“Working harder than an ugly stripper since 2013.” I gazed at these words that were on the business T-shirt of a middle-aged man as I stood behind him in an airport security line. I am certainly not one of those people who gets offended at every little thing or even at dark humor. But when I read the shirt, it felt gross, demeaning, and very un-funny to me. It felt offensive, in part, because it took me back to a few months ago where I spent an evening in a strip club. I was back in the dressing room. A place, I doubt the guy in the T-shirt has ever been. A place where the smoke and mirrors of the strip club had disappeared. There was nothing glamorous or cheerful in that space. It felt heavy and sad and dark. I was there with another nurse, who brings home cooked meals to the girls every week. She has no ulterior motive. She just wanted to show kindness in way that these ladies rarely experience. And they loved and trusted her, so they let me back too. It was one of the most depressing environments I have ever been in. I am a sexual assault nurse examiner, so I have been in some pretty depressing situations…but this one felt especially heavy. Not one girl was sober. They all had to be intoxicated to get through the long night of objectification. Most of them talked about their lives, which were traumatic, sad, wrought with horrific childhoods, empty promises, and failed relationships. They all had been abused, thrown away, and given almost no choices to thrive as adults.
In the dressing room, none of them were genuinely excited to go on stage or flirt with the overweight, old, married patrons in the room to get more money. They all wanted to be at home with their kids, pets, and significant others. They were used to putting on their alter egos and faking it through the night to survive. I felt like crying hearing their stories and felt the weight of what they had to go to do to make money that night. So, to see that shirt make light of the plight of those who trade their bodies for money, made me mad. It’s not as simple as “she’s a stripper, she’s choosing to do it”.
Sex work, stripping, prostitution, survival sex, whatever you want to call it inherently brings pain, abuse, dissociation, and is dehumanizing at its core.
Making a joke of it minimizes the harm done. It completely discounts the experiences of those who are abused through the commercial sex industry. I hope someday we live in a society where those types of shirts aren’t praised or giggled at, but instead we call it what it is.