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Exotic dancers face real dangers

Friday, July 7, 2006

NEW YORK (AP) — For some jobs, danger comes with the territory.

Trees fall on loggers. Pilots crash. Fishermen drown. Roofers fall.

But there’s one hazardous job that isn’t in the Labor Department’s list of the 10 most dangerous professions in America: exotic dancing.

It’s a profession with no training manual, no safety instructions, no check-in system, sometimes no bodyguards, most likely no boss encouraging employees to take self-defense classes. Even in a strip club, where there are several bouncers around the stage, who’s to say a woman won’t be attacked when she is in a private “VIP room”?

“When we go out to do private parties, whether we’re sent by an escort agency or not, when you don’t know somebody, you’re at risk of walking into a dangerous situation,” says Robyn Few, a former prostitute and exotic dancer who is now director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA. “Even in a strip club, there is an element of danger when we lock ourselves in a room; we’re at risk of being manhandled, sexually assaulted.”

Some people would say a stripper going into a stranger’s home alone to bare it all for groups of intoxicated, rowdy men is like a woman walking down a dark alley alone at 2 a.m. You don’t do it. But for strippers, this is how they earn their living -- for some, as much as $3,000 for a night’s work -- and many are willing to give money priority over safety.

Research shows strippers make up a disproportionate share of rape victims, says Mary Anne Layden, a psychotherapist who counsels strippers, prostitutes and sex offenders. She says when a stripper allows a man to invade her visually, she inadvertently sends the message that it is OK to do physically.

Kelly Holsopple, a former stripper, conducted a survey where she interviewed 18 strippers about strip club violence. Three of them said they’d had a customer force them to have intercourse. Five had had a customer grab their breasts at least once a day, and 13 had been punched or kicked by men associated with the club. More than half of the 18 had had customers follow them home.

“Here’s a work environment that produces those types of experiences,” says Layden. “How many women do you know who are willing to work in jobs where they are slapped, bitten, called ‘cunt’ and ’whore’? Think about it. Strip clubs have bodyguards. The reason you have a bodyguard is because the activity produces violence.”

asap spoke to several former and current strippers who reported some harrowing experiences: going to a job alone in the middle of nowhere; being taunted and never getting paid after performing for hours; being doused by a man with champagne, while his friends cheered; going through an agency that promised to provide a bouncer, and then ending up either with no bouncer or a bouncer that cost them half their check.

“I had to learn the hard way,” says Jenna Jasmine. “One time I went to a party by myself and I did many things wrong. One: I was under the influence of marijuana. Two: I didn’t take a driver. And number three: I didn’t get paid first. Those are the things I have added to my absolute mandatory safety requirements.”



The potential dangers of stripping have been playing out in the national media, with three white Duke University lacrosse players facing charges of raping a black exotic dancer who was hired to perform at a team party. The stripper, a 28-year-old mother of two and college student, told police she was dragged into a bathroom, where she was raped, beaten and choked for about 30 minutes. A second dancer says the men were hurling racial epithets as she and the accuser left.

Attorneys for the players say their clients are innocent.

Whether or not a crime was committed, several strippers say the case speaks to a glaring problem with the sex worker industry: There is no respect for the profession.

“It has been a long-standing tradition to not care about the sex worker,” says Veronica Monet, a certified sex educator and internationally known sex-worker-rights activist -- and, formerly, a prostitute and porn star. “The people who are employing you should tell you, ’Here are the safety tips you need to do this job.’ They should say, ’We care about our employees, and we are here to protect them.’ Unfortunately we have this attitude about women who are strippers -- that they are worthless and don’t really warrant protection.”

That protection is usually better in a strip club than in a private home, where there are no rules and no bouncers to clobber a guy if he touches a stripper on the pole. But in the club, women also face the prospect of being abused by people who work there. Of the 18 strippers Holsopple talked to for her survey, two said club owners “forced intercourse” on them as a condition of employment.

“The whole environment is toxic,” says Layden, who speaks out against strip clubs. “If you call going to a place where you’re going to be depressed, stalked, likely to use cocaine or alcohol as your coping strategy, engage in activities that cause you to be unable to maintain a marriage, be pressured to get breast implants, don’t you think it’s dangerous to have this career?”


The stripper in the Duke case was working for an escort agency, stripping to make ends meet. Since the case came into the public eye, the Rev. Jesse Jackson has stepped in to pay for the rest of her college education.

There has been no mention of the stripper coming to the party with a bodyguard -- something most agencies don’t pay for.

“It’s one of those, ’If you want this, then you can have it but you have to pay for it,”’ says Monet. “Then you think, ’Maybe I don’t need it after all.’ But the responsibility should lie with the employer to establish a safe environment, invest in their employees and show their employees some respect.”

In the case of rape, Layden says strippers are less likely to report the crime because of the “you-were-asking-for-it mentality.” She also notes that most strippers were sexually abused as children so they tend to think the rape was their fault.

“I have a number of patients come in and say, ’He wanted to have sex, I told him no, and then he had sex with me,”’ says Layden. “I will say, ’What day did the rape happen?’ She says ’No, I wasn’t raped. I shouldn’t have gotten in the car.”’

That sort of thinking may be slowly changing.

There is a growing sex-workers-rights movement, with organizations like the Sex Workers Outreach Project and conferences like one in Las Vegas next week, called “Re-visioning Prostitution Policy: Creating Space for Sex Worker Rights and Challenging Criminalization.” San Francisco even has a union for strippers, the Exotic Dancers Alliance. [emphasis added by desiree]

“It’s about time we say when a sex worker is raped or murdered, it’s just as important than when any other woman is raped or murdered,” Monet says.

Whatever the outcome of the Duke case, it remains to be seen whether the publicity surrounding it will cause many strippers to change careers. But maybe some will put some thought into precautions before they go out tonight.


Megan Scott is an asap reporter based in New York.

The Desiree Alliance is a diverse, volunteer-based, sex worker-led network of organizations, communities, and individuals across the US working in harm reduction, direct services, political advocacy, and health services for sex workers. We provide leadership and create space for sex workers and supporters to come together to advocate for human, labour, and civil rights for all workers in the sex industry.

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