This article originally appeared on Democrasexy.
The white-haired man slouching over the bar in a worn denim button-up lifted his head as I brought him a fresh half-pint of Victoria Bitter, a storm of sadness gathering in his eyes as he took in my blue thong bikini.
“You shouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I can tell you’re a nice girl.”
“This” was working as a “skimpy” bartender when I was 20 years old and studying abroad in Australia.
A newspaper ad led me to a folding chair in a dingy strip-mall office in downtown Perth where the owner of Living Dolls looked me up and down while grilling me in her Aussie rasp about my experience slinging burgers at Islands restaurant back in L.A. Then she sold me a blue thong bikini at a 20% discount from the company store and sent me out the door with a list of shifts at pubs scattered around the western coast of Australia.
The job mainly consisted of pouring beers in a barely-there bikini and being friendly, all things I excelled at when I was 20. The money promised in the “help wanted” ad was so good I took the job mostly to see if it was a scam. Being a skimpy paid $40 an hour, a rate I wouldn’t see again for at least 15 years at a straight, corporate advertising job. On top of that, I made tips (I’ll get to how in a minute).
I want to pause here and define “sex work,” as I think most people hear the term and think only of prostitution. The term “sex worker” was coined by author, former prostitute, and activist Carol Leigh (aka the Scarlot Harlot) in the late 1970s at a Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media conference in the late 1970s.
The terminology used at the conference for the sex industry was the “Sex Use Industry.” The phrasing bothered her because it objectified sex workers and trivialized the agency they had when organizing their labor.
Carol Leigh suggested the term “sex work” instead of “sex use” and it stuck. These days, “sex work” encompasses a range of consensual, adult (18+) sexual services and sexy performances including web-camming, porn, phone sex, stripping, and, yes, prostitution. Basically, anything that explicitly trades on sex appeal.
Under this broad umbrella I’ve done several types of sex work—burlesque, go-go dancing, bikini & topless bartending.
You could argue that Democrasexy is a type of sex work, since it includes scantily clad images of me that are intended to titillate and some of you incredible souls are paying me for it. (LOVE YOU THE MOST.) (Also, if you are a free subscriber and would like to upgrade to paid so you get the boobiest content, you can do that herrrre.)
Even though I have some experience as a sex worker, I have not depended on sex work as a primary means of survival and am in no way qualified to be A Voice For Sex Workers. I’m more of a “sex hobbyist.” I highly encourage you to seek out a range of voices on this topic and will link to some at the end of this piece.
Since May 24, 2021 I’ve been thinking a lot about my time as a 20-year-old sex worker. That was the day SB 315 was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott and suddenly anyone between 18 and 21 was out of their job at a Texas strip club. Women showed up to their shifts in full makeup and hair that night only to be sent home. No warning. No time to plan how else they might make a living.
This sudden job loss came exactly one week after Governor Abbott announced that Texas would no longer accept federal unemployment assistance.
I don’t know what is most galling… is it the hypocrisy of crusading to “save” young women from the “moral depravity” of working in a strip club (EYE ROLL) by taking away their livelihood with no warning and forcing them into more desperate circumstances?
Is it the fact that you can’t be a strip club employee (mostly women) but you can still be a strip club customer (mostly men) if you are 18 – 21 ?
Or is it the fact that not only did several Democrats co-sponsor this Republican-authored bill, but also NOT ONE SINGLE STATE REP OR SENATOR VOTED AGAINST IT? Not. One. Every single rep, even the really “progressive” ones, thought this bill was a good idea.
When I looked up the voting record on this bill I realized how far we still have to go to de-stigmatize sexuality, allow women agency in how we use our bodies, and separate sexual empowerment from sexual objectification in the cultural consciousness.
Supporters of this bill were calling it “anti-trafficking,” claiming it would save young women working in the legal, commercial sex industry from being coerced into the illegal sex trade or trafficked.
