I have been stripping for half of my life - since just days after my 18th birthday. Almost immediately I became aware of the judgment that would come my way until the present day – from friends, partners, parents, sisters and strangers. They all expressed their disappointment in me for having chosen to make money by taking my clothes off for strangers. When I explained to people that I was doing it to save money for university, they eased off a bit, conceding that it was indeed a good way to put oneself through school.
18 years later, I’m still stripping. It’s gotten harder in the past few years to explain this. For most of my years in the industry, I have been a university student. When I was younger, it was a very plausible story: the stripper working her way through college. I finished one degree, entered my mid-twenties, decided I was enjoying life too much as it was, so continued stripping, and headed back to school for another degree. I traveled lots, earned the envy of others while at the same time accumulating greater disdain. It was celebrated that I was so committed to my education, so well traveled and free-spirited, but there was a growing sense of impatience among my loved ones about when I would exit the sex industry. I internalized the knowledge that I was letting my parents down. The first in the family to get a university education (financed by my stripping career mind you), and I wasn’t even doing anything that my parents could share with their friends. They were getting bored of telling their friends that I was a student. They were getting restless, that story was getting old. Partners asked me when I planned to quit. Clients asked me when I was going to quit.
Apparently when you are in the sex industry, the only way to keep it remotely respectable is to have a clearly mapped out plan for your escape. It doesn’t matter if you are happy, healthy, satisfied. You MUST have an exit plan. I really bought into this. I held my degrees up in defense of my career. See? I have a plan! I’m educating myself! The older I got, the less believable was my story. I even started to doubt it myself. My partner demanded that I set an exit date. I understood. It was cool to be a stripper while you were young, but in your thirties? Time to grow up and get a real job. I began to see how I used my education to legitimize myself, my trade, but that wasn’t going to last forever.
Clients always ask me what else I do, and I try so hard to be okay with telling them that I’m just a stripper. Why can’t I be just a stripper, when a waitress can be just a waitress, a construction worker, just a construction worker? Why should it matter one iota that I have a university education? I don’t plan on using it to get a job one day. You’ll tell me that my education was still a very valuable experience; that I have gained so much from it. Why can’t my 18 years as a stripper have value? The much greater lessons I’ve learned in life have come from a strip bar, rather than a place of supposed “higher learning.”
Yet, it is difficult to really let go of the societal stigma, to release this idea of sex work as inherently unhealthy, and allow myself to really see value in what I have done, what I continue to do. To allow myself to continue in this industry without the weight of shame and disappointment tugging at me, tempting me to stay at home. But I have started the process of recognizing the many things I have gained as a stripper.
I think the thing I value most in this world is connection. I’ve had the incredible opportunity to work with hundreds, maybe thousands of different women, from such diverse backgrounds. I’ve learned to really listen to them, to share with them, to bond with them. I now understand why we talk so much about work when we’re together – it’s not for lack of other things to say, but because there are so few people in the world we can share our stories with. There is such an obvious longing to share, to connect, that it has become very easy for me to do so. And to recognize that very same longing for connection among others in our society. I’ve been amazed at the conversations that have emerged in the change room and beyond, and all it takes is starting them.
Some of the very basic things that trouble people the most—rejection, criticism, competition—these are the things strippers deal with on a daily basis. Many people think this manifests as an environment of cattiness among the strippers, and I have seen that element. But I’ve also seen women use that environment as a place to learn and grow from.
I’ve learned to be unafraid of rejection, to not take it personally, even if it is done in a very personal way. I’ve had the experience of being rejected, being criticized, and had to immediately move on, smile on my face, equally ready for either further criticism or highest praise. I’ve learned to remain centered, sound in the face of such inconsistent winds. Unaffected by either extreme. I’ve learned where my source of confidence comes from. And it’s so deep inside that it is neither bolstered nor beaten by the whims of the crowd.
