In a recent article for Vogue, Audrey Gelman, one of the cofounders of women’s coworking space The Wing, talks about expanding the company and opening new spaces in places and venues all over the world. During the interview, she and her cofounder, Lauren Kassan, were scouting potential sites in Paris. Many of the sites they toured often had the trappings of a vaguely feminist history: one building is the former residence of the famous mistress of Louis XIV, Madame de Montespan, who never let any men into her space unless they were servants. Another is located in London, next to the first women’s club in Britain.
“My dream,” Gelman explained, “is to one day open in a former strip club.”
When I read this, I wondered at the sentiment behind it. Was Gelman suggesting that — like the legend behind the home of Madame Montespan — there is something inherently feminist about a strip club that would lend itself to the ostensible theme of women-only coworking spaces? (After all, the sex industry is the only industry in which women make more money than men.) Or, rather, was she suggesting that by taking over and converting a strip club into the Wing, she and Kassan would remake the space into something newly feminist, maybe even redeeming it of its sordid history? Knowing what I know of mainstream feminists — particularly wealthy, white feminists who make activism a brand only accessible to those who are similarly wealthy — I suspect it is the latter.
The strip club dressing room is already my feminist coworking space, and here’s why:
We respect each other.
One of the things I was most nervous about when I started dancing was not interacting with men, but interacting with my fellow dancers. After all, I’ve lived in a feminine body for my entire life, and I’ve experienced men sexualizing me against my will since before I hit puberty — working in a strip club was just an extension of that. Plus I was getting paid. It took me approximately two minutes to get over my nervousness and stage fright about performing in various states of undress in front of strangers. It took me a little while longer to feel completely comfortable behind the scenes, in the dressing room with the other dancers.
Now, two years into dancing and just over a year at what has become my home club, and it’s silly to me that I ever worried. Before I started dancing, I’d heard stories of strippers being catty with each other, or being cutthroat and competing over customers and money. And while I’ve heard from other dancers that it is sometimes like that at other (usually larger, and perhaps more lucrative) clubs, I’m extremely grateful that this hasn’t at all been my experience at my club.
I work at a local club where it’s rare, on a given night, that there are more than a dozen dancers working. We all know each other’s names. We all know a bit about each other’s lives. And we all respect each other. We don’t interfere with each other’s money. We know that cutthroat competition or talking smack about coworkers isn’t a good look on anyone. Even when there’s conflict between dancers, we’re professionals about it. (In fact, most of the drama is either instigated or exacerbated by the male staff; irony upon ironies.)
When collecting tips by the rack, the dancers on stage will often encourage customers to tip the dancer they’re sitting with, and it’s not uncommon for dancers to team up for doubles lap dances and private rooms. When customers ask me invasive questions about my coworkers’ bodies (“Do you think her ass is real or fake?”) I very pointedly tell them that I’ve never asked (even if I know the answer).
We’re generous with each other.
There’s no place quite like a strip club dressing room right at the start of the night. Dancers trickle in, usually having only awoken a few hours ago, on stripper-time, ready to order a meal that for us is usually either breakfast or lunch. Those of us who walk in without cash in the beginning of the night know that if we’re hungry, one of the other dancers will cover us until we have enough singles to pay her back. I bring snacks to offer to my coworkers and leftovers never go to waste because there’s always someone who’s hungry or who started the party a little too quickly, or too early, and needs a bite to keep from getting sloppy.
We’re also generous with our belongings. Makeup is swapped. We share perfume, deodorant, pole grip, hair wax, emergency tampons, even outfits or shoes sometimes if someone’s heel breaks or they forget something at home. There’s a sense of camaraderie in the dressing room that nothing can compare to.
We practice body positivity.
It’s no secret or lie that the sex industry is built on white supremacist and fatphobic beauty standards and perpetuates a hierarchy that replicates these standards. Strippers (and other sex workers) as a rule aren’t able to operate independently of that. But to the extent that we can, I, and the women I dance with, try to practice body positivity. When one of us bemoans our figure (a bad habit, but one that is based on the fear that if we don’t stay within a certain ideal, our jobs could be threatened), the rest of us are quick to rally around her and give her confidence.
Since I started dancing, my views on plastic surgery have changed. The women I know who have had their bodies done are happy and comfortable in their skin, and the women who haven’t had plastic surgery have nothing to say other than, “Damn, sis, you look good,” and maybe ask for a referral. And while I still might not do it for myself, now there’s less judgment attached to my understanding of the choice to have one’s body done. It’s not wrong — or any of my business — for someone else to choose to have plastic surgery.
The body positivity practiced in the strip club dressing room is imperfect, but it’s also unassuming and joyful. My favorite example of body positivity that I experienced at work was also profoundly healing for me. It was in the middle of a mediocre night — we’d all had a bunch of drinks, but the club was mostly empty, and we were hanging out in the back. Tipsy and giddy, a bunch of us were sitting in the dressing room when the conversation suddenly shifted — as it does — to vulvas. Spend enough time naked with people, and you’re going to notice each other’s bodies, after all. In my day job as a sex educator, I’ve thought a lot about how the variety in size, shape, and color of vulvas isn’t information that is mainstream, and how for me, personally, that led to a lot of angst in my sex life as I worried for much of my twenties that I wasn’t “normal” or that my vulva was weird-looking or unattractive. (This, by the way, is called sexual self-esteem.) In one night, half a dozen tipsy strippers stood cackling and completely naked, studying each other’s bodies, joking about our insecurities and paying each other specific and meaningful compliments — about our vulvas! The general consensus was that we’re all drop dead gorgeous, perfect angels.
The strip club signifies financial freedom and possibility for many of us.
Working in the sex industry, as I’ve said, isn’t perfect. There are aspects of it that are harmful, and because we work with our bodies, the harm of it is often experienced in direct and embodied ways. But the fact remains that for many of us, working in the sex industry is a stepping stone to improved circumstances. As @polapinaprincess posted recently (reposted by Chase Kelly of Survive the Club, here), in light of the closing of The Body Shop, “During the 50 years they were in business, that club provided more security and hand-ups to more woman than any other organization I can think of.”
I work with women whom stripping has allowed to pursue multiple degrees, and to graduate with barely any debt. I know strippers who have started their own businesses — clothing lines, pole studios. I dance with women who are able to support not only their children, but also their aging parents on the money they make at the club. My coworkers have the most grit, determination, strength, and resilience of any group of people I’ve ever met. And while there are abusive practices within the industry (such as clubs charging dancers upwards of $200 a night in house fees just to work, or clubs hiring “startenders” with little bartending experience but huge Instagram followings who frequently upstage the dancers, as well as “clean” dancers side-eyeing “dirty” girls who do extras (knock that crap off, ladies)), in the dressing room, I have been fortunate enough only to experience good things.
For me, the strip club dressing room is a feminist coworking space that I don’t have to spend three thousand dollars a year to join. Our feminism is imperfect at times, for sure, and it probably wouldn’t sell too well as a brand. But our solidarity and sisterhood is real, and it doesn’t need to be remodeled.