This path-breaking book examines the lives of five topless dancers in the economically devastated “rust belt” of upstate New York. With insight and empathy, Susan Dewey shows how these women negotiate their lives as parents, employees, and family members while working in a profession widely regarded as incompatible with motherhood and fidelity. Neither disparaging nor romanticizing her subjects, Dewey investigates the complicated dynamic of performance, resilience, economic need, and emotional vulnerability that comprises the life of a stripper. An accessibly written text that uses academic theories and methods to make sense of feminized labor, Neon Wasteland shows that sex work is part of the learned process by which some women come to believe that their self-esteem, material worth, and possibilities for life improvement are invested in their bodies.
Neon Wasteland On Love, Motherhood, and Sex Work in a Rust Belt Town
Chantelle's New Job
This is a real blue-collar place. At first I thought it was pretty weird that you came here to write a book about us, because I always thought that women with PhDs and all, well, they don't usually come into a place like this. I guess it's different for you, because you grew up like all of us did and so you understand why our lives are the way they are. So this isn't a place where dancers can make a lot of money, because the guys we get in here, they work at one of the plants, some of them don't work at all. This isn't one of the more upscale places like you get in New York City, where the girls are all perfect with implants and stuff, here we're just regular girls trying to support ourselves and our kids. A lot of us didn't finish high school because we came from messed-up families or had kids real young and so we're just doing the best we can.
People don't generally think of dancers as family types, I guess, but we have kids, too. I'm trying not to tell people that I'm pregnant although obviously it won't stay a secret for long. I don't tell any of the guys who come in because that's a pretty big turnoff-to think there's a pregnant woman shaking it for money in front of you. I figure I can work for three or four months and make some money before I start to show, because I really need the money right now and I don't have anybody around who's going to give it to me. I never really thought I'd be a single mom since I grew up without a father around and that was tough for me, but here I am. It's my own stupidity for putting my trust in guys who didn't deserve it.
I've been working here for three weeks now, and it's OK so far. I get really tired because of the baby and because I've never worked nights before, so that's a bad combination. The other girls are pretty nice but a couple of them are real messed up, because this kind of work can do that to you, but probably some of them were that way before they got here. One of them, you know Diamond? She's the prettiest one here. She told me on my first night that I should get wasted before I go onstage because it makes things easier, but of course I didn't because of the baby. I was so scared that night with all those men looking at me, but I just tried to pretend they weren't there when I was onstage and I didn't get much in tips afterwards because I was afraid to talk to them with practically no clothes on.
I'm not going to be doing this forever, so I guess it doesn't bother me as much as it would if I was like some of the other girls here who don't have any plans for the future. Some of them just spend everything they earn because that's easy to do when you get paid under the table, but I'm doing this for my daughter. I mean, it's too early to know what I'm going to have, but I really want a little girl. I'm going to name her Nevaeh, that's "heaven" spelled backwards. I want to raise her right, so she won't end up like her mama, doing this kind of work. But, like I said, I'm not going to be doing this forever. Once the baby comes, then everything changes for me.
Paul: "Man, Women Have It Easy"
You learn a lot of things working around dancers. Look, I've been married to two of them and been the manager here for three years, and so I can tell you one thing: man, women have it easy. You probably think that they're all abused and shit, they try to play it out like that sometimes so people will feel sorry for them. They make more money that way. Dancers, they're professionals at taking other people's money. They're hustlers. These are girls who don't want to work; they want to party and have men fall all over them like they're the best thing in the world. I don't have a lot of sympathy for them. If I feel sorry for anybody here, it's these poor suckers who come and blow all their money on some of these bitches. We've got some nice girls here, but most of them are just people who can't hold down a normal job for whatever reason. And the guys we get in here, they need to get away for a while, maybe from their wife's or girlfriend's nagging, maybe just from life here with the economy all shot to hell and all. Let me tell you, though, in a place like Sparksburgh where there are no jobs for anybody, these girls are doing pretty well. Don't let yourself feel too sorry for them.
Vixens: An Introduction
Read together, these two narratives raise a host of questions regarding the paradoxical coexistence of such wildly divergent understandings of the same work environment. For instance, why did Chantelle believe that sex work offered the best opportunity for life improvement when there were social-service agencies that could have assisted her? How did the manager of Vixens, Paul, reconcile his belief in the "ease" with which women could support themselves with the harsh economic and life realities faced by the dancers who worked for him? Such perplexing contradictions raise this book's central questions of why some poor U.S. women choose sex work over other low-wage jobs and why they believe that sex work is a first step toward long-term social mobility.
Chantelle was nineteen when I met her, just one year over the legal age requirement to dance topless in New York State, and in the space of just a few short months she had found herself abandoned, pregnant, and with no means of financial support. Like many poor young women without a socioeconomic network to assist her, she was not at all surprised to find herself in this situation, although she was nonetheless disappointed. One of the most striking aspects of Chantelle's life philosophy was that she did not view herself as a victim but rather as a conscious decision maker who was both responsible for her choices and capable of improving her own life. Her perceptions of her new work environment set the tone for some of the arguments presented in the rest of this book regarding news ways of thinking about sex workers as complete social beings who are also family members and friends.
A twice-divorced father of two young children, the twenty-four-year-old Vixens manager, Paul, was also a key figure in the lives of dancers like Chantelle, and accordingly, he features prominently in the ensuing chapters. In asserting that "women have it easy," Paul argues that women are at a distinct economic advantage in Sparksburgh's depressed economy because of their supposed sexual power over men. Sparksburgh is indeed still reeling from the economic collapse and skilled-labor emigration that followed deindustrialization several decades earlier, although, as we will see, most of those who have chosen to stay find themselves eking out a living in an impoverished community of men and women for whom work in any form generally takes place on what they are fully aware are poorly paid, demeaning, and even exploitative terms.
