Strip clubs have dominated the black pop-culture scene for decades, with Atlanta being the central hub. So much of what we see in television, film and music, particularly as it pertains to black women and femme representation, is distilled from the lived experiences of dancers who sell sex or the illusion of sex.
In her 1992 essay "Selling Hot P—sy" (pdf), iconic feminist scholar and critic bell hooks talked about black women’s sexuality being packaged for commercial use as “bitchified” prostitution, a sexuality that is violent and male-derived, detached from autonomy and romanticism, rendering it nothing more than a miming of toxic masculine desires, a broken mirror in which too many women anxiously try to see their authentic selves even though their images are distorted by the cracks of race, class and gender.
For hooks, the commercial success of sexual empowerment feeds a lie that black women tell themselves in a man’s world that hates us but loves the money our bodies can make.
She recently revisited this theme in a critique of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, writing:
It’s all about the body, and the body as commodity. This is certainly not radical or revolutionary. From slavery to the present day, black female bodies, clothed and unclothed, have been bought and sold.
But when women own their bodies, when it is their choice whether or not to place themselves on the marketplace, can that be empowering? When it is for the “girl” to “get her money straight,” is that freedom in a capitalist society?
Is it feminism?
“I’m a strong, independent, intelligent and empowered woman, so yes, I’m a feminist,” Jaz, a former dancer at Magic City, Atlanta’s most infamous strip club, told The Root.
Jaz, who went on to earn two master’s degrees and is now an IT project manager, said that men are “mostly weak creatures” who are easily tempted, so “selling sex” is not contradictory to feminism; nor does it strip dancers of their autonomy.
“It’s no real challenge to tempt a man or coerce him to spend money for sex,” Jaz said. The larger issue, according to Jaz, is a society where less focus is placed on “education and personal empowerment” and young women are encouraged to “bare everything for everyone to see for free.”
And what of the claim that women take off their clothes to seek male validation?
“People end up in adult entertainment environments for a variety of reasons,” Jaz said. “Some do have low self-esteem. Some come from an environment where it’s the norm, and some end up there out of desperation. I got a lot of ridicule from people who knew me before I started dancing. But none of those people were willing to help me when my back was up against the wall.”
When asked about society’s perception of her and other dancers, Jaz said that women were often the ones doing the judging.
“Men paid to look at me naked,” she said. “They never touched me, and I wasn’t into hooking up outside the club. I helped my daughter with her homework every night, we lived in a nice home and she went to good schools. There are a lot of women who are sleeping with men they aren’t married to, [men] who cheat on them, and they are getting nothing in return. Their hearts are broken and they settle for the crumbs these men give them, but because it’s done behind closed doors, they can hide behind it.
“I’ve had people try to berate me today over something I did 25 years ago,” Jaz continued. “I think that is more about their insecurity than mine.”
Sayuri, another former Magic City dancer who is the author of Scriptures for Strippers, said that the financial independence dancing gave her was empowering.
“I felt empowered by the fact that I was able to support my son and myself without having to answer to anyone regarding my schedule,” Sayuri told The Root. But she also said that dancing naked in front of men left her “feeling vulnerable and only in control of myself.”
That feeling of vulnerability, while navigating a scene that was becoming more about sex work than dancing, is the reason Sayuri finally left Magic City.
“It was a real struggle to stop dancing,” she told The Root. “It took four different attempts before I actually completely transitioned out, which finally happened at the end of 2014. I now work with an organization called 4Sarah that assists women with transitioning out of sex work by providing housing, drug rehabilitation, scholarships and moral support.”
Now in the insurance field, Sayuri says that she feels more fulfilled than she ever has: “Instead of investing in another permit to dance, I went for a career I can be proud of and help others prepare for their transition out of the club.”
Shane, a dancer who has worked at strip clubs in Atlanta, Florida and Texas for the past 15 years and who also does sex work, is proud of her career.
“If I could dance forever, I would,” Shane told The Root. “I sell fantasy and that works for me. I have sold my body, but I got it back. As long as I enjoy it and as long as it takes care of my family, I will.”
Shane arrived in Atlanta with dreams of being a lawyer, but by her second year in the Atlanta University Center, she was dancing in Strokers, another popular strip club in Atlanta.
“I don’t come from a ‘bad’ family, nobody beat me and I haven’t done one thing I regret. Every time I take that stage, I feel strong, sexy. And every time I leave that stage, I’m paid. I don’t punch a clock and I don’t answer to anybody. I probably make more than half the men in the club, and I do it on my terms.”
On multiple levels, black women who place a monetary value on their bodies are stripped of their voices. This becomes evident when so many public discussions about sexuality and power and how they exist, intersect and mutate in our society do not include them. Why? Because when patriarchy and misogyny are subverted by black women giving voice to their lips, hips and thighs—instead of silently shaking something for the male gaze—it makes many people uncomfortable. Further, some women benefit more from speaking for other women instead of listening to and engaging with other women.
Shane agreed that in the current debates surrounding feminism and sexuality, women like her are often ignored, but she doesn’t let that bother her.
“I’m a feminist, but so many feminists want to ‘save’ dancers, when they don’t even respect us,” she said. “They don’t want to hear what we have to say, and that’s fine. Because we don’t owe anybody an explanation.”