In this piece, I reference both “femininity” and “masculinity”, as I feel them within my personal psyche. We are each, of course, entitled to our own embodiments of these words.
A vocabulary term
Masculine-of-center (MoC): “its evolving definition recognizes the cultural breadth and depth of identity for lesbian/queer women and gender nonconforming/trans people who tilt toward the masculine side of the gender spectrum, including a wide range of identities such as butch, stud, non-binary, transgender, genderqueer, androgynous, transmasculine, boi, etc.” (Urban Dictionary)
Content warning: this piece contains graphic descriptions of partner violence and mention of suicidality.
As a stripper, the more a customer tells me about himself, the less I have to guess his needs. The less I have to guess, the more creative I can be as I co-create his fantasy experience with him. Does he need to feel heard? Respected? Safe? What’s he telling me about himself, his present life, his childhood, that I need to know in order to hold up the appropriate mirror for him?
It’s not uncommon for me to encounter customers going through a breakup. When a client does disclose that that’s what’s going on, I appreciate the relevant information. If my client is going through a breakup, what is he showing me about that? If he’s brokenhearted, I’ll try to keep him laughing all night, because, Lord knows, I’ve been there. If he feels humiliated or rejected by his ex, he’ll probably want to talk, but he’ll need to feel safe enough to open up. In that case, I’ll build up his confidence so that, once he trusts me, I can remind him that vulnerability is strength, and that he is worthy of love but he must keep his heart open to receive it. If he’s relieved about the breakup and ready to let loose, I tap into my Sagittarius moon and turn on the party monster inside me. I couldn’t party hard every shift, but I love customers like that, because they’re usually in the mood to be nice to everyone, and they spoil me with champagne and cash.
On the flipside, if the customer is an aggressive asshole, treating me like meat, mad about his breakup and saying disrespectful shit about his ex, that reveals to me that he is definitely the reason his relationship failed, and it tells me he’s been mistreating his partner. If that’s the case, I either humiliate him and leave, or I run him for his money in the name of the bad bitch who put up with him for so long, because hoes before bros.
You come to a strip club for a fantasy. The thing is, most customers think that the only fantasy available to them in the club is something like, “I have a thing for short women with long hair. I shall go to the strip club, where that demographic is available to me and I shall get a lap dance and probably she will smell nice so that is good.” That’s normal; it’s not the customer’s job to know that the excitement level of his fantasy would go from a 6 to a 10 if that stripper could also fill an emotional need, as mentioned above. It’s my job to identify what else he’ll need in order for us both to have the best experience possible (generally, the better I do my job, the more I get paid). Sometimes the customer does know exactly what he needs, because he frequently invests in strippers and sex workers to perform that service for him. I know when this is the case because he gives me very clear directives–“I want to take you to a private room and just talk to you”; “Here’s $100; dance for a few songs and then I’m leaving”, and so on.
The night I went to the strip club as a “civilian” (not as a fellow stripper), I was the type of customer who knew exactly what emotional needs I was seeking to fill, and why a stripper was the correct service provider for the task. We’ll come back to that later, but first I’ll give you some background.
In the trajectory of an abusive relationship, there inevitably comes a “discard phase”. This is when the abuser no longer sees a use for their victim, and so throws us away like garbage. However it’s done, the discard is characterized by humiliation(s) so grave that the victim’s already endangered sense of self-worth is often decimated, making it very difficult for us to recover psychologically.
On average, it takes a victim of partner abuse seven attempts to permanently escape their abuser. A major reason for this is because, immediately following an abusive episode, the abuser often turns on the charm, waterworks, and apologies. This is a manipulation tactic known as “hoovering”, and is a very common practice that abusers use in order to “vacuum” their victim back into their control.
Each time we get sucked back into the cycle, the dynamics of the relationship compound. The abuser acquires more sway over our emotions, as we, like gamblers at a slot machine, develop an increasing neurochemical addiction to the inconsistent reward system of being entangled with a narcissist (this gambling metaphor is borrowed from the 2016 book Becoming the Narcissist’s Nightmare, by Shahida Arabi). This is just one of the several significant layers that make it so difficult to walk away.
It didn’t take me seven attempts to leave my abuser. If I had to guess, I’d say it probably took about 30. I share all of this because perhaps it will shed some light on my behavior in the story you’re about to read. The following event would not be the last time I left my abuser. In fact, it would take me two more major breakaways and a whole nother year before I was finally free. My abuser dealt me several discards over the course of our relationship, but this one was finally the beginning of the end.
