Editor’s note: To protect their identities, some subjects’ names have been changed. When real names are used, it’s indicated in the story.
Anna is several inches shorter than the average woman – but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in 9-inch platform heels.
In February 2013, Lady Gaga broke fans’ hearts across the country when she announced her “Born This Way” tour was canceled due to a hip injury – for some fans, however, the blow to their wallets was more painful. Anna, a sophomore political science major, said she lost around $100 in processing fees. The same night, feeling the financial loss, she auditioned to be a stripper.
It was her second semester as a college student.
Anna started working at Show & Tel, a fully nude adult show bar on Columbus Boulevard, the same night she auditioned. Anna said she made $800 in tips the first night she worked.
One man tipped Anna $200 for a $35 lap dance, she said.
“In that moment, I was like, ‘I could do this forever. Look at all this money,’” Anna said. “And that can be dangerous, to think like that, because you really – you don’t want to make it a career. There’s nothing wrong with doing it, but you don’t want to do it forever, because it does suck.”
She’s already paid off her student loans for her first-year’s tuition and is able to support herself financially, she said.
“I don’t have a lot of other options to pay for college – it’s very expensive,” Anna said. “My classes tend to be very book-heavy. I was like, ‘F— it, if I keep stripping, I don’t ever have to burden someone by asking them for money.’”
Convenience and money
Multiple students said working as a stripper is beneficial to their lifestyle due to the flexibility of the hours and the income. Despite sometimes working until 5 a.m., students agree the main challenge of stripping isn’t balancing the work with course loads, but confronting the negative connotations tied to the controversial occupation.
While the number of Temple students who work as strippers is unclear, some who do said they’ve often worked alongside women their age, some of whom are also in college. Anna said she’s seen other women who she believed to be strippers returning to Main Campus late at night. She remembered seeing several of them walking into Morgan Hall.
Students of varying ages and backgrounds all agree: the ability to make substantial amounts of money in a short period of time is the defining benefit of stripping.
Anna said the money is what kept her coming back. She also works a retail job where she’s a store manager. The reason she keeps the job, she said, is so she continues to get a regular paycheck and pay taxes, since all of her income from stripping comes in cash. Technically, strippers in Philadelphia are required to get an Entertainer’s License to work and must report their estimated tips for tax purposes.
The license, however, costs $300. Anna doesn’t have a license and said she thinks most women she works with don’t either.
Anna said her retail paychecks seem meager after stripping. One night at the strip club could earn her the same as a retail paycheck after working 40 hours per week. Even after moving on from Show & Tel to Gold Club on Chancellor Street, where she typically makes less because the club is smaller, the amount of money Anna makes stripping far exceeds what she makes at her day job.
The ‘Ratchet’ Workplace
Another student, Keri, had similar reasons to consider stripping. The now-deferred English major plans to return to Temple in the fall, when she’ll also return to the stripping jobs she had last summer before moving back home. What first got her interested, Keri said, was a close friend who stripped and brought home “stacks of money.”
“I thought, I am not bashful in the slightest,” Keri said. “I can do this. I can be making that money myself.”
Though she started at Show & Tel like Anna, Keri also worked at The Republican on Snyder Avenue. She described the atmosphere of The Republican as “more of a dive bar with strippers,” and noted that she much preferred it to Show & Tel. Anna felt the same way, calling Show & Tel “ratchet” – both students recalled encountering more uncomfortable situations there than their other workplaces.
Keri said she once entered a private dance room in Show & Tel with a customer and unsuspectingly put her hand into “a big pile of semen.” Though she laughed at the memory, she said she much prefers The Republican, where she said she likes the owner. The owner of Show & Tel, Anna said, is less likeable.
On the busiest nights, Friday and Saturday, Anna said the Show & Tel owner made sure that the only girls on stage were “not just thin, but junkie-thin.”
Anna remembered witnessing another stripper concealing heroin paraphernalia and girls snorting crushed up pills with dollar bills “that they just pulled out of their thong.”
She said she was never allowed on stage on weekends due to her height and athletic build, so she gave lap dances instead.
Challenging Gender Roles
Keri and Anna offered differing views on the clientele they’ve seen during their time stripping. Both women said their sexuality played a role in their experience.
Anna, who called herself “pretty queer,” said the job has turned her into a “misandrist.”
“I love individual people that just so happen to identify or be male,” Anna said. “But men as a whole, just as a gender, I am just disgusted by because I’ve worked at a strip club. Dudes are f—ing gross if you put them in an environment when they’re allowed to be gross.”
Anna said she can now pick her own music at Gold Club. She often dances to goth rock – it’s part of her stripping persona, which she called her “gimmick.” She said although she doesn’t want to glamorize the job, she also won’t vilify it, noting that it can be empowering if approached from the right mindset.
“Think of it this way: instead of sad, lonely strippers, sad lonely guys with a lot of money who have no one to spend it on,” Anna said. “Who’s pathetic now? I’m making all this money. I’m at work and these are just sad dudes sitting around drinking a beer lamenting the fact that they weren’t likeable enough to get married. Why should I be ashamed? Why aren’t we shaming these dudes?”
