Stripper feet are gross.

Even the girls who get frequent pedicures in an effort to make their feet look less gross spend hours in shoes that are made of some form of plastic or vinyl. We combat this by spreading deodorant between our toes and dusting our shoes with foot powder, but at the end of the day it doesn’t do much more than change the odor of our feet from biohazardously awful to just regular old bad.

My feet are especially gross. The only pedicures I’ve ever gotten are at-home procedures that consist of little more than some half-hearted rubbing with a pumice stone, a soak in warm water, some toenail clipping, and a little nail polish. Actually going to a nail shop and paying someone to make the little piggies presentable seems pointless: my feet are a lost cause. To begin with, they are quite large and, though my arches are high, my feet look almost oblong when I am standing. The toenails of my little toes are barely existent and folded into the flesh of the knuckle, the toenails on my other toes curve upwards to the point where I have to cut them down to the quick if I expect to wear any but the sturdiest hosiery more than once. My big toes are both constantly battling slightly ingrown toenails, and I have ever-growing bunions from wearing high heels constantly and walking everywhere. I am, one would think, a foot fetishist’s worst nightmare.

Strip clubs–or at least the ones I’ve worked at–have a tendency to attract fetishists of all kinds, but especially foot fetishists. Why this is, I do not know. While it’s true that foot fetishes are hardly uncommon, a strip club doesn’t strike me as a good place to indulge that particular kink. While there are plenty of foot fetishists who actually prefer gross feet to all other feet, most of the men I encountered didn’t state any such preference.

I had been working at Heavenly Creatures for a week before I met my first foot guy, José.

José tipped me in tens while I danced on one of the side stages and told me how beautiful my legs were and how much he loved my shoes. They were, he said, better than all the other girls’, as mine were black rather than clear, and looked sharp. The only thing that could make me even better, he said, would be if I were wearing stockings. If that were the case, he said, he’d totally take me up to the champagne room and rub my feet. This sounded too good to be true, but I did have a pair of stockings back in the dressing room. When I got offstage I told José to wait while I put them on, I’d be right back.

To my great surprise, he was as good as his word. The minute I returned wearing stockings, he drained his drink and suggested we go upstairs. He bought a half hour and spent the entire thirty minutes kneeling on the floor in front of the dance couch where I sat, sucking my toes and rubbing my feet. This, I thought, had to be the best champagne room excursion ever. José might not have been very good at giving foot rubs, but I was still essentially getting paid to take a break, and a bad foot rub is better than no foot rub any day of the week.

As he rubbed my feet, José talked about his great love of women’s shoes, how I must think he was crazy, how he was embarrassed by his predilections, how he usually didn’t even get lap dances because he would really just rather suck on a girl’s toes and was scared to tell most strippers.

I wasn’t sure what to say, whether he wanted me to shame him for his fetish, or if he needed a pep talk. Was I supposed to tell him that yes, he was a dirty, perverted excuse for a man, that his desire to essentially serve women made him less than male, that he was beneath me? I’m not sure. His shame seemed genuine, but genuine shame can so often be eroticized and turned from a negative into a positive.

I decided to err on the side of caution and rather than go into full dominatrix mode, I instead explained to José that people get off in all kinds of different ways, most of which aren’t wrong or worse than any other way, that I had encountered almost every kind of freak one way or another, and in the grand scheme of things a foot fetish was small potatoes. Why, I asked, should he be ashamed of wanting to put a girl’s toes in his mouth when there are men out there who want to put a girl’s shit in their mouths?

My pep talk seemed to have a good effect. José took my foot out of his mouth and asked if he could buy a pair of my shoes. I was taken aback. The only shoes I had with me were a pair of Mary Jane pumps that I couldn’t be persuaded to part with for all the tea in China and my work shoes. How, I asked, was this supposed to work?

José suggested that I give him my phone number. We could meet up the next day!

I was understandably dubious. The rules at Heavenly Creatures about giving out phone numbers and email addresses (never, ever, under any circumstances) were strictly enforced and there were cameras everywhere. In addition, we hadn’t even discussed pricing and I do not give my number out without a firm offer.

