To celebrate the release of Whorephobia: Strippers on Art, Work, and Life, edited by Lizzie Borden, we are proud to share Borden’s preface to the collection, in which she both introduces readers to the book’s contributors and shares the unmistakeable impact of sex work on her artistic output.
by Lizzie Borden
In the late 1970s and early ’80s in downtown New York, my friends and I hung out in funky bar/strip clubs like the Baby Doll and the Pussycat Lounge to watch our friend Cookie Mueller go-go dance. Cookie, the inimitable John Waters actress and writer, supported herself and her son largely on Social Security checks, an occasional film part, and columns for downtown magazines. Go-go dancing was just one more piece of the jigsaw puzzle of her survival.
I was a filmmaker at the time. Downtown—meaning anything below Twenty-Third Street—was where those of us seeking to escape traditional, often middle-class backgrounds came to make art. We were the first gentrifiers of raw, industrial loft spaces that had once housed turn-of-the-century sweatshops. In this scene, sex was everywhere: We saw nude performances by dancers and theater performers in galleries and art spaces. We took the subway to Times Square to sneak into “tip-and-touch” places. We’d seen all of Fellini, and we revered Sam Fuller’s film The Naked Kiss. We scoffed at Vegas showgirls with their perfect android bodies. But despite the ubiquity of sex in the city’s artistic and commercial life at the time, I’d always been mystified by what went on in the strip clubs that seemed to populate every street, male bastions advertised by neon signs. Who were the strippers who worked in them? What were they expected to do? And what made them want to do it?
So, I was in awe of Cookie and the other downtown writers, painters, and musicians who performed at the clubs in their thrift-store costumes, platform shoes, layers of eyelashes, and tons of glitter, alongside plenty of working-class dancers from the outer boroughs. They were as far from Vegas showgirls or Fellini vixens as one could imagine. The ironic casualness with which they vamped to popular songs in their underwear, using a pole only to keep their balance, changed my concept of who strippers could be.
Their comfort eased my own leap into a world of paid sex.
I’d been working on a film for several years by then, editing eight hours a day and shooting whenever I had a few hundred dollars. At some point, I learned that a few of my closest artist friends worked for a madam in a small brothel. My best friend dared me to do it with her; she told me it could be a way to afford to keep my film going. This kind of working was like Cookie’s go-going—nothing like the media stereotypes of street-based hookers or high-class call girls. Whatever our job, and whoever the client, we were riffraff, wearing what we could glean from our closets in order to meet the madam’s requirements. (“Dress as if you’ve just had lunch with your in-laws and are on your way to meet your boyfriend.”) We were solving our own jigsaw puzzles so we could make our art.
My way of justifying working at the brothel was to tell myself it was part of what I considered my “real work” of writing and directing, so I always went to work armed with a tape recorder. After a few months, I had enough material for a script—and had received a grant for the film I’d been working on—and I quit the brothel. My friends eventually quit, too; we were privileged by our middle-class position to leave when we wished. Among us was a shared secret.
What we didn’t share was the bravado of the go-go girls, onstage for everyone to see. On the street, when we encountered one another after years of being out of contact, we’d exchange cautious looks coded with reminders of our decades-long agreement: we wouldn’t out one another about the brothel. Our camaraderie shrank under the suspicious pressure to deny the past, a pressure I now understand to be the result of our internalized societal whorephobia.
That term, whorephobia—which, back then, had yet to be coined—describes this shame perfectly.
* * *
My feature film Working Girls, about a day in the life of a group of women working in a brothel, was released in 1986. My cover story—except to the sex workers I befriended— was that my film was about “a friend.”
As part of the promotional campaign, I had the opportunity to meet even more incredibly dynamic women who worked in the sex industry when my producers and I assembled several panels featuring sex workers and activists for discussions after screenings. In San Francisco, I met Margo St. James, a founder of the group COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), who advocated for the decriminalization of prostitution; Carol Leigh, the poet/writer/ activist who coined the term sex worker; strippers from the pre-unionized female-centric strip club the Lusty Lady; and Susie Bright, cofounder and editor of the woman-produced sex magazine, On Our Backs. In Los Angeles, I spoke with ex-cop turned sex worker and activist Norma Jean Almodovar, author of the bestselling book Cop to Call Girl. In New York, I had the pleasure of interviewing writer and spokeswoman for PONY (Prostitutes of New York) Tracy Quan; porn actor and educator Veronica Vera; pioneering porn film director Candida Royalle; and porn provocateur and artist Annie Sprinkle, whose cutting-edge performances included inserting a speculum to allow audience members to view her cervix. Later, I visited professional dominatrix (“prodomme”) Terence Sellers’s leather-walled dungeon.
