Disclaimer: the term “men” is, of course, not limited to gender. Within the context of this article, I frequently use it interchangeably with the term “cis men” (people who identify as men and were assigned the sex “male” at birth), because that is the only group of men referenced here.
My first shift at the strip club was a day shift. One early afternoon in July of 2014, I stepped out on stage and got completely naked for an audience of one very old man, who seemed to be enjoying his buffet linguini alfredo.
I was broke and tired and sick of waitressing, and I’d always been curious to try stripping. I’d struggled through six years of college, changed schools three times, and, in 2012, finally graduated from Umass Boston with a BA in Anthropology. Over the next year, I applied to dozens of jobs in my field, and the only offer that came back to me paid $20,000 plus food stamps. Like so many of my millennial peers, I couldn’t find a job that related to my degree. Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t care. I never wanted to go to college in the first place; I went because I lost a brief, but furious, battle with my parents over it. In 2006, three weeks before my eighteenth birthday, they dropped me off at Umass Amherst.
I didn’t thrive in college. I’m grateful for the experience, though, and I’m grateful that I didn’t start my career with an institutionally sanctified anthropology job (working for a museum, university, or the like). These factors, coupled with my seven years (and counting) as a sex worker, allowed me to observe in hindsight the dangers of institutional white supremacy disguised as academic liberalism. As a white woman, and especially as someone with an interest in anthropology, that’s really important, because I could so easily have slipped into that role and become a vehicle for white supremacy within academia.
My heart lives in my mind; when I am fascinated by something I become passionate about learning more. I have always been endlessly enthralled by human behavior (including—and especially—my own), which frequently seems mystifying at first glance. Why do we do what we do? Anthropology introduced me to a formula for deepening my understanding of what it means to be human. Anthropology is the study of how and why people do what we do, but within the clarifying context of culture.
“Culture” is not just limited to ethnically linked groups (Greek, Peruvian, Nigerian, etc.); all human relationships form unique cultures. You share a certain culture with your family, another one with coworkers, and yet another with strangers on the subway. If we want to know why we are the way we are within these different groups, we have to examine our behavior within the context of culture. For example, the dominant culture on the subway in all the US cities I’ve visited or lived in dictates that riders pretend they don’t notice when a man harasses a femme person. While all anyone can hear is the man’s comments and aggressions, coupled with the protests or silence from his victim, other riders busy themselves with their phones, books, or suddenly-studious window gazing. The man’s behavior is a slightly uncomfortable, but not uncomfortable enough, deviation from the norm of silently riding the subway and minding one’s business. American subway riders share an unspoken allegiance to the rules and norms of the larger culture of patriarchy, which has succeeded in normalizing violence against femininity to the degree that it is a mundane, everyday occurrence.
Like I said, I’m fascinated by human behavior, both in individuals and as a species. It is incredible to me that with all our intellectual capacity to problem-solve through analytical observation and complex reasoning, one of the most difficult things for us to do is to accurately analyze our own thoughts and actions.
Why is our global society still rife with gender violence, racism, nationalism, xenophobia, poverty, houselessness, food shortages, lack of medical access, police, stigma against mental illness, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc.? (That was a rhetorical question; if you don’t know the answer, I’ll just tell you real quick: systemic cis heteronormative white supremacist patriarchal colonialist/imperialist capitalism).
But it’s not enough to know why.
We have to figure out how. How did we get this way, as a collective? If we can collectively understand how, we can collectively repair the damage. By asking ourselves these questions, individually and as a society, we can begin to decolonize ourselves, our thoughts, and our beliefs. To find the answers, we can often look to the cultures in which we partake every day. My Anthropology studies gave me some useful tools for these lines of inquiry, perhaps the most important of which was the ability to critique the field of anthropology itself.
The problem with anthropology as an institution is that it was created by white academics, and founded on cultural voyeurism. The field of anthropology was born around the turn of the 20th century, when western universities were almost exclusively white and almost exclusively male. White scholars took it upon themselves to enter, and live amongst, indigenous BIPOC/nonwestern societies with the objective of observing and understanding cultures unfamiliar to westerners, and linking it all back to our common humanity. That is the foundational concept of “field work” within anthropology. The danger is, those white scholars, even the ones who gave up western life to live amongst the people they’d set out to study, still came back to white institutions to validate and humanize BIPOC/nonwestern societies within the context of whiteness.