I’ve worked in a highly competitive environment yet learned that my co-workers are not my competition.
I’ve learned that what has damaged me the most is the disdain I have felt from so many others regarding what I do. Allowing myself to feel somehow less for continuing to strip when I have what it takes to get a “real” job.
I’ve learned that kindness does not dress a particular way. That generosity doesn’t always wear a suit. That love can pass between strangers.
I’ve learned that I am okay, no I’m so much more than okay, just as I am. Strip me of my degrees, strip me of my clothes. Let me stand before you, with no excuses. I am more than okay, exactly how I am.
I’ve also learned that I am not alone. With this new lens through which to view sex work, I decided to host a small gathering for empowered sex workers. The theme was “The Therapeutic Value of Sex Work,” so obviously it attracted those men and women in the profession who see its value. I am very aware that the views and experiences expressed are not representative of all, or even most sex workers. These men and women, like myself, are not survival sex workers. We are not marginalized individuals who are unable to find work outside of the sex trade. We are inspired, empowered individuals who have found a calling and a passion for sex work. We have among us numerous university degrees at both the undergraduate and graduate level, many years of study in other institutes of learning. We own successful, “straight” businesses, have left good-paying, socially acceptable, yet ultimately unfulfilling jobs to heed our calling. And we feel that it is time that our voices be heard. Sex work CAN be healing work.
Sex work has been the catalyst for positive change in the lives of many of the women and men I spoke with.
Liliana, an escort for just over a year, feels like her experiences have catalyzed so much positive change in her that the past year has felt like a rebirth. Becoming so aware of and comfortable with her body, coupled with the recognition that she prefers female sexual partners, allowed her to finally experience orgasm. She sees such a strong interconnection between sex and healing – for herself as well as for her clients. On her own path of personal growth and healing, she has come to see how she can be the facilitator of another’s healing. She sees the mutual growth and connection that can happen. Liliana’s work has made her aware of her very unique skill set – a recent interaction with a handicapped man called on the skills she acquired working with disabled individuals in group homes. “Sex work is so much more than just spreading your legs”, she told me. “It’s the interpersonal skills which are so vital, so complex,” and when she recognized the incredible gift, the essential therapy, the connection and compassion she was providing this man, she found herself in a profound state of self love.
James spent 15 years developing his strengths as a counselor, masseuse and energy healer. Four years ago, he felt the call so strongly to leave his day job, and envisioned himself as a hands-on sexual healer. When he decided to take the step, it led him to a path of awakening, growth and healing, and his many years of study coalesced into a unique form of tantric massage. He sees the space he creates with his clients as a sacred container, wherein anything is free to emerge. He helps clients through the traumas of incest, rape, sadness, grief and anger, providing both acknowledgement of these experiences and a safe space to explore their sexuality. He views his work as his calling and his gift and positions himself as a catalyst to a collective sexual awakening.
Carmen began working as an escort addicted to alcohol, and credits the extraordinary relationships she developed with other women in the industry for her recovery. She found herself amongst a group of women who were so open to sharing their own experiences and struggles that she was able to tackle her own problems head-on. Her self-esteem issues diminished as her clients allowed her to recognize her inner and outer beauty.
Almost every one of the 12 sex workers spoke of the increased awareness of their own boundaries – recognizing what they were, learning how to respect them and have them respected. Many also spoke of their continual exploration of their boundaries, which can be seen as a very acute form of self-growth and awareness. Working in a profession that is so scrutinized, so stigmatized, it is virtually impossible to work without an awareness of boundaries.
Ki provides erotic massage to both men and women, mentors women in the industry, and educates at a Vancouver sex store. He refers to his service as “heartfelt handjobs,” and sees healing potential in his work whenever there is an intersection of the desires of the client and practitioner – which he achieves 100% of the time. This is possible because he is very clear on his boundaries and is able to convey them effectively. He is also able to constantly push his boundaries from a very conscious place.