José first suggested that he pay $25 for a pair of my shoes. I explained to him that I didn’t own a pair of shoes that cost less than fifty dollars and that considering how they were graced by my delicious foot sweat, he had better pay a lot more than $25. Though it was a bit low, I agreed on $80 and when his half hour was up I went to the bathroom, wrote my email address on a piece of toilet paper, and slipped it to him when I went back on the floor.

My heart was racing. If anyone saw what I had done, I would undoubtedly be fired and over a lousy eighty bucks at that. But I was lucky and no one saw me, or if they did no one told.

The next day, José and I arranged a meeting at the Burger King near the club to hand off the shoes. He was late. I bought a terrible frappe that was too sweet even for me and hoped another dancer wouldn’t come in and recognize me, or worse, try to sit with me as I stared at the terrible excuse for a coffee drink sitting in front of me. Either of these things would have been disastrous, but at least worrying about them took the edge off my fear that seeing me fully clothed in the unflattering fluorescent light of the Burger King would destroy any intention José might have had of buying my shoes.

Before either of those things could happen, José arrived.

The fact that he didn’t even bother to order any food distressed me greatly (if he didn’t order and one of my coworkers came in, she would obviously know he had been a customer last night! I was sure of it!) but I immediately felt better when he paid me, accepted the shoes, and asked what else I did.

“Well,” I said, “I’m not a prostitute if that’s what you’re asking.”

His face fell. “No mami,” he replied, “I was just wondering because I don’t want you to have to give the club your money!”

He had a point, actually. If I could charge José Heavenly Creatures prices to suck my toes, he wouldn’t even have to tip me and I’d already be making almost double, what with the champagne room cost and house fees. José wouldn’t have to spend as much and could rest secure in the knowledge that all the money was going to me, his friendly neighborhood sex worker while I, the friendly neighborhood sex worker, would have greater freedom to milk this cash cow for all he was worth outside the infuriating structure of the club. I wrote down my phone number and told José we would discuss this at a later date.

I left the Burger King feeling hopeful. I missed being a free agent, as I had been for most of my time as a sex worker. Even as a phone sex operator or at Paradox, I had more autonomy than I did at Heavenly Creatures where you weren’t allowed to take off your clothes onstage and got yelled at for taking a break unless you were eating or smoking. There were so many rules here! You weren’t even allowed to dictate the parameters of your own lap dance, no touching of anything but the waist was allowed under any circumstances. If I started taking clients for light fetish work outside the club, I could possibly phase out working at Heavenly Creatures entirely.

Unfortunately, selling shoes to José never became anything more than a one-time thing.

Once he had my number, he began texting me at odd hours of the morning asking for increasingly lower rates–not only for shoes, but also for foot worship and footjobs. I turned him down over and over again, but the damage was done, I was demystified and accessible. He had seen me in my everyday shoes and clothes and seen the whorish mask of my work makeup under fluorescent lights. I had ceased to be a magical creature, an avatar of Ishtar, and had become human, nothing more than a skinny girl with hair coated in five different products who dressed like a nun and wore too much

I’ve written before about the fantasy world of strip clubs; José’s change in behavior as soon as he had my phone number is just another example of it. At the club, I was a goddess, one of the exquisite women, elevated both literally and figuratively above the customers, and therefore nothing was too good for me, no price was too high for me because I was surrounded by the mystique of sensuality without any obligation beyond money. I glowed in the blacklit darkness of the club and I carried mutually agreed upon power: I could demand and forbid things, I was even expected to do so. Without the artificial world of the club, however, I was stripped of that power. I couldn’t say “No, that’s not enough. If you really want me you’ll have to pay up.” without it simply being reduced to, “No.”

Granted, part of this had to do with the fact that José was obviously something of a cheap bastard, but it was suddenly obvious to me how much the irritating structure of the club contributed to my ability to insist upon certain things. The economy had changed a lot since 2008, and it was clear that fetish work as a free agent was no longer a viable option.

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.