Harlotry: I Learned About Sisterhood In A Stripclub

We joked about everything constantly, the customers, the owner, our problems, we counseled each other about troubles with our men and women, we gossiped about whoever wasn’t currently working. We all came from different backgrounds. There was Cherry, a wannabe crusty who grew up in the privileged suburb of Northbrook, Destiny, who lived in Humboldt Park and ran with gangbangers. Crystal had two children and had been at Paradox for fifteen years, every year of which was written on her face. Sandra was also a mother and supported her two sons and somewhat deadbeat boyfriend on her income. Lisa, who grew up in Englewood and wanted out, but didn’t know how to start moving up. Victoria, an art student from Connecticut, and Nikki, a pre-op transgendered girl who was more beautiful than all of us put together, but hated her face and seemed to spend most of her money on plastic surgery. If we had met in the street, we probably wouldn’t have given each other second looks and there’d be no sense of shared experience, but huddled in the dressing room that was always too hot or too cold, we were all the same, we were all live nude girls, and we found more common ground than any of us would have expected.

It is difficult to find the words to describe our solidarity, we didn’t just cleave to each other because our dressing room was small or because we took our clothes off and danced like Salome, though these were contributing factors. We didn’t love each other because we had to–we even formed an alliance against Cherry, who refused to bathe regularly and filled the small dressing room with the odor of her unwashed body. We took care of each other and although we didn’t have to, it would have seemed wrong not to. When new girls came to work there was an unspoken understanding that we would try them by fire, telling stories about customers who tried to grab us, playing with knives, speaking entirely in inside jokes, and making it clear that if they wanted to be one of us they would have to prove that they were made of the same stuff as us. In the short, blissful time I was there, I never saw a new girl last longer than two or three shifts.

Perhaps it was the superficiality and artificial qualities of our interactions with customers that glued us together and created a greater need for a space of love, trust and understanding than one usually requires in a work environment. Perhaps it was just the excitement of sharing an intense bond with so many women. Whatever it was, here in the little cracker box of a dressing room existed the sisterhood I’d never really believed in.

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.

Pic via Warner Brothers/Sucker Punch

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    • Lastango

      Gritty account. This part is especially helpful:
      “When new girls came to work here was an unspoken understanding that we would try them by fire, telling stories about customers who tried to grab us, playing with knives, speaking entirely in inside jokes, and making it clear that if they wanted to be one of us they would have to prove that they were made of the same stuff as us. In the short, blissful time I was there, I never saw a new girl last longer than two or three shifts.”
      Enquiring minds will want to google “horizontal violence”.

      • Anon

        God, glad someone said it. Real “sisterhood” here.

      • Mandy

        Clearly Lastango & Anon have no siblings. True sisters test each other daily, how is this any different?

      • Lastango

        “True sisters test each other daily, how is this any different?”

        Mandy, did you google “horizontal violence” – ? You’ll see how it’s different.

    • Vee

      I love your little tales. I’ve been devouring them over the past few days. Fantastic mix of honesty and hilarity. Your stories are very empowering too, they show you have to have quite a bit of creativity and intelligence and a whole lot of resilience to survive in most sex related jobs.
      I’ve been wondering why you prefer stripping out of all of the jobs that you have explored (is it the most preferred?). Do you like the dancing aspect, or is it this sort of sisterhood? Also, what are you feelings about burlesque?

      • Cate

        Thank you! You are very kind.

        I think part of why I prefer stripping is that it has a higher money to power ration than other kinds of sex work. I mean, with stripping I’m not really doing anything besides taking my clothes off or in the case of a regular club, giving some guy blue balls, and yet the money is at least as good and often better than with other parts of the sex industry. The sisterhood, though, is a big part of what appeals to me. The two people in the comments below suggest that because we weren’t open and welcoming to new girls at Paradox, there was no real sisterhood, but this is very common at all strip clubs. New girls are always somewhat looked down upon until they prove they have the strength and resilience to join the family, so to speak. It’s no different than primitive initiation rituals, and it makes the group stronger as a result. I’ve dealt with it, and I expect to deal with it again when I find a new club to work at. Granted, I live and work in Chicago, where clubs tend to be smaller so it is easier to worm one’s way in, but here, at least, it is not difficult. You just have to be nice, but not too nice, to your co-workers and things will fall into place.

