Naked Truth: Reality and Fantasy Are (Stripper) Poles Apart

Naked Truth: Reality and Fantasy Are (Stripper) Poles Apart

by Bernadette Barton

Every semester I assign my undergraduate students in my gender and sexuality courses a class project on the media. They bring examples of music videos, television shows, commercials and MySpace pages to class and analyze the content for what it tells us about inequality in our society.

Bernadette Barton

If you’ve been watching any media images of young bodies, you know that lean, taut, sculpted female bodies are more “hot” than ever. It was this past Spring (2008). in my Sex Industry class, when I was watching perhaps the tenth video representation of anonymous female bodies writhing on stripper poles that it forcefully occurred to me that my book should be selling better. One of a handful of academic studies of exotic dancers, published with a reputable press, written (I think modestly) in an accessible voice, Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (New York University Press, 2006) ought to be a best seller.

Exploring the Erotic

My book explores the exciting aspects of exotic dancing and the toll it takes over time. Frankly, I found my topic inherently interesting and, unlike many researchers, never got sick or bored of it.

Researching and writing Stripped, I examined the mundane parts of working as an exotic dancer — How do they eat a meal if they aren’t supposed to leave the club? How do they get up and down the stage if they are intoxicated and the floor is wet? What do they do with tampon strings? I heard the thrilling and unexpected — What is it like to make $500 for five minutes of work? How is it that several women felt spiritual when they dance? I listened to the abusive — What happens when a customer calls her a “dirty whore”? — and the ways dancing compromises family relationships by making partners jealous, the costs of hiding the work from Mom and worrying about the kids.

But, it was watching how Stripped was publicly received that taught me something new about our culture: it is way more sexist than I realized, and I had had a pretty bleak attitude starting out.

The Culture of Female Sexuality

Probably like most authors, I had inflated expectations when my book first emerged. I had hoped for reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and the New York Times Book Review. I anticipated talk shows, radio programs and book tours.

But my book, like most academic work, did not make a huge splash, and I resigned myself to the relative obscurity most writers experience. However, while placing myself in the company of other well-received scholars whose work travels in small circles is comforting to my ego, such analysis does not do justice to the bigger picture of how our culture constructs female sexuality.

Watching all those images of strippers that the students were dutifully bringing in class after class for our cultural analysis presentations made me wonder if my book’s low sales might have to do with more than the usual yawn in reception that most sociological studies receive.

Researching exotic dancers, I learned much about the funny, intelligent, risk-taking capacities of women who step outside the narrowly constructed bounds of respectable femininity in U.S. culture. I poked my head inside the strip bar to understand what it’s like to be an exotic dancer in a society that both reviles and fetishizes the perfectly toned body and naked breasts on a pole.

But, after my local newspaper did a story on my upcoming book, I learned that the curiosity, empathy and respect I felt for dancers, and what their lives tell us about the rotten economic deals women face in a sexist society, was a minority perspective. The local piece was posted to (for its “freak” value I suppose) and received more than 54,000 hits. Unfortunately this was almost a full year before Stripped’s publication date and did little for sales. There were 414 comments on the article with many saying something like the following: “The truth about strippers is that they are naked. Talk to a stripper for 3 minutes and you’ll be just as much of as expert as this woman. I can’t believe people get crap like this funded.”

‘Ho ‘Stain’ Spreads Far

Sociologist Erving Goffman calls this “sticky stigma” – the stain of the sex industry rubbed off on me. This pattern repeated several times in much of the media coverage my work received. Another journalist doing a story on the book was asked by his editor why this topic was even worth researching. I made the mistake of doing a call-in interview with a shock jock based in Pittsburgh who sexualized me repeatedly throughout with comments like, “Aren’t you a stripper? Did it turn you on doing this research?”

This is all a little aggravating, and insulting and occasionally unnerving for me personally. But it says something worse about the way our culture constructs not only sex workers’, but women’s, sexuality. The condescension, the know-it-all attitude, the dismissive stereotypes, the insulting language — “I could have done the same damn thing with all the time I’ve spent in clubs blowing my money on the ‘ho’s” — illustrates how poorly people perceive women who work in the sex industry, how objectified sex workers are, how easily a three-dimensional person with dreams and kids and hobbies is dismissed, ignored and ultimately found less than human.

