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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Features |
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Of Nips and Strip Clubs

When I first met Lucie, she was making plaster castings of people’s nipples. She used the stuff that dentists use to mould people’s teeth, because it held its shape the best. She told me it was for her art. The castings came out white, and very delicate at the edges. You could see every little crevice of skin, the lumps and bumps that made each nipple unique. She had no nipples of her own.
She had been a stripper for four years, and after her cancer, she went back to it. “Everyone would be staring at my boobs,” she said. “They couldn’t figure it out…. I just loved to see the confusion. And some of them would get it, if they’ve had friends or family who have had cancer, and would be like really shocked to see a survivor. But they would hand over their money straight away. ‘Here you deserve this take it’, they would say. ‘Thank you! I will!’”
I was interested in a stripper with a double mastectomy, because it seemed to subvert the sexual objectification that takes place in the strip club. Lucie with her “funny boobs” challenges our model of female sexuality, by positioning the cancer survivor as a sexual being. Her boobs remind the audience that she has a history, and is no mere object. It sounded feminist, and delightfully groundbreaking. She, a cancer survivor, could show the world she is still sexually desirable. Stripping was a way to own her sexuality, to gain confidence in her body, and for her to be clear about her boundaries and practice asserting them fully.
She loves stripping. She encouraged me to get into it. You become more confident, she said. The hours are flexible. It is a really good way to pay your bills through uni. A lot of the girls are uni students.

Here I hesitated.
I’ve stripped a little, back in the day. Age 20, fresh into my Anthropology degree, I was reading a lot of feminist pro-sex work literature. I felt very proud that I could see past common social perceptions. I could see that the stigma of sex work was arbitrarily held, and part of a set of cultural values and ideals which I did not need to subscribe to. Not needing to subscribe to these values, I could then break taboo, become the vanguard of creating the new normal. Besides, existing within a world where the female sexual body is highly prized, might as well use that to my advantage right?

Hence, stripping.
It was fun. I enjoyed the dancing and the heels and the pretty outfits. I felt more empowered to express my sexuality, in this world where I was expected to desire and be desired. The compliments were very flattering. The UV lights you up something special. Jessica, the head girl, was short, and pimply, and her hair was dry from too much bleach. But under those lights, she was a goddess.
But the job was problematic, and contradictory. The work is an ego boost, right? People compliment you. They say you’re hot. You feel good. They give you money because of how hot you are. You feel even better.
What then, the next day? The next day when someone says you’re ugly, when you get no tips, when no-one’s buying them lappies?
You feel…
You can’t take the compliments and ignore the insults, it doesn’t work like that. When feeling good, and getting paid, is dependent on someone else’s opinion of your looks, that makes you doubly vulnerable.
Lucie mentioned that a lot of strippers have mental health issues. She was saying it in a positive context, as in, the work can be very good for people with mental health issues, because it gives them rapid income and time to relax and recover. At the place I worked, Jessica reckoned that around 60% of the girls had anxiety.
It’s impossible to make presumptions about which came first, the mental health or the work. But, every time I’ve worked a job where my income is uncertain, I’ve felt anxious. When I was selling subscriptions for a charity on commission and my daily pay depended on how many sign-ups I got, I felt stressed and pressured.

With stripping, what you’re selling is yourself. If not your body, then your charm and desirability. So the anxiety of making a sale combines with the anxiety of self-image. Sticky.
“You’re often alone in a room with a guy,” Lucie said to me. “A lot of girls when they’re new are like ‘what if they try to do something with me’. Well — they’re gonna try and push the boundaries. A lot of the new strippers get harassed a little bit by nasty clients because they’ll come in seeking the new girls because they know they haven’t quite established those boundaries yet. The key is having really strong boundaries, and saying ‘you’re not allowed to do that. You do that again and I’ll break your fucking finger. Don’t think I won’t’. Usually I say that while holding their finger quite tightly and bending it slightly.” She laughs.
It made sex sound like war. I wished for a world where we don’t need to threaten violence to have our boundaries respected.
You’re getting around $50 for a 10 minute dance, because you’re a girl and look good and feel good and that’s worth something. Men are sitting there, mesmerized by your body. But you are dependent on men for income. The clients, and the club. The club makes the rules, the fines, the shifts. You get fined. For showing up late, for missing a stage slot, taking too long a break, for causing trouble. You can come out of a night in debt.
Lucie told me that some of the new girls felt disgusted at letting strange men touch them. “What they’ve been finding disgusting”, she said, “was that sometimes their bodies were kind of reacting, enjoying the experience.” I never found the touch disgusting. At times, it could be quite comforting. But I feel shy and embarrassed writing that I’m okay with letting a stranger touch my boobs — it’s not something I’m supposed to be okay with. It’s interesting that arousal from the hands of a stranger is sought after and celebrated by men, and something that women can barely admit to themselves. Social conditioning, right?
Lucie quit stripping eventually, because the hours were too long. 10-12 hours in stiletto heels. “Not conducive to efficient staff,” she said. “The girls were constantly exhausted.” She suggested split shifts to senior management. It’s up to them if they take it on board.
I quit after being told that I had to work Thursdays (no-one comes in on Thursdays, one Thursday I made $26 and I had the second-highest earnings that night), that I couldn’t play the music I wanted, and watching a different girl each week lie down on the floor of the change room crying, and worrying that someday that would be me next.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy that sex work is legal. I think the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalized sex work in New Zealand, was one of the best things that happened to us. If our freedom to make choices about our life and our bodies were taken away, we would suffer. And I might even go back. It’s a fascinating world with interesting people, and every job has its ups and downs right? We live in an imperfect world, and we can choose which imperfections we’d rather bear. But it just sucks that we live in a society where we reward wealth with “hot girls” and “hot girls” with wealth.
Lucie had tried to set up a stripping tour of New Zealand, to raise money for breast cancer. However, no one was on board. The brothel owner told her it was a “stupid idea” and no money could be made for it. When she went to charities, she was told it was too risqué. I guess it’s too early for the world to accept a combination of philanthropy and sex work. Which is a shame, because the tour would have done – well, something – to remove the association between stripping and immorality.
As we were wrapping up, I asked to feel Lucie’s boobs. She said yes. I give one a tentative prod and she grabs my hands and puts them right in there. They were kind of bouncy, like balloons. “Yeah, like a kid’s toy,” she said. “They’re foobs, fake boobs. People are like ‘you have beautiful breasts’. I can go completely braless and still have perfect shape, never have nips showing.” She told me the boob implants glowed in the dark.
I loved that Lucie was so positive, that she could transform her illness into something good. Perfect breasts are still a good thing.
*All names used are pseudonyms

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