Exotic Dancers and Sexualization
Exotic dancers are commonly considered a deviant population. Many stereotypes exist regarding the sexuality and sexual practices and backgrounds of these women who use their bodies and sexuality for financial gain. Many assume that dancers experienced sexual abuse as children or teenagers and/or have distant or abusive relationships with their fathers if they had any adult male figure present at all during their developmental years. The stereotypical dancer is sexually “loose” or promiscuous and adventurous, possibly a prostitute, and is probably at least bi-sexual. It is my belief that these stereotypes arise from the same misogynistic attitude that stigmatizes these dancers and serves to further distance dancers from the ideal of the “good woman”, confirming her “bad girl” status: strippers are deviants and whores. Women who do not participate in sex work and hold these stereotyped images of women who do dance or do other sex work may do so in order to further distance themselves from these women, confirming their own positions as “proper” women.
Dancers’ personal lives and their own sexuality may be affected by their jobs as sex workers and may, in turn, affect their ability to perform their work, and the dialectic between their personal and work lives may have important affects on their emotional or psychic selves. Further, childhood experiences of abuse or early sexualization may lead to deep emotional scarring that allows women no other avenue but sex work to validate their selves. However, to assume that all dancers are victims of abuse or circumstance ignores the individual agency of the women who go into sex work for a living, and devalues their experiences within the sex industry and a sexist capitalist economy. Jennifer Wesely states, in her study "Growing up sexualized: issues of power and violence in the lives of female exotic dancers" (2002) one of the problems with these stereotypes and the research based on them, especially that of abuse:
[I]t is an oversimplification to assert that there is a direct correlation between child sexual abuse and adult sex work. A more complete understanding of women who are exotic dancers should include an analysis of the ways they describe having felt sexualized as children and at what point along the continuum [of ‘common’ sexualization of girlhood to sex abuse] these feelings fall. The sexualization of girls contributes to an awareness of the exchange value of the female sexed body and contradictory feelings of powerlessness and empowerment are derived from this awareness (1186).
Therefore, a closer examination of these women’s experiences is warranted. By letting these women speak of their own experiences and explain their choices and experiences from their own perspective, a more complete picture of the lives of sex workers can begin to be formed. As the stereotypical and derogatory images of sex workers are addressed and possibly dismantled, the position of sex workers may be de-stigmatized so that these women may be allowed fuller, safer lives within society.
This study is based on interviews with five dancers from a middle class “gentlemen’s club” in a suburb of a medium size Midwestern city. The purpose of the interviews was to attempt to construct a more complete understanding of exotic dancers’ sexuality and the affects of their job on their personal and sexual lives. Of particular interest were common stereotypes about dancers and the findings of previous studies that seem to confirm some of the beliefs or attitudes behind these stereotypes.
Deviant populations have long been of interest to researchers of the social sciences. Populations which include women or other marginalized groups are also of interest, and due to their social position, often find themselves stigmatized or made deviant. It follows that sex workers, almost always women and most definitely a “deviant” group in Western societies (despite their prevalence), have been the subjects of many social scientific studies. Many of the studies of exotic dancers seem to focus on the same issues as addressed by society’s stereotypes of exotic dancers: drugs, promiscuity, incest and abuse, and homosexuality.
Recent theoretical developments of third-wave feminism have broadened the way the topic of sex work is studied and analyzed. Contemporary research more commonly considers the possibility of simultaneous sexual empowerment and powerlessness experienced by exotic dancers. The ability to ‘manipulate’ a male customer into giving a dancer more money than he had perhaps initially intended may leave the dancer feeling powerful. “The power seemingly regained tips the balance in a way that makes the women feel superior to the male customer… Feeling in control because a customer claims a dance is ‘better than some sex he’s had’ still reduces the exchange to the value of her sexed body. The trade of body for money made it difficult for the dancers to avoid reducing their own bodies to their weight in dollars, especially during times when money was tight and customers refused to pay (attention)” (Wesely: 1198-1199).
