Stripper Diaries: How I Found Stripping and Social Work

How I started to strip.

Woman in a sweater reading book on the sofaPhoto by iStock

Welcome to the Stripper Diaries! My name is Janis. I’m a stripper, graduate student, and future therapist. This is my column about sex work, mental health, and the sex workers rights’ movement. So far, I’ve written about the things the strip club has taught me, as well what went into the decision to dance my way through graduate school.

This summer I also served as a fellow in the Sex Workers Giving Circle, facilitated by Third Wave Fund, which was the first of its kind and the only sex worker led fundraising and grant writing initiative in history. The SWGC put into action perhaps the most tenet of sex worker organizing – that the only people who should be leading the work around sex workers rights are sex workers themselves. Stripper Diaries aims to bring to light some of the primary concerns of the sex workers rights movement for non-sex workers and educate allies on sex workers rights history, in the hopes that you’ll join us in making the world a safer and more accepting for sex workers everywhere.

Here’s a little more about me:

Why Janis?

Because Luna was my first stripper name, and it wasn’t a good fit. Also, Janis Joplin shares a birthday (January 19) with one of my other heroes who fought for a better world: Buffy Summers. This was a happy accident I didn’t know until a year after I selected the name. And because I figured that my stripper-persona being a Capricorn would bode well for long-term stamina in the sex industry, discernment, strong boundaries when it came to interactions with customers, and a single-mindedness bar none when it comes to making money (as well as wisdom and discipline when it comes to saving it).

Why stripping?

I think a part of me has always been interested in stripping, though it has been mostly a subconscious desire (though how subconscious is debatable: In my senior year of high school, for example, I helped choreograph a bunch of teenagers into a somewhat-raunchy rendition of “Big Spender,” to everyone’s general horror and my own personal utter delight). I had a fairly traditional upbringing, though, and it never seemed like something I could do, even though I was interested in pole dance and burlesque. It took meeting and talking to sex workers outside of the context of sex work to realize how much internalized whorephobia I had grown up with, and the first few months that I stripped were extremely anxiety-inducing for me.

The long and short of it, though, was that I started stripping because I needed money.

I worked all through college in various customer-service-oriented jobs, and got my first gig out of school as an administrator in a hospital, which I did for five miserable years. I hated it. I worked in a lot of “good” neighborhoods, which means I dealt with a lot of rich people’s entitlement day in and day out, whether in the form of patients who just couldn’t handle the fact that they would have to wait their turn, patients who were projecting their own fears and insecurities about illnesses onto hospital staff (more understandable, but not more fun to be on the receiving end of), or self-important doctors who thought that because they were rich and successful, and because I was a young woman, it would be okay to bully me. (In real life, I’m an Aries. Nobody bullies an Aries and gets away it.)

When all was said and done and I was ready to leave admin work to pursue literally anything that would make me happier, I’d been in customer service for nearly a decade. It took a toll on my mental health that I’m still occasionally unraveling, but I think it also prepared me well to be a stripper. I started working as a youth counselor for homeless queer youth, many of whom were survival sex workers. I also found myself in social circles with more out sex workers than I’d ever encountered before.

The freelance hustle and social-service gig life was a grind. I needed money. I felt ready (or at least less scared) to get on stage and take my clothes off. I also needed flexibility in my schedule and more independence than any full-time job would grant me. The only other thing I was qualified to do was work in administration again, and I swore off that forever.

So I started to strip.

Why social work?

Most of what I wrote about when I started freelance work was something social-justice-adjacent, whether it was about body image, rape culture, queer identity, gender, intersectional feminism, you name it. Sexuality was a theme that kept coming up in my work, both as I began to understand the complexity of my own sexuality, and how it had been shaped culturally (often in quite unhealthy ways, that required a lot of healing work). I began to educate myself about this white supremacist, cis heteropatriarchy we call home, and used my work as small offerings toward changing it. I began to teach consent classes and offer the pleasure-inclusive sex education workshops for teens and youth that I wished I’d gotten growing up. I stopped stripping for a while to be a full-time health educator. Everything came back to money, though, and there’s only so far you can go with a Bachelor’s in writing when you’re once again trapped within the healthcare system.

I left my full-time job to go start a Master’s program in social work (hey, big spender) and went back to stripping on the weekends. While my home club itself is a bit of a dive, and none of us regularly go home with glamorous stripper stacks of cash, it is, for the most part, a safe space, and I’m comfortable there. But as I began to become more involved in the sex worker community on social media, it became crystal clear to me how much privilege I have as a sex worker. I’m a young (but old enough to have figured my boundaries out), relatively thin, able-bodied, light-skinned Latinx femme, who mostly only engages in legal forms of sex work. As such, I’ve skated by, encountering the occasional racial microaggression (and a hell of a lot of misogyny) at the club, but making what I need to get by and leaving each night relatively unharmed.

Watching the reactions of fellow sex workers to SESTA/FOSTA, and understanding my position within the sex industry more deeply, I also witnessed how little focus was given to sex workers at all in my Master’s program, supposedly where social justice leaders are made. This led me to realize just how much work needs to be done. It also made me realize how much more effective that work will be if we center the needs of Black and brown queer sex workers in our liberation movement. Over the course of the year, I came out at school, sometimes angrily, sometimes anxiously, but always with the goal in mind of using the privilege I do have to make the changes that needed to take place within academia if it’s gonna be worth the thousands of dollars I’m paying for it.

Sex work, to me, is where all of the intersections of identity converge. All the ills of capitalist, white supremacist, cis heteropatriarchy are brought into sharp relief in the challenges and dangers that sex workers face. In a very real way, these ills are given form and embodied, often with tragic consequences, and consequences that tend to be eagerly overlooked by those not within the sex work community. People die because social justice movements refuse to center the needs of sex workers, and refuse to trust sex workers when we advocate for ourselves. Yet, ironically, the efforts of sex workers toward liberation benefit everyone as a whole. Sex workers have always been fighting for a better and more just world, out of necessity. Our lives depend on it.

My social justice philosophy is informed entirely by one line from Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class: “Radical simply means grasping things at the root.” For me, the root is liberation for Black and brown sex workers, disabled sex workers, queer and trans sex workers, undocumented sex workers, poor sex workers, fat sex workers, sex workers who don’t find empowerment in their jobs as well as those who do.

If we can create a world where those of us who hold all or many of these identities can feel safe, can feel like the society we are a part of centers us and honors us, perhaps then we can start to heal this world. This is where the work begins.