customer about the concept of a safeword, and we discussed the exact degree of roughness our scene in VIP would reach. I’m proud of how I was able to lead him into a scene that we both enjoyed, and keep myself safe while doing so, all while making a pretty penny for my efforts.
In a therapist’s office, a client would be able to express such “alternative” desires and (hopefully!) be met with non-judgment and affirmation, and perhaps resources for where they could experiment with like-minded individuals. But there’s very little embodied practice in standard talk therapy, even something as simple and common as a handshake ends up being thoroughly interrogated with your supervisor afterward. The no physical contact ethical rule between therapists and clients is there for good reason: The stakes are higher with clinicians, and a therapist has a lot of power over their client that needs to be recognized and handled with caution and care.
Still, one of the benefits of being a stripper in this situation is that afterward, the validation and affirmation of these desires was taken to an experiential (i.e. physically experienced) level. If the relief on that customer’s face was any indication, a lot of healing could occur if our culture was more open to somatic (experienced in the physical body) sex education and healing practices, though happily, some do exist.
How is a stripper not like a therapist?
While there are a lot of aspects of stripping that are similar to being a therapist—the transactional nature of the relationship, the ways in which fantasy is projected onto the stripper/therapist, the opportunity for healing and connection—as someone who is studying to become a therapist, the differences, too, are stark. Therapy is widely accepted as a legitimate form of work, while sex work is not. And while a clinician’s clients may sometimes develop unhealthy or inappropriate attachments to their therapists, it usually doesn’t pose much of a threat to the therapist.
By contrast, some of the women I dance with have been stalked, and there’s little recourse for them when something like that happens, as sex workers are often accused of “leading a guy on” (hello, creating a fantasy is literally part of our job) and assumed to be deserving of the violence we encounter.
Finally, therapists—hopefully—pursue their work, at least in part, because they want to help people heal. Strippers are there to pay our bills, and the primary function of our job is to be an entertainer, not a shrink. Providing a healing experience for someone can be a welcome, but by no means mandatory, side effect of that. More and more frequently, though, the men who come to my club are coming in with a sense of entitlement: that because I’m there, and because I’m feminine-presenting, friendly, and undressed, that they’re entitled to my services (conversation, entertainment, dance) for free or cheap.
No one expects their therapist to work for free, even if they do find it fulfilling to provide support, validation, and guidance. It shouldn’t be expected of strippers and sex workers either.