Dancers, and women in general, are taught to value their bodies for their sexual exchange value through the process of sexualization which often occurs at a young age before the ability to separate and fully understand the “confusing messages that the same bodies that are degraded, violated, and abused also signified female identity and granted them some form of power. The complex ways that these messages intertwined for the women (as girls) seemed always to lead back to the body: as the locus of both powerful and powerless feelings, the sexualized body became the only clear point of identity for the developing self” (Wesely: 1194-1195). For dancers, who may have been more likely to experience childhood sex abuse (Wesely: 1186), this paradox may lead the women to “try to achieve feelings of power through these bodies as they grew up, and their attempts were intermittently reinforced by responses they received… Indeed, some described how they used their sexualization and objectification to their advantage” (1195).
Dancers and other sex workers often consciously “create a manufactured identity specifically for the workplace as a self-protection mechanism to manage the stresses of selling sex as well as crafting the work image as a business strategy to attract and maintain clientele” (Sanders: 319). This identity or persona is a result of the women who dance “learning at an early age that acting provocatively and emphasizing their sexuality garnered them attention and sometimes even a feeling of power” either through adults in their lives (abuse or otherwise) or from cultural climate (Wesely: 1190). The sexualized work persona is also performance of fantasy for not just the consumer, but for the dancer as well (Barton: 588); while working as an exotic dancer, a woman may take on any of a variety of roles and personas, allowing her to explore new parts of herself.
This separate identity is one coping mechanism that allows the dancer to defend herself against the stresses of selling a highly personal part of herself. Splitting the self into front- and backstage realities (Philaretou: 42) can be problematic as “counterfeit intimacy generated by the dancer persona ha[s] the potential to become real to the dancer” (Barton: 589). Additionally,
Individuals who are engrossed in their pseudo-self performances, such as female exotic dancers, tend to expend a considerable part of their time and energy staging pseudo fronts in an effort to fulfill their occupational obligations, and as a result, come to face considerable difficulties in attaining/maintaining genuine, meaningful, and anxiety-free intimate interactions with their significant others… Experiencing meaningful intimacy is vital for strengthening an individual’s self-concept, -esteem, and –efficacy by acting as a primary social support coping mechanism in times of adversity, such as coping with the stress of attempting to manage a stigmatized sexual identity, as is the case with most female exotic dancers (Philaretou: 44).
As time goes on in a dancer’s career, her self-concept may erode, leaving her “increasingly cynical, jaded, and ill” (Barton: 572). Social relationships, especially romantic ones, become strained as “dancers develop disdain for men the longer they labor in the sex industry” (Barton: 581). Both the actual on-job experiences of dancing as well as the experience of stigmatization contribute to the stresses felt by dancers and other sex workers. A problem with selling access to parts of the self is that the self may be consumed (Sanders: 325), leaving behind a changed or damaged person. “Emotional burn-out” (Phileratou: 48) is common.
Another way of avoiding this consumption of self identity is the setting of physical or psychological/emotional boundaries on the part of the dancer. Boundary setting is an important part of performing sex work; some acts of body parts are forbidden to customer access. Though boundaries may backslide over time (Barton: 581-582), the ability to set these boundaries carries through to other parts of the women’s lives (Barton: 591). This is one example of ways female exotic dancers may find re-empowerment through dancing. Further, some research has found that the erotic interactions of sex work may, in fact, be somewhat pleasurable for the sex worker (Savitz: 203), though the women report enjoying sexual interactions with intimate others more satisfying, despite the distancing of pleasure from sex that may occur as another coping mechanism (Sanders: 326-330). The level of sexual pleasure reported by sex workers was actually larger than the control group in Savitz and Rosen’s study.
