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Bold and vulnerable story about stripping, sex work, healing and emotional labour that comes with it

Anonymous

March 28, 2021


This interview is a part of our Aotearoa sex workers series, covering journeys of some of the most bad-ass wāhine and non-binary folks whose stories often remain untold. Our 3rd babe, who chose to remain anonymous, shares her rich, honest and vulnerable experiences in the sex work industry. We talk about stripping, healing, emotional labour, relationships, dating & volunteering with animals. And I'm so freaking excited to finally share this interview with ya'll.

When you were growing up, what were you like as a kid and what did you want to do?

As a little kid, I was always very quiet and shy and sensitive. I liked art and animals and had a big imagination. When I was very little I did always want to be a performer and then as a teenager I wanted to be an astronomer, and then a naturopath. I wasn't too clued up on naturopathy but I kind of just liked the idea of healing. When I was 18, I ended up studying vet nursing on the North Shore, so I am a qualified vet nurse.

Did you ever get to work as a vet nurse? 

I worked for a little bit… There are so many things that led me to stripping but one of the main things was when I became qualified, it meant thousands upon thousands of student loan debt. And you get paid a dollar above minimum wage as a qualified vet nurse. It’s so expensive to live, especially in the city, and it's such stressful work. You are basically a human nurse but for animals. So I was like “oh my god, I can't afford to live like this. I need to do something”. I moved out of home and worked in retail at a pet shop and it was low paying and stressful. I could not see myself having any sort of job that was more than minimum wage after years of studying and being medically qualified. I was very passionate but also I needed to earn some money to pay rent. I thought I'd give stripping and go. I wasn't sure if it would be a long-term thing or if I’d hate it.

A person dreaming of different futures with branches coming out of one's mind - on them you see flowers, pet paws, planets. Illustrated by our amazing Jenny Sahng

A lot of sex workers say that you have to be a certain type of person to get into this line of work? How did you prepare yourself?

Well, I think it is definitely good to talk to someone who is a real sex worker. Because you watch movies like Hustlers and Pretty Woman and they're not accurate [laughs]. So I'm happy if someone comes to me and asks me about it. I'm happy to give a full rundown! 

I had some friends from high school that were strippers and in my close circle of friends there were a couple of people who worked in massage parlors. I just asked them and I did a lot of googling and I watched a lot of Youtube! There is definitely enough information but nothing is gonna prepare you for the actual job. I was so worried about doing the wrong thing or pissing off the girls who already worked there, like intruding on their jobs. 

After all my googling and seeing what clubs were around I literally just emailed them and then said “Hello, can I come in?”. So I went in for an interview and it was pretty basic, we just had a chat and then decided on a day to come in which was a few days after the interview.

You know, dancing on stage is actually like 2% of the job, it's very minimal. You don't even have to be a particularly good dancer. For a long time like I really struggled, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't come from a background of ballet or gymnastics but you just gotta flirt on stage and then you get used to it. I am a very confident dancer now and I did teach myself how to do splits before I started. 

How did your intentions evolve from the beginning of your journey to now?

The money is definitely a strong part of it but it would be the freedom to not have to work five days a week basically. It's not for me. I know that some people thrive and that’s okay but I get exhausted. I have chronic fatigue and other health problems and this kind of helps me live more of a lifestyle that I wouldn't have the opportunity to do if I was in a day job.

I was so used to minimum wage but making the money that I do now gives me the freedom to use my qualification but do it in a volunteer way. Obviously COVID changed a few things but my whole plan and goal was to periodically save up money and then go traveling and do volunteer work with animals and things like that, which I have done once but I haven't had the opportunity to do since. 

Did you love it at first or did that come later?

I started loving it when I started to figure out who I was as a performer, you know? I started to figure out what I want to get out of this experience and who I want my clientele to be. Once I started to fake it and pretend I was more confident, then I actually got more confidence in myself and started to get those clients who come back to me and love me for who I am and want to pay me for my time.