        Burlesque is wonderful. I love it, but sadly it is no longer the full-time career it once was. I mean, the burlesque clubs of yesteryear were the strip clubs of today, the dancers even referred to themselves as strippers. For better or worse, though, the aesthetic of stripping and, I think the sex industry in general, has changed so much, especially with the advent of the internet that even the feature dancers of the 1990s and their elaborate routines are pretty much a thing of the past. So for now I pretty much just spectate and leave it at that.

    • MadameDakar

      FYI — “transgendered” is not considered an acceptable term. People who are “transgender” are “born this way;” it’s not something that happened to them or was imposed on them.

      • Anonymous

        Transgendered is actually very acceptable, I’ve never heard anyone ever say otherwise so I honestly don’t know where you’re getting this. She also never said anything ‘happened to them’, so I don’t know where you’re even getting that…. Why you posted on here to make an invalid point is beyond me.

      • Mandy

        Well, I’ll make sure to tell the dozens of transgendered people I know & work with that they’re calling themselves something totally unacceptable. I’m sure they’ll be glad to know.

    • hope

      please read my blog @ http://hopethefeminist.blogspot.com/ . it’s really awesome i promise

    • Mandy

      Yeah, not seeing anything there except a lot of jabber. We’re animals. Humans test the people in their groups just like every pack, pride, school, etc in the animal kingdom. There’s also a huge difference between things like college hazing & basic sh*t-giving in a new job. In ANY group, you have to prove yourself. It has been that way since humanity began (as proven by any variety of historical studies). It’s just this newer generation of softies who seem to be offended by it.

      • Renee

        By your argument, any behavior found naturally in the animal kingdom is acceptable? Theft is found in the animal kingdom plenty, as animals steal food from one another. So I guess we can all go around taking what we want, since we are just “animals”. And how about killing? Lots of animals kill members of their own species without reprisal. So I’m sure that must be fine for humans too.

        So yes, everything from college-hazing to basic shit-giving is one of the ways a group can initiate a new member. Is this the only way? Absolutely not. Is it possible to join a group without having cruelty dealt out? Of course it is. Is it the right thing to do, to force people to “prove” themselves by showing how much shit from people they are willing to put up with? Well, in my opinion, no.

        Honestly, what is wrong with the idea of treating EVERYONE with decency and respect ALL of the time? How is this such a hard concept for humans to grasp? This is why we are all such miserable bastards.

      • Grant

        Mandy, yes we are all talking monkeys. But we have soul. Yes these thing you speak of exist; reality. Doesn’t make it right.
        Renee, everything you said is spot on. Respect.

    • Grant

      Another good post. My only criticism is I wish it were longer. Always feel a slight twinge of “I wish there was more” on the last page… I guess I’ll have to wait for the book. I’m sure many others have similar feelings.

    • Miss Meppy

      I liked this article (and have been enjoying the ‘Harlotry’ series as a whole), but I have to agree – the trial by fire thing kind of sucks. I’ve never heard the term horizontal violence til now but it sums things up perfectly. I’ve had jobs where similar things happened, but none of them were in the sex/stripping industry. I can only imagine how much worse it feels when you’re literally naked and everyone around you is treating you like shit, including the people who you’d think would have your back.

      Also, “transgendered” is a perfectly acceptable term. My dad is trans and that’s how she and all her friends & the family refer to it, as well as everyone at the hospital. When I’m telling someone I don’t know well I don’t usually say my dad had a “sex change”, because using the words “my dad” and “sex” in the same sentence has a visceral connotation that makes people feel uncomfortable. Saying “transgendered” is the absolutely most politically correct (and least awkward) way of saying it.

      • Valerie

        I agree about the trial by fire. This article doesn’t really make me think of sisterhood so much as that mean girl bullshit we all learn in middle school that continues throughout our lives.