Barton (2007) reports that dancing may aggravate this process of sex-based self-valuing and disempowerment, though: “dancers also observed that they began to value their sexual desirability and overall worth in the world by the daily, unpredictable income of stripping… the dancer who blurs her personal rules and names her price has then momentarily valued an aspect of herself—her pride, her sexuality, her character—that we culturally learn is priceless” (Barton: 583-584). Dancers may use sex work as a way of rediscovering and reclaiming their sexuality and feminist agency, however, sex work “often contributed to the violence experienced by the women, thus challenging their attempts to feel powerful as adult sexual beings” (Wesely: 1187). “Valuing sexuality when sexual value is a component of female oppression is particularly difficult for sex workers” (Wesely: 1184), and women may draw “temporary, illusionary feelings of female power… while on the job” (Phileratou: 42). How real is that power in the face of other experiences of power and disempowerment found on the job for sex workers? How much credit can we give these feelings of ‘power’ as subversive or feminist agency?
A total of eight women were interviewed for this project, including one woman who was not yet a dancer but seriously considering taking a job as a dancer. The women ranged in age from 19 to 30, mostly in their mid-twenties. They had been dancing from six months to seven years in a variety of clubs ranging from middle-class “gown clubs” to “dives where gang-bangers and cholos hang out”. The women were interviewed either face-to-face or via e-mail. Those interviewed via email were contacted through a website catering towards exotic dancers. Three were in long-term relationships, two were co-habiting with long-term partners (including one who was engaged to be married), two were married, and one was casually dating but uncommitted.
Feminist methodology requires that the social scientific researcher allows the researched population to participate in the research project. For this reason, face-to-face interviews were conducted in an informal context at a bar near the club where the women worked, and, though based on a rough guide of questions and topics to be addressed, were mostly guided by the interviewed women.
Additionally, some auto-ethnographic data is included. Reflexivity in sociology and the other social scientists, valued by social scientists, especially feminist researchers, involves the researcher reflect on how their own perspective and experiences may shape how they interpret data and even how they collect that data. During the time period in which this study was conducted, I worked as an exotic dancer in one of the clubs from which I drew my sample. My own history and experiences are given consideration in my analysis along with the interview data. Though I attempt to keep an objective stance on the data and the subject studied, my personal involvement with the topic gives me a particular perspective, and a potential bias which may influence my analysis.
As I began reading through the transcripts and notes, two things became immediately apparent about these women: they are very self-aware, and they are articulate in their responses. Many of these women were either currently attending college or university or were planning to do so in the near future. A couple had already completed undergraduate education and were preparing for their graduate studies. This confidence and insightfulness may have arisen from their education, but because the women who were not interested in pursuing higher education also showed this trend, it can be assumed that there is some correlation between self knowledge and this line of sex work. The direction of causation or correlation is not clear, though it is quite possible that this self-awareness and knowledge comes from living in a “deviant” or stigmatized position; marginalized status may encourage or force a person to become more aware of the processes of self-development. Further, the creation and recreation of a “fantasy self” for performance may require one to be in constant dialogue with oneself. This is a topic worthy of further research.
I will address my additional findings toward those of prior researchers, and the stereotypes, which I have intended to confront and dismantle. As stated in my introduction, I believe these stereotypes are part of the violence done to sex workers. They serve to further distance the sex worker population from the population of “good women” and justify the physical violence done to the women while themselves doing psychic/emotional violence. Some of the research on dancers and other sex workers has fed these stereotypes or, perhaps accidentally, done further disservice by disempowering the women or “implying that she [the dancer] is both unthinking and immoral” and hence “aggravat[ing] the stigma” (Barton: 574) experienced by dancers. This is true of both traditional and feminist research.