Sex work is one of the many forms of gendered labor that poor people engage in as part of broader, albeit highly stigmatized, survival strategies that continue to be objects of popular cultural fascination in less-than-subtle classist and racist manners. Witness, for example, the plethora of U.S. films, television shows, and other mass-media forms that focus on the regulation of activities such as gang membership, drug dealing, and prostitution as subversive, threatening, and yet somehow fascinating enough to form the substance of endless entertainment. The following analysis seeks to demystify the lives of people who engage in such activities through a combination of ethnographic analysis and self-representation. Accordingly, each chapter begins with an unedited narrative from a Vixens worker, most often from one of the five dancers whose lives this book chronicles. My own ethnographic and personal evaluations are absent in order to maintain the integrity of the women's words, and these narratives function to complement and underscore the key themes of each chapter as part of my strong belief in the collaborative nature of the research process. I have used pseudonyms similar to the "stage names" that dancers, following the standard practice at North American topless dancing bars, choose for themselves in order to keep their identities secret. I have also fictionalized certain elements of their lives and place of work in cooperation with each of them to render them unrecognizable and thus anonymous.
Feminist anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod advocates writing "ethnographies of the particular" (1991, 138) that run contrary to what she believes is the anthropological tendency to generalize. This book is one such "ethnography of the particular" in that it draws upon an increasingly vast cross-cultural literature on sex work to show how the "particulars" of topless dancers in Sparksburgh are by no means isolated from the experiences of other sex workers throughout the world. The following chapters thus frame their lives within the broader ethnographic context of sex work while simultaneously doing descriptive justice to the complexities of their individual everyday experiences.
Vixens is housed in a small rectangular building near the New York State Thruway, and in the long winters characteristic of that part of the world, its squat gray walls are the same bleak color as the brittle, snowy skies. It has an air of abandonment and deterioration that it shares with the many small businesses in the region that are perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy or closure: a gravel parking lot, exterior walls in need of repair, muddy snow congealing in forlorn piles outside the door. Traffic sounds form a perpetual humming whirr from the nearby intersections of three major highways, and there are no sidewalks, residences, or shops nearby. Vixens' isolation on Sparksburgh's physical margins virtually guarantees that no one ends up there by accident.
Despite the urban decay surrounding it and the remoteness of the location, dancers consider Vixens the safest and most lucrative of all the erotic dancing establishments within driving distance of Sparksburgh. Women who work there often follow their complaints about low pay, disrespect from clients, and management's general abuse of their labor with descriptions of what they consider inferior working conditions in the region's other topless and nude dancing bars. "If you have to do this," pragmatic Cinnamon explained to me soon after we met, "this is the best place to do it in, because there's no push from management to do more than you want to." Cinnamon was the mother of an adolescent daughter and had worked in a wide range of area erotic businesses for ten years-much longer than any of the other women at Vixens had been in the industry.
Cinnamon's wealth of experience with such establishments was quite paradoxical given that she was only twenty-five years old, and her knowledge of both illegal and illicit adult-oriented businesses stemmed from a life molded by abandonment and the abuse of her trust. "I started doing this because my daughter was starving to death," she said abruptly one night when we found ourselves alone in the dressing room backstage. She was staring at herself in the mirror and smoking a cigarette as she described the path that had placed her in the backroom of a topless dancing bar.
I had my first baby when I was thirteen, and my parents threw me out of the house two months after she was born. The funny thing is I was too young for welfare unless I wanted to go into foster care and get my baby taken away, and so I ended up in one of the sleaziest nude places pretty quick. You wouldn't even go in there if you saw it, it was that bad, but you have to be eighteen to dance topless and in the nude places they don't care how old you are because half the girls there are hookers anyway.
Cinnamon is one of the women whose lives make up the substance of this book, and her story is particularly representative of how people can find themselves left out of systems designed to help them even in relatively resource-rich states like New York. Too young for welfare benefits as a self-supporting mother and not old enough or educated enough to find formal-sector employment, she quickly began work in an industry that more than a decade later seemed impossible for her to leave. Cinnamon did not feel she was particularly lucky to be working at Vixens, but she understood from experience that her situation could be much worse. She was often quick to tell horror stories of mistreatment at other establishments when Vixens dancers complained about not earning enough money or having to deal with a difficult client.
Such tales frequently centered on the abuse of authority at other establishments by older male managers, who sometimes expected sexual favors from dancers as a condition of employment. Typologies abounded backstage at Vixens that categorized other topless dancing bars as little more than brothels where young women were powerless to control the circumstances under which their bodies were sexually available to random men. Reasons for this, in the words of Vixens dancers, ranged among individual women from extreme poverty, youth, and entrapment in an exploitative relationship with an employer-cum-boyfriend to drug addiction. This kind of violent folklore partly functioned to mitigate the everyday difficulties Vixens dancers encountered at work, through a process of comparison that sought to remind them just how lucky they were.
"I like it here because there are rules," Cinnamon told me. "In other places, guys who walk in with money get whatever they want." She was voicing a common sentiment among many Vixens dancers about the clear distinction between their work and prostitution. Yet despite their insistence on such boundaries, dancers often complain that clients expect a great deal of physical contact in exchange for tips, their primary source of income, and sometimes this behavior borders on more than just the simulation of sex. Men go to Vixens knowing that they can expect a minimum of three things: first, to watch a bare-breasted woman in a thong wind her body around a metal pole to the steady thumping beat of rhythm-and-blues music; second, to have a drink and perhaps to talk to other men. And third, they can expect dancers to approach them numerous times to offer a ten-dollar private dance, sometimes called a "lap dance" because it involves such close contact between dancer and client, in a curtained area located in a corner of the building near the stage.
Most of these expectations are fairly straightforward, but the third raises important questions, both for dancers and for those interested in their lives, about the blurry lines that divide private from public, genuine intimacy from performance, and, indeed, houses of prostitution from topless dancing bars. It is perhaps not surprising that all three of these issues routinely present dilemmas for dancers, management, and clients alike in the course of an ordinary night of work. A number of precautionary measures discussed later-including the use of security cameras, curtained areas, and clothing to regulate interaction between dancers and clients-function to both empower and marginalize different individuals in the shifting terrain of desire.
