JANUARY 9, 2018
How old are you?
Where are you from originally?
I grew up in the Central Valley of California in Yolo County and was living in the Bay Area until 2015. I took a job in Maine and was laid off that year and then I moved down here in the fall of 2015.
What brought you to New Orleans?
I will tell people that I was out of money and out of ideas but I had visited here a number of times starting in 2007 so about two years after the hurricane with a boyfriend at the time who was kind of starting out as a photojournalist and that was my first memory of being here. I never thought I would be living here when I came here for the first time. I was living up in Maine and had been laid off from a fancy craft school so I took a job at a bed-and-breakfast and then when they closed for the season I didn’t have any money. I was living off a credit card and I started collecting unemployment. The thought of going back to California and making a go of it there would have involved leaning on people that I didn’t want to lean on anymore. I felt like I couldn’t go backwards so I came here thinking I would just get a job at some funky little hotel in the French Quarter but then when I got here I took a job as a cocktail waitress for a Larry Flynt club. And then right before Christmas they closed suddenly and fired everyone with no notice so I started stripping again. I had been “retired” for about a year and a half. I had decided I wasn’t going to be a stripper anymore and I was going to try to do other things and I had this lightbulb go off in my mind. Why? Why did I stop doing the most lucrative job I had ever had? Why did I think that I had to stop because I was closer to 30 than 20? Why was I letting other people tell me that I should stop? One of the things that precipitated that was that I had a friend who I had stripped with when I was really young and we worked all of our shifts together when we were 19, 20, 21 who passed away really suddenly at 29. She had been addicted to heroin from her teen years and into her mid-twenties and had stopped but was still partying in other ways. She went out partying one night and her organs failed and she died. I got wind of this up in rural Maine right around the time that I was thinking about coming down here and when I saw it on the internet that the memorial service was going to be the next day, I looked for flights and to get to Portland, Oregon from Portland, Maine was going to be $1000. I had this thought that if I was stripping I would have $1000 cash on hand that I could just get on a plane with and be there. Why am I making less than $15 an hour working in the middle of nowhere thinking that that’s more legitimate or respectable than a community of people I really admired and looked up to even if they struggled with a lot of different things? I reframed it in my mind and I restarted. Within a month or two I was back at the club and making more money than I ever have and having a better time with it than I ever had. It’s been twelve years since I started and I guess that puts me in the category of being a career stripper which I am actually starting to feel really proud of.
You mentioned that reframing of being a stripper in your mind. How would you describe the difference between when you did it when you were younger and how you look at it now?
When I was 17 turning 18, I came into it in a way that a lot of people I know did. I started modeling on that website suicidegirls.com. It started in 2001, I caught wind of it in 2003 and then was on the site by the spring of 2004. I was only actively on there for about a year and a half but I was finding community with women I admired and all of them were strippers. I don’t think I had a lot of analysis about what I was doing. I think I swallowed this idea about expressing oneself in a sensual way as a feminist act. That’s what they pitched on the website. I have become really skeptical of that kind of rhetoric now mostly because the way we were treated on that website was akin to a record label or some other agency or group of entertainers where they exploit your labor. You don’t have to necessarily be “exploited” in a physical sense but you can experience labor or wage exploitation and having that devalued in some way. I became really disenchanted with the site very quickly when I met the girls in person and saw how they were being treated. These were people who were professional strippers and dancers on burlesque tours and here’s this website pitching the idea of a sexy, empowered woman but in practice the way they were treating the actual women was pretty lousy. That was when I started to wake up and see the difference between the image of the thing and the thing itself. I didn’t have a lot of analysis about stripping or politics until I got here. I was acting on intuition and thought it was natural to me. I only just now came out to my parents and my sister at Thanksgiving last year. My sister said, “Yeah that makes total sense. When we were teenagers you told me you were going to [be a stripper] when we were watching Ricki Lake.” I guess I always knew that I wanted to do this since I was a kid. We as sex workers are charged with explaining ourselves to the general public and demonstrating our empowerment for other people and I think that is one of the most degrading things that is asked of us. That was the moment that my feminism became more radicalized.
Going back to coming out to your family, was their reaction generally positive?