All these encounters opened my eyes to the variety of jobs included in the world of sex work and the differing interests, desires, and needs of those who performed them. For example, escort Tracy Quan would never want to perform on a stage, but some strippers I knew might cross the line into seeing a regular client privately. Activist and self-proclaimed “whore” Carol Leigh was out and loud, but prodomme Terence Sellers operated in ultra-coded secrecy. Even so, we were all united against the exclusionary politics of radical feminist antiporn activists like Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, both early SWERFs, or sex worker exclusionary radical feminists, who argued that sex work was inherently degrading and oppressive. We all supported the decriminalization of sex work.
While political organizing by sex workers was active and passionate before the advent of social media, much of it was localized. In San Francisco, unrelenting activism around the Lusty Lady resulted in its becoming the first strip club to be unionized. In New York City, organizing took place through zines, in the back pages of weeklies, and on Al Goldstein’s cable show, Midnight Blue. Tracy Quan has written about how it shook things up for her when she became involved with PONY, stuffing envelopes at Annie Sprinkle’s apartment.
After I moved to Los Angeles in 2001, I met Jill Morley, who had come to LA to pitch a TV series based on stories she had written about her experiences go-go dancing in New York and New Jersey during the late eighties and early nineties. She also had a few stories by sister go-go dancers Debi Kelly Van Cleave, Susan Walsh, Terese Pampellonne, and Elissa Wald; and one by Cookie. The experiences relayed in these few stories could not have been more different. Debi Kelly Van Cleave and Terese Pampellonne both met their husbands in go-go clubs. But while Debi, a young, self-educated single mother, liked her customers and gained confidence onstage, Terese, a professional modern dancer, held the men in the go-go bars in disdain, refusing to give lap dances. Jill, more upbeat, used dancing as material for plays but hid her coke habit. Elissa Wald’s memoir evokes a Times Square club and its denizens with affection; Susan Walsh, a part-time reporter for the Village Voice, despised dancing; her dark stories grapple with existential questions. Susan disappeared in 1996 and is presumed murdered, her vanishing still under investigation. Cookie Mueller, too, died prematurely, in 1989, of HIV/AIDS.
These stories revealed their authors’ erotic imaginations, fears, desires. Dancing colored much of what they did, thought, and felt inside and outside the club. I asked Jill if I could publish the stories, and they became the foundation for this anthology.
At first, I wanted the book to remain within the time frame of the 1980s and ’90s in New York and New Jersey. It was an exciting time, before New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani erased the character of Times Square by closing porn theaters and peep shows. Susan Walsh—and, as I discovered later, Kathy Acker—performed in live sex shows there. Downtown, artists like Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneemann, Hannah Wilke, Ana Mendieta, and Karen Finley used their own naked bodies in controversial, sexual works. Annie Sprinkle ruptured the boundaries between art and porn when she performed on downtown stages. I discovered later that writer Chris Kraus (I Love Dick and After Kathy Acker) also stripped during this time, as did the late novelist and slam poet Maggie Estep and the iconic ex-stripper/burlesque performer Jo Weldon.
Yet, strangely, I couldn’t find enough stories about stripping in this milieu to fill an entire anthology, although there were many about burlesque. Several writers did both. But burlesque is entirely theatrical, while stripping is transactional, creating gray areas often difficult to negotiate. Stripping itself wasn’t a uniform experience—sometimes dancers worked behind a barrier, as in peep shows; sometimes contact with customers led to full-service sex work. I considered adding stories about other kinds of sex work, but these jobs likewise seemed too different from stripping. Being a domme or an escort—operating one-on-one rather than in a group—can be very isolating, as can the more recent work of camming and sugar dating—young people seeking arrangements with older patrons. By contrast, every story I read about stripping involved, at least in part, relationships with other dancers in the club. I thought of a remark from Tracy Quan about how political organizing changed her view of her work:
I met people who worked in peep shows, in different kinds of brothels and dance clubs, on the street, in the domme sector. There were phone sex workers at our meets. I also had the chance to meet guys who sell sex. I loved having contact with people outside my scene and I developed this feeling that we’re like a nation, with provinces and constituencies, but still a nation of sex workers.