The stereotypes and research themes can be broken into two categories: those which stigmatize the dancer, assuming she is an addict or sexually promiscuous; or those which see the woman as a victim, coerced by societal forces into dancing, surviving abuse, etc. The most popular and enduring of these stereotypes seems to be that of the fallen woman; many of my own customers seem to make the assumption that I and my colleagues are all single mothers, whores, and/or drug addicts with no education and no future prospects beyond pornography or prostitution. This stereotype may be a coping mechanism on behalf of the customers of strip clubs who would rather believe that they are patronizing a woman who has no other source of income rather than victimizing “one of their own”.
As mentioned above, several women in my sample have at least some college education, and several others plan on enrolling at some point. Nationally, around half of U.S. women of the corresponding age group have at least some post-secondary education, according to the U.S. Census Fact-Finder (online at factfinder.census.gov). Slightly less than half of my sample was either currently enrolled in college or had finished a degree program. Two of the women expressed interest in eventually enrolling in school. All had work experience and skills outside of their current occupation as dancers, and several expressed that they’d learned several important job skills, such as sales techniques, through dancing.
Another popular and enduring stereotype is that dancers are all addicted to drugs of some kind. My research directly contradicted this. Only about one third of the women interviewed reported using substances other than alcohol, only two of whom listed substances other than marijuana, one stating that she no longer used these drugs. Of the two women who listed only marijuana, one reported that she had stopped using it altogether in recent years. The woman who reported the highest usage is currently not working as a dancer. One woman reported being “substance-free”. Two of the women reported that they only drink or smoke at work, one describing it as a “problem”; neither described their drinking as necessarily excessive to the point of hindering their ability to perform their job or other aspects of their lives. According to official government statistics, these figures are roughly in line with national averages, which describe slightly over half of all Americans reporting illicit drug use in their lifetimes (online at whitehousedrugpolicy.gov).
The reported higher usage of alcohol while working may be a coping mechanism or a social lubricant for dancers who are unhappy or uncomfortable at their jobs. Further research on this may clarify this, but I offer caution that the way this research is conducted may serve to stigmatize the dancer population or imply that this population uses substances at a higher rate than the general population, thereby increasing the deviant status of the group.
None of the women saw themselves as “promiscuous” or sexually deviant, and indeed rankled at the idea of such. This is a familiar stereotype for these women that they must contend with from customers, family members, and members of the general population who see dancing as deviant. Indeed, all of them women who currently dance report that the exhausting nature of their work, and the long hours they and their partners work left little time for sex. Much research in this area has found similar data.
A partner stereotype to this one of sexual deviance is that dancers are lesbians or bi-sexual. My population included one woman who was in a long-term lesbian relationship, four women who identified as bi-sexual or who had had lesbian/bi-sexual experiences or tendencies in the past (though all reported currently being hetero-dominant or in a ‘straight’ relationship at the time), and three women who identified as straight and reported no lesbian or bi-sexual history. In some ways, these findings may corroborate the stereotypes. Further research on the socialization of dancers may explain this. Further, there may be other related factors, such as childhood experiences or social context, such as abuse or early sexualization as mentioned by other researchers, which influence the women’s sexuality (some of these are discussed below).
The second set of stereotypes set up strippers as victims: dancers come from lower socio-economic status and experience far greater instances of childhood and adult sexual and physical abuse. My data directly refuted the idea that dancers come from predominantly poor families; six of the eight women I interviewed reported being from middle-class families while only two described their families’ economic situation as “pretty poor”, though one describes her family eventually obtaining middle class status. I, myself, grew up in a working class family with middle class values, which also refutes the stereotype. The women in my sample seem to, as in other areas, conform to the Census average of U.S. citizens in respects to family incomes.