Throughout this book, we will encounter women who often appear to make contradictory decisions and engage in behaviors that harm them despite the fact that they obviously have the ability to make other, less risky choices. Sociologist Avery Gordon terms this phenomenon "complex personhood"-a phrase that underscores how "even those who live in the most dire circumstances possess a complex and often contradictory humanity and subjectivity that is never adequately glimpsed by viewing them as victims or, on the other hand, as superhuman agents" (1997, 4). Put in extremely simple terms, this means that people are rarely truly good or extremely bad, but rather fall somewhere in between at different times and in varying circumstances. Complex personhood also
means that the stories people tell about themselves and their troubles, about their social worlds, and about their society's problems are entangled and weave between what is immediately available as a story and what their imaginations are reaching toward ...[because] even those who haunt our dominant institutions and their systems of values are haunted too by things they sometimes have names for and sometimes do not. (Gordon 1997, 4)
Sex workers are powerfully ambivalent social figures and thus constitute the ultimate in complex personhood because their lives necessarily overlap between private and public worlds in ways that problematize conventional notions of fidelity, proper femininity, and even love. Such women are no different from their counterparts outside the sex industry in often finding themselves torn between real and ideal notions of their life situations, although their social worlds are admittedly somewhat more complex because of their work in a profession often kept secret from others. Yet this secrecy is but one aspect of the very nature of work in the sex industry, which operates in tandem with temporality, fluctuating earnings, high risks, vulnerability, and status on or outside the legal margins. When women do this sort of work, they inhabit a border region that exposes the fault lines inherent in cultural notions of sex, gender, and feminine performance.
Dancers at Vixens specialize in the blurring of boundaries between genuine and false affection in their professional personas and use these performance-related skills to survive in a world that is hostile to the everyday aspects of their working and personal lives. Vixens is a place like many others in that it is populated by people who are hesitant to reveal too much of themselves lest others capitalize on their resulting vulnerability. As we will see, however, the structural lines that divide the strong from the weak and the vicious from the assailed are no less complex than those whose lives are woven together to tell this story.
I began my research with the central question of whether an industry so clearly characterized by exploitative labor practices and discourses of dirt and shame could in fact be empowering for women and the children they supported. I was particularly interested in the question of why women working in topless bars with a predominantly blue-collar clientele and associated lower profit margins chose performance-related work rather than other, less stigmatized low-wage jobs. What happens, I wondered, when men who earn money through their physical labor encounter women who are paid for their sexualized performances? After I met with women workers and their male managers at approximately fifteen topless and nude dancing bars in upstate New York, it became eminently clear that Vixens would provide me with the safest and most hospitable research environment. This was a major concern because, as a twenty-four-year-old graduate student, I was extremely poor, but also too timid to dance topless onstage. My shyness eventually worked to my benefit in that it helped me to function in a work environment where I had to find strategies for interacting with dancers without competing with them for tips from clients. Although R. Danielle Egan (2006), Mindy Bradley-Engen (2009), and Katherine Frank (2002) all successfully worked as topless dancers as part of their ethnographic research on men who visit such establishments, I felt that women would be far less likely to treat me as a friendly equal if I joined them in their highly competitive nightly routine of hustling clients from the audience into the private dance room.
Sex-work-related businesses are notoriously full of intrigues and hostilities between their female employees, and I wanted to avoid becoming inadvertently trapped in such fractious relationships with the women whose lives I hoped to document. As a result, I became a frequent object of sympathy from Vixens dancers, who criticized what they saw as my stupidity in wasting a good income-generating opportunity and attributed my reticence to low self-esteem. Yet their pity also opened a direct avenue of communication between the approximately fifty women who worked at Vixens during the course of my six months of research, when I spent nearly every night backstage talking to women about their work and family lives. I conducted in-depth, semistructured interviews with roughly fifty women workers on these subjects in addition to gathering information on their average nightly earnings, the number of hours they spent at Vixens, their costs of living, and their work histories. I also gathered about two dozen life histories from the same pool of dancers. So, for instance, when Chantelle described other dancers as "real messed up" and directionless in opposition to herself, my knowledge of fifty women's work histories prior to entering Vixens and their plans for the future helped to provide some depth of perspective regarding her personal opinion.
I have chosen to use five of the approximately two dozen detailed life histories I collected at Vixens during my research, for the simple reason that these women are most representative of those I had nightly interaction with during the six months I spent at the bar. My interviews with approximately fifty dancers revealed as much about Vixens as a labor environment as it did about the characteristics of its women workers. Management avoided scheduling any of the dancers for more than forty hours per week and consequently did not have to pay insurance or other benefits to any of its staff. Although this overemployment of part-time workers can increasingly be found in many other areas of employment (including academia), the fact that dancers are considered to be independent contractors compounds the financial instability of this form of work by completely freeing management from any obligation to pay its workers. Dancers, instead, pay their managers a portion of the tips male clients at the bar offer them in the form of small-denomination bills. This labor environment, combined with other difficulties inherent in hustling strange men for cash, proves unsatisfying for many women who begin work as dancers, with some refusing to return after just a few nights on the job.
My participant observation at Vixens confirmed my initial suspicions about high employee turnover, as a full 20 percent of employees lasted less than one month at the bar before quitting due to concerns about a nightly income lower than initially expected, disagreements with other dancers, fears for their safety-or simply because they grew disgusted with such working conditions. About 25 percent of women stayed on the job for between two and three months before leaving. Women who worked less than three months tended to be younger (between eighteen and twenty-four years old), had never been married, and did not have children to support. It could be inferred that these factors may have granted them greater flexibility to find paid work or financial support elsewhere, although, as subsequent chapters will demonstrate, dancers did not always perceive this as the reality of their situation.
The remaining women worked at Vixens throughout the duration of my fieldwork, and although none had the status of a full-time employee with health insurance and other benefits, most described themselves as able to survive exclusively on the money they earned at the bar. The minority who claimed that they could not manage to live solely upon their Vixens earnings had another source of income, most often a second part-time, low-wage job, such as waitressing or working in another sector of the service industry, or had a live-in partner who provided some additional financial support. The average monthly wage among these women varied enormously, from extreme cases of dancers who quit in frustration after just a few weeks of earning almost nothing in tips from male clients to extraordinarily skilled and beautiful outliers who counted their earnings at an average of $700 per week. Most women, however, earned an amount comparable to what they would earn at a full-time job paying just slightly above the minimum wage, which at the time of my research was $5.15 an hour in New York State.
