After someone I knew became a stripper I had to start rethinking how I viewed the profession. The time came to truly put my sex positivity to the test. Now I am only human, and before, having stripper friends was for other people. People who had drug dealer friends or people who know someone who knows someone who sells guns and traditional beer from the back of a van with no hint of a liquor licence. People who use phrases like ‘vibing over our hoeism’ on twitter.
A friend of mine informed me, over a glass of wine, that she had started working at a local strip club. I was sure I had misheard her, but apparently I had not. Armed with her killer curvy body, her eloquent grasp of economics and Hephzibah as her stage name, she had applied to work at a strip club and had gotten in. And the most surprising thing was she was loving it. Sure, there are bad days, but it is not the doom and gloom you would think.
That was what got me the most. She had said that it was ‘one of the best jobs she ever had’. I asked her to write an online series about her experiences and thoughts on the industry, then I went to catch her act over a few nervous drinks, and then we sat down for an interview about how, when she hangs up her heels at the end of her working day in the world of finance, she picks up another pair to enter the sex industry.
When she started at the club, Hephzibah was a university student, like myself, which is actually how we met. We roamed the same spaces, had a host of mutual friends and she was doing a commerce degree with a major in finance. She is a beautiful woman in her early twenties from Limpopo, from a conservative Christian background. Her faith remains important, as seen in her choice of the name Hephzibah, a biblical name meaning God delights in her. Her parents wanted her to grow up to be a ‘sweet pastor’s wife’.
Hephzibah, a self-confessed exhibitionist, has always had a little bit of a freak in her. She loves her body and, like every woman, has every right to. However, she was the victim of a sexual assault by a group of men whilst walking home late one night. This rocked her to the core.
This, coupled with the loss of her bursary and possible interruption of her degree, meant that she wanted to get back ‘control of her life.’ She had tried waitressing, she had tried the summer job thing. And when she did her research she found out where the real money was. Now one may question why she would choose stripping as a means of achieving this. When something like assault happens there is a sense of powerlessness, a feeling that someone has encroached onto something very personal. Hephzibah wanted control of her body again and stripping gave her back that control. Her ability to command what her body did and with whom she allowed to engage formed a large part of the healing process.
Secondly, the money in stripping was good and school fees needed to be paid. And pay her school fees she did. Her degree in economics is not one that comes cheap, especially at the university she attended. In that way, she managed to fit into the stripper troupe, dancing to pay her school fees.
Sex sells, and working in a strip club testifies to this. This is not to say that every strip club you work in will have you earning enough to pay for a Masters degree (as one of Hephzibah’s colleagues was). There are still a host of them which greatly exploit their dancers. However, Hephzibah sought to pay off her university education in a matter of months. Her colleagues were using the money they earned for a number of things, funding international travel, supporting whole families, supplementing other careers. Within the array of dancers there were students, wives, mothers alike, local women and women from around the world.
Hephzibah was fortunate to land a job in an upmarket establishment that appreciates the finer things. She spoke of how men could spend upwards of R 25, 000 for a private session which involved anything from a couple of dances, champagne to conversation. This is not counting the tens of thousands spent throughout the night, as these private sessions could be as short as an hour to an hour and a half. There are also extra-ordinary circumstances, such as one experience when a customer told her about his foot fetish, asking to massage her feet for R 5000.
Going to a strip club should encourage a new saying: ‘money grows on thighs’.
A number of the women confirmed they were in the trade because the money was so good. In this particular space, one could earn thousands of rands in a single night. Of course, this was not guaranteed. Like any good service, the better you are at it the more money you will earn.
Hephzibah felt the monetary transaction, much as it can be problematic, could add positively to the experience. The exchange of money solidified the fact that this was, in fact, a service. One must essentially ‘respect their hustle’. As a provider of the service she has the expectation of ‘being compensated for my time and my effort and my myriad talents, including moving on a pole, dancing on a table or simply sitting and providing sparkling conversation to a guest.’
There is more to being a good stripper than simply going ‘Here are my bare breasts. Are they not nice?’ Hephzibah is part stripper, part psychologist and part rent-a-best-friend. Hephzibah has managed to weave her various talents – the knowledge from her degree, her ability to sing, her knack for sparkling conversation – into an entire experience that some days can earn her up to R 7000+ a night. She relayed the story of a man who, doubting that she had a commerce degree, simply wanted to have a conversation about her degree. He paid her a certain amount of money for every question that she got right – and she got enough of them right.
