The In-between: Yes, A Stripper

12/21/2018

istock/Stolk

Back in April I made a decision that, in all likelihood, permanently altered the course of my life. I was just about to start writing this column for bi.org, and had opened up a Twitter account in order to promote my work (if you don’t already, you can follow me here). After agonizing over what to put in my bio for what seemed like hours, I finally typed out the words “former stripper,” which I then followed up with “and recovering academic with a Ph.D. in media studies.”

Not surprisingly, the source of my anxiety surrounding this bio was not in admitting my background in academia, but rather, in publicly proclaiming that I also had a background in the sex industry. Even though attitudes toward sex work, and stripping in particular, have begun to soften noticeably in the last four or five years, I was well aware that the two I had spent twirling naked around a pole in the early 2000s was still sensitive information.

Despite the fact that a growing number of celebrities like Cardi B and Channing Tatum have gone on to have successful careers outside the sex industry despite public knowledge of their experiences in it, for the vast majority of us regular folk, prejudice still abounds. Unlike other socially stigmatized professions such as “mortician” or “garbage truck driver,” experience as a sex worker can still be used as legitimate justification for not hiring someone for a non-industry job. Thus, by choosing to include those words in my bio I knew that I was also making a choice about my career path and job prospects going forward, which was in large part why I spent so much time agonizing over it that day.

Looking back on this decision I realize that I did not come to it overnight. Even before I quit stripping I had already begun to hide that part of myself from the outside world, in large part because, as I describe in my inaugural edition of this column, I discovered rather quickly that most folks were eager to judge me for my experiences. Consequently, I buried the information deep and guarded it heavily throughout my twenties, such that, by the time I entered graduate school in 2009, this state of hiding had become almost second nature to me.

It took me about the length of my master’s program before I finally decided to share stories of my stripper past with anyone at school. Although I actually quite enjoyed telling tales of my crazy adventures in Guam from time to time, I had always thought it too risky to trade them with any of my classmates. Not only was I afraid that somehow the information would get out and undermine my work and credibility as a scholar, but also, that I would become a social pariah at school because of it. I was already feeling rather isolated there, in no small part because I was keeping this aspect of myself from everyone else, and the idea that things could get even worse really made me nervous. Consequently, the first folks I opened up to about it were fellow graduate students in a confidential writers’ support group, with whom I felt safe discussing my feelings of isolation.

After unloading this secret in group, a funny thing happened—I continued to feel nervous about the possibilities of what might occur if word got around that I used to strip, but these feelings were joined by a burgeoning sense of freedom. Now that my writers’ group knew about my past, I no longer had to hide it from them, and since they didn’t seem bothered by how I used to earn my money, I slowly found myself relaxing about it too. Being free from the added weight of my secret felt amazing, as did being seen as the complex and dynamic individual that I really was.

In an effort to expand this sense of freedom, over the next six years I continued to grow increasingly open about my experiences. One after another, I revealed this history to my close friends and colleagues, and then eventually, even to random acquaintances who I determined would pose no threat to me or my career. While I didn’t go so far as to share the information with any current or former students, I did derive quite a bit of joy from recounting some of my most colorful escapades in office hours with my doctoral advisor. In fact, it was she who first encouraged me to write about these experiences publicly.

Admittedly, a significant part of the joy I derived from these disclosures was getting to witness the momentary look of shock dance across the face of whomever I decided to tell. Particularly as I got further along in my graduate career, the fact that I used to take my clothes off for money seemed to grow increasingly unfathomable to most people I came across. Although it is true that I was also getting older and thus perhaps some of the disbelief I witnessed may have been rooted in my aging appearance, I would like to think that most of it was instead due to the fact that my life and intellectual achievements challenge folks’ assumptions about exactly who does sex work, and what their life experiences look like.

Thus, my decision to publicly label myself a former stripper with a Ph.D. on Twitter was both personal and political. On the one hand, making this public proclamation was very much about my personal pursuit of freedom from the guilt and shame that mainstream society expects me to feel around my experience in the sex industry. Although I never actually embraced the negative views of either myself or sex work that current social attitudes around it promote, my awareness of them nevertheless prevented me from feeling a complete sense of pride in myself. In this way, my choice to stop hiding it was very much a part of my journey toward self-love and acceptance, which I continue to work toward in all areas of my life.

At the same time, this public proclamation was also about pushing back against these social norms and challenging mainstream society to reconsider its attitude toward sex work and sex workers. Particularly because of my background as a media studies scholar, I have grown all too familiar with the power of representation, and so I felt that it was part of my responsibility to work on nuancing our image. Thus, my goal on that front has been to show the world that we are, in fact, far more complicated and interesting than the shallow two-dimensional caricatures that most media representations make us out to be, which of course, is a project that is much bigger than me, yet one that I still strive toward anyway.

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Lorien Hunter
Lorien Hunter is a writer, researcher and aspiring world traveler who currently lives in San Jose, California. In 2017, she earned her Ph.D. in media studies from the University of Southern California, where she examined digital media, popular culture and marginalized communities. Today, she is a regular contributing writer at Bi.org, where her weekly column, The In-between, centers on her experiences as a biracial bi woman finding comfort and belonging in the spaces between worlds.