FEBRUARY 26, 2018
How old are you?
Where are you from originally?
I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina and was raised there as well.
How did you get to New Orleans?
I went to the University of Kentucky for school and I was about to graduate from college with a Gender Studies degree and was looking up different Americorps programs. Americorps is sort of the domestic Peace Corps and I had heard of it as an opportunity not to get paid a lot but to have a job and do something important. I found an opportunity doing HIV testing and they had a list of cities to choose and I chose New Orleans simply because I was sick of Kentucky winters and I wanted to move somewhere where I wouldn’t have any winter. I knew I wanted to stay in the south. I’m from the south and remaining in the south to do the work I wanted to do has always been really important to me. It was between Atlanta and New Orleans and I chose New Orleans. It was because of the Americorps program that I got into sex work because Americorps pays you very little. That’s part of the mission. You’re supposed to be paid at the level of the people that you’re working with. Part of it is that they pay you at the poverty line and they give you SNAP and health insurance but I was making very little. I was making like a grand a month which barely covered my rent much less all the other bills and other things. And at Americorps you’re not paid by the hour, you’re paid on a stipend. You’re generally working over 40 hours a week for a nonprofit that essentially doesn’t have to pay you for your labor. I’m not saying I was exploited or anything--although I have heard horror stories from other Americorps programs--but I was working a lot for no money. And on top of my job doing HIV testing, I was a fry cook. I had just moved to New Orleans and I was this girl behind a fryer smelling like grease, gaining all this weight because I was eating cheeseburgers from where I work because I was poor, and I was getting harassed all the time. I was getting groped and it sucked. One of my first friends here was a sex worker and a stripper and she would make in a night what I would make in a whole month working 20 hours a week at this kitchen gig. So after a couple months of knowing her, it was a no-brainer to me to move to something that would be easier to work into my schedule. I could get paid to tell people not to touch my ass. That was what got me. Oh they don’t have to touch you? You can say whatever you want? That was what made me feel liberated. I think before I got into it I thought Dancing naked is why people find it liberating. That’s a naïve position to have but I wasn’t familiar and when I did it I realized the liberating and empowering part was being able to assert my boundaries. I credit my experience in sex work with helping me hone that skill. Being able to assert your boundaries, being able to know what your boundaries are and then enforce them around other people, that’s a skill and it’s a skill that we’re not always taught. To me, that was what was empowering.
How do you refer to your work?
I refer to it as stripping or as sex work.
Why is that?
I believe that if you’re making money off of boners, it’s probably sex work. Even if you’re not having sex, you’re still making space and using your body and wits to be this erotic force. You don’t have to have sex but there is definitely eroticism. Legally, you can’t be entertaining with the intention of getting someone off. Looking into laws in Louisiana, if you’re intention is to arouse someone, that’s illegal. But really that’s the name of the job so there is how I perceive it and then there’s how the law perceives it and how can I frame that so I don’t incriminate myself? The fact that I even have to think about that is crazy. I just think that if there is eroticism involved and you feel that you can identify with that label then I definitely think it’s sex work even if you don’t have sex.
Do you remember being told or taught anything while growing up about the societal expectations that come with being a girl?
Definitely. My mom is a lactation expert and a doula and I saw my first birth at the age of 11. My perception of being a girl and growing into a woman was really positive. She had this very empowering view that women’s bodies give life and that’s a powerful force and that women should support one another through the life-changing process of giving birth and the post-partum period. I grew up with all these positive messages. I’ve heard horror stories of other girls’ moms dieting in front of them or talking about their periods as being gross but I always grew up with this very positive view. But then when it came to sex, it was really inhibited. The message I was given was that sex was for married people and it wasn’t ok to do that or to behave in ways that might arouse that. It was conflicting because my mom was somewhat open about sexuality but I had gotten this message that sex was something I wasn’t supposed to talk about. I could talk about what happens after you have sex and you get babies and that’s all really beautiful. They were always open to questions but to want to have it outside of marriage was bad. I remember being told at church that if someone wants to have sex with me they don’t value me and that they’ll leave me and this emotional bond that you’re supposed to have and I really wasn’t feeling it. I had to have all these feelings around sexuality and sex and that they needed to be romantic and forever and I just wanted to fuck. I didn’t want to have to fall I love with anyone. And then being queer as well, there was zero talk at all about having a queer identity. I feel like when you’re exclusively homosexual you have a conviction that the opposite sex is not for you. But when you’re bi or pan it’s confusing because you know the opposite sex is totally for you and that that’s socially acceptable. It takes a long time to realize that these other things you’re feeling are valid. It gets really hard because you don’t have any type of script. I want Prince Charming but I also want the princess too! It took me until I was 15 to really realize that that’s what that was. Do you want her or do you want to be her? For a long time I thought I just wanted to be her but I finally realized that I want her too.