This was not the only story of its kind. She recounted tales of men who wanted her to sit with them and have dinner. Hephzibah spoke of men who needed someone to talk to about the stresses in their lives. There was an instance in which she gave advice to a man during his divorce, who was scared to begin again now that his marriage was over.
All of these experiences had very little to do with sex. Another colleague of Hephzibah’s spoke of times when she had a client who would want to come and speak, for hours. Of course, being a professional, she was compensated for her time. There is no doubt that men came into the space looking for a little eye candy, but one cannot discount the number of men who go into the space for the company.
Debunking the stripper myth
Hephzibah’s use of her job as a dancer to reclaim her sexual and physical power debunks the victim image that people often associate with strippers; the idea that this poor woman has her body on show and fundamentally feels violated and exposed. Naked, raw and ashamed. This was not the case with Hephzibah, nor was it the case with many of her colleagues. One phrase that a great number of people would not associate with a stripper is body positivity. Clearly if they are stripping they must hate themselves.
It actually takes a great deal of self-confidence to be on stage, in front of people you do not know, dressed in nothing more than a see through thong. It is hard enough for most of us to dress in this way in front of our significant others.
Hephzibah related that, after stripping, she felt she had become increasingly empowered, confident and unapologetic about her body. Part of her performance routine was singing renditions of famous songs during which she slowly discard layers of clothing whilst walking through the crowd and serenading them. During my visit to her place of work I witnessed many women like her who relished the performative aspect of dancing. When you watch the women move through space, you can see the confidence that some of them exude, the ‘you know you are looking at me,’ force. There was one particularly athletic woman who spun and worked the pole as if gravity was not a rule to her but merely a suggestion. I have taken pole dancing classes myself, so I know that the moves are not simple.
One female guest I spoke to, after partaking in a ‘strip club tour’ in Johannesburg, advocated that all women go to a strip club at least once in their life. For her, what was eye opening was the experience of seeing women unapologetically own their body in a way they are not normally able or allowed in every day society. She was intrigued by seeing the way in which women brandished their physicality in whatever shape and form it is in, every ounce of thick and jiggle, of seeing women with stretch marks and thighs that shook being able to brandish their sexuality in that way.
As a dancer, Hephzibah admitted that it was not always easy navigating the space where people saw your body as for sale, but slowly and surely she had made steps to interrogate the relationship between her body, the power it has and the money it could earn, and her mind set had shifted. She moved away from the initial idea that she is ‘selling herself’ to understanding that what she has is a marketable and desired commodity, in the same way her brain was useful for her corporate job on Monday morning. She shifted her thinking to the point where she has perfect answers for the men who are a part of what she calls the ‘save a stripper campaigns’.
She has now quit her stripper job to focus on her day job as well as starting her own private dancing company which will include burlesque shows and ‘themed nights’. She does have plans to own a portable pole and has no plans to retire her dance outfit for good, despite no longer needing the money. In fact, even after she paid her bills she went back for awhile, because she genuinely enjoyed it and how it made her feel.
Hephzibah’s story aside, let us not pretend that the sex industry is not exploitative, dangerous and every bit as dirty, dank and awful as depicted in some television shows and movies. There is still a sense of vulnerability in using your body as a means for getting money, a heightened sense of danger in a world that is riddled with rape culture. There is still stigma. If my child wanted to be a stripper there would be a good 70 per cent of me which would drag my child by her hair to the nearest family member for a stern talking to. However there would be that 30 per cent which would have to stop and think. Think back to my friend Hephzibah who turned a sterotype on its head in my mind, think about the power of the female body and how this power is only evil because people often fear what they cannot control.
This work is not for everyone, and there is a great deal to deal with in terms of social stigma. It can be emotionally and mentally taxing at times and even in the safest spaces rape culture and entitlement about women’s bodies can rear their ugly heads. However, the experience of my friend Hephzibah does need to at least challenge people to reconceptualise their bias towards sex and money and thus the sex industry. It is not always what you may think.