When I asked Felix if her job as pole-dancing stripper made her feel exploited, she replied with these words of wisdom: “All labor is exploitative.”
Not what I expected, but her words rang true in my ears. I remembered a job that threatened to fire me if I logged the overtime hours they made me work. I remembered a boss commenting on my breasts, and when I threatened to report him he laughed and said those classic words, “Who’s going to believe you?” Are those instances any more exploitative than Felix choosing to fondle her breasts for money?
“The idea that somehow stripping or any sort of sex-related work is exploitative to women—I don’t see how it’s any more exploitative than any other labor,” she said. “[Men] are giving me a fair exchange for services in an environment where I have the support and the choice to share that with them. In public, if a man wants to ogle me, I receive no benefit from that transaction. In the club, he pays for that right that I have explicitly given him. I have found it to be very empowering.”
Female empowerment is a core ideology of the feminist movement, yet many people see stripping as a hinderance to the pursuit of female equality. While Felix understands that viewpoint, she says it often stems from a misunderstanding of the strip club environment and the reasons why girls choose to pole dance.
“The patriarchal bargain is where you are gaining power individually by conforming to patriarchal ideas at the expense of women as a whole. I’m a girly-girl and always have been—gender roles are part of the patriarchal bargain, but that is who I am. Should I stop being who I am to conform to what feminists think I should be? Let people be who they are—that is really what thoughtful feminism is about—just let people be who they are.”
And Felix is definitely a soulful dancer. Sitting at her club, watching her dance and perform amazing feats of strength on the pole, her grace and attitude seemed more on display than her C-cup breasts. The men watching her weren’t seedy or muttering inappropriate things—even when she climbed on the rack and pressed her breasts into their faces, they remained respectful. Unlike some clubs that give stripping a bad reputation, Felix’s club fully supports dancer safety.
“At my club, if someone is making [a dancer] uncomfortable, if doesn’t matter if they’ve crossed some specific line like groping, if he’s in any way a douche, whatever that means [to the dancer], they’ll kick him out. It’s increased my confidence in that I’m much more comfortable in dealing with attention that I don’t want. I’m now used to telling people that they’re making me uncomfortable—and that they need to stop what they’re doing.”
Again her words reminded me of a situation I faced a few months ago where a male friend kept commenting on my body, kept calling me sexy, and kept whispering discomforting “compliments” in my ear. I asked a mutual friend for advice, and she said he was “harmless,” that he didn’t mean anything by it. Eventually I asked him to stop. Clearly offended, he said that “he wasn’t very good at self control.” Unlike Felix, I didn’t have a bouncer to reprimand this man’s behavior, and my complaint was viewed as over-reactionary and rude, something to be discarded.
I envy Felix’s confidence in enforcing her boundaries, which now extends to her non-stripping life as well. (During a Halloween party, a drunk man who had been trying to grope women on the dance floor only to have his behavior ignored, came up and stroked Felix’s back. She immediately told him it was creepy and that he needed to leave.)
The thought crossed my mind that young women could benefit from Felix’s experience as a stripper. To be given the opportunity to display their sexuality (however they choose) and be allowed to accept or decline sexualized attention without repercussion—to be supported in their choice regardless of whether the intent was “harmless”—could severely flip the cat-calling, “she was asking for it” culture women are forced to accept today.
Strangely, it seems Felix is objectified less in her role as a stripper.
“I kind of had this view of the strip club regular being this creepy old man who’s only there to ogle you, but the vast majority of regulars—shocker—see us as people. People they like to spend time with. You can’t objectify someone and simultaneously see them as a person,” she said. “Just because they’re able to see my body and that I’m displaying my sexuality doesn’t mean I’m being objectified; they just know me as a person, including my sexuality, including my body. A vast majority of customers are there to appreciate the complete package.”
And displaying that package earns her upwards of $30 an hour in an environment where she gets to flirt, dance, and build the kind of brass-balls confidence most women would kill for—and don’t forget the muscles. After months of climbing the pole, Felix has gotten stronger. She eagerly pulled me into the bathroom after our interview and removed her shirt to show me; her lats are indeed impressive.
For a job that’s widely viewed as immoral, Felix’s stance on stripping (and the benefits she receives from it) seems more empowering than it’s given credit for. Maybe it’s time we pull back the curtain and remove the stigma—we might like what we see.
Cover photo courtesy of Mark Cheyne.
Note: To protect the source of this article, any and all names have been changed.