Can you define sexism?
You’d think that someone with a Gender Studies degree could answer this. The more I thought about sexism, I thought about racism. A great working definition of racism that people like to use is that racism is racial prejudice plus power. So that’s why white people can’t be racist, because they have the power. Anyone can be prejudice, racially, sexually, whatever else. But if you have the power then you’re the one who can be racist or sexist so I would like to define sexism as sexual or gender prejudice plus power. But where I think it gets sticky is that a lot of people who are impacted by sexism also carry sexist viewpoints. When we look at this with regards to race we call it internalized racism and when we look at it with sexuality it’s called internalized homophobia. So I would say that sexism also comes with people’s internalized sexism. People internalize the prejudices laid against themselves. Any kind of prejudice, discrimination, or stereotyping based on someone’s sex, gender, or perceived sex or gender. I hadn’t thought about that in so long. We throw around words like sexism and racism and words start to become obsolete. You forget what words even mean and what you’re describing and because it’s so intimately wrapped up with your own experience as a human being, words sometimes can’t define that. I feel like that’s why it’s so hard to define and why I think it’s cool that you’re doing this project and naming it The Sexism Project. It’s a project that is forcing people impacted by sexism to evaluate what that means to us and how it plays out. The longer we talk about it without remembering or defining what we’re talking about, the harder it gets to organize around it and the easier it gets to let shit slide. You know it’s happening but you don’t know how to talk about it and the more we don’t know how to talk about something, the harder it is to seek any kind of justice or equity to end our suffering.
How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?
Defeated. It’s become so horrible. It starts to feel like these stereotypes and prejudices that people hold against women or against being feminine…they’re just so engrained, you know? You hear something or you’re treated in a certain way and I feel really desensitized to it because how else would I survive? I had an experience lately that really showed how much I have internalized sexism so I’ll process that here. It was Mardi Gras morning and I live close to the Zulu route and we were coming back to my house to go to the bathroom and then head back to the parade. We’re looking fly, we’re looking fine, it’s Mardi Gras day, it’s warm outside, we look really good. We’re walking across the street and the driver of the car that’s stopped says something like, “Damn! Lookin’ good!” It didn’t sound like much but it was technically a catcall and the acquaintance that I was walking with whips around and yells, “Catcalling isn’t ok and you should never talk to anybody like that!” and he responded by saying his wife was in the car and she told him that his wife should party with us and then he yelled “Fuck you!” It was a shitty situation because it escalated quickly and no one wants to be yelled at from a car while standing on a neutral ground trying to have a good time. So I told her that she could’ve just let that slide and she said, “No. I don’t think it’s ok if someone catcalls me on the street and I’m going to call it out.” I was standing there thinking Damn, I’m the asshole. She was uncomfortable with someone calling out her appearance and making her feel objectified and she used her voice to tell him not to do it. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older or if I’ve just internalized it because I don’t think it’s ok that he did that but I also feel like it’s important to call things out when they’re relevant. On one hand, if you let it slide, you could be a part of the problem but I guess after years of working in the city doing HIV prevention and being hit on all the time, I’ve realized that people have different social norms surrounding catcalling. People don’t think of it as catcalling or as threatening so they don’t have a frame of reference when you’re saying don’t catcall me on the street. I get where she was coming from but I wonder how effective it was. If they don’t have that frame of reference they’re just going to think you’re an asshole and that you’re stuck up when they’re just trying to have a good time. But then that good time is coming at the cost of someone else’s comfort and security. And here I am in the middle. I should never tell somebody that they shouldn’t have spoken up. She spoke up about something sexist. She spoke up about something that made her feel uncomfortable even though it was within my comfort zone and would’ve just walked away. Not everyone’s comfort zones are the same. The more I have worked in the community, the more adamant I am about this. The longer I’ve been out of college and no longer safe in my ivory tower and worked with other people on a lot of things, the more I think that we can’t just isolate all of these experiences. We need to look at the intersectionality of who is catcalling, where are you being catcalled, what is the frame of reference for the catcalling? I have a lot of issues with a specific demographic when I train people for HIV testing and that’s the demographic of young women like ourselves, people in their twenties like us or a little bit younger. The conversation of what to do when a client hits on you will come up. I get the same lines over and over—it’s just like stripping. You get the same clients and the same lines. I don’t use condoms but can I use one on you? Or What are you doing after this? Let’s meet up. People will blatantly hit on you and you have to choose in that moment how to react. And a lot of young women feel it’s appropriate to just leave and find another counselor to talk to that person. But I question that decision. People are using those kinds of lines to manage their own discomfort. The client is uncomfortable by this young woman talking to them about sex so they start thinking that she must be sexually available and they make jokes about it. They probably don’t even want to use those condoms on us, they just don’t know how to talk to a woman who is talking about sex. For me, the answer isn’t leaving the situation, it’s continuing the conversation and showing them that you can be professional and talk about sex. If someone is really being persistent and unsafe, yes, fucking