I have never really been one to feel much kinship with other women. I am and have always been–excepting a short period during my teen years when I tried my damndest to eschew all trappings of tradition, feminine or otherwise–the girliest of girly girls. Throughout my life my circle of friends has been comprised mostly of women, true, but the concept of some kind of universal sisterhood had always been completely alien to me.
Until I started stripping.
Strippers as a group tend to be unusual and individualistic people. We march to the beat of no drum but our own and vocally oppose those who so much as try to convince us to fall in line. Our income is dependent not only on our looks, but on our ability to set ourselves apart from the crowd, to convince our customers that we are different, special, unique and, more than that, uniquely worth the price of a dance or a higher-priced show. One would think in our cramped backstage quarters, such a disparate group of colorful, willful characters would create a breeding ground for fights, gossip, and general discord… but it never was.
At Club Paradox we, the strippers, spent the majority of our eight hour shifts crammed into a dressing room a little more than half the size of a small bedroom. Calling it a closet would be generous; the term ‘cracker box’ is better and more accurate. The four girls working each shift were packed into the tiny space, required to get along out of necessity, if nothing else. Fights did happen (the week before I started work, two of my new co-workers had gotten into such an intense argument that they broke a mirror and left permanent bloodstains on one of the walls) but they were unusual occurrences in a space that was unusually loving and warm in spirit. …If not temperature.
There was a huge sense of camaraderie born out of our comfortable dissatisfaction. I think we were all very happy at Paradox–I certainly was–but in the cramped, smoky bubble of the dressing room, the most popular activity was complaining. We complained about everything, the music, the customers, the lack of money (if it was a slow day), the condition of the dressing room, the condition of the booths, the temperature, anything that was even somewhat irritating. At first it was strange to me, could these women all really be this unhappy? But for the most part they weren’t. Our complaints weren’t so much meant as criticisms of the club and they certainly weren’t to be taken seriously; they were more commentary than anything else, they said “This place is weird and sleazy and kind of run-down, but we’re in it together, we’re sharing this experience and laughing about it and that’s pretty cool.”
Besides complaining, there was also a lot of nudity. Because they didn’t serve alcohol and there was no contact with the customer, Paradox managed to allow full nudity in a city that makes it as difficult as possible for even topless clubs to exist in peace. When you were done with a show, you had two options: awkwardly get dressed before leaving the box or grab your clothes and take them to the dressing room. We almost all chose the latter option, not only dressing in front of each other, but sitting down to cool off first. Among friends, this kind of behavior wasn’t new to me, but among strangers I had never been in an environment where nudity was so casually desexualized. While we were at work, our bodies became nothing more than tools. Of course, the fact that they were also objects of desire was what made them so effective as tools, but that was beside the point.
There was very little competition. Our physical types were so different that it was unlikely we’d all appeal to the same demographic. Every so often, Crystal–the old war horse of Club Paradox–would accuse another girl of trying to steal one of her regulars, but since Crystal was the only girl who leaned over the half glass and jerked guys off in the ‘windowless’ room, we could honestly assure her that the guy was just testing the waters and would undoubtedly return to her. In a regular club, Crystal’s extracurricular activities would likely have been a serious problem; not only with management, but also with the other dancers. She would have been blacklisted and shunned, if not outright fired. Here, though, we joked about it.
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.