This income was quickly spent for the vast majority of dancers, since their cost-of-living expenses were correlated almost without exception to their earnings. Dancers simply tended to spend any unexpected income they earned from clients' especially generous tips, even if the money was not necessary to their immediate survival. All of the women I met lived in rental accommodations, most of which were in Sparksburgh, and accordingly monthly rent payments absorbed at least a week or two of earnings each month. None of the women owned her own home, although some, like Angel and Star, occasionally lived with men who were homeowners. A significant minority of women lived outside Sparksburgh, and some drove an hour or more from neighboring small towns or other areas where they feared a neighbor or some other acquaintance might recognize them if they were to work at a strip club closer to home.
All but one of the approximately fifty dancers had previously held a job outside the sex industry, most of which were in the unskilled, low-wage service sector of restaurants, convenience stores, and cleaning services. Women with children, who made up over half of the dancers, almost universally cited their responsibilities and added financial burden of motherhood as pivotal in their decision to leave their previous jobs in favor of sex work. All of the women insisted that dancing topless was extremely different from prostitution and what they viewed as its potentially dangerous consequences due to its illegality and what they believed to be its higher likelihood of disease transmission and physical violence. Notably, several such women later acknowledged engaging in survival sex in return for accommodation, rent, necessary services, or even child care, although they did not characterize such behavior as prostitution because it did not involve the explicit exchange of cash for sexual favors.
The ages of women who remained employed at Vixens throughout the duration of my fieldwork ranged from twenty to thirty-five, with most between twenty and twenty-six. All women over the age of twenty-six had previously been married, and all of them were either divorced or not currently living with their spouse. Eight of the women had been married more than twice, and one thirty-three-year-old dancer had been married five times. A significant majority of the women had worked in another erotic business before Vixens, and significantly, all described socialization processes that had prepared them for sex work. These descriptions included insistence on their untapped abilities as performers and knowledge of the industry gained from friends or other acquaintances. A few women drew a direct connection between negative or abusive experiences with men as an antecedent to their work choices, but their numbers were quite small. About half of all dancers knew of women in their family who had engaged in some form of sex work, and, without exception, all were aware of someone in their circle of acquaintances who had done so. All but five came from New York State, with the vast majority from Sparksburgh itself.
I chose to use the life histories and words of Chantelle, Diamond, Cinnamon, Star, and Angel because their lives closely correspond to the experiences of many of their coworkers. Their stories are not intended as typologies, but rather as descriptive analyses of how the structural violence of poverty and, in some cases, serious gender discrimination helped to shape the lives of individual women. Their choices and responses to the circumstances in which they found themselves help to shed new light on the complex ways that many poor women conceive of work, money, responsibilities, and relationships as they try to support themselves and their families as best they can.
At twenty, Angel often described herself as "surprised to still be alive." She looked even younger than her real age on days when she had not been self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Angel was the most itinerant of the Vixens dancers, and she had no fixed address, preferring instead to stay with various male acquaintances in Sparksburgh. This impressive network of men helped to support her drug and alcohol habit, because she did not have to budget any money for cost-of-living expenses and instead lived day to day. She often wore no makeup and had very few ensembles for work; most of her possessions fit in a small duffel bag that she carried with her from place to place. Angel's lifestyle rendered her extremely thin, and at just under five feet tall, she often looked like a preadolescent girl who had been rummaging through her (presumably much larger) mother's lingerie drawer. Angel's bras and thongs either had been purchased at a time when she was two sizes healthier or were hand-me-downs she gathered as she moved from place to place in Sparksburgh.
Angel wore no makeup except lipstick, which was usually black, and had short, bitten fingernails-all evidence of her transient lifestyle. Angel started dancing topless to make money when she aged out of the foster-care system at eighteen, soon after giving birth to her son, who was taken into foster care at an early age when she tested positive for drug use. She often blamed her struggles with drugs and alcohol on her mother, whose own drug problem had placed Angel into foster care soon after she reached her teens. Angel's father was unknown, and she was uncertain of her mother's whereabouts. Angel had spent most of her life in Sparksburgh, and her long association with some of its habitual illicit-drug users made it incredibly difficult for her to see her self-destructive behaviors as anything but normal. Other dancers were extremely wary of her, and she was thus deliberately excluded from any kind of friendship or support she might have received at Vixens, largely due to their perception that she engaged in prostitution with men she met at the bar. From the perspective of other dancers, Angel's behaviors reflected on them in ways that had the potential to cause serious harm by making men believe that they could expect to arrange paid sexual rendezvous at the bar.
Star was twenty-four, with straight hair the color of brown sugar that framed her round face. Star spent a considerable amount of time each evening applying cosmetics to her stomach, which she hoped would cover her stretch marks from giving birth to two sons, the first of whom was born when she was nineteen and the second at twenty-two. She came from a small town about one hour away from Sparksburgh, where her parents still eked out an existence on a small dairy farm. Her fractious relationship with her extremely religious Pentecostal family stemmed partly from the pressure her parents placed on her to marry when she became pregnant at eighteen and then to tolerate her first husband's infidelities and compulsive drinking, which she did until she was twenty-one and he left her for another woman. Star began work as a waitress in Sparksburgh and put her baby in a church-sponsored free child-care service during the day. Then she met Don, an itinerant skilled tradesman. Six months after their relationship started, Star found herself pregnant with her second son.
Don signed a lease on an apartment in Sparksburgh for Star and him to move into, and he seemed enthusiastic about fatherhood until he was offered a job in Pennsylvania. Although he continued to send money for several months after he left, Star was quicker to notice the signs of infidelity the second time around. Don's support payments for his son became more and more sporadic, and eventually Star learned that he had married another woman. Star's parents offered to let her move in with them, but their religiosity and what Star saw in them as an overbearing temperament made this option extremely unattractive, even though she had two young children to support. Instead, Star decided to try her luck at Vixens in the hope that it would be less expensive to leave her two young children with a babysitter during the night while they were asleep that it would during the day. Soon afterward, she met Cinnamon, who was in the same predicament, and they pooled their resources to create a family. Star had been propelled into motherhood and marriage while still a teenager and insisted that she did not have any plans for her professional future. "I just want to be a mom," she would often sigh. "I could be a really good mom if my life was different."
