Serpent's Egg

The Eroticism of Fat Men

As a stripper I’ve spent two decades naked, and this is what I learnt

The question of whether sex work is empowering is one to avoid when you are working in the industry, but now I’m out, this is what I really think

Leigh Hopkinson, author of the book Two Decades Naked
‘I thought I was subjugating existing power structures; it didn’t occur to me that I might have been playing into them.’ Photograph: Tony Ryan

Is working as a stripper honestly empowering? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I quit stripping 18 months ago, after spending two decades naked.

It’s also a question I had a vested interest in not asking while I was still gainfully employed. I hated the popular belief that sex workers were oppressed and without agency, victims in need of rescuing. I didn’t like to think of myself as disempowered.

When I started stripping in the back bar of a Christchurch brothel at 18, I was in control of my decision to get nude – or so I thought. An arts undergraduate, I had no pressing need for money, the reason usually cited for entry into the sex industry – an umbrella term that encompasses stripping, web-camming, escorting, prostitution and porn. My parents paid my rent, my Kentucky Fried Chicken and my living expenses.

Rather, I was seeking transgression. I’d spent five years at a private girls’ boarding school, where the conservative, upper-middle-class culture left me craving an outlet for creative and sexual expression, diverse experiences and more interaction with the opposite sex. I also wanted the independence to make my own choices.

Stripping delivered, on all counts. On the neon-lit stage of that back bar, I let loose my inner extrovert. By the time I’d traded brothel for strip-club proper, I was convinced I’d found the perfect job: I got paid to dance, keep fit, wear fabulous costumes and entertain people. I felt totally empowered.

With hindsight, what appeared to have been a conscious choice might have actually been heavily influenced. Since puberty, I had been aware of men staring at me in public. Despite my obvious irritation at this intrusion, the staring hadn’t stopped. Then I had been date-raped. While stripping provided an opportunity to launch myself into the big wide world on my terms, it was also a chance to capitalise on my feelings of powerlessness.

peep (15)

Putting myself up onstage and demanding payment for being watched were exertions of control. I thought I was subjugating existing power structures; it didn’t occur to me that I might have been playing into them. I hadn’t heard of radical feminism and if I had, I would’ve placed myself in the neoliberal camp. That was about individual choice, right? I had the right to choose.

And I did choose stripping, again and again. In a capitalist economy where the glass ceiling hasn’t exactly been shattered and women are often valued for their looks, strapping on my Cinderella shoes seemed perfectly logical.

Why wouldn’t I strip? It brought financial independence, freedom and flexibility. No other profession I knew paid women significantly more than men. I could choose my hours, take time off and still have a job to come back to. With stripping, I could travel the world and I did, walking into instant employment in clubs in Melbourne and London. I worked alongside fierce women paying off mortgages and masters degrees, raising children and starting charities. Stripping offered endless possibility.

Looking back, that possibility, coupled with the superficiality of the work and its instant reward, meant I never had to go deep and figure out what I truly valued. So I didn’t commit to study, other career opportunities, relationships, or even stripping itself. I did it by default.

Unlike some dancers who’d come from poverty and minimum wage, I’d never had to go without, so money lost its real value. The goal of making money became an end in itself. Even when getting nude became monotonously unchallenging I couldn’t see the point of working a lesser-paying job. Besides, I could hardly put stripping on my fledgling resume. So I stayed. And still I told myself it was my choice.

In the beginning, I’d seen myself as creating a new way of living and being. I didn’t want to be enslaved in a 9-to-5 system, or confined to the narrow roles expected of middle-class women: wife, mother, educator and caregiver. I saw stripping as liberating.

My family, friends and society at large saw it as shocking.

Sex workers were stigmatised as morally bankrupt, lacking in self-respect, so not worthy of respecting. I couldn’t put a price on my sexuality and still be a valued human being.

Even though it was totally acceptable for men to visit strip clubs, it wasn’t OK for women to work in them. Additionally, what I did for work on weekends was seen as the sum total of who I was. I fought hard to prove otherwise. After a while, though, it became easier not to fight society’s presumptions. By the time I finally hung up my G, I’d taken that stigma on.

With hindsight, the social stigma was hugely disempowering. Often it was worse than the work itself, where I could, by and large, control my exploitation and maintain my boundaries and self-worth.

The constant judgment, often from people who had never been inside a strip club, left me excluded from normal life. I know now that male-dominated society needs this stigma to maintain the status quo. It needs to typecast women, to separate them into virgins and whores, because it needs a justification for the male gaze and for placing women at the sexual service of men.

Two Decades Naked book cover
Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson book cover

I still don’t like to think of myself as a victim and in most ways I’m not. I’m a white, privileged, educated, middle-class woman who thought she was in control of her choices. Thanks to stripping, I’ve had some amazing experiences, met some extraordinary people and been well paid to luxuriate in my own skin.

Now that I’m out of the industry, however, I don’t have such a vested interest in defending it. While I’m not against stripping or other forms of sex work, I don’t think it can ever be unequivocally empowering when it places the pleasure of men above the equality of women.

Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99), is published by Hachette Australia.

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This entry was posted on May 11, 2016 by and tagged , .

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