No. My sister was neutral. My parents were really upset. I thought they already knew. I think I had developed this sort of paranoia that they had already figured it out and were doing a don’t-ask-don’t-tell thing so when I told them I was surprised that they were surprised. I wasn’t expecting to shock them. I felt like the decision to do this has deep roots and if they were paying attention, maybe they would’ve figured it out or something. Now I think it was so outside their understanding of the reality that...these are people that met when they were 21, married when they were 23 and I feel pretty strongly that they have probably never done any drugs or had sex before each other. They’re only contact with a strip club would be on television watching The Sopranos and when they picture me in that space inside their mind, they see something that is pretty grim. It comes from the media and it isn’t real. It wasn’t only about telling them what I was doing, it was about adjusting what their definition of normal is. My mom in particular was preoccupied with what the customers were like and what she imagined them to be. On Bourbon Street you have people coming from all over the world to see the street and they feel almost obligated to go into a strip club just to see the show. I’ll be in the club and be surrounded by women who are customers and couples and she’s imagining sweatpants man and mafia man and slimy, trafficking man and things that they watch on Law and Order. It was really painful to me to do that dance with them and tell them it isn't what they think and that I like my job and that I’m safe and I’m happy and I’m fine when it’s a stressful, difficult, chaotic job a lot of the time.
What made you want to tell them?
I realized it was putting a psychological burden on me to keep the secret. I never lied to them about it but the numbers didn’t add up. I always had a little day job to say that that was what I was doing but those jobs paid very little and I wanted to be able to tell my mom that I was doing something that she would understand and maybe be proud of. But what was happening was that my extended family were asking me really pointed questions about how I was affording my life and that made my really uncomfortable. It started to feel like a lie and that wasn’t how I wanted to live.
How do you refer to your work and why?
I call myself a stripper. The euphemisms that people use for it either have their roots in racist origins of stripping which hit America at the World’s Fair in the 1930s. They built this homage to civilizations around the world and arranged them hierarchically so the White City was at the center and they had these wings coming off of it that were all the other civilizations based on how primitive or civilized they were. Exotic dance was somewhere in the jungle way down at the edge. There is a generation of women who will call themselves exotic dancers and older people will use that terminology. I’m not going to tell somebody to call themselves something different than what they want to be called but those euphemisms are racist or their equivocating. Stripping gets to the heart of it. It’s not about taking your clothes off, it’s about stripping away layers between people and stripping cash out of a wallet. The dance you’re doing is more in your third eye than anywhere else. I was talking to a friend of mine who came to visit and I said "I’m not the youngest, I’m not the cutest, I’m not the smartest, I’m not the most sober, I’m not the tallest, I’m not the blondest but I have something really special and it’s here" as I pointed to my head. The hustle is up there. That understanding is a really big gift that I have gotten from Bourbon Street. When I call myself a hustler it’s because I’m proud.
Do you feel comfortable saying where you work or have worked?
I’ve worked at six different clubs. When I got here I didn’t know where I should work and I had always worked in little, tiny clubs in Portland. The biggest club I worked at in Portland had like 20-25 girls a night, the littlest one had four. I started at the smallest one I could find which was Temptations and then I moved onto Lipstixx and then I made the rounds trying to find another one. I ended up at a bigger one and didn’t like the management and then I found the one that I’m at now which is the Hustler Club. I like that club because the pole is thirty feet high so it’s still a stage club. It’s a club where people go to make it rain and have fun. It’s less of a gentleman’s club. I would say it’s big but not Las Vegas big.
How long have you worked there?
It will be two years at the end of March.
Do you like it?
I like it a lot. It’s my favorite club I’ve ever worked at because the women who work there are so stunning in every way. They hire a lot of different kinds of people from all over the place and they hire people who are tattooed and have their own style. They are also very talented on the pole. So if it’s slow and I’m not making money and I’m frustrated, it’s still inspiring. We push each other and I like that.
While you were growing up, do you remember being told or taught anything about the societal expectations on you as a girl?
When I was little in California, we grew up running around naked and playing in the sprinklers and being barefoot. I got a little older and I remember saying to my dad, When I’m a grownup I’m not going to wear a shirt when I mow the lawn. And he goes, When you’re older you’ll feel differently. And I said, No I won’t. And I had this vision of myself of a grownup woman with long, dark hair like my moms and big, heavy breasts and I was trying to imagine why mowing the lawn like that would be a problem. And now? I don’t know how to mow a lawn and I don’t have big breasts at all but I still feel like that. Now we’re in an era where people are pixelating out their nipples on the internet. Censorship is being toyed with in both the real and virtual worlds in our culture. I was really happy when I heard Rihanna say she either wears a shirt or a bra because that’s always been my style philosophy, one or other. As a child and a teenager, what I wore impacted how I was treated by my parents and at school. They had a dress code that I continued to violate all the time. I would buy lacy thong underwear and my mom would find it and throw it in the trash. My mom told me she thought I looked like a street walker one time. My relationship to femininity was punitive: going to the principal’s office, having to pick out a big, baggy t-shirt from a bin to put over your tank top in a part of the country where it’s routinely over 100 degrees. Now teenagers are using language like, “Don’t body-shame me.” That wasn’t a thing at my school at that time. I think the internet has been good at helping people to see that the way they’re being treated by people with more power than them isn’t always right. I knew that it wasn’t right but I didn’t have the language with which to defend myself adequately. I kept a really thorough teenage diary and I’m afraid to go back and look at it because I know that I was telling myself that I was bad and that I was a slut.