* * *
Despite the challenge of finding them, I decided to stick to stripping stories only for this book.
When I met Jill Morley at the turn of the millennium, except for Lily Burana’s landmark 2001 memoir Strip City, a recounting of Burana’s affectionate farewell to stripping, published writing about stripping consisted mostly of memoirs primarily intended to be, as Jo Weldon has described them, “redemptive narratives.” But there soon appeared a new kind of writing about stripping, in the form of stripper blogs. Many blogs seemed to be journals and/ or advice columns, “dos and don’ts” for wannabe strippers; some discussed the best song sets to play for dancing, or the best stage lighting, or how to handle bad customers. The responses to these posts from fellow strippers revealed an immense desire for communication and community, and as the internet expanded, more such sites appeared. Distinct voices began to emerge, credited to intriguing names like #Sassylapdancer, Mounting&Counting, #survivetheclub, and DiaryOfAnAngryStripper. Tits and Sass, a website that published writings by workers from every branch of the sex industry, became a lively forum.
One of the most influential strippers who became prominent in this period was Jacq Frances, aka Jacq the Stripper, who was also a writer, stand-up comedian, and cartoonist. (She is now retired from stripping.) I met Jacq after she published her first book, The Beaver Show. She became a star with the publication of her second book, Striptastic!, a collection of cartoons about stripping, which she wrote and drew after interviewing hundreds of other strippers. From this work, she created her business brand and began to conduct workshops around the country, selling stripper “merch” that led to her apparel line, Strippers Forever. Now she is developing a TV series.
Lindsay Byron (aka Lux ATL), based in Atlanta, stopped dancing in 2016 and now likewise conducts empowerment workshops and retreats for women.
Overseas, Sassy Penny, now a lawyer, was one of the founding members of the East London Strippers Collective, which created fundraising events in which strippers modeled for life-drawing classes.
Antonia Crane, who authored the introduction to this book, has been stripping and writing about stripping for more than two decades. While her stories explore, among other things, aging and disappointment in relationships, she uses her powerful voice in print and social media to rally strippers in her organization, Strippers United (formerly Soldiers of Pole). Formed after the 2018 passage of FOSTA-SESTA—legislation ostensibly designed to stop sex trafficking but that, in fact, deprives sex workers of means of advertising on the internet through sites like Backpage and Craigslist, thereby forcing many onto the streets and subjecting them to arrest by the FBI—Strippers United protests against wage theft and other problems affecting sex workers and rallies for the decriminalization of the profession. Crane rages at marches and strikes, but her writing is laced with self-deprecating humor, wonder, and tenderness.
For the Incredible, Edible Akynos, founder of the Black Sex Workers Collective in New York City, the pull toward activism was fueled by the pervasive racism in strip clubs. While she ultimately quit stripping because of anti-Black hiring and firing practices, her lush writing lays bare the soul of a romantic with a sly sense of humor and great empathy for her clients.
AM Davies’s activism has been similarly unflagging, although she was recently forced to stop dancing due to an unthinkable accident, which she recounts here in her devastating piece.
Like Akynos, Selena the Stripper, a Black and Latine non-binary sex worker, stripper, podcaster, and writer who is now president of Strippers United, seeks to empower sex workers of all races and genders through political organizing.
Meanwhile, Kayla Tange performs an Asian identity in the clubs, but she reclaims her power by creating performance artworks that purposely confound the audience with their own stereotypes.
All their stories reveal the seeming contradictions that can coexist in this line of work. Although New York stripper, burlesque dancer, and activist Essence Revealed chronicles depression in her essay for this collection—a condition likewise caused by the degradations of anti-Blackness in the business—she’s equally honest about the perks of the job and the skills it has taught her, which she now uses to conduct online empowerment workshops.
While some strip clubs are notoriously dangerous, turning a blind eye to harassment and even rape, Reese Piper, who is on the autism spectrum, finds strip clubs safer for her than many other places because of their strict rules governing interaction between customers and dancers.