Like Star, twenty-five-year-old Cinnamon had spent so much of her time simply surviving that it was sometimes difficult for her to think about planning for the future when her present life situation posed so many challenges. Cinnamon had a green Chinese dragon tattooed across her lower back, its long tail slithering around her waist and circling around her navel, where its tip seemed to disappear inside her body. The tattoo had been a rather expensive birthday gift from a former boyfriend, who insisted that it would bring her good luck-something she had not had much of since she became self-supporting at thirteen, shortly after the birth of her daughter. Cinnamon was tall and had the strong, solid legs of a career dancer, with muscles that were accustomed to very high heels and the constant bending and twisting motions that characterized her performances. She dyed her short, bobbed hair black and used a flat iron to make it perfectly straight before she started work, although usually it began to turn curly again after she started to sweat. Her eyes were green, and in the sunlight her pale freckles were visible on the bridge of her nose and scattered across her cheeks.
Cinnamon knew that her parents had moved to Texas and that they divorced a few years after they presented her with a particularly harsh ultimatum for a thirteen-year-old girl: either abort her child or leave home forever. Cinnamon chose the latter option, and she has never been in contact since. She often mentioned that she does not think about them very much. Between working the night shift and caring for her twelve-year-old daughter and Star's four- and two-year-old boys, she had to focus her energies as much as possible. Cinnamon was avowedly single and had vague plans to go to nursing school someday, when she finally felt ready to quit dancing and plunge full-time into the bleak prospects open to her in Sparksburgh with no high school education and no work experience outside the sex industry.
Although she had fewer years of experience than Cinnamon, Diamond had the longest tenure at Vixens and was unanimously considered the most beautiful and talented of all the women who worked there. Diamond had danced topless in several of the larger cities in upstate New York and had plans to move to Atlanta or Las Vegas, which are home to more lucrative erotic establishments, as soon as she felt financially stable. Diamond grew up on New York State's Canadian border, and despite her ambitions as she matured, she began to find herself cycling through relationships with men who seemed to all fit the same profile: unemployed, verbally abusive, and quick to take advantage of her income. Her last relationship prompted her move from a neighboring city to Sparksburgh, where she hoped she could start all over again without any physical reminders of the man she left behind. She began working at Vixens soon after her arrival.
Diamond had long strawberry blond hair that she swung wildly around her body when she danced onstage. She was of medium height, with strikingly beautiful features that often attracted comments from clients who could not help but notice how incongruous her presence was in the rather run-down setting at Vixens. "Diamond in the rough, eh?" many of them joked, which secretly made her happy because it reminded her that she was destined for bigger and better things. Diamond was a skilled dancer who clearly loved her job, and she was proud of her cultivated abilities to extract large sums of money from her regular clients, seemingly without consequences. Diamond considered herself a businesswoman and was not shy about her talents; in fact, she constantly reminded other dancers that someday she planned to run her own topless bar, where she would set the rules.
Professionally ambitious dancers like Diamond contrasted sharply with women like nineteen-year-old Chantelle, who hoped to quickly make some money dancing topless and then leave the sex industry entirely. Chantelle grew up in a desperately poor family of five children in a trailer park situated on the outskirts of Sparksburgh. Her relationships with her siblings, who were scattered throughout the country, were sporadically maintained through letters and occasional phone calls. Several of her brothers and sisters lived in West Virginia, where her mother's family still worked in the coal mines. Chantelle felt deeply ashamed of the work she was doing at Vixens and insisted that it was all for her child, who was still a fetus just six weeks past conception.
Chantelle tried to cover her body as much as possible because she felt vulnerable, and she knew that her youth made her seem particularly enticing to men. She did not style her shoulder-length hair any differently than she did outside of work and she wore little makeup, hoping that this lack of self-cultivation in the bar would signal her "nice girl" status to clients. Other dancers tried to help her negotiate the difficulties of learning the job but also were exasperated with what they perceived as her ineptitude. As Cinnamon put it, "Some girls just can't be dancers. You have to be tough, and some people just can't manage that."
Although dancers may recognize certain aspects of their stories in the pages that follow, I have concealed and sometimes altered details of their lives to the extent that they remain unrecognizable to others. This is in keeping with Hans and Judith-Maria Buechler's definition of anthropology as "a series of attempts at contextualizing events and sequences of events" (1996, xix)-in my case, in ways that paint vivid ethnographic portraits of individual women's lives without revealing potentially damaging facts about them. Accordingly, this book traces six months in the lives of topless dancers I grew to know extremely well; it does so in order not only to illuminate broader social issues but also to reveal the agency and work ethic that dancers evince in the face of a stigma that often seriously complicates their intimate and family lives. In some ways, this book situates itself in an ethnographic tradition of life histories that long predates it, but above all it seeks to highlight new possibilities for research and writing that respect the concept of an anthropology of the heart that cannot avoid empathizing with and loving the individuals who make it possible.
Accordingly, I tried to be mindful not to replicate what Ortega (2006) calls "loving, knowing ignorance"-a propensity she finds among some relatively privileged white feminists to assume that all women engage in similar decision-making processes and cost-benefit analyses. By integrating the minutiae of everyday life into its analysis, this book seeks to fill a gap in the scholarly research on sex workers by answering the question often asked by many of my curious friends and colleagues: "What do they do when they're not onstage?" I felt perplexed by this tendency to define the identity of women workers at Vixens through their erotic labor, thus effectively denying them complex personhood (Gordon 1997) and reducing them to sexualized, performing bodies. I have endeavored both in my research and in my writing to incorporate Donna Haraway's argument for the "situated knowledges" that acknowledge the multiple realities that shape both individual women's lives and popular perceptions of them. Haraway notes that it is important to recognize that "the codes of the world are not still, waiting only to be read," (1988, 593) and argues that all accounts of marginalized populations risk replicating "the god trick" of positivist science, which she believes to assume the possibility of rational, invisible, and omniscient authorial voice free of bias. In warning of the dangers inherent in attempting to see from the position of the less powerful, she notes that the poor (or otherwise oppressed) also have their own personal agendas and that to deny them that reality effectively contributes to their marginalization (1988, 584).