How do you define sexism?
I think it’s about alignment. It’s about who you as an individual or we as a culture choose to place our focus on, who we talk about, who we think about, who we listen to and who we don’t. I think there’s this brand of feminism who will talk about how patriarchy is the worst and how men are trash and they’re still aligning all of their energy towards men, towards heterosexuality, towards a certain kind of man. I was talking to my sister about this. Our feminisms are really different. She’s what you would call a sex work exclusionist radical feminist.
Can you elaborate on what that means?
That means you are a radical feminist who excludes sex workers from your narrative about what it means to be a feminist. It’s really common. They call it a SWERF. It’s this idea that you could never trade on your sexuality in any capacity and call yourself a feminist. Whether that means dressing a certain way, trading sex for things that you need in life or for money, there are people who say that’s not feminist. I think the most feminist thing you can do is turn toward the people around you who have less power than you and are treated less well than you and lift them up, listen to them, celebrate their art work, celebrate their music, tell them that you love them, make opportunities for them in a concrete way. My sister and I mostly just talk about dudes that we’ve dated and how they’re the worst and how we’ll be mad at our dad today and all these different things and I had this lightbulb go off in my mind that we both want to watch films that pass the Bechdel Test which tests whether or not two female characters can talk about something other than men and our life was failing the test. There’s this world of patriarchy that is everywhere and is infused in all our relationships so the more self-aware you are, the more you can choose to just hit mute on it. I heard recently this idea that you can’t find a solution until you have both agreed what the problem is and I think that’s the struggle I see in the women’s movement feminism today. You’ve got all these people at a Women’s March who have no understanding of intersectionality or being trans or queer or that sex workers are everywhere. Everybody’s marching but they’re not really marching together. It’s embarrassing. I had a conversation with a close friend of mine who worked at a club here at one point and now she’s a psychiatric doctor and we were talking about who we were going to vote for when the City Council was up for reelection. She was talking about a particular Councilwoman who had stepped down but now is back and has been really vocal in her desire to make it so that 18 to 20 year-old women can’t work as strippers. She had a personal tragedy in her life where she lost her two 19 year-old twin sisters to suicide within a year and a half of each other and one was a stripper and the other wasn’t. She’ll get on the mic at City Hall and say Stripping killed my sister. Young women should never have to do this kind of work. I started stripping when I was 19 and that money and the liberty that it gave me when I was in college and dancing and working with these women that I adored, I would never take that back. You’ve got this person who is trying to take away what I had and what I want other women to have and actively making it harder for us and my friend who calls herself a feminist is going to vote for her. If she had said those things about working in a hospital, I would stick up for my friend. Even to the people closest to us, they don’t have any reason to show us understanding because our feminism as sex workers is always going to rub against the grain or what is at the center of political life. They have to see the holes in their own logic and radicalize if they want to understand what we’re doing. That’s why I feel that sex work is really magical and empowering but also why it’s painful.
How does being treated in a sexist way make you feel?
I notice it in a different way than my civilian peers do. For example, I think that I’m one of the few women around who doesn’t mind catcalling. I’m the only one. But what I hate is being talked down to. The tone we are subjected to, that condescending, pedantic, talking-over-you can come out of anybody’s mouth. It’s the continuous undervaluing of oneself or one’s peers by oneself or by one’s peers. To me being a feminist is about self-determination is every way and working with what you’ve got to the best of your ability and making it what you want it to be.
Do you always notice when people are acting in a sexist way?
I think it took me a really long time to realize that I was being covertly bent into giving away energy for free. If you’re feminine, if you’re nurturing, if you enjoy taking care of people, if you want to be in a community with others, if you want to be hospitable—these are all things I’ve got and I want to give to people in my community but I found that I was doing that stuff for people who had more than me, had more power, had more money, had more time, had more opportunity. Why am I making you coffee? Why am I listening to your problems? If it wasn’t for sex work I never would’ve turned that bucket over. Oh you’re coming to town? Put me up in a hotel. Take me out to dinner. Value my time. Value my energy. Put material, concrete value on it in the form of things that I need to survive and make my life better. Add value to my life or get gone. As I began to align myself away from the world of men that became more and more clear. People just don’t treat each other right.
Can you recall any specific instances when you have experienced sexist behavior against you?