If a woman gets naked for money, that is the sum total of who she is to vast numbers of the population. I suspect that one reason Stripped hasn’t made the bestseller list is because people are not interested in going “inside the lives of exotic dancers.” They don’t care what a stripper is like and what she has to say. The men, at least, it seems would rather spend their twenty bucks on a lap dance, not a book.

Ironically, at the same time that contempt for actual sex workers seems to be as vicious as ever, and contemptuous disregard for women in general seems to have only grown worse, representations of strippers and porn stars permeate every other music video from rock to hip-hop to pop to country. These ubiquitous representations of panting hotties on poles encourage young girls and women, as Ariel Levy explores in her witty book Female Chauvinist Pigs, to be “Girls Gone Wild” and model their sexual selves after the stripper or the porn star.

Jiggling Booty Swamp

Young women today flounder in a toxic cultural swamp, measuring their self-worth against the representation of the jiggling booty on a pole. My undergraduate female students learn that to be hot, to be a star, to be seen on YouTube, to get attention from guys is the pinnacle of their power and achievement. I labor to squeeze inside their 20-year old heads –past the Pussycat Dolls, Tila Tequila and Rock of Love—to introduce the radical idea that their time might be better spent discovering a cure for cancer, entering politics, fighting poverty or researching renewable energy sources than obsessing endlessly about their bodies. What is truly screwy is that while the actual dancer struggles to break free of the one-dimensional dehumanizing stripper stereotype and be seen and heard as a person who likes poetry, just wants to support her children and finance her education in a crumbling economy, hers is held up for millions as the body and sexuality to emulate.

The part of me that expected I might cash in a bit on our cultural obsession with strippers – I thought, “at least my book will sell and create a deeper understanding of women who work as exotic dancers” – was mistaken. In our body-obsessed, media drenched, consumption-oriented culture, the simulacrum – the representation of the representation – of the woman on the pole, whether she is in a music video or giving you a lap dance live, is the end of the story.

And my book has only sold 2300 copies.

Excerpt from Stripped, Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers by Bernadette Barton

From Bad Girls (Chapter Three)

I guess the one thing I disliked the most is that, at the time when I was dancing, and people asked me what I do for a living, I wouldn’t just come out and say, ‘I’m a dancer.’ As soon as you mention the word dancer, or stripper, or exotic dancer, people automatically have this thought in their mind that she’s a prostitute, and she sells her body for money. It’s not even like that. I look at it as there are girls that go to these nightclubs and they are dancing on the dance floor practically half naked, and they are bumping and grinding with guys they just met. I look at it as if girls are doing it every night, and doing it for free, what is so bad about me getting up on stage and taking my top off and getting paid for it? People don’t look at it that way; they think because you take your clothes off for a living you are a bad person. Some of the best people I have ever met are dancers or were dancers and a lot of them go into dancing for good reasons – like they are trying to put themselves through college, or they are raising a family because they are single mothers. I know girls that are dancers that were going to school to become lawyers and doctors. Not all of them are bad people.
Tara, a single mother and former dancer

Dancers dislike the physical wear and tear on their bodies, the daily rejection that damages their self-esteem, and the verbal and sometimes physical abuse they experience inside the clubs. But, some dancers explained, however, like Tara, that the hardest part of dancing happened outside the club: confronting the constellation of assumptions about who they are because they work in a strip bar. These stereotypes range from depicting her sexual character as victimized martyr or conniving slut to judgments about her education level (high school drop-out) or her class background (“dancers are trailer trash”). If she is a woman of color, her race is another potential site for cultural assumptions, for example, that she is the Asian “lotus blossom,” African-American “hoochie,” or Latina “hot babe.” Furthermore, patriarchal anxiety, and desire, paint sex workers as bisexual or lesbian – “they’re all really dykes.” Stereotypes also depict dancers as stupid, lazy, sex-starved, addicted to crack, psychologically disturbed and hookers for the right price — and overall, as Tara expresses, that being an exotic dancer means you are a bad person.

Read the Preface to Stripped here.

Bernadette Barton is Associate Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at Morehead State University and author of Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers. She writes and lectures on contemporary issues of gender, culture, and sexuality. Her current work, The Toxic Closet, explores the intersection of religious fundamentalism and homophobia in the Bible Belt.