Anthropologists who work with populations engaged in illegal or semilegal activities face a troubling set of related ethical dilemmas that, although extremely minor in comparison to the life crises of those they study, underscore the uneasy nature of relationships formed in the field. Anthropologist Stephen Vanderstaay, writing of his guilt following the murder conviction of a research contact he had grown especially attached to, observes that "professional codes of ethical conduct proscribe harming subjects, but what of watching research subjects harm others?" (2005, 374). Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois, whose research perhaps best exemplifies some of the difficulties inherent in ethnographic research with marginal groups, notes that the political engagement of many academics with ideas about social justice "remain textual, removed from drug addicts, street criminals, angry youths, or any other flesh-and-blood embodiments of social injustice" (1995, 250). Such "textual" rather than actual commitments definitely color the discipline at large, so that guerrilla movements in a rather distant country often become more real to individual researchers and academic departments than the problems that plague nearby communities.
Vanderstaay has quite rightly pointed out that "anthropology is not social work" (2005, 371), and yet we as researchers clearly take on some sort of responsibility when we become interlopers in the lives of others. How, then, are we to reconcile our private desires for fame and recognition with the infinitely more pressing issues of the lives of those we write about, especially when those very issues form the substance of our work? This is precisely why an anthropology of the heart is needed, in which the premise of objectivity becomes secondary to the deep and often emotional issues that ethnography cannot help but expose. Refusal to explore the sometimes painful socioeconomic realities of our immediate surroundings in conjunction with broader processes of global injustice, after all, risks losing the most fundamental power of the discipline: its vulnerable humanity.
An anthropology of the heart aims to document the intricacies and contradictions of poor people's lives with dignity, thus aiming to relocate the identity boundaries of privilege in some small way. It must also be acknowledged that I, like many other researchers, sometimes felt less noble emotions toward the people I attempted to understand. Hence this anthropology of the heart must also recognize the anger, fear, frustration, and feelings of naïveté that can result from living among people in situations of real structural violence. Anthropologist Philippe Bourgois writes of his disgust toward Caesar, a crack dealer whose violence toward his wife, infant son, and other community members allowed Bourgois "to understand the contradictory processes whereby victims become the most immediate administrators of their community's oppression on a daily basis" (1996, 255). The fact that my own research questions were especially clearly illuminated because of my work in a space that objectifies women as a matter of course was thus rather incidental to the broader issues that I sometimes found myself confronting at Vixens. Like most of the dancers, I knew that I had entered a world that comes with strings attached, and that these strings have a powerfully enduring ability to ensnare, and to wound.
Lest I present too rosy a picture of research in what was quite honestly a difficult and periodically dangerous environment, perhaps a brief ethnographic anecdote will suffice. My car got stuck in the snow in the Vixens parking lot one night, and I spent fifteen minutes spinning my tires deeper into the muddy gravel beneath it before three men walked out of the red steel door on the side of the building. The air was so cold that my breath was thick like cigarette smoke even inside the car, and the steady pounding of music from the bar was reverberating in my chest. I realized that no one inside the building would hear me if I screamed, and the parking lot was otherwise deserted. I felt a visceral kind of fear as the group of men walked toward my car, my stomach tightening involuntarily as I forced myself not to look at them; it was dark, there was no moon, and I was miles from Sparksburgh's center. I kept turning the wheel from side to side and alternately pressing the accelerator and then the brake in hopes of moving forward, but the tires only sank deeper into the snow. One of the men knocked heavy and slow on the car window, and I nearly stopped breathing.
Why was I so terrified? Where was the bravery I had thought would somehow magically spring forth as a consequence of my ethnographic curiosity? Moreover, why had I just then recognized what I was: a lone young woman in the dark, outside an isolated and derelict strip club? This was fieldwork, after all, so why did I suddenly feel so small and afraid? I remember thinking that some prominent feminist anthropologists would probably have characterized this as a moment of ironic ethnographic truth, but at the time, it felt more like hollow terror than anything else. Research on sex work can be dangerous and fraught with uncertainties, particularly for women, and it would be extremely irresponsible for me to ignore this fact as I write. Although I developed self-protective strategies to compensate for these dangers to my safety as a woman over subsequent years of research in Eastern Europe and South Asia, this type of research is not free of consequences. As feminists, we have a responsibility to acknowledge these considerable risks to future young female researchers, even if it means exposing our vulnerabilities in ways that sociologist Jennifer Wesely terms "negotiating myself" (2006, 146).
That night in the darkness of the Vixens parking lot, the three anonymous men wordlessly assembled behind my car to push me out of the snow-but, as we shall see throughout this book, that story could have just as easily ended very differently.
Why Women Choose Sex Work
A number of excellent anthropological works on the global sex industry have emerged in recent years, many of which privilege the voices of sex workers themselves. This literature has raised provocative questions about the feminization of poverty, the limits of individual agency, and, perhaps most profoundly, the complexities embedded in relationships between men and women. Yet studies on sex work as an upward-mobility strategy have tended to focus on the Global South, with excellent ethnographies of everyday life among sex workers in China (Zheng 2009a, 2009b), the Caribbean (Brennan 2004; Cabezas 2009; Kempadoo 1999; Padilla 2007), Latin America (Katsulis 2009; Kelly 2008; Kulick 1998; Nencel 2001), Pakistan (Brown 2006; Saeed 2001), and sub-Saharan Africa (Kibicho 2009; Trotter 2008). In these works, the consensus among researchers is that sex workers often envision their labor as a first step toward a better future on terms that they believe will offer better prospects than other low-wage jobs. This is part of what anthropologist Denise Brennan, in the context of the Dominican Republic, calls "the opportunity myth" (2004, 14), whereby women become sex workers in hopes of eventual upward mobility but generally end up living in increased poverty after they leave prostitution.
Like the Dominican women Brennan describes, dancers at Vixens believe that their hopes for social mobility are most likely to be realized by working in an environment where cash income is determined solely by the dancer's interactions with clients. This system of exchange is deliberately touted by management as potentially unlimited and allows dancers, in turn, to see themselves as agents and decision makers in a social system that otherwise sends them consistent messages to the contrary. Scholarship has discussed how notions similar to this "opportunity myth" inform everyday life practices among sex workers in the Global South, but this subject has been relatively ignored in research on their U.S. counterparts.