Other family issues may contribute to a woman’s decision to dance. The early sexualization or childhood sexual abuse of girls is a common stereotype and is confirmed by much of past research which finds that dancers were abused at higher rates as children than were non-dancer women and that the choice to dance may be an attempt to reclaim power or confidence taken from them or an attempt to use their sexualized selves to their own advantage. Of the women I interviewed, three experienced both childhood and adult sexual and/or physical abuse (though all reported currently being free from the abuse; one is still with a formerly abusive partner), two witnessed verbal or physical abuse or their mothers by a father or step-father, and three denied having ever experienced or witnessed any kind of abuse as children or adults. This data reveals a rate slightly higher than the national rate of 20-25% (online at childwefare.gov) for childhood sexual abuse. The rate of abuse by adult partners is on par with the national average which is estimated at approximately 30% (online and endabuse.org). A larger sample and further research is needed to draw a solid conclusion on these findings. Additionally, I would like to note that actual abuse statistics may be misleading as it is difficult to calculate an accurate estimate of the rates of abuse in our culture.
A final stereotype I’d like to consider is that of dancers lacking relationships with their fathers. From the information I gathered, dancers seem to be in line with the rest of the population. Two of the women reported being “total daddy’s girl”s. Two considered their home life “normal” (parents still married, no incidence of violence). Only one described having significant conflict with her step-father throughout her life. One of the “daddy’s girl”s reported fearing her father as a child, but later grew very close to him. One mentioned no relationship with either of her parents, only that her family often asked for money.
On the whole, the women described enjoying their jobs, even finding power in their sexuality. The experience of being a part-time sex goddess seemed to elevate the women’s self-esteem allowed them to appreciate their bodies or appearances more. One woman described a conflicted view of herself through dancing: though she saw herself as more beautiful, she “obsessed” more over her appearance and weight than she ever had. My own experience has been similar to that which she described.
Some mixed feelings were reported, as the job could often be tiring and involve dealing with stressful and challenging situations. Many of the women reported that they wanted to use the experience as a route to other things: paying for education, saving money to retire or own a business. Only one woman reported wanting to dance for the rest of her career. The money aspect of the job is what kept the women connected to the work.
The slightly higher rate of childhood and adult abuse experienced by women who work as exotic dancers is of concern. Violence against women is an epidemic in the U.S. and must be confronted. My research did not turn up any clear link between adult sex work and childhood abuse, though it did indicate that there may be some connection between the two. Not all women who were abused as children choose to do sex work. The increase in self-confidence and self-awareness that is reported by my sample and the women interviewed in other studies indicates that dancing may help to undo some of the personal damage done by this abuse.
Though my sample is small, it demonstrates the falseness of most stereotypes about exotic dancers. Only one woman described herself as highly sexual and being attracted to the job because she could express that. The main point of attraction for these women was the possibility of a steady income and the ability to make their own work schedule. These motivations seem to far out-weigh any sexually-based motivation to dance.
Dancers did not report feeling sexualized at young ages, or feeling victimized by their sexuality, but rather seemed very comfortable with their sexuality. Further research may reveal how this level of comfort compares with that of the general population. The articulateness and self-knowledge expressed by my sample described above seems to me to be higher than that of the average young woman, though. Perhaps dancing, while still being somewhat stressful and placing the women in a socially stigmatized position, allows these women to explore and learn about themselves in society in ways that traditional outlets and occupations for women do not.
Barton, Bernadette. “Managing the Toll of Stripping: Boundary Setting among Exotic Dancers”. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography: Volume 36, Number 5, October 2007. 571-596.
Philaretou, Andreas. "Female Exotic Dancers: Intrapersonal and Interpersonal Perspectives." Sexual Addiction 13.1 (2006), 41-52.
Sanders, Teela. "‘It's Just Acting’: Sex Workers’ Strategies for Capitalizing on Sexuality." Gender Work and Organization 12.4 (2005), 319-342.
Savitz, Leonard and Lawrence Rosen. "THE SEXUALITY OF PROSTITUTES: SEXUAL ENJOYMENT REPORTED BY "STREETWALKERS"." Journal of Sex Research 24.1-4 (1988), 200-208.
Wesely, Jennifer K. "Growing up sexualized: issues of power and violence in the lives of female exotic dancers." Violence Against Women 8.10 (2002), 1182-1207.