But the argument for this is flimsy, and the public hearing in the Senate Jurisprudence committee in favor of the bill consisted almost entirely of people giving tearful testimony about bad things that had happened to them or their loved ones that were already illegal.
In this testimony clip tweeted by Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush (we are tripping over George Bushes in this state), the heartbreaking stories these women share involve underage drinking, driving while drunk, and sexual assault of a minor. Enforcement of existing laws would have prevented terrible outcomes in each of those cases. This new law was wildly unnecessary.
So, what do the 18- to 21-year-old strippers who were shut out of the clubs do? Accept poverty wages in an “above-board,” entry-level job? Search out the kind of money they were making in the club, but in the shadows without the protections of a formal workplace?
I’m not going to pretend working conditions for women in a strip club are perfect (just as they aren’t perfect in advertising or finance or any other industry as long as the patriarchy and capitalist exploitation exist). But women who work in a club have others they can rely on—a manager, a bouncer, and probably most importantly, the women working alongside them.
When I was behind a bar in my blue, butt-baring bikini, it was the woman pouring beers next to me who saved my pussy one night. Literally.
You know how strip club customers in the U.S. often tip the dancers by tucking single dollar bills into their g-string or bikini top? Well, in Australia they don’t have $1 bills. They have $1 and $2 coins.
When I was a skimpy bartender, tips worked like this: $1 coin for a boob flash, $2 coin to show my ladybits. I collected the $2 coins by pulling the front of my bikini bottoms forward to catch them from the guys sitting at the bar—kind of an X-rated coin-toss game.
My first time bikini-bartending at one remote, rural pub in the Australian countryside, the regular barmaid warned me about some nefarious habits of the rough men who frequented the bar on skimpy night.
She told me to watch out for men pulling their $2 coins out from below their side of the bar rather than first setting them on top of the bar. If she hadn’t told me that, I wouldn’t have known to keep my knickers in place and shout a forceful, “NO” when I saw a man pull his $2 coin from below the bar to throw at me. He’d stealthily been holding his lighter to that coin, getting it blazing hot with the intention of tossing it into my underpants.
If he was willing to burn my pussy with hot metal in front of dozens of people in a public bar, what would a man like that do to me if I’d met him alone in a hotel room? What would I have done if I didn’t have another, more experienced woman there to watch out for me?
These are the kinds of situations young women in Texas are having to consider now that they’ve been forced out of the clubs.
Men like George P. Bush who pushed this bill aren’t considering those realities, though. They are merely looking for a chance to pat themselves on the back for saving young women from “selling their own bodies for monetary gain,” as he said in his testimony.
How come no one is on a moral crusade to save NFL players from selling their bodies for monetary gain? Or Olympians as young as 10 years old?
If the Texas legislature is so concerned about PTSD in young people, why aren’t they also pushing to raise the minimum age for military service to 21 and end aggressive recruitment campaigns targeting children under 18 in our schools?
After all, according to this article in the American Journal of Public Health:
“Military recruiter behaviors are disturbingly similar to predatory grooming.”
America valorizes violence and sport and vilifies sexuality.
Even among feminists there has long been a chasm between those who defend sexual expression and those who would like to pretend we all have smooth molded plastic where our genitals should be.
I’m currently reading Vanity Fair’s Women on Women, a collection of 35 years of essays written by women about women. The second essay in the book is written by Maureen Dowd about Tina Fey, and I settled in with glee to read about one of my feminist heroes. But on page two Fey and her husband recount an instance in their early dating days when he wanted to go to a strip club and she “still recoils.” She says, “I was like, ‘The fuck you will.’”
Dowd then points out to Fey that her character Liz Lemon goes to a strip club with Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), gets drunk, and dances onstage with a stripper named Charisma in the pilot episode of 30 Rock.
“I love to play strippers and to imitate them. I love using that idea for comedy, but the idea of actually going there? I feel like we all need to be better than that. That industry needs to die, by all of us being a little bit better than that.”