I was just really shy with the other dancers and didn’t want to step on their toes but once we all got to know each other I was so surprised how amazing and lovely they all are! Just like any workplace there will be a few little incidents here and there but there's no drama. I had more drama in my retail jobs than I do now at my strip club!

People that you perform with, are there any common themes for people to get into this work? 

People come from all sorts of backgrounds. There'll be people who are dancers and they did the ballet and gymnastics and things like that. So if you're comfortable with it then you're gonna have a good time on the stage because you're naturally good at dancing. And then there's people with kids and need to support them. We have a lot of mums at our club and they do amazing and I'm super proud of them!

It’s quite a close community; we all discuss everything! I mean I’ve had good relationships with co-workers in my vanilla jobs but here we have to be so close here. I mean we stare at each other naked every night and we check if our tampon strings are hanging out. You have to be pretty close to do that sort of thing, you know? 

How do you think it changed over time: the industry and the perception around it?

I do think it has become more heavily glamorised and it's not that it's this perfect world, you know? Yes, we might be more liberated but it's not like we are just living our best life. This industry is hard and there are parts of the job that are crushing and really difficult to deal with. But it's definitely become something that a lot of people want to do because they want to enjoy it. 

Peach coloured Pleaser Shoes with a high heel and a platform, illustrated by Jenny Sahng

In terms of people you encounter at work, what's the highlights and the lowlights?

The most frustrating thing is… So full service work is completely legal in this country. There are places around where my strip club is that people can go to 24/7 to get full services. And yet they choose to come into the strip club and ask for services that we don't necessarily provide. That's quite frustrating because I am not here to take away someone else’s money for the job that they offer. It's not a matter of turning your nose up and saying that I wouldn't do that. You wouldn't go to a full service worker and ask them to climb a pole, right? A lot of people see it as a challenge because if you walk into a brothel and ask for what you want, you will get it. But for some reason, they want that kind of challenge, like they want to ‘win us over’. Some girls will do that and that's fine but the thing is majority of us don't. It's not saying anything about the full service; it's just that's not my job. I get this all the time… Go see a full service worker, you know? They're definitely more experienced and they know what they're doing and they're probably way better at whatever you want than I would be, so why would you ask me? 

I had a customer the other day who told me that I was 20 kilos overweight. I'm not and even if I was, I don’t need you to criticise me like that. It doesn't affect me because I am very sure about who I am but if that had happened to maybe a girl who's had very low self-esteem, I can't imagine what that would do to someone. If anything it just made me pissed off and angry as opposed to, you know, offended.

A lot of our customers use this opportunity at a strip club as a power trip. Maybe they're not the best looking kind of person, maybe they're not having success in their personal life; they will come in and they'll be so bitter within themselves and what they want to do is to reject the strippers. They shake two dollars in your face and ask you to work for it. I had that happen to me the other day and after this guy was horrible to so many of my coworkers, I told him that I can see that you've got some internal pain and some struggle but just because you're in pain, it does not mean you can project it onto us because you think we're vulnerable. We're not and you need to get help.

What makes someone an awesome client vs a terrible one? 

The main thing we hate is rudeness. Quite often young guys will come in and be like “Oh yeah, aren't you glad it's me and not an older man!”. No, we care about two things: being respectful of us and our boundaries and not being, you know, creepy.

Oh gosh… Young men and their ego, right? [laughs]

It’s quite funny and frustrating at the same time. We're there to work and get paid and they should know that. I wish they didn't try to haggle us down. Sometimes they would say things like “150 bucks for a lap dance and I can’t even touch you?” Don't tell me that's too expensive, you know exactly why you are there and how much things are. Happens all the time “Oh, I could go down to the brothel and I could get xyz for that money!” 

I also would say I can't stand bachelor parties because maybe one or two of them has money to spend but the rest are just there because they got dragged along. And you have to go sit and talk with them and they just want to chat. When it comes to stags, I know every relationship is different, but it's like please stop asking us to have sex with you when you're getting married soon. Obviously some relationships are open and that's cool, but don't make us feel bad.

What does your work schedule look like now?