Each of the women at the gathering expressed how her self-confidence had improved as a result of her work
Freya, a 46 year old tantric practitioner began working in the field in her 40s. She expressed that she had to wait until this time before she fully internalized the fact that she was beautiful. Though she had been told such many times in her life, she remained unconvinced, surrounded by media images which did not reflect her likeness. As a tantric practitioner she realized that she was not only attractive and desired, but truly beautiful. She was able to see our societies’ fixation with youth, thinness and unattainable proportions as not only artificial, but quite unnecessary.
Minna, an exotic dancer, was finally able to cast of the weight of her mother’s pronouncement that she was unattractive when she had the opportunity to be praised and celebrated for her appearance. Tending toward shyness, she gained courage interacting with others, and learned how to communicate both verbally and non-verbally. She began to share her stories with other women, and at last learned that she was not alone.
Janine began working as an exotic dancer while battling an eating disorder spurred by her feelings of inadequacy. Within a year, she had recovered from her illness, with the recognition that she had so much to offer – both physically and otherwise.
Phaedra has worked in various facets of the sex industry - as a pro domme and both in front of and behind the camera. It was especially her work behind the camera of porn shoots that made her aware that reality in not nearly as perfect and pretty as in seen in the final edited version.
I have learned that intimacy and connection draw from a much deeper source than surface beauty. I am comfortable with the developing lines on my face, the changes in my body as I age, because I know that to be attractive and attracted requires nothing more than being present and honest. Stripping for half of my life, yet never opting for cosmetic surgeries, I learned that a genuine smile is much more attractive than a pair of augmented breasts or collagen-injected lips. I have seen women make more and more money in the strip bar as they age, in large part because they become more comfortable in their bodies, more clear on who they are and what they really have to offer.
Humans have an innate desire to make a difference in the world, and each of the amazing people I spoke with felt so privileged to see the change their services provided in another’s life.
Sofia, an escort for over a year, sees her work as therapy. Her clients come to see her for sexual services, but in such an open and vulnerable state, she says. “It’s like the clouds break, and everything is on the table.” She often finds herself in a place of deep emotional connection, and is so moved by what she is able to give.
Lux has worked in the sex industry for a few years now, and has chosen to work as an escort for the past year. She went into the work with a very open and curious mind, and has found it both enjoyable and personally rewarding. She has learned that she is able to connect with and have amazing experiences with very diverse types of men. She has learned that there are many lonely individuals in our society, and she finds it “amazing” to be able to give to them. But she has also suffered the loss of family and friends in choosing to be honest about her line of work.
I think it is very worth drawing a parallel between two groups of stigmatized individuals: homosexuals and sex workers. Until very recently, being queer was seen as unhealthy, just as sex work is seen to be today. Yet much of society (at least here in liberal Vancouver) now recognizes that what has been so unhealthy about being gay is the stigma placed upon one’s lifestyle, the constant need for hiding, even subverting one’s innate desires. When homosexual individuals are recognized as normal, legitimate and productive members of society, they are no longer subject to the forces which led them to states of un-health and dis-ease. The same case can be made for sex workers. What is unhealthy about sex work is that in many cases it is criminalized, forcing it into rough streets and dark alleys. It is unhealthy when social structures are not present to allow one’s exit from survival sex work. It is harmful when one suffers disownment, the loss of family and friends due to one’s choices. But the actual, physical work of escorts and strippers, tantric practitioners and pro dommes is not innately unhealthy. As I have at last allowed myself to see, it can be both enriching and illuminating, therapeutic and rewarding.
My name is Wrenna Robertson. I am a happy and healthy woman. I love and am loved. I’m a valuable, productive member of society. I am proud to say that I am a sex worker.
-- Wrenna Robertson lives in Victoria, BC with her partner and their cats and dogs. She has recently published a photo book of female genitalia titled “I’ll Show You Mine.” She continues to work as a stripper to this day.