Watching the clip of that episode, it’s obvious that Lemon/Fey shares the sense of smug superiority common among those who haven’t had much experience with strip clubs. When a dancer approaches Liz Lemon, she tucks $20 in her beaded fringe skirt and says, “You know what? This is for computer classes.”
This stereotyping about what kind of woman does sex work, her intellect, and what it all means for her future prospects is why the man at the bar in the beginning of this essay got so sad for me.
“You shouldn’t be doing this. I can tell you’re a nice girl.”
I had barely said five words to him, so what did he know about me other than that I was young, white, had big, green eyes, didn’t have tattoos, and was serving beers in a bikini?
All he really knew was that in our society “nice” girls don’t let their sexuality show. And if they do, they’re ruined.
But the problem isn’t strip clubs, sex work, or women.
The problem is a society of puritanical binaries.
You cannot be both sexual and moral. You cannot be beautiful and smart. You cannot be nice and also get paid. You cannot be good and also do sex work.Another problem is the lack of equal economic opportunity for women, making sex work one of the only reliably lucrative options available to us. Just 6% of women say they earn more than $100,000/year compared with 13% of men.In Vanity Fair’s Women on Women piece about feminist icon Gloria Steinem, she’s quoted as saying:
“I had difficulty renting an apartment, because if I was a single women I wasn’t financially reliable and if I was financially reliable I must be a call girl.”
Another problem is a complete denial of the fact that sex is fun, feeling sexy is fun, looking at someone who is sexy is fun, being turned on is fun, and all of these are okay types of fun to have and to want.
I’m living proof that binaries are bullshit. I’ve served beers topless AND served as room parent for my pre-kindergartner. I’ve gyrated on stage in pasties AND graduated as valedictorian of my high school. I’ve been a go-go dancer AND a go-getter. Same human. Same value.
I haven’t always been strip clubs’ #1 fan, though.
In the years between doing sex work myself and writing this essay, I had babies and went through a period of feeling unhappy with my body and out of touch with my own sexuality.
So when I was a few months postpartum and my husband went to a strip club with a group of guys and got a lap dance, I flipped out. In retrospect, my anger was actually deep insecurity amplified by the isolation and loss of identity that often accompanies new motherhood.
Having fallen in love with myself again over the past few years, I’m now entirely unthreatened by other people’s sexuality. My husband and I were strip club regulars before the pandemic, and it was actually fun for me to watch him get lap dances or for us to get them together. Not a split second of jealousy.
I love a good lap dance or a particularly acrobatic pole routine, but my favorite part of visiting the strip club is making friends with the dancers—hearing about what they’re studying in school, what their other side hustles are, where they grew up, and what made them get into stripping. A few women I’ve met do sex work mostly just for the fun of it, which was also mostly why I did sex work.
I wonder if any of our Texas legislators had an actual conversation with 18- to 21-year-old dancers, servers, or bartenders before they voted to kick them out of strip clubs. Or is the extent of the exchange between Texas legislators and sex workers usually just “how much”?
Want to know more? Read our Guide to Ethical Porn.
60% of women are dissatisfied with their sex lives. We’re on a mission to change that.
What if you didn’t have to search to find a body that looks like yours, a sex act that turns you on, or a guided exercise that helps you tell your partner exactly what you’ve been craving?
What if YOUR pleasure came first?
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About the author
Becky Bullard is the founder & CEO of Democrasexy, a creative civic engagement organization that’s making democracy sexy so more people will do it. Previously, Becky co-hosted an award-winning podcast called The Rabble, a political field guide for progressive Texans. She is also a pleasure activist, event curator, content creator, writer, and speaker, emceeing events and hosting panels for groups like Annie’s List, Supermajority, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Texas Observer, and others. Before getting involved in politics, Becky spent more than 15 years in advertising as a brand strategist and copywriter.