On the night of Sunday, November 4, 2018, following a disagreement, my partner kicked me out of the apartment we shared (when I say “shared”, what I mean is that their name was on the lease, but I paid the rent). I’d been attempting to leave so I could get some fresh air, when they said to me, “If you leave, don’t ever fucking come back”. Every abuse victim knows their abuser far better than the abuser knows themself. Every abuse victim knows the exact moment when the world has turned upside down; the exact second where, no matter what we choose to do next, it won’t satisfy our abuser, because they are not out for reconciliation. They’ve smelled blood in the water, and they are out for a meal.
I froze in place, a rapid series of options flying through my mind at once: If I stay, they will become enraged that I defied their challenge to leave (although their challenge to leave was under the condition of banishment, which removed my freedom from the equation). So, they’ll hurt me if I stay. I can march towards the door and exit quickly, but then they will become enraged that I dared leave, and they’ll surely follow me. So, they’ll hurt me if I leave. Either way, I know I must gain physical distance as fast as possible, because I am about to be attacked. The best option I could muster in this moment was to try and leave calmly, and explain in a loving tone that I just felt frustrated, just needed some air, and I’d be back in a few minutes for us to resolve this issue. As I spoke, I attempted to move sedately towards my coat and shoes (it was a cold November night in Boston, after all), but I was too late. My abuser was already across the room, and grabbed me by the throat with one hand as they ripped the apartment door open with the other. For the second time since I met them, they attempted to throw me out of my own home by my throat. For the second time, they succeeded. When they locked the door behind me, I had no phone, shoes, wallet, or coat, and my cats were inside. In my socks and undershirt, I was forced to beg them through the public hall door to let me back in so I could collect my essentials.
Eventually, they got bored of this game and unlocked the bolt. I knew it would be bad when I walked inside, and my only hope was that they might then storm out and drive away in our car, as they were often known to do during their tantrums. They didn’t. Instead, they began to scream at me and shove me. Through a quickly escalating attack, I stayed calm. I explained to them that I didn’t want to leave my cats, to which they responded that my cats had to leave, too (using pets or children to control an intimate partner is a common abuse tactic). I told them I didn’t think there’s anywhere I could go with cats, but could they please let me look online for a kennel that might be able to take them?
As I sat on our couch, in shock and trying to find an emergency kennel that was open at 9:00pm on a Sunday, my abuser stood above me and screamed, over and over again, “Bye! Good riddance! Next! Next! Nexxxxt!”, the implication being that they were done with me, and ready for their next girl. We’d been together for two years.
I did not find a kennel for my cats. Instead, my abuser began to physically assault me in an episode of violence that lasted what felt like hours. During the course of their battery, they stole my phone and wallet, which they would frequently do in order to rob me of my agency or ability to escape by Lyft, train, taxi, or to phone a friend to pick me up. They also broke my headphones, cracked my week-old phone, and pushed me to the bedroom floor, choking me so hard and for so long that I saw stars and began to fear I’d die that way. I somehow fought them off. Then, for the third time in our relationship, they grabbed a kitchen knife and brandished it at me.
In their frenzy, they closed themself in our closet with the knife, in what I believe was a real moment of suicidality. That gave me an opportunity to phone a mutual friend, who arrived so quickly that to this day it still feels miraculous. I was able to escape with my phone, shoes, wallet, and coat (I knew my abuser wouldn’t actually harm my cats, and I couldn’t take them with me at that time, but the kitties are fine).
For months, the words, “Next! Next! Nexxxxt!”, would ring in my ears. My masculine-of-center partner would regularly use the threat of infidelity to hurt me psychologically when they were angry. They would do things like leave for hours in the middle of the night, ignoring my worried phone calls wondering where they were, except to pick up and spit things like, “Don’t worry about me, I’m spending the night with someone who actually cares about me.”
Honey, I’m a stripper. I know who’s got game and who doesn’t. I knew for a fact my ex wasn’t slick enough to land in someone else’s bed during one of their rage-benders; they are excruciatingly self-conscious and never would have had the confidence to approach anyone for a one night stand while they were feeling so unhinged. It wasn’t that I was worried they were actually cheating on me in those moments–what hurt me so deeply is that they would try to make me think they were. (You can be sure, they eventually did cheat, but not in a one-off. That’s a story for another day, though.)