Many of the otherwise very good ethnographies on topless dancing deal exclusively with high-cost establishments where dancers earn a fairly good income. Katherine Liepe-Levinson's work (2002) was the first of these social science texts to interrogate the meanings of striptease as a cultural form, and was later followed by ethnographies from Katherine Frank (2002), R. Danielle Egan (2006), and Bernadette Barton (2006). Anthropologists Frank (2002) and Egan (2006) have extensively documented the complex relationships between topless dancers and their regular clients by drawing upon their own experiences as erotic performers. Both Frank and Egan, building upon the earlier work of sociologist Wendy Chapkis (1997), propose new ways of thinking about monogamy, sexuality, and human relationships in the United States by highlighting what sex work truly means to those who perform it and to those who purchase it. Sociologists Bernadette Barton (2006) and Jennifer Wesely (2002) have both added an important contribution to this literature in their discussions of the difficult emotional labor performed and sense of empowerment gained by erotic dancers, many of whom have limited skills and opportunities to pursue other forms of work.
Accordingly, this book builds upon an increasingly well-documented field of reference to examine what erotic dance reveals about the labor practices and economic realities that shape life for many U.S. residents. It does so in the context of women's lives on the socioeconomic fringe, where quite a few women recount stories of abandonment and abuse akin to those documented by Jody Raphael (2004) in her work on street prostitution. The women who work at Vixens are generally not the glamorous icons of femininity who perform in expensive topless and nude dancing establishments in major North American cities. They are, by and large, women who support children and other family members in an economically devastated region of New York State that offers a woefully limited number of economic opportunities for unskilled women.
Thus their stories frequently have more in common with ethnographies written about sex workers in the Global South than they do with other contemporary North American accounts of topless dancing. The simple reason for this is that Vixens dancers are barely scraping by financially but simultaneously envision sex work as their only possibility for upward mobility, whether that means repaying a debt or saving enough money to move to a region with greater opportunities for unskilled work. As Denise Brennan writes of Dominican sex workers, "[T]hey, like many poor women, must be prepared to seize any opportunity, no matter how unexpected, inconvenient, or imperfect, to try to pull their families out of poverty" (2004, 169).
Sex work is always embedded in a life matrix of individual choices and responsibilities, and it is thus appropriate to consider the broader factors that influence women's perceptions of their opportunities. Numerous excellent feminist sociological works have described poor women's decision-making processes outside the sex industry as part of what Ellen Israel Rosen (1990) calls an extremely limited range of "bitter choices." Accordingly, arguments presented throughout this book will build upon the growing literature on global sex workers and U.S. women living in poverty to examine the lives of strip-club dancers in a U.S. city still reeling from the economic collapse and skilled-labor emigration that followed deindustrialization several decades earlier. I focus on dancers as complete social beings who are also mothers, partners, and friends, thus presenting the fuller picture of their daily lives and economic struggles that has been missing from many otherwise excellent books on U.S. sex workers.
I focus on Vixens as a work environment that has an enormous impact on the family and romantic relationships of its employees. Dancers are keenly aware that their semilegal status in a job closely associated with prostitution makes them a target of concern on the part of communities, law enforcement, state legislation, and, sometimes, each other. This fraught environment uncannily resembles the life realities of poor U.S. women with children and their decision-making processes described by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas (2007), Paula England and Kathryn Edin (2005), Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein (1997), Kathleen Gerson (1986; 1994; 2005), and Ange-Marie Hancock (2004). Edin and Lein (1997) note that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, unskilled mothers and their children typically have the highest poverty rate in the United States. Edin and Lein found that poor mothers often supplement their regular income with some combination of informal employment and money from social networks akin to patterns mentioned by Sudhir Venkatesh (2006) in his study of life in inner-city Chicago.
Edin and Lein notably observe that "low income single mothers have a much broader view of what constitutes responsible behavior than policymakers" because of the conflicting goals they face while parenting in poverty (1997, 5). They go on to observe that poor women are forced to focus on their immediate needs rather than the long-term impacts of their decisions, and they note that poverty blurs lines of propriety in ways that are also difficult for poor women to reconcile (1997, 157). Although Edin and Lein do not focus their study on sex work, it emerges as an almost inevitable consequence of severe economic constraints, so that for the women in their study,
the mercenary nature of these relationships occasionally made it difficult for mothers to distinguish between serial boyfriends and outright prostitution. One mother explained that her continuous use of live-in boyfriends "isn't for love, and it isn't just for money. I guess I'd call it social prostitution, or something like that." But this language was unusual among women who let boyfriends live with the family. Women who engaged in one-night stands were more likely to talk about "turning tricks", "street walking" ... when they had no ongoing relationship with the man and received cash in return for sex. (Edin and Lein 1997, 157)
These blurry boundaries continue to perplex both academics and the women whose lives they describe, and for good reason. In the constrained environment that characterizes the lives of many poor women, what Edin and Kefalas term "the absence of other status-granting elements in life (degrees, jobs, money)" (2007, 24) creates a state of norm reversal in which women may sometimes be seen by more privileged observers as making irresponsible, or even destructive, life choices.
As we will repeatedly see in the chapters that follow, all five women whose struggles this book chronicles were doing the best they could to improve their lives in a situation of structural marginality that functioned to brand them as immoral social outcasts. Anthropology focuses its attention on those who inhabit the margins precisely because so few people in the world occupy positions at the center of power and privilege, and yet it is critical to recognize that the life circumstances of women in this book reveal much about the structural inequalities and violence that shape U.S. life. Dancers described in this book are the visible invisible, who are aware that to reveal what they do at night for money is to invoke a flurry of accusations of unfit motherhood, community destabilization-and even discourses of infection.