For white academics to “validate” BIPOC/nonwestern cultures within white-dominant environments (like universities in the early 20th century) is white supremacy in action. The traditional world of anthropology is part of the more gelatinous side of white supremacy; it, like most eurocentric social sciences, belongs to the more furtive, but lethal, “I-don’t-see-color” lineage of today’s racism. Conjure, if you will, the archetype of the white dad in Jordan Peele’s 2017 cinematic masterpiece (and deftly succinct portrait the type of white liberalness that pervades university culture), Get Out.
When people of marginalized cultures have the power to tell their own stories, they can certainly do so from within academia, but their autonomous self-validation is what matters. Education is one of the rare American/western systems that I believe can be changed from the inside, unlike policing or US law. That is because, unlike the latter institutions I just mentioned, knowledge itself does not belong to white supremacy. One can engage in academia for the purpose of disruption (which is part of the reason why college must be free for all students); Black, Indigenous, POC, nonwestern, queer/intersectionally feminist, and neurodivergent thinkers and scholars continue to lead the fight to decolonize education.
The field of institutionalized anthropology today is a nuanced, multidimensional, multilateral one, but not because it’s grown off its own volition. It’s grown because marginalized scholars have worked diligently to pry loose the fingers of academic gatekeeping. Having fewer barriers in place for scholars and thinkers who are not white men to be recognized and respected within academia is not something over which western academia deserves to self-congratulate. It is a sobering reminder that the roots of western academia were planted in the poisonous soil of colonialist, white supremacist patriarchy.
One of the tenets of academic decolonization is that people cannot, and should not, attempt to tell stories about cultures of which we are not a part. I didn’t have the language for this at the time, but one of the most flagrant displays of academic white supremacy I’ve witnessed was when I walked into an Afro Caribbean religious studies class my senior year to find that my professor was a white man. In retrospect, this is one of many experiences that turned me off to pursuing a career centered singularly in academia.
Had I set out to become a stripper with the objective of observing other strippers in their “natural habitat,” that would have been considered, within most academic institutions, at the very least, a valid anthropological endeavor. (I say “at the very least” because I can almost hear the pooh-poohing of some of my former professors, who would have thought it a lowly endeavor to engage in sex work, even for research.)
It would also have been the exact type of cultural voyeurism rooted in white supremacy that I just mentioned.
It is true that I didn’t become a stripper with the intention of studying strippers or stripper culture. It’s also true that I have done seven years of anthropological field work in strip clubs, coupled with research in the realm of sex worker representation in the media.
But I don’t study other sex workers.
I study men.
Or, more specifically, I study the ways misogyny and patriarchy intersect with masculine privilege and gender identity, and my strip club customers provide plenty of relevant research fodder.
Since that first afternoon in 2014, nervously gyrating on stage in my red plastic stilettos for Grandpa Linguini, I have had the opportunity to engage in thousands of deep conversations with men. I’ve engaged meaningfully with more men than most people will ever do in their lifetime. By my conservative calculations, if I worked an average of three nights a week for six years (I wasn’t in the club during most of 2020), and spoke to an average of fifteen men per shift, I have spoken to 13,500 men inside strip clubs since I started. And those are just the customers. I also work beside a team of bouncers, hosts, and managers, almost all of them men, and each offering me a different perspective based on their proximity to power in relationship to each other and to me.
Inside the club, dancers flit like naked fairies from lap to lap all night long. When we land on a customer who is ready to spend money on us, we morph into enchanted snake hybrids and begin the sinuous seduction of a lap dance. As the night wears on and the club becomes a pulsating sea of energy, perceptive bouncers dot the waves of the raucous dance floor; quiet, watchful islands ready to erupt with fire the moment a customer steps out of line.
The club is an excellent laboratory within which I am able to observe and test the limits of dominant patriarchal cultural narratives about masculinity, embodied by both our customers and the bouncers whose presence is the only thing that contains some of them. For example, the man harassing femmes on the subway is still the same person inside the strip club, but, in the club, he has less power to abuse because the bouncers dominate him. Conversely, a kind and gentle customer doesn’t require the presence of bouncers, because he has empathy and respects the dancers of his own accord. Customers’ levels of desire/ability to conform (or not) with patriarchal narratives of masculinity is exactly the same as that of men outside the club, and ranges on a scale from easy-peasy to neurotically self-conscious.
