Bourbon Street’s gelatinous humidity had just tipped over into rain when a 50-something white man walked in to Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club. I was spread eagle on cold marble before a sparse, unappreciative crowd, so I was grateful for his $2 tip. I found him at the bar after my set and thanked him.
Jeff turned out to be the kind of customer who asks questions. How old was I? (38, but I told him 32.) How long had I been doing this? (Off and on for decades, though I said a year.) But what else did I do? (Writing.) How would I feel if someone I knew walked into the club?
I didn’t like where this conversation was headed.
“I’d be OK with that. I’m not ashamed of my job,” I said — though I hadn’t always felt that way.
“If you could do anything for work,” my ersatz life coach said, looking over his beer, “what would you do?”
Jeff must have assumed my ideal life looked nothing like the one I was living. Sometimes I can’t believe I’m still dancing, either. Sex work was meant to be a means to an end, something to do until I got my real vocation off the ground. But as I face middle age with the writing career I wanted ― and no intention to hang up my heels ― I realize “stripper” is part of my identity.
It started when I was 19. I met a man 27 years my senior among the French Market’s incense burners, Creole tomatoes and alligator heads. He bought me dinner, took me shopping and gave me a part-time job at his business. At the time, I didn’t realize ours was a sugar daddy-baby relationship — I just knew it helped pay my tuition.
Sometimes he brought me to Ship’s Wheel, a nautically themed dive strip club where girls played Nine Inch Nails on the jukebox and danced in reefer-laced darkness. I wanted to do what they did ― it looked easier and more fun than having to cater to one very annoying man. I went to a club to audition, but I was clammy and nervous in a peasant dress my grandmother had sewn, too young to order a drink. I was not ready.
I wouldn’t audition again for eight years. By that time, I was a grad student at Louisiana State University with nude modeling experience. The manager at Visions in New Orleans East looked me up and down and handed me paperwork.
“Day shift is a good time to start,” he advised.
He was right; I did well my first shift. Back in the bargeboard cottage I shared with four roommates, I counted my earnings again and again. $375. It felt like Monopoly money, something you win for playing a long, boring game governed mostly by chance.
Soon after, I dropped out of grad school and got an unpaid internship at the local alt weekly, befuddling my parents.
“Why would you work for free?” they asked. The answer was because I could afford to, thanks to stripper money. I danced full time for a year from 2008 to 2009.
Then I won the intern lottery. The special sections editor opted not to return to the alt weekly after maternity leave. I scored her windowless office and $38,000 salary.
By some miraculous transmutation, I’d succeeded in turning words into a paycheck. Triumphant, I hung up my heels. I was a Professional Journalist now, delirious with joy and over-caffeination, thanks to my workplace’s free coffee.
So why did I still want to strip?
I couldn’t explain why I hung out on stripper forums. Why I felt irrationally jealous of my best friend’s exploits as an escort. Why I worked a shift at an out-of-town club where no one would recognize me.
Like any unwelcome impulse, I tried to stifle it. I didn’t want to jeopardize my dream job. But my alter-ego was determined to assert itself.
One afternoon, the editor-in-chief poked his head into my office. “Can you meet with me in the photo room?” he asked.
There, I found the paper’s head of marketing, her mouth set in a grim, lipless line.
I’d acquired a cyberstalker, she said, one who had uncovered my identity by following my forum posts and anonymous blog.
“Time to out another stripper,” the cyberstalker commented on multiple stories posted to the paper’s website. “She’s now the editor of GAMBIT WEEKLY, a publication in New Orlearns (sic). Got the job last summer. Seems strippers are recession proof.”
The higher-ups assured me they were taking steps to control the situation, but I was mortified. I’d taken great pains to hide my double life from everyone except my best friend. Born and raised in southern Louisiana by conservative Christian parents who thought President Barack Obama was the literal anti-Christ, I couldn’t shake the persistent fear that stripping was an affront to myself, other people and God.
Now it felt like I was being rightly punished.
I took down my blog. I cut ties with my sex worker friends. I sold all but one pair of Pleasers on eBay. I didn’t get fired, and when I left the paper in 2016 to go freelance, I harbored no fantasies about getting back on the pole.
Actually, the thought frightened me. What if I can’t hack it as a freelancer and have to resort to stripping?
I did hack it, though. I earned the same amount as a freelancer that I’d been making at the paper. I snagged national bylines and interesting stories. I rode the LGBTQ beat, covering Southern Decadence and the shifting role of gay bars in the French Quarter.
I saw parallels between the Stonewall riots and the 2018 police raids that shuttered four New Orleans strip clubs while revealing no evidence of human trafficking. I wondered how sex workers could achieve what LGBTQ people have with their civil rights movement. How we could be seen as human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights — safe workplaces, freedom from discrimination, protection by the law — as anyone else.
And I realized I’d been complicit in my own erasure.
I didn’t return to stripping as a form of protest. When I got back on the pole last year, my rationale was much more practical. Dancing is lucrative, flexible and a good antidote to the solitary, sedentary work of writing. Sometimes I wrap up my assignments in the early afternoon and head in for mid-shift, ready for a drink and bar banter. When I’m slammed with writing gigs, I go weeks without setting foot in the club.
So far this year, I’ve worked 46 shifts. Stripping is better this time around, because I’ve learned what makes the job work for me. I prefer day- and early-evening shifts at stage-centric clubs, and I’m much happier when stripping isn’t my sole source of income.
Every time I come back after a break, I’m struck by the fact that in the club, nothing changes ― not the dance moves, not the hustle, not the smells (cigarette smoke and 50 million cumulative squirts of Victoria’s Secret body spray, underscored by a sour note of mop water). In the past, this made me grumble. But now I appreciate the club’s static quality, which reveals my shifting facets just as effectively as the mirrors framing the stage do.
I like the job, and I can’t do it forever. I don’t want to regret not having danced when I had the chance. I also don’t want to live in fear of being outed by a cyberstalker or punished by a vengeful god.
What I did not tell Jeff — and what I would like to have told him on that rainy July afternoon — is this.
In this past, I thought of my sex work as a flaw, an occlusion in an otherwise transparent quartz crystal. But given the right circumstances, this internal fracture refracts an identity: a woman’s holographic silhouette shimmering among shards of light shattered by disco balls, sharpened by laser projectors. She vanishes when the house lights come on, only to be reborn shift after shift in the strip club’s perpetual 2 a.m. darkness.
She’ll live inside me even when I leave the stage for good. And I’m more than OK with that. I’m proud.