Each chapter begins with a narrative from a worker at Vixens and takes on one of the nuanced reasons that some poor women choose sex work rather than a slightly lower-wage job or public assistance. Chapter 2, "Feminized Labor and the Classed Body," opens with a narrative from Vixens manager Paul, in which he explains his belief that dancers are fortunate to be able to take economic advantage of their supposed sexual power over men; of course, economic realities in Sparksburgh tell a very different story. This chapter accordingly addresses the feminization of poverty and concomitant pervasive sexualization of femininity evident in almost all spheres of U.S. life. That women generally earn less than men is compounded in the socioeconomic context of the Rust Belt, where post-deindustrialization labor practices have dramatically increased the number of part-time jobs that offer no benefits. Many (if not most) skilled workers relocate to other U.S. regions for employment, leading to the pan-Rust Belt joke "Will the last person to leave [our town] please turn out the lights?" Those left behind often have neither the skills nor the capital to migrate, and, following broader labor patterns cross-culturally, women are more likely than men to work in low-paid, part-time jobs. The sex industry is a curious exception to this pattern, particularly since it assigns monetary value to idealized forms of femininity that are equally celebrated in other areas of U.S. popular culture. Accordingly, this chapter's final section, "Embodying Inequality: Poor Women and Sexualized Femininity," examines the broader cultural forces that have framed the lives of women who came of age after the Sexual Revolution, and how these increased "choices" and attitudes toward sexuality are interpreted by women from the social milieu characteristic of Vixens.
Chapter 3, "Everyday Survival Strategies," offers a critical analysis of dancers' decision-making processes, some of which had extremely negative effects on their lives. Angel, for instance, had a drug problem so severe that the New York State Department of Social Services placed her infant son in foster care shortly after his birth. Vixens dancers call the low-wage labor market available to them outside the sex industry "the straight world"-an environment they characterize as exploitative, exclusionary, and without hope for social mobility or financial stability. Far from being a completely separate sphere, however, "the straight world" both sets the conditions of their work and informs the way dancers think about their lives. All but one of the women at Vixens had worked outside the sex industry before, and many left for low-wage service-sector work elsewhere before returning with the recognition that they preferred the topless bar with its possibility of periodic windfalls from customers. Some held other low-wage jobs that they hoped would eventually become full-time or offer opportunities for advancement to managerial status that would allow them to leave Vixens. This chapter discusses how Vixens dancers negotiated the straight world and explores dancers' aversion to accepting welfare and other social benefits they could be eligible for if they left the sex industry. Their sense of social exclusion seems to contradict the language of entrepreneurship many use to describe themselves, although when viewed critically these two discourses in fact feed upon each other. Dancers believe that in some ways they exist outside the straight world's social order, as is evident in the institutional failures that so often locate them outside the boundaries of full citizenship, yet they also maintain the belief that its normative frameworks offer them hope for social mobility.
Chapter 4, "Being a Good Mother in a 'Bad' Profession," and chapter 5, "Pseudointimacy and Romantic Love," discuss the emotional worlds of Vixens dancers both in and outside of their work environment. Being the sole economic provider for small children is a major reason that some poor women choose sex work; its flexible hours and possibilities for income generation may seem, at least initially, to exceed what other forms of low-wage employment offer. Accordingly, chapter 4 discusses dancers' roles as mothers and caregivers. The emotional entanglements that shape their lives with both clients and romantic partners are detailed in chapter 5. Dancers' romantic relationships were inevitably informed in some ways by their job, and defining the boundaries of what they termed "real feelings" accordingly raised serious questions for many such women.
Chapter 6, "Calculating Risks, Surviving Danger," analyzes how dancers maintain themselves in Vixens' fraught and often dangerous environment by developing a set of survival skills that draw upon broader cultural mores that exclude them while simultaneously offering seductive promises of quick income. Dancers interpret broader gendered principles of risk, fair exchange, and emotional labor on terms that help them to justify their exploitative working conditions and social stigmatization. By discursively placing power and control in their own hands, dancers are able to see themselves as agents and entrepreneurs despite pervasive social messages to the contrary.
Chapter 7, "Body Work and the Feminization of Poverty," builds upon the previous chapters' analyses of survival strategies, personhood, and risk to examine some of the troubling questions raised by the feminization of poverty and concomitant monetary value assigned to young women's reproductive potential and sexuality. It also employs the growing social science literature on the indisputably feminized occupational activities that involve intimate contact with the body or its products, including caregiving, cleaning, and, of course, sex work. Like many other body workers, dancers held a pervasive belief that sex work is a temporary solution to what is all too often a lifelong pattern of chronic economic and social instability. This chapter demonstrates why some (but by no means all) dancers believe that they can have a better life if they can manage to endure temporarily difficult, exploitative labor conditions.
In notable contrast to the lives of sex workers documented in the vibrant cross-cultural literature mentioned earlier, Vixens dancers do have other low-wage work and social-service provision options that could help them support themselves and their children in lieu of sex work. Yet Vixens dancers often sound remarkably similar to their counterparts engaged in sex work in Asia, Latin America, and Eastern Europe in describing their sex-worker identity as a temporary one that will be discarded when they obtain the stability that is otherwise so elusive in their lives.
Chapter 8, the conclusion, argues that dancers' individual life choices and their perceptions of sustainable alternatives to work in the legal sex industry must be understood in the context of feminized labor. Demystifying sex work in this way renders intelligible the uniquely gendered forms taken by poverty's violence. Examining life on the margins exposes the stark inequalities inherent in the operations of power, because the intensity of the everyday structural violence that such injustices create becomes impossible to ignore. Studying the socioeconomic fringe is much like looking at a black-and-white photograph in which a vast social landscape is compressed into a tiny square that obliterates all but the most intense shades of gray. This book's analysis of the worldviews of five women whose lives reflect these social realities in rather spectacular form speaks volumes about the exclusionary forces at work in everyday American life.
Almost every North American city has establishments similar to Vixens; they may vary in cost, demographic characteristics, and services available for purchase, but all share the feature of occupying the margins of community life. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the women who work there also find themselves in a socially isolating profession that they tend to see as a short-term survival strategy amid generalized poverty and limited economic opportunities. The ubiquity of such institutions indicates that they are part of broader socioeconomic processes that simultaneously provide income-generating opportunities to poor young women and keep them in positions of marginality.
Perhaps nothing underscores this reality more than dancers' continual insistence that their work is a temporary solution undertaken to improve their lives in the long term through greater financially stability. Over and over again throughout the following chapters, we will hear stories from women who insist that their exit from the business lies just around the corner, awaiting a repayment of a debt or simply a change in luck. Yet all too often work in the sex industry maintains dancers in the very patterns they wish to escape, so that being on the very cusp of what dancers refer to as "getting out" becomes a permanent life condition.