The thing I really struggle with is as stripping becomes something that we’re seeing in a different way as a culture, it means that the people that are coming into the club are different too. For me that means that there’s a lot of women and couples in the club and that means the patriarchy is still coming into the club but in the form of other women and that’s really painful. I would think we would be aligned a little bit better but they don’t treat us well. Something like this happens every night: the pole is thirty feet high and there’s a catwalk around it so you look down over it and throw money down to the girl at the bottom. As the stripper, you can climb up to the top of the pole and look people straight in the eye. I climb up because I see all these women who aren’t smiling and I get up there and I’m cracking jokes and asking questions and trying to get them to participate. I would prefer that in the form of compensation but I’ll take what I can get. If you’re going to come into my work and glare at me, you’re going to get hassled back. They begrudgingly throw me some money and I slide down to the bottom and when I get down there, I feel something on my back and one of the women had poured water on me. To me, that’s sexist and it’s blatant. If I was going to write a #MeToo moment, it would be that if I took out my resume and went through each of the jobs I have ever had, I have had a sexualizing encounter with a boss, a manager, or a co-worker at every job except for the club that I’m at now.
What is the best part about being a sex worker?
It’s that I value my liberty and my job is very flexibility and I schedule my work whenever I want and that’s the biggest gift I could give myself as a young person. And the company of women I adore and respect. I think you’re only as good as the company you keep. They’re the best. Sex work is a radical stance because sex workers upset the balance of society. They move between classes. They move between worlds. The boundaries of what is normal don’t apply. At the same time, it’s the most immediate sale you can make and it’s the most direct and the longest standing and it’s kind of the most normal thing that you could do. To me, it’s really, really weird that we can sell land, water, food, even air, that we can make things and sell them, that we can pull things up from the ground, we can kill animals and sell that and this is the one thing that people have a problem with. Capitalism is so destructive and there’s a reason why we’re at where we’re at right now. I have a friend who is a full-service sex worker who said that they felt like sex workers were the most revered by god. I thought that was such a beautiful way to flip what people are trained to believe which is that you’re nothing and you’re going straight to hell or that your life will become hell on earth because you have a successful outcome doing this job. They are totally sure that you’re going to end up dead in a ditch somewhere and the fact that you could be a citizen who is engaged and cares is not on their radar.
What is the hardest part?
There was this woman who was an adult-film actress and was told that she couldn’t teach pre-school because someone had found out that she had made pornographic films. And she made a video that you can see on Youtube and she said that there’s nothing wrong with sex work except for the way that people treat you for the rest of your life. The idea that you would be unfit as a person to be around vulnerable people because you traded your sexuality is so cruel. We have this idea in our culture that childhood is a space that’s free of sexuality and that when you become an adult you become sexual and they define one another when in reality that’s not how children are. I think children benefit from being around different kinds of people who are doing different kinds of things. The hardest thing about being a sex worker is being treated like a criminal and a predator and at the same time being treated like a victim and an animal.
What is or are the biggest misconceptions about working in the sex industry?
I like stripping because it exists at this crossroads between a bunch of different industries. It’s all these different things at once and I think that’s what makes it special and different from other kinds of sex work. One of the biggest misconceptions is that there is a sex industry at all. People are trying to make the world of adult entertainment into a discreet industry. This idea of quarantining sex work or places of sex work to the Vieux Carre—which they’re trying to do right now—or creating a red light district and pushing it to this space where the bad things live isn’t going to work. Calling oneself a sex worker is a political statement that can be used when it’s needed because you need to rally with people who have this particular kind of treatment in common. But there are other time when we need to rally more closely with people that work in restaurants and hotels. There are times when we need to rally more closely with people who work in entertainment and nightlife people. It depends on what the political goal is and what we’re trying to achieve.
That’s it’s easy and anybody can do it. Anyone can make food but not everyone is a chef. That when you’re a sex worker you’re selling sex. You’re really selling time and energy and you are selling intimate contact in some capacity that you negotiate with somebody. But you can’t sell sex because sex isn’t a thing. That comes back to this idea of objectification which is another misconception that I am so tired of and I find it really tedious when people use that word. People don’t come to see me as an object, people come because they want to see a living, breathing person do an erotic dance for them and make them feel all kinds of ways. That’s the job, it’s not being an object. I’m a photographer so a picture of a woman that you see in a magazine or on a billboard is not about it being an object, it’s about what it does in the world and how it makes people feel. That’s why I find it so tedious when feminists talk and throw this word around. Objectification. Are you objectified? Are you objectifying yourself? How can I objectify myself? If I was going to objectify myself, I would stand there and paint myself silver. Even then, the rub is that you can’t make yourself into an object, it’s impossible and people are going to taunt you and try to get you to move because that’s the part that’s important.
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
I think that there’s something people don’t realize and I didn’t even fully realize for a long time which is that people doing sex work of one kind or another are literally everywhere. Everyone knows someone who has traded on their sexuality in a professional capacity. Everyone is one degree of separation away from a sex worker and somehow we’re almost invisible. I wish that I could get my megaphone out and let the general public know that what you say and the jokes you make and the way that you position yourself far away from us? You’re talking and someone who does that work can hear you.