Exploitation, in the debate about strip clubs, is treated as a given and an open question simultaneously. Someone is being used, and someone else is doing the using: we’re certain of this, even if we haven’t yet figured out the precise shape of the power dynamics. Is the dancer who simulates sexual intimacy in exchange for cash a seductive girlboss, taking advantage of men’s weakness, or is she a supplicant victim? If the latter, is she more misused by the men who pay for her services, or the club owner who takes a cut? Is the stripper depleted in body? In soul? In earning potential?
And what are we to make of the fact that “exploitation” can mean many things at once? If stripper and customer exist in symbiosis, both taking advantage and being taken advantage of all at once, what then? Exploitation can be a means of self-advancement. It can be morally neutral. It can be mutual. It might, in fact, be none of our business.
A recent book, Wanting You to Want Me, examines these questions (among others) through the eyes of the strippers themselves, with photos and first-hand narratives from more than a dozen women who have been — and in some cases, remain — employed in the industry. When I wrote last month about the current glut of stripper-themed literature, which uses the profession as a platform for everything from activist organising to business strategy, I singled out Wanting You To Want Me as compelling, unvarnished, and unique in its willingness to dwell in the self-contradictory nuances of these women’s lives:
“There are no easy answers here, no unified narrative. But there is honesty: about how stripping can be a source of both shame and freedom at the same time, about the diversity of relationships that incubate within the confines of a strip club, about wanting to stop but also not wanting to, about the rapid-onset despair that comes when the fantasy can no longer sustain itself.”
I praised Wanting You to Want Me as a book that doesn’t try to sell anything. It didn’t occur to me, until I heard from one of the women featured in its pages, that it might be exploitive in an entirely different way — not because it was selling something, but because it had stolen something.
Bex is one of more than a dozen women whose image and words were used in Wanting You to Want Me, but even within the pages of the book, she stands out: ballerina thin, with razor-sharp cheekbones and a wild cascade of loose, brown curls. She has an angular, elegant look that runs counter to the stereotypical image of someone in her industry, and which made her something of a star in high-class Parisian clubs when she first began stripping at the age of 20. In the book, she’s photographed wearing black, lacy lingerie and a pair of black, thigh-high stockings — or, in one case, just the stockings — and a confident, slightly aloof expression on her face. One gets the sense that this is a woman who never feels naked, even when she’s nude.
And yet, she tells me, this book rattled her. It was a level of exposure she wasn’t prepared for, and didn’t agree to.
Bex’s path through the world of stripping is a blast to read about. In Paris she partied with famous footballers; in London, she was based in a slightly dilapidated club, where the changing room doubles as a repository for dysfunctional kitchen appliances. But what matters is that she’s a career stripper, and unlikely to ever do anything else. Partly, it’s that she’s unsuited to office life; partly, it’s that she just likes stripping. “It’s a job you’ll only do well at if you enjoy it on some level,” she says, and Bex has definitely done well.
Bex doesn’t like the term “sex work”, not least because strippers by definition don’t have sex with their clients. The men who frequent strip clubs are paying not for physical intimacy but the fantasy thereof, the thrill of that sexually-charged moment in which something could happen (but never does). “I usually call myself a performer,” she says, and part of that performance is the creation of boundaries. Not just no touching (that cardinal strip club rule), but no sharing, no intimacy, no letting her clients pay their way into her personal life.
“When people have information on you, you’re giving them power,” she explains. “I’m always thinking about doing my job. The minute you start to think that you’re just a friend, you’re having a chat — you’re not. You’re acting.”
Bex has diligently maintained a separation between the person she is onstage or in a private dance room — who she describes as bossy and dominant — and her whole, vulnerable, slightly eccentric self. But it was the latter person whose words have been reproduced in Wanting You to Want Me, and her willingness to let her guard down stemmed from a sense that the project was informal and extracurricular: the author was someone she knew, a fellow member of London’s relatively small community of strippers, and the interview from which her portions of the book were derived was presented to her as “a casual thing between friends”.
“This sounds really naive now, and it probably was — but I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal,” she says.
Bex’s conviction that she was contributing to something small and frivolous — more like a pamphlet than a hardcover book from a big-name publisher — might have been misplaced, but it was also understandable. She’d done media before, including a radio interview with the BBC, and had a working knowledge of its professional norms: “They just use a couple paragraphs, and you don’t hear much more about it.” Also, perhaps most importantly, these projects typically paid her for her time.