The way in which they would assert masculine dominance over me was an ongoing, and devastatingly deliberate, method of control. They wanted me to feel insignificant, replaceable, and unwanted. Because they were so misogynistic, and saw only my femininity due to my outward appearance, they always underestimated my masculinity. They miscalculated the ways in which I’d react when pushed too far. It’s true that they succeeded in subduing me for a long time, and it’s true that they had a lot of power and control over the way I thought, acted, and behaved as a feminine person. When my femininity has nowhere safe to go, I lean further into my masculine energy. This is a survival tactic whose healing gifts have ultimately brought me into a more conscious and intimate relationship with my masculinity, full of wonderful self-discovery.
The night after my abuser kicked me out, I met up with my boy at his bar. I drank until his shift ended, and then I told him we were going to the strip club. I’m the type of stripper who loves strip clubs; I’ll go on my night off just to throw some $1s at the girls on stage. It’s a show of pride, affection, and solidarity for my colleagues and the work we do. It’s a celebration of our unified, feminine vitality.
But that’s not why I went that night. I went because I wanted to feel powerful in my masculinity. I went because I needed to feel in control, and I knew a stripper would accept cash in exchange for participation in that fantasy.
I’ll give you more context.
I’m well aware of the sway I have over men. I shudder to think of the sheer number of hours I’ve spent trying to avoid their eyes and hands. But they follow me. Down the street, at the grocery store, on the subway, from the rearview mirror as I ride in the back of a taxi. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become much more feral; heaven help the man who stares at me too long in public. I have reamed men out in front of a whole bar for interrupting me on my laptop; I frequently hiss or bark at men who drag their eyes over me. I have nearly fought unknown men for touching me, or for intimidating another femme in my presence. I have also, occasionally, politely declined a man’s advances, because, of course, sometimes it is socially appropriate to ask me if I might be interested in pursuing a connection, and I acknowledge that in this situation the pursuer is taking an actual emotional risk, not violating my safety.
But the rules in the strip club are entirely different. At work, I consent to men’s attention, and, in this way, I am relieved of a great burden: the burden of constant self-defense. My consent makes room for actual human connection to be possible. In the club, men who know I would never even glance at them, otherwise, feel comfortable to approach me because they know they are welcomed. They know they’re not violating my space, and the shy ones know they won’t be rejected. When they are respectful, which most of them are, I have the sacred duty and pleasure of giving them my undivided attention. When they are respectful and they pay me, it brings me joy to reciprocate their generosity. For me, sometimes it is a transformative experience to witness the ways in which my divine feminine energy can provide a loving space for men who suddenly feel invited to let their guard down further than they expected to. Once, a customer made me an alternative to suicide. He’d been alone at home, on the verge of the act, and decided instead to come to the club for some connection and care. To this day, I am humbled and grateful to have been able to support him on that occasion.
At work, I feel safe enough to make my warmth and tenderness accessible to men. This is what allows me to listen actively and tailor the experience to their emotional needs. Because I feel powerful in our interactions, they realize they have permission to match that energy, and they make themselves more vulnerable to me, more candid and human. The night I went to the strip club as a customer, I needed that stripper medicine. I needed to be that guy.
I’d danced for years in one of Boston’s two remaining strip clubs, and was in no mood to see my former colleagues. Instead, me and my friend headed to the divey-er club, where you have to crumple up dollar bills and launch them over the bar in order to tip the dancers on stage (by the way, to my petty-ass coworkers at the mean girls’ table, that other club is way more fun than ours and you know it). I continued drinking, and then went into the back room for a lap dance. It didn’t turn me on, but I didn’t care. That’s not what I came for. The dancer was sweet and playful and gave me her undivided attention, as though I mattered. As though my desires and my needs and my dignity mattered. Her attention gave me just enough strength, just enough grace, to keep going.
Over the years, my partner’s violence had wrenched my heart into a dangerous shape; one that threatened to puncture me from within. The feminine in me had been brutalized for too long; she was in dire peril, and my masculinity was desperate to protect her. I went to the club as a customer that night because I wanted to feel empowered in the way that only a confident feminine presence can elicit, and, in that moment, I couldn’t find my own. I was there so I could pay strippers to give me what I could not give myself.
It would be nearly another whole year until I finally escaped this relationship for good, and another two years until I really felt like myself again. In those days, I was just doing whatever I could to make it from one moment to the next. That night, strippers are what got me through.
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