leave. But half the time if you change the subject or completely shift gears or shut that line of thinking down immediately, you’re able to manage the situation. Maybe I am continuing sexism by not acknowledging it. But if a black homeless man is asking to use a condom on me and I scold him, did I really do anything? Did I really show the patriarchy and fight sexism by scolding an old man who doesn’t have a house to sleep in? I’m going to leave the situation in the end and go home to my house. My views on sexism have really changed since I was younger. I was a lot more radical and now I’ve realized that actions really go a long way to show someone that I don’t care that they’re perceiving me in a sexist way. I think actions speak so much louder than any words I could use to scold them for being sexist. I bring that with me as I interact around the state in my HIV workshops and my homophobia/trans-phobia workshops. People come from all kinds of experiences and frames of reference and I don’t think that the answer is scolding people for their worldview. I think it’s about using your actions to maybe have them change their worldview. And that’s maybe easier said than done but coming from a person with racial privilege maybe that’s easier for me to say. Maybe it’s white culture that we’re really into scolding people when they’re wrong but I just disagreed with that girl when she scolded that man for catcalling her. But I also won’t harp on her or tell her what to do. She felt unsafe and called it out and that is ok and I apologized to her. Our boundaries are different and that’s ok.
I think that highlights what so many people are missing. Everyone is different and what makes them comfortable and uncomfortable and that’s ok. That’s the biggest part: it’s ok.
I think it’s even harder with sex workers and people’s assumptions about sex workers. A sex worker stereotype is that they’re really slutty. And a lot of us are and totally own that! I’m definitely really slutty. But someone women might not be comfortable with that. It’s one thing if you’re owning that but it’s another thing if you’re not wanting to be perceived that way and someone is treating you in that way. But you’re benefitting from them financially and you’re putting up with it because you’re getting paid for it. On one hand, if someone is gonna treat you in a sexist or prejudice way you might as well get paid for it. I would rather get paid by the hour or the minute for someone to stereotype me than have that happen to me for free. Which is what happens all the time in society. As a sex worker, you can take that and turn it on its head and charge $500 for someone to talk to you that way. $40 a lap dance, dude. But sometimes that can be emotionally exhausting. I don’t do it full time anymore and haven’t for about a year but I remember when I was dancing full time and that got exhausting day in and day out, constantly performing in some type of way. I think the cool thing about stripping and sex work is that you can bring whatever you want into it. But I always just choose to be a version of myself. It’s too much upkeep to have an entire alter ego. I’m really bad at it. So I kind of just have different versions of myself. I call it my A-game self. Super fun, sassy, intelligent, sexy, suggestive, funny, adorable, all in one package. It can be a lot to be all of that and then get this shitty, sexist, stereotypical treatment that you’re getting from your clients. I think because I look like a “good girl”, I get a lot of girl like you in a place like this kind of thing. You must be going through school. The idea that a sex worker must be going through school to be a valid person and a valid form of work, that is sexist. That says sex workers aren’t valuable if that’s just their job and it isn’t a weigh station on the way to something else. And to get that day in and day out, especially while I was applying for other professional day jobs, it really impacted my self-esteem. I started internalizing my sexism that I wasn’t valuable because I didn’t have a “real” job, it heightened that feeling even more. I felt like I was less valuable. It’s only ok to be a sex worker if you are a victim who was pushed into it against your will or if you’re getting through school or doing it for a year or two. It’s such a hypocrisy because men primarily seek out the services of sex workers. They create the demand for the work we provide yet want to punish us or just have prejudice or sexist stereotypes for doing it. They create a demand for it but they don’t want to value us for it or respect us for it if it’s our life’s work. I like it. I started the way a lot of people start: I needed money and I needed it fast. I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands so I didn’t need to be punishing my life and my mind and my body with this part-time job when I could just work twice a month and make the same amount of money if not more. But I didn’t realize how much I’d love it. Sometimes I think about quitting my job so I can just go back to being a stripper and expanding into other forms of work in the industry. It’s wonderful. I would do it until I’m like 50. I realize now that I like it. And I depend on it even though I have another “legitimate” job. My student loan payments are pretty high and I want to go to grad school and that shit ain’t paying for itself. My financial future ain’t paying for itself but because I’m able to do this kind of work, I’m able to have security and that’s really powerful and meaningful to me. With the recent raids and other things that have fucked everyone’s money up, the idea that something like this can be taken away from us is really scary. I can’t imagine how much more terrifying it is for those who are depending on it for their main source of income. When the raids first happened, I saw my whole future and all my plans being threatened. The idea that my whole plan to dance and pay for grad school might not happen was and still is really scary to me. I want to keep my job and I want everyone else to keep their jobs. This is one of many forms of resistance and the school of resistance I come from is that of southern resistance and I identify really heavily with that and other people in the south who are doing that kind of work. We have to protect ourselves and protect each other and call on people who ally with us to be together. The state will do anything to divide you. The forces at work will prey on any sort of weakness to divide you and togetherness is really important.