The authors of Wanting You to Want Me did not. Bex’s interview took place at her own home, without remuneration, and caught her at a bad time: it was early 2020, London was going into lockdown, and the sudden loss of income had thrown her into a state of panic. She did the interview, then forgot about it — until two years later, when the book landed on her doorstep.
To write nonfiction is to tell other people’s stories. There’s no getting around this, and it can be fraught, especially when we take it upon ourselves to capture a story that is fascinating and true but not necessarily flattering to the person at its centre. But Wanting You to Want Me arguably goes a step beyond this: when Bex opened the book, she found her interview reproduced more or less verbatim, including some comments she desperately wished she’d had the opportunity to edit.
“I wouldn’t have gone in and nitpicked and changed all of my story,” she says. “I stand by the things that I say. Some of the things I’ve said are outrageous, and that’s fine.”
What she would have changed were one or two sentences that had the potential to damage her professionally, or to affect her relationship with her colleagues in the club — and she was shocked that the authors hadn’t given her the chance to review her comments before sending them to print. “We all say stupid things, and you don’t expect them to be made permanent. I don’t want anyone to be hurt by something I said that might potentially be on the shelves at Waterstones for years to come.”
That neither authors nor publisher considered giving the women whose stories formed the heart of Wanting You to Want Me a chance to review their comments is perhaps a hazard of the current culture, in which stripping can now serve as a launchpad to greater things: activism, business, journalism, writing. In the book’s introduction, the authors position the project as something at once unprecedented and noble: giving voice to the voiceless, telling the untold, opening the door to a secret, seedy, and oftentimes sad little world of invisible women.
The more stripping comes to seem like a cool accessory — something with which to burnish your resume and make yourself look more interesting than the average MBA-seeker — the easier it is to forget that for women like Bex, stripping is their job. One that requires, among other things, an absolutely iron grip on what you allow other people to see. Without the ability to control what she puts out there, Bex can’t make a living; her depiction in Wanting You to Want Me wrested away that control in a way that threatened to undermine her professionally, that blurred the carefully-crafted boundaries she’d put up between her real life and her life on stage.
That the women they interview needed to return to work after sharing their stories — and that a stripper might have a professional reputation which she needs to preserve in order to stay employed — seems not to have occurred to the authors of book.
“I felt weirdly reduced,” Bex says. “It’s like, here’s a book about strippers. They put a label on it, and it felt so final, this narrow identity. It’s a performance, and it’s a part of my life, but this made it seem like it defined my life.”
It was also, arguably, something akin to robbery. Having pivoted to online camming during the pandemic, Bex has come to understand that her time, and her stories, can be even more valuable than her body when it comes to earning a living. “Those are the kind of things that people ask me all day long on webcam, and they pay me a lot of money to hear those stories.”
The fact that the authors and publisher of Wanting You To Want Me packaged those same stories into a book without paying the women who shared them — and that the book itself was marketed as some sort of noble, photojournalistic art project to which they should have felt honoured to contribute — felt both deeply exploitive and uniquely demoralising. “This was the first time I got scammed,” she says, “and it was by someone I considered a friend.”
Even more than the book itself, the story of how it came to be highlights the tension inherent to working as a stripper, the precarious balancing act it requires, and the hypocrisy of avowedly pro-sex-work people who manage to dismiss and devalue that work even as they profit from it. A book like Wanting You to Want Me requires hours and hours of interviews — which is to say, hours and hours of time that the women in its pages spent talking about their work for free, when they might have been working. The activists, artists, and media figures who use strippers or sex workers to advance a narrative — and with that narrative, their own interests — may not be engaged in the same type of advantage-taking as the men who pay for their services, but it’s exploitation all the same.
And as for Bex, one gets the sense that this will be the first and last time she allows someone else to leverage her stories for their own self-advancement. The people she’s friends with now, she says, “don’t have an agenda. they’re not trying to write a book about me. They don’t need me for photo shoots. They don’t want me to come along on a political march. They don’t need me to sign a petition.”
And while this experience hasn’t turned her off from stripping, it has led her to guard that part of her life more carefully — not because she’s ashamed of it, but because it belongs to her and nobody else.