I pick and choose but try to do two days a week, sometimes three. Lately I’ve been doing four days a week but that’s too much. Some of the girls do five days but they might have more extroverted personalities than I have so it comes a little bit more naturally to them or maybe they're 19 years old and they're not exhausted like I am [laughs].

With COVID, how did your work change? I heard that many people went online, was that a good move for you? More agency and ownership of your work? 

Absolutely not, it's been the worst for me to be honest. I guess what everyone's talking about is OnlyFans. You can make a lot of money on it if you have an online following. But I didn't so I made my new account as soon as COVID hit. You have to advertise and promote outside of OnlyFans and then you get shut down by Instagram and other social media because anything to do remotely with adult services isn’t permitted. If you're a celebrity or an influencer already and then you start an OnlyFans account, many people see it and they subscribe. But trying to promote it is so so hard. I made some money but overall it was not worth it for me. Years ago I used to sell content privately and I thought I could do this now, but it wasn’t a regular thing back then and my whole livelihood wasn’t depending on it.

It doesn't matter how good you are at whatever you're doing on OnlyFans. It doesn't matter how extreme or hardcore the content is. It doesn't matter what you look like or how attractive you are. It just matters who you can reach. 

Then there is the Bella Thorne situation that happened… She is like a celebrity; she's a millionaire and then she decided to make OnlyFans and lied on her profile saying that she is selling her nudes for $200 or something like that. When people bought it, she wasn't actually naked so they complained and asked for a refund. That completely messed up the whole payment system and now I can't get my money out. And I’m not the only one, it affected many many sex workers arond the world! It's been a nightmare and OnlyFans doesn’t seem to care about us. They take 20% of all of our subscriptions and tips, so they are making money on us but when it comes to caring for us, they don’t. I have friends who are cam girls and have been for many years and they love it. They make good money and they have a good time. I keep saying I'm gonna give it a go but I haven't got around to it because it’s quite a bit of effort. It's not just turning on a webcam. I'm sure it comes naturally to a lot of people but it isn't just easy money and you don't immediately get tipped just for showing a nipple, you know? You have to work on building that same clientele that you do in the club. 

So I had to promote my OnlyFans to people through my personal Snapchat, to people I knew. Because I just wasn't getting anywhere on my work Instagram so I kind of had to “out” myself, which was quite terrifying. I don't regret it because I'm not ashamed of any of it but still, you know? People I went to school with now know what I look like naked… 

An illustration of a phone with many eyes inside of it, closed and open - work by our Jenny Sahng

How was that experience for you? The “coming out” part? 

When it comes to stripping, you work all through the night so it's quite hard to say why you're at home all day in your pyjamas and why you're tired at eight in the morning. With online work, you pretty much have to come out to your friends and family because there is always a chance it will be released onto another website or someone will steal your content. 

When I came out to my mom, it went really well! I called her on the phone and I was shaking and sweating. I was terrified and she was really supportive and she just wanted me to be safe. I’m very lucky; not everyone's parents are like that.

From your personal experience being a bit older starting this work versus someone who's 18 at the club: what do you think the difference is between the way they approach work and how you did?

A lot of 18-19 year olds like to party. They're young so they like flirting with guys and maybe they do need the money for whatever personal reasons but they're having more of a party time. I think it's good for them that they have an outlet to do that and they get to make some good money and kind of mature a bit. It’s also great for your confidence building. But I would still not recommend it to anyone who's that young just because it does worry me that someone can end up in a bad situation. Alcohol is always involved; you don't have to drink but you have access to it all the time. I wouldn’t want to see someone drinking constantly  and not being able to protect themselves.

What’s your view on the whole security and safety issue with stripping and sex work? 

I worried quite a lot more when I started because I had no idea what I was doing. But now if during a private lap dance, the moment someone starts to kind of push my boundaries, I step back and I get very serious. I'll give someone a warning and let them know. When I started, I didn’t know how to do that. Now I am comfortable laying out the rules and if they try it again, it's over. Whereas maybe someone who's just started might not know to do that and they'll just put up with things which is quite worrying. 

