Let me be clear that I am acutely aware of the difference between sexual labour that is performed willingly and with freely given consent and that of the abhorrent abuse of power in sexual exploitation. In this article I am speaking about my own experiences as a university student of the former.
A 2015 research paper on student sex work, produced by Swansea University, found that 1 in 20 students in the UK engage in some form of sex work to help fund the high costs of university. If I had read this a year ago I would have been shocked. So where were all these strippers and camgirls? The porn stars and call girls? I’d certainly never met one. Or so I thought.
It wasn’t until I found myself in need of a fairly large sum of money in short space of time that I turned to sex work as a fun, and flirty way of making some cash. It was a way to experience the industry firsthand myself – something I had been endlessly curious about. And so, days after I finished my final exams I showed up to a west London strip club in full hair and make-up with lingerie I’d found in Ann Summers and some really really high stripper shoes (complete with a see-through platform heel). One topless pole dance for the manager later and I had a job! For three months I worked nights at the club, which were some of the most fun and exciting times of my life but equally some of the most personally trying ones.
Stripping isn’t for everyone and certainly not for those who shy away from emotional labour. That is, the aspect of the job that involves feigning interest in customers, having a smile plastered across your face when all you want is to eat crisps in the changing rooms, dancing as though you’re incredibly turned on and flirting with strangers. This isn’t to say that I always faked these affects – I often had great conversations, met fascinating people, loved dancing all night and fancied the pants off of customers. However, six hours into your fourth shift of the week it’s understandable not to feel like a sexual goddess at 4 in the morning! And this is the crux of the matter. Sex work is WORK. It is physical/emotional/mental labour, it is a valid and viable way for women and men to make money and should be considered as such by society at large. You don’t have to perform it, you don’t even have to engage with it, but you do have to accept these facts.
My experience is my own and it differs to others but personally I loved my time as a stripper. I miss it now as I undertake my master’s. However, I was confronted with negative stigma the moment I opened up about my work. The reaction expected from more conservative acquaintances also began coming from my more likeminded friends. I can now say with conviction that feeling the disapproval of one’s peers is a uniquely isolating experience. People frequently projected their own unwillingness to capitalise on their sexuality onto my choice to be a stripper. However, I was fortunate enough to have flatmates who were always up for hearing about my night over tea the next day, who went lingerie shopping with me, and for a laugh would practice giving lap dances to each other. Thankfully that made up for the blank stares, awkward silences and quiet judgement of others that I trusted to tell and quickly wished I hadn’t.
A common assumption about stripping is that dancing for customers, placing a premium on your sexuality, might feel degrading. I personally never found that to be the case. Interaction with customers were exchanges. Just as I gave my time and services, customers were active participants in sharing their lives with me. People come to strip clubs for many reasons, all socially driven and all fascinating to me as a social scientist. Some were horny (the most obvious one), some lonely, some came to bond with their mates and some came to spice up their relationships. These were never faceless punters to me but real people whose feelings I respected. I found that by refusing to treat customers as walking wallets, I was always respected in return. Some might be surprised to hear that throughout my three months as a stripper, the only times I ever felt shamed or degraded were when I told friends who didn’t respect my choice to be a sex worker.
One in twenty students perform sex work at some point to help pay for their degree. If you’re a student there are probably a few in your tutor group, one in your netball squad, one or two in your halls. There’s a reason, however, that you haven’t met them or may not be aware of what work they choose to do outside of class. Sexual labour is rife with stigma and there is little support to be found as a student sex worker.
If you’re lucky enough that a fellow student or friend confides in you that they engage with some form of sexual labour, be compassionate and kind. Offer support and be curious if/when appropriate. Remember, their decision doesn’t affect you so do the decent thing and make them feel supported – be a friend.
Callie is a former Mayfair stripper, current master’s student and ardent feminist. Beyond getting her kit off, Callie loves; reading anything Haraway, fairy lights, gin, the colour pink, bacon sandwiches milk chocolate protein shakes and Nicki Minaj.
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