The culture of most U.S. strip clubs is a crushingly heteronormative one. In a nutshell, it’s the typical dominant western culture of patriarchy; the same one that controls the behavior of passengers on the subway. I have danced exclusively in establishments that cater to white-collar, and, therefore, mostly white, men; my customers are mostly bankers, stock brokers, and lawyers. 99.9% of my customers claim to be straight, either by implication, self-identification, or the type of homophobia intended to contextualize the homophobe as anything but gay. Homophobia is a prerequisite to patriarchy and, at its core, is really about the hatred of femininity. That’s why the synthetic, culturally dominant, patriarchal version of “masculinity” is so anti-queer and anti-femme; a masculinity dedicated singularly to domination, individual success, and control requires us to discard the qualities (and the people) that we deem “feminine”.
In my early 20s, after a particularly abusive relationship, the general outline of my life’s calling began to clarify itself. Back then, as I understood it, I believed that my purpose was to contribute to global efforts to end violence against “women”. In my early 20s, I also had a lot of limiting beliefs which problematized my desire to interrupt such violence. I still thought of gender as binary, still conceived of violence against “women” as a binary issue, and thought sex workers were all victims in need of saving. Back then, I also still thought of myself as straight. Relevantly, when I was 28, soon after recognizing I’m queer, I entered into my first queer relationship, which, unfortunately, quickly became abusive. My abuser, at the time, identified as a lesbian, but they embodied the same types of extremely problematic, patriarchal, anti-femme sentiments as many of the straight cis men I’ve met in my lifetime, both inside and outside the strip club.
I now understand my life’s purpose much more clearly: I am not here to disrupt violence against “women”; I am here to disrupt violence against femininity. Misogyny is not limited to gender, and to conceive of it as such is wildly dangerous for femmes and queer folks everywhere (to read more of my work on the subject, click here).
My experiences as a femme, a stripper, a queer community member who’s experienced and observed a disturbing amount of misogyny and anti-femme abuse within my queer circles, coupled with my experiences as a survivor of misogynistic abuse from partners of various gender identities, have given me a unique lens from which I now write, speak, and teach. I also now coach other queers, creatives, sex workers, abuse survivors, and cis men, through a process of self-decolonization for healthier relationships with themselves and others.
“You’re not doing anything with your college degree,” my mom says to me through the phone. It’s not an accusation; it’s a veiled judgment that I think she believes is an observation.
“I’ve been doing seven years of anthropological field work,” I respond matter-of-factly.
“You’re not an anthropologist,” she says. “You didn’t write a book.”
I mention that I am, in fact, writing a book, to which she replies, “But it’s for…a different audience.”
Not only is this the first time my mother is hearing of my book, and she has no idea what it’s about so she couldn’t possibly know who it’s for, but it’s bold of her to presume that it wouldn’t hold up to academic scrutiny. Equally bold is her presumption that institutional approval matters to me, or that my appetite or intellectual capacity for studying human behavior is somehow less voracious because I never went to grad school (a fact that still haunts her). It’s June 24, 2021—my mom’s 75th birthday. She is still hoping I’ll stop wasting my life, which is what she perceives I’ve been doing ever since I graduated. Over the first six years of my stripper career, she frequently pleaded with me to stop dancing, vacillating between indignation, embarrassment, and anger. “What am I supposed to tell my friends when they ask how you’re doing?!” she once demanded, tearfully. I suggested she tell them the truth: that I’m doing fine. (Actually, the truth would be that I’m generally okay with a side of pervasive existential dread due to the crushing reality of late-stage capitalism, but isn’t that what most of us mean when we say we’re “fine”?)
My mom is unlikely to read this article, because she does not follow my work. When I released my first album back in 2018, she refused to listen to it because I’m a stripper. A year and a half later, when my dad and I both told her that we find this logic unacceptable, she finally listened, but the only thing she heard in the eleven original tracks was one lyric about how the experience of being her daughter has been difficult for me (that track has since been removed, for unrelated reasons).