Have you had any incidents and unfortunate experiences? 

Yeah definitely. You can't have a career in the sex industry without having a bad experience; it's guaranteed to happen which is really unfortunate. I don't know anyone who hasn't had someone push it a little bit too far, you know? Even small things like clients thinking that it’s okay to spank us really hard without asking first...

We’ve had some extremely jealous and unpredictable, bordering on violent, boyfriends banned from the club before. But talking to the police has not been very helpful unfortunately, which is very disappointing.

It's interesting you comment about boyfriends, I thought it will be more about clients, not partners! 

Partners and clients, both. Guys always talk about having “hot” girlfriends or stripper girlfriends but yet when they find out that someone they fancy is a sex worker, then all of a sudden, everything changes.  

A hand gesturing "Stop", illustration by wonderful Jenny Sahng

What’s dating experience been like for you? 

I have been with my partner when I started in this work so it's been a bit different for me. I know girls who are on Tinder and they're trying to date just like everyone else. But then before they go to meet up, they'll be like “Oh by the way I have something to tell you, I'm a stripper” and as soon as they say that, they get banned on Tinder, like blocked from the platform. Because any mention of words like that gets you banned. So what are you supposed to do? Go on a date and get emotionally involved with this guy and then tell him? Because he might not be comfortable with it which is fine so you wanna be open.

What would you say the most of your emotional labour comes from? You’ve talked about this work being quite mentally draining, could you speak to that? 

Maybe it's because of the energy that I have around me or like the way I talk to people, but I do end up with a lot of clients who book me for private bookings and end up talking to me about their loss or grief. Maybe they've just had a really rough breakup and they just need to talk to someone. That in itself is very emotionally draining but I’m really happy to do it. I've formed some really close friendships with a lot of my clients.

I have quite a few people who recently lost brothers or sisters or something like that. It happens more often than people think. We end up giving like a counselling session to clients. I think people come to us because if you go to a therapist there is that pressure that you are talking to a medical professional, but for us, there's very rarely a sex worker who hasn't been through some shit. A lot of the time, we are emotionally mature and kind of almost skilled up in these conversations? Us having gone through our own experiences, we become good to talk to.

I remember a friend of mine worked at a club in the US and a guy had pretty much just come back from war and he just made a booking and cried in her arms the whole time. 

I really hope that things are improving a bit more in terms of the awareness of how people's lives actually look like in your work. What do you think are some of the big gaps in the industry that you’d love to see being addressed?

There's quite a few areas… If you do need legal advice about the job, there isn't so much of a union or anything like that. You don't know where you stand if a customer does something, or if you need to look for a house, just basic things like that. You do have to seek out these things on your own. 

Because of the nature of work you might not be able to work five days a week, so if you say you earned $100/ hour, people think that's a lot of money but you're not going to be booked every single hour. It's not like having a full-time job where you're just earning wages. You don’t get a salary and you have to pay a shift fee. So we sort of pay to work. It might be only 10-20-30-50 bucks but we still have to make that back so we don't lose money. 

What are the most common or maybe annoying or funny questions that you might get or like assumptions that people make about you?

Probably the most frustrating thing is when customers come in and they say things like “Do you girls compete and fight over customers?” Hmmm no, we're not fighting for you and your twenty dollars [laughs]. At the end of the day, even if it is a lot of money and a customer does prefer another girl over me, even though I might be disappointed or feeling let down because I might be in need of that money, I'm still happy for her! I'd still rather him choose her over me because he's going to have that better experience because he prefers her.

Sometimes customers try and put us on the spot to sort of make us compete over them, like they don’t know which one to choose. I will always back away from those situations. I don't put up with that. I'm not here to fight with my sisters because we are a family and I refuse to put on some sadistic little show. 

There is also quite a lot of stigma from other women who haven't worked in the industry before. More specifically, if say my partner has a male friend come over to our house and that friend has a female partner. She will know that he is going to the house of a stripper and have an idea in her head. I’m probably in my pajamas and not parading around the house in a G-string, you know? We're not gonna steal your boyfriends. I’m not interested [laughs]. 

