How to Strip…Sober
As a stripper, I hear all the secrets and sorrows like a story I never wanted to hear while dancing naked and offering comfort.
I’m often overwhelmed by the sadness and vulnerability of men I encounter.
I’m in the yellow bathroom of the strip club where I still dance. There’s glitter stuck to the sink and a tub of baby wipes with sign on the wall that says Please don’t take these supplies home. The toilet’s broken again so I’ll have to open the toilet lid and pull the plastic lever manually to flush. When I reach for the toilet paper I see a small black metal bullet sitting on top of the toilet roll holder. It’s scratched up, like it’s been kicked around, well-loved. I unscrew it to see what’s inside, guessing pills or coke. It’s more than half-empty, or half-full, depending on your perspective. The chalky powder’s caked into the cracks of the bullet’s screw part, so I struggle to close it again. A tiny bit of the powder gets on my fingers so I drop it into my purse, knowing the bullet belongs to any of the five or six girls chattering in the dressing room right outside this door, tugging at their ripped fishnets and stretchy red lace bras. I’m afraid to touch the toilet paper with my cokey hands so I lean over and run hot water. Wash with hand soap, wipe them on my pants then snatch the toilet paper. When I’m done, I grab my purse and my gig bag and walk past the girls. It’s the end of my shift; the beginning of theirs.
On my way out, I think about the coke in my purse and what it delivers: tingling teeth and the vacant, watery-eyed emotional distance. Vague horniness. No appetite. Coke wasn’t my thing, meth was, but I realize that for some girls, numbness is key to excelling here. Stripping is not only physically taxing but requires a knack for seducing and mauling strangers—ingesting their hostile sadness and offering kindness and boobs. The emotional currency is fast and furious when the money flows. It’s hard to stay present. I wonder if it’s a tad fucked up of me to take their crutch away from them tonight. Twenty-three years of sobriety later, powders still make my mouth water. My left eye twitches. I stop at the front entrance and give the black bullet to my manager.
“This was in the bathroom. I don’t want this shit where I work,” I say. He shakes his bald head and takes the bullet.
“I don’t blame you,” he says. In the years I’ve worked at this club, he’s never seen me drink or smoke. As always, he lifts my gig bag from my shoulder and walks me to my car across the parking lot. The moon looks like a roasted marshmallow in the clear desert sky. The wind’s picking up. Palm trees sway. I’ve worked eight hours and I’m happy to be going home without coke residue on my hands. Seeing drugs at work is unsurprising, but I never fully get used to it.
A few years ago, in a strip club in New Orleans, a girl was dancing to The Kings of Leon when she fell straight back like a slab of particleboard. Her ankles trembled violently. Convention goers watched from small round tables. One of them got up, walked over, said they were a nurse. Management yelled at everyone not to move convulsions girl. When the paramedics arrived, I never saw her again. Strippers routinely ask for a dollar bill in the dressing room. They roll it into a skinny straw then hoover a line off the countertop. I used to give them dollars but I don’t anymore. I skitter away with my Hello Kitty Purse and feel lucky to be alive. Alcohol is less seductive to me but it’s pushed all night long. When I ask for a Diet Coke, my customers crinkle their nose with disdain. This, also, I am used to.
Many of my co-workers day drink, so by the end of their shift, they’re smashed. One time a dancer gave me her car keys with the intention of having me drive her home but in the parking lot, she asked for her keys and bolted to her truck, speeding off in a blackout.
While the sober stripper is an anomaly, the ankle bracelet stripper is a fan favorite.
Strip clubs are known for drugs and acting out, not for integrity, impeccable boundaries and sobriety. My first sponsor was a stripper who told me that all work is honorable; that we go to work to be of love and service. I was directed to be a worker among workers, a stripper among strippers and the sex industry is service on steroids. So the fact that drugs and alcohol were part of my work landscape was proof I could go anywhere and do anything sober—as long as I was spiritually fit. I focused on being of love and service and got busy practicing the 7th tradition. The money I earned went directly to my amends and to becoming self-supporting through the contributions of men.
My biggest challenge stripping sober began with fat. When I quit meth, pills and alcohol I put on 35 pounds in three months. My curves spilled out all over, but not in the places I liked. I had a front and back tire, cellulite on my thighs and a belly. By the time I completed my ninth step I’d realized I owed everyone in my life at least three hundred bucks and the only way I knew how to make that much cash was in the sex industry. My license had been suspended. My car was impounded. I owed back rent but I was happy. I had two options: get to work or get evicted from my apartment.
People think dancing naked forces you to love your body, but after dancing with women my entire adult life, I’ve learned all women hate their bodies.
Luckily, liberal San Francisco businessmen like their feminist strippers chubby and punk, so I followed my sponsor into the lap-dancing clubs with just over a year of sobriety and paid my debts. I bought a bicycle and went to the gym. I took Capoeira for free in a community room. I signed up for the Aids Ride. I was stark raving sober: prickly, prone to migraines— jumpy. But I began to make friends with my body, which grew into a love and appreciation for my health and strength.
The thing that sucks about stripping sober is having feelings. That sex workers are thought of as hardened, bitter or distant is ridiculous. Emotions are not a faucet that turns off once you take your clothes off and climb a pole. I’m often overwhelmed by the sadness and vulnerability of men I encounter. Performing the role of the sexy escape route for men to avoid the responsibilities in their lives is hard to maintain. I assume other workers feel this type of caretaker exhaustion too: firefighters, nurses, therapists, lawyers, social workers, but they have safeguards in place that separate them from their clients. If someone says something cruel, they leave. As a stripper, I hear all the secrets and sorrows like a story I never wanted to hear while dancing naked and offering comfort. They leave but their story never quite washes off at the end of the day—until it does.
Which brings me to self-care. Like any other hard job working nights, rest, hydrating, eating well, getting a massage and relaxing are very important things to inject into my recovery. When I worked late nights, I attended noon meetings or early evening meetings to keep my seat and stay connected to the rooms of AA. It’s a challenge to keep a strong self-care routine and take time off when needed. Most strip clubs don’t adhere to any schedule so it’s easy to fall into bad habits and work too many nights in a row or become sleep deprived and tired, pushing out the sunlight of the spirit in exchange for cash.
What no one ever talks about is the addiction to fast money. No money is more alluring, misleading and capricious than fast money. Stripping, like gambling, is about luck, timing, charm and skill. Pour the hot sauce of seduction and sexual validation in the mix and drab pedestrian life (and any career ever) is limp in comparison. The sexual obsession and money combination has never flattered my real-life relationships, even though I know better. What happened to that nice guy who promised to pay my student loans? What about the guy who promised to pay for grad school? Poof! Gone. For me, the only way out of the fast money frenzy was to have it forcibly removed and made right-sized. The economy crashed and strip clubs were ghost towns for years, which allowed me the time and space to find other types of work and build a work-life balance. When the obsession was removed, it was replaced by sponsees, healthy real relationships and the confidence to pursue other things that enriched my life. I went back to school, got an MFA and began writing.
The worst and final challenge of being a sober stripper is the stigma and gossip in AA due to internalized misogyny. The poison that keeps strippers and all sex workers living in our secrets—cloaked in shame—is the fact that society shits on sex workers. I no longer hide my history of sex work from anyone, especially in the rooms of AA. I’ve found that it’s an asset and a gift to others who have been in the sex industry who may feel marginalized and alone due to the shame and pain of keeping it a secret. Give me a room full of people giggling at me for stripping sober than have one sex worker feel like they cannot come home to AA because they’ve never heard their story. Now they have.