During the first half of 2020, when many of us turned to the digital sphere for the entire scope of our human interaction, I released a series of comedic sketches about being a stripper, and my mom saw them on Facebook. After her six years of hand-wringing over my stripping, you can imagine my surprise when I received an email from her, telling me how proud she is of me. “I get it now! I get what you’re doing!” She explains how she now understands my work, and tells me how she’s been sharing it with her friends (the same friends she was ashamed to tell I was a stripper in the first place). She also says, “This is about the most original feminist performance art I’ve ever seen,” and tells me she’s sent some of my comedy videos to her colleague in the Gender Studies department of the university for which she teaches.
Ah. That’s it.
My sex work is only valid to my mother because she now believes there’s something academically verifiable, and something that she qualifies as “feminist,” in what I do.
My mom self-identifies as a feminist, and has spent her career as a documentary filmmaker. For the past several decades, she has taught filmmaking and photography for a prominent New England university. I have always observed her to be a kind and caring woman, especially with her students, who seem to generally adore her. Her heart is good, and I have never questioned her intentions. But she cannot—no, she will not—see me. If she saw me fully, she’d also have to see herself, as an academic, a feminist, and as a mother, in ways for which she is not yet ready. My mother’s refusal to follow my work is the logical fallacy upon which she hangs her hypothesis that I’m wasting my life (incidentally, this is a perfect example of the type of human behavior that I find so interesting). I recognize that her inability to see me has nothing to do with me, and I don’t hold it against her.
As her daughter, I acknowledge her effort to support me in her email back in 2020, and I recognize how huge that is. I acknowledge that she loves me, and I believe that she is doing the best that she knows how. I also understand that if she does ever stumble across this article, it will hurt her feelings, and she will likely assume that that was my intention. It is very difficult to love her and watch her repeatedly believe that I am the cause of her pain; first, by refusing to give up stripping, then, by the lyrics in my album, and, now, by speaking publicly about our dysfunctional dynamic.
It is not as her daughter, but as her intellectual peer, that I must write about this dynamic between us, because she’s missed the mark in a way that’s too important for me to ignore. Her beliefs and behaviors align with the dominant culture of academia that must be disrupted.
I can say, with certainty, that I am a better feminist now, directly because I am a sex worker. Besides, my sex work is a valid and consensual choice; this is my body and my life, and what is feminism if not bodily autonomy? Institutional academia is rife with misconceptions and stigma about sex workers, and, frequently, dismisses the idea that we often identify as feminists. This is an extremely effective way to exclude us from institutional social sciences, and to invisibilize those of us who could be valuable contributors to fields like Gender Studies, Sociology, and Anthropology.
If someone from a marginalized culture (in my case, stripper culture) is a cultural knowledge-holder, it doesn’t make that knowledge more or less real depending on whether it is recognized as such within academia. We must all abide by the truth that institutional academia is not the measuring stick of knowledge itself. In the case of anthropology, western academia is not the end-all, be-all factor deciding what is culturally valuable or relevant.
Sex workers are marginalized from mainstream society for reasons of misogyny and patriarchy. The fact that social science departments across the world do not proudly, publicly, and actively endeavor to staff their faculties with sex workers is proof. To exclude sex workers from academia is to perpetuate the legacy of elitism that continues to define university culture in most places. But we also shouldn’t have to fight to be a part of a culture that is designed to harm us. Faculty search committees should seek us out, invite us in, pay us well, and let us lead.
So, no, I’m not “officially” an anthropologist, but I also don’t judge myself or others by the standards of western academia. I do intend to teach in academic settings, but that is not the singular focus of my career, or even my priority; the reason that I intend to teach in academic settings is because I stand with those who interrupt the hypocrisy within them.
I’m confident in myself and my work, and I’m proud of the fact that, at 32, my life inside the strip club has given me an anchor upon which to drape this first leg (fishnets and all) of my career.
About the author: Leilah is a stripper, anti-misogyny educator, and podcast host. She’s the founder of A Stripper’s Guide, where she teaches anti-oppression strategies and provides coaching for sex workers, femmes, women, and queer folks. To learn more, follow her on Instagram, Twitter, or visit astrippersguide.com