There is kind of this initial curiosity and excitement, and then once they realise that I’m just a normal person and it's a job that I get paid for. People usually back off and lose their interest.

If someone were to offer you the same money doing a desk job or let’s say retail or anything else, would you switch to that or stay in the club? 

It does depend on the job because if it's something that I am passionate about, then definitely. But I do think if I won the lotto and I never had to work again, would I still come into the club? I think I would. I wouldn't work nearly as much as I do now but I definitely would still come in, because I love my friends and I love dancing and performing. I love my customers, my regulars. I wouldn't push myself that hard, there are some nights when I definitely don’t have it in me and the work can be so exhausting. When you're vulnerable in front of someone, it's way more draining… 

And I wouldn’t go back to nursing full-time just because that's a very small amount of money and I don't have the psychological capacity to work five days a week. I just don't have it in me. I love it but I can't do it on such a low wage, no.  

How do you take care of yourself with chronic fatigue and quite an emotionally intensive job? 

My partner looks after me quite a bit, I'm very grateful for him! He's so supportive. Sometimes it does feel like you make this money and it's good money but then your whole body is aching and you have to spend all your money on a massage. You need to invest quite a bit in yourself: doing your hair, nails, skin treatments (if you have skin like I do). Also dancing physically, you're more prone to injury: I dropped into the splits on stage one time and my leg tilted a bit and I was out of work for a couple of weeks. I do worry if I’ve done permanent damage to my leg.

There's unfortunately no health insurance that you might get if you work somewhere else. I know some girls that don't struggle with the shoes but a lot of those girls are quite small and they don't weigh that much. But if you weigh more, there's more pressure on your feet, especially if you've got small feet like me. So I get really sore feet and I physically cannot work that much, you have to be on your feet for like ten hours a night.

Do you have any things that you would want to do in the future or maybe an alternative-universe-you would do? 

Maybe in a different life, I would have done something else. I did look into going into the funeral industry and the embalming industry. I called up the Embalming Association of New Zealand, and as far as I’m aware you have to work in the field one way or another (i.e. reception or admin) for around two years before you can go and do your qualifications. Probably because it's such a sensitive topic so it makes sense, they want you to be sure and comfortable. 

When it comes to funeral services, I'm very passionate about the environment and helping people and I have a lot of experience with grief myself. It’s about figuring out ways that we can have a more environmentally friendly and a more holistic view on that kind of industry. If you can make the worst time in someone's entire life, the most traumatic thing that's ever happened to them, if you can make that easier then what better job to have? It seems dark and people think it's quite creepy and maybe in a way it is, but it's all about making the worst thing that can ever happen to you easier.

A person with long hair staring away into the distance with their back to us, peach coloured stars around. Illustration by Jenny Sahng

Do you want to offer any closing thoughts? 

Strip clubs are a good place for a lot of people to go to between dating, when you kind of dip your toes back into the kind of flirting and this sexual energy and getting turned on by someone without having to commit to anything. Knowing that it's purely financial; they're not going to break your heart and you're not going to break theirs. We are like a halfway step and a lot of our customers are just getting back out there, whether it's from a breakup or if their partners passed away. Again, that happens more often than you'd think.

When I talk about sex work, even though I love it and there are some awesome parts of it like performing and meeting awesome people, it's not an easy job. Considering I was a vet nurse and dealing with all the death and the gore and pain, stripping is still the hardest job I’ve had. You're pretty much guaranteed to have some horrible experiences whether that's even just from being rejected or insulted or worse. I don't want to glamorise it too much.

People might think about the cute outfits, the shoes, the makeup, the dancing and the money but then you think about getting naked and being touched by someone who might be physically repulsive to you or incredibly rude. Sometimes I tell people that I’m a stripper and they think I make a lot of money but I do a lot of things that aren’t too comfortable for me. 

I'm pretty non-judgmental when it comes to appearance, all I care about is people being kind and paying, but also basic hygiene. Before you come to a strip club, just shower and brush your teeth, please, like we're begging you [laughs].

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