* * *
Social media connections now provide a support system for strippers that wasn’t feasible a mere fifteen years ago. Many strippers now know one another online, if not always in real life, and support one another through lonely nights in clubs with no customers, fights with mean girls, family problems, romantic problems, legal problems, and the economic, safety, and health issues they have all confronted throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. In this book, I’ve tried to convey some of this sense of community by having some of the dancers interview each other. Jill Morley interviews Jacq Frances, Lindsay Byron, and Jo Weldon. Antonia Crane chose to be interviewed by Dr. Vanessa Carlisle, a scholar and professional domme. Chris Kraus was interviewed by Alison J Carr, a British academic and performance artist; Carr also interviews Sassy Penny, with whom she has worked in London. This is more than a village: it is a bustling, global community.
At the same time that it has brought them together, the internet has also made sex workers of all kinds more visible to the general public—not just their professional personas but also their personal lives. Yet, whether sex workers are being lauded by observers who claim to support them while declining to fight for their rights or being condemned by those who vilify all sex work, the habitual othering of sex workers persists, allowing those who have never done the job to maintain an imagined boundary between themselves and these ostensibly enigmatic, problematic figures. After Akynos addressed Antonia’s writing class at UCLA, Antonia asked about her goals for the Black Sex Workers Collective. Akynos invoked Jacq Frances:
Jacq has campaigns where she makes fun of the strait-laced job versus the stripper—that’s changing the conversation on how we look at work, at sex workers. And we want to do something like that, where we’re making comparisons to the Hollywood casting couch, to what sex workers might go through in a strip club, because I feel like the conversation of what sex work is and who we really are needs to shift. A lot of conversation about sex workers makes me uneasy because I feel like we’re talking about us as if we’re aliens. I just don’t want to hear a conversation like, “Let’s find out who sex workers are.” I want to ignore that and just talk about us like we’re regular, because we are regular. So instead of, “Let’s sit down with the sex workers and find out what their life is like,” it’s like, “I’m right in the grocery store line with you, boo; you just need to stop it.”
For some writers in this collection, stripping was an early aspiration. For Jo Weldon, it was a romantic ideal inspired by performers she admired in movies. For Susan McMullen, it was a joyful escape from the Canadian provinces with her best friend, Lindalee Tracey, of Not a Love Story. Jodi Sh. Doff ran away from a middle-class Long Island home with the intention of finding a pimp in Times Square; Akynos grew up near Playboy’s New York City office yearning to be a porn centerfold. But for many other contributors, including the go-go dancers whose stories originally inspired this book, stripping was and continues to be their only viable economic option for supporting other pursuits. One reason is the widespread stagnation of educational and job opportunities, especially for writers and artists, in the decades since Cookie Mueller danced. Like her, dancers today piece together their lives, stripping to augment teaching jobs and acting gigs and freelance work and grad school stipends while raising kids and caring for elders and trying to change the world. Postpandemic, their employment prospects have only worsened.
Whereas most of the contributors to this anthology who worked in the seventies or eighties danced for only a few years before moving on, these days, stripping is a lifestyle choice and a career for many. Some strippers now have over twenty or thirty years in the business. But although the empowerment narratives that have emerged in tandem with strippers’ increased visibility and their work’s longevity—embodied in performances by pop artists like Cardi B, music videos, twerking in thousands of self-posted videos on social media, films like Hustlers and Zola, TV series like P-Valley, and the popular embrace of pole dancing as a sport—may suggest acceptance, strippers today still face overwhelming stigma and whorephobia, in addition to other challenges. The stigma reaches back in time—two writers who danced briefly in the eighties and whose writing had been in this collection for years dropped out of this project because they were concerned about the negative impact it could have on their current careers. And labor conditions for dancers working today are worse than ever. Activists are trying to change media portrayals of their work and, along with these, the actual working conditions in clubs. When she is interviewed for TV, Antonia Crane demands that a sex worker be present on the production team, a request that frequently raises eyebrows. She and others have also called for hiring sex workers for meaningful paying jobs, as opposed to sometimes decorative “consultant” credits, on TV shows and films that portray sex worker characters. Crane is acutely aware of the darker realities behind the empowerment narratives. As she remarks in her interview with Dr. Vanessa Carlisle:
I find myself hungry for a less celebratory experience. Where’s the melancholy stripper who’s a woman of color, who’s queer, who gets turned away from her strip club because they have too many Black girls? Show me the story of the melancholic Black stripper. Show me the human, sad issues.