"Every guy wants to date a stripper," my friend Diamond once declared. "No guy likes the reality." This is one of stripping's many paradoxes. Its pros and cons are equally as extreme. Strippers combine euphoria with exhaustion, fast cash with blatant objectification, adoration with rejection. I spent two decades naked and I know there's nothing like it.
Onstage, bathed in neon, I was a goddess, adored and adoring. The men gazed up at me, their eyes in line with my shoes. They whispered how amazing I was and paid me to climb down from my pedestal and into their laps, where I spun my charms and made each one feel like a million dollars.
All the while, my nervous system would be screaming until I pushed through, overcame the fear and entered a state of ecstasy. Lily Burana, author of Strip City, called it "indescribable bliss resting on the blade of a knife". For me, the thrill of stripping was as much about conquering my visceral response as the external challenge, like traversing an exposed ridgeline in the mountains. To strip was to feel intoxicatingly alive. And, at the end of each night, my reward was a tangible pile of sweaty money.
But the next day I would be spent. My skin numbed, my limbs heavy, I felt weighted down by adrenal fatigue and the auric detritus of too many strangers. Diablo Cody, author of Candy Girl, likened it to being "the communal ass-towel at a Turkish bath". I didn't want to be around people. I definitely didn't want to waste what little brainpower I could rouse on small talk, not when I wasn't being paid. The fatigue was manageable when I only stripped on weekends, but the more I worked, the more the real world became mere downtime until the sun set.
Still, the rollercoaster offered plenty of practical advantages. In the club I was my own boss, in command of me. Stripping taught me self-discipline. I could choose how often and how hard I worked, take time off when I liked and still have a job to return to. Stripping could be wound around other commitments, including full-time study. It funded new passions, such as yoga teaching. It paid for travel and spontaneous adventures. Even though I never knew how much money I would earn on any given night, which was inherently stressful, I didn't need to worry about making rent.
The price of that independence was holding myself up to be objectified. I told myself it didn't matter because the men weren't seeing all of me, only a projection. It wasn't in my interest to engage in gender politics or question my motivations. Besides, I naturally fit into society's definition of sexy, so I didn't feel like I was disavowing myself. And most nights there was enough wackiness to fulfill my need for diversity, in sexuality and in life.
There were enough men who saw what I offered as entertainment or healing or a valued service for me to feel a pulsation of expansiveness. That spatial, intuitive sphere, shot through with pain and honesty, was preferable to the outside world's rational, linear fixation with success.
Strip clubs might reinforce gender stereotypes, but they're also hotbeds of transgression. They're places that permit the subtle subverting of norms, where the hidden parts of yourself can flourish. Nowhere else have I met such fragile men and ferocious women, women who smashed conventions and lived on their terms.
These ladies were loud, vibrant, staunch and strong. And they were fiercely loyal. After all, no one understands a stripper like another stripper. No one gets your guy problems, your body issues. No one gets the stigma like they do.
The stigma placed on women who choose this line of work is insidious. It's a conversation killer, the revelation you get nude for a living. The belief -- implied or overt -- is that strippers are morally bankrupt, without self-respect, unable to get 'a real job'. (Fact: I've stripped alongside doctors and entrepreneurs, PhD students and psychologists.) When it comes to sexuality, it makes a male-dominated, capitalist society very uncomfortable to think that not everyone shares the same values.
Better to stigmatise a certain class of women in order to uphold the status quo, rather than examine why it's okay for men to go to strip clubs but not for women to work at them. Strippers should be ashamed and even if we're not, over time that shame weighs heavy. Naturally, we gravitate towards those who don't judge us, those who uphold us. And the more we strip, the harder it is to quit.
Regardless of stripping's day-to-day pros and cons, its biggest disadvantage is that it comes with a use-by date. At some point, you have to climb down from the pole, put your clothes back on and venture out into the daylight.
The longer you inhabit a fantasy planet, the harder it is to navigate reality and the less in control you are of your options -- a sad irony of an industry that promises so much. A strip club is like a desert mirage: existing in and of itself, always tantalisingly out of reach. Its shimmering brightness just makes the subtleties of everyday life seem agonisingly more ordinary.
Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99) is published by Hachette Australia.