Anna said that while customers “will never think you’re gay,” she’s met a number of lesbian strippers, or at least strippers “who are into women.” She prefers women customers, whether gay or straight, noting that they often tip better and are less likely to be disrespectful.
While Keri acknowledged that some customers were distasteful, she also mentioned men who came in simply to talk – even one man who just asked her to hug him.
“The thing that I found most interesting is that people would come there just for female attention and female accompaniment, if you could call it that,” Keri said. “As a lesbian, I get that – I get wanting a female, like, by your side. I don’t know, I can’t say that I hate the people that come in there.”
It’s not the norm, she said, but it does happen.
A fifth-year magazine journalism major, whose real name is Ashleigh Gray, works as a stripper at Atlantis Gentlemen’s Club in University City. She said she’s comfortable there and that there are “too many options” for her to settle for less.
Her experience has been positive overall, she said, adding that she can’t recall a time she felt degraded while stripping. She said her parents, who support her financially by paying her tuition, both know about her stripping, although it’s not a subject often talked about.
“It’s a total misconception that [all] strippers are sad,” Gray said. “My parents are married, my dad has always been in my life – sometimes my friends joke and say, ‘Why do you do this? This is for girls with daddy issues,’ but it’s just not that deep. It’s just money.”
Keri and Anna said their parents don’t know they’ve worked as strippers. Anna said she believes it’s “none of their business” and a boundary she wouldn’t cross as long as she is able to support herself. Keri said she once brought the idea of stripping up to her mother.
“Her reaction was, ‘You wouldn’t do that. Feminists don’t strip,’” Keri said. Keri disagrees – it’s taking ownership of her own sexuality for her own benefit, she said.
Gray left a retail job for stripping, she said, and will continue to dance for at least two more years while freelance writing. Right now, the money she makes goes toward her rent and maintaining the lifestyle she wants, she said.
Though Gray said she’s encountered sexism from people who judge her choice to work as a stripper, the job has improved her body image. Any emotional stress or negative lifestyle choices as a result of the job are not something she said she can relate to, though she notices it in some of her coworkers.
“A lot of the girls have kids and stripping is their only means of money and it just kind of sucks because I know that I’m not stuck there,” Gray said. “If I ever meet a customer that I don’t like, I don’t have to entertain him. But [for] the other girls there, you can tell it’s really tense.”
The only drug use she’s ever noticed at Atlantis has been marijuana-related, Gray said. She said she always feels safe at work and draws writing inspiration from the men she meets, calling her journalistic niche “relationships and sex and love.” She hopes to pitch some columns she’s already written about her experience to magazines.
Gray said she wishes people wouldn’t equate stripping to prostitution as often as they do, although she said she does know some strippers who engage in prostitution.
“Just because girls are dancers doesn’t mean that they’re also prostitutes and selling their bodies for money in that way,” Gray said.
Keri said she thinks it all depends on where you work – Show & Tel was “notorious” for prostitution deals after work, she said, and remembered talk of a potential police raid there. She said she would argue girls there were making prostitution deals after their shift. Anna said she once witnessed another stripper giving a customer oral sex on the job at Show & Tel.
“I had this guy pull out $2,000 in cash for me to touch his d—. Just touch it,” Anna said. “And I was like, I’m not doing that, no, that’s a boundary. It’s illegal [and] it cheapens you, in a way. If you want to be a prostitute, be a prostitute, but don’t add to the idea that all strippers will sleep with you if you give them money.”
Anna said though most people assume otherwise, she’s never been with a man. The assumptions are frustrating, she said, though expected.
“People will treat you like s—,” she said. “Most of the time, it’s not your friends, and if it was your friends, they didn’t need to be your friends anyway. A lot of the people that lived in my dorm [last year], like a lot of the girls especially – because women are taught to hate other women, you know, especially when it comes to terms of sexuality and stuff – a lot of the girls that didn’t know me at all kind of formed a large bias, like ‘Well, she has to be a whore. She has to be sleeping around.’ Some of my guy friends’ girlfriends would not let them hang out with me, and that’s really not f—ing cool.”
‘A business transaction’
Anna said when people who find out she’s a stripper “talk down” to her, she reminds them that she won’t graduate with student loans. People are threatened by a woman making money using her sexuality, she said. Much like Gray called stripping “just money,” Anna said people should keep in mind “it’s a business transaction.”
Keri said most people would be surprised by the diversity of strippers and that “more students than are willing to admit” work at strip clubs. She once met a stripper with a Ph.D. in children’s psychology who was a published author, just stripping because “she liked it.”
“I know that when I meet people for the first time, it’s definitely not one of the first things that comes out of my mouth, ‘Oh hey, I was a stripper,’” Keri said. “[There is] definitely a stigma around it – an unnecessary one. I think that even if you are a full-blown sex worker and you are a woman, you’re sort of exploiting the patriarchy to your benefit. Why the f— wouldn’t you be bringing home $200 [or more] a night?”
Erin Edinger-Turoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @erinJustineET.