What’s the best part of being a stripper?
I think now that I don’t do it full time, it has changed for me. I like that I am able to go into work on my own schedule and be whatever version of myself I want to be. I am using my own self. I am not having to exploit someone else—unless we start to look into who makes the lingerie and other things like that—for the work and the dancing. I love that. When I worked in other service industries, you have to put on your service industry face and service industry smile. There is an element of that in stripping but I feel like I have complete control. I don’t have to talk to any client I don’t want to talk to. When I’m doing HIV testing, I’m going to stay with the client even if I don’t want to talk to them but as a stripper, if someone is making me comfortable or being rude, I can just leave the situation. I don’t think there is any other type of service industry job where you can walk away from a customer who is being rude. There is a lot of power in my hands. There are some other labor issues that we could discuss but I like that flexibility. And the money! You really can’t beat it. Even with how slow it’s been the last few years it still is much better than most other service industry jobs. I’ve never had another job that’s paid me more for my time. It can pay me at or above to my day job. And that’s going in twice a month. I think anyone should be able to list stripping on their resume or their CV and list the skills that you gain and you learn. It’s about sales. It’s about counseling. It’s about entertainment and knowledge of local laws and regulations. This is the first time I’ve ever put it on my CV and when I apply to grad school, I’m going to leave it there. Someone has to be the first one to do it and I’m going to do it. And maybe I’ll be discriminated against and pay for it. There are women who want to leave stripping but haven’t because they were afraid to have to explain the gap in their resume. When you’re a sex worker or have been a sex worker and someone finds out, you can get fired. People have stereotypes and prejudices against you informed by sexism and they’re going to treat you like shit and you’re going to get harassed and people don’t want to go through that. The people who are harassing you are so self-serving and it’s so selfish. Part of sexism is defining you and your existence based on your sex and your gender and the stereotype that goes along with it. They want to fuck you because it makes them feel powerful over you. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re a sex worker or you’re a buttoned-up mom of five kids who is happily married. I’d love to see that mom all hot and bothered and out of her element. It’s why nuns are fetishized. They’re untouchable. Only God can be married to them and people fetishize that because it’s a forbidden fruit. So whether you’re the low-hanging fruit, so to speak, or the forbidden fruit, I think a big part of how sexism operates is that they’ll find a way to try to dehumanize you through the act of sex and sexuality. That’s part of what makes it so fucking slimy because there is no way out. You can be a sex worker and then leave it and people will still treat you shitty based on that. It operates on this horrible set of values that sex is supposed to be about dominating someone else. It’s enough to make you want to go full on Lysistrata. We’re going to stop fucking you until you treat us like people!
What’s the hardest part?
I feel like our labor rights get exploited a lot. There are a lot of labor right exploitations that happen in the context of a strip club with regards to the fact that we’re independent contractors and yet have certain requirements that aren’t required of other independent contractors. Legally we’re entitled to a lot more freedom than we’re given in these club spaces but there’s not a lot of vehicles in which we can ensure that our labor rights are being upheld. There is a lot of sexism and racism in stripping and in the adult entertainment industry in general and there aren’t a lot of vehicles in which to speak out against that and that’s really hard. If you wanted to get your work contract reviewed by a lawyer before you sign it—which you are legally entitled to—they’re just going to tell you they won’t hire you. If it’s between you being able to make a living or not, you’re going to sign the contract so that you can make a living. That’s hard. There’s not a lot of empathy from the general public toward that. They say if you don’t want to be treated that way then you shouldn’t be in that job. If you don’t want someone to harass you, if you don’t want this treatment that you’re going to endure from the public and the societal stigma, then you shouldn’t be in that industry. That’s shitty. It’s a very victim-blaming sort of tactic. That’s hard. People all seem to think that they know better than you. I think all the strippers should unionize! Sure. Keep talking. It’s against all of our contracts and I don’t think you’re going to have any easy time getting people to do something that is going to threaten their contract. I don’t want it to be on the record that I am anti-union. That’s not quite my stance but it’s harder than that. Sometimes I feel really powerless about labor violations that I’ve witnessed and have been held against me. These are your managers and people you work with and people you see on a regular or daily basis and you have to keep your head low if you want to survive because if you say something you might get your head chopped off. That it comes to that is terrifying. Maybe that’s harder than the customers.