for all you demanding fuckers

i know i haven't posted in a while, and while encouragement to rectify that situation has ranged from polite and encouraging to all-out-STFU-whiny, i'm going to address it.

you want to know why i haven't been posting? curious as to what the hell i've been doing? well, here's my prospectus, bitches. it's a dry, tightly packed 10-page version of my thesis. it had to include a literature review AND works cited in those ten pages, so it's not as much argumentation as anyone would have liked--but hey, they don't just give these stupid grad degrees to just anyone, they make you jump through all manner and sort of flaming hoop beforehand. squishing a 40-page argument into 10 pages with a bunch of other requirements isn't easy. and i only got it down to 40 pages after cutting out 75% of my argumentation. so there.

but seriously people, quit asking me for more blogs and bear with me: i've got a pre-defense draft of the thesis due on april 10th, and post-defense final version due on may 10th. don't expect a damn thing until then--except maybe the first chapter, which i'll post here if, like, you really want me to.

so, i'm sorry, and yes, as many of you have so unceremoniously pointed out, i DO have stories to share--but not the time to type them up into the format you're used to. so STFU. seriously. and read this instead of bitching at me!

Stripping Subjectivity: The Multiply-Situated Self, “Covert Mimesis,” and Reinscription/Resistance through Subversion

Sex work is major point of contention within feminist discourse, eliciting discussion often polarized along lines of dis/empowerment: is sex work empowering or disempowering, feminist or unfeminist? Exemplified by feminist conferences of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the “sex wars” divided feminists on this issue: “anti-pornography” feminists denounced objectification as a tool of patriarchal oppression, while sex-positive feminists stressed possible empowerment within objectification and therefore within sex work itself. Anti-sex-work feminists and other researchers from outside the sex industry often focus on what they describe as sex workers’ coping mechanisms to mitigate the objectifying and degrading nature of their work, thereby entrenching an either/or mindset when addressing issues of empowerment, and ignoring descriptions of complex, contradictory, and liminal experience which continually emerge from sex worker narratives (Lerum 8). In this thesis, I draw on my own experience to argue that strippers’ reflexive engagement with roles/personae results in a conscious and dynamic multiply-situated self that becomes a tool of “covert mimesis,” facilitating transcendence of objectification through excessive performance, and enabling personal privacy and therefore empowerment in a phallocentric context by allowing strippers control over their expressed selves.

The strip club context is compelling because it provides a semi-public interactive sphere in which to participate and/or observe core issues of objectification and degradation; enacting a magnified representation of gender/power scripts (Perrucci, “Transformative Power” 336), “some young researchers find strip clubs the perfect laboratory to literally work through these concerns using their own bodies” (Frank 507). Autoethnography is crucial for conveying strippers’ liminal experience of objectification and dis/empowerment: participant observation allows reflexive, contextual engagement with subjective impacts of stripping on identity, shuns the myth of “objectivity,” and endeavors to communicate personal, partial truths (Abu-Lughod 15). My interrogation of strippers’ subjectivities quickly encountered pervasive cultural binaries: the Cartesian mind/body split informs denouncements that strippers are “reduced to objects,” and the self/other divide necessitates a unitary and stable “self,” thus delegitimizing the dynamic multiply-situated subjectivity often resulting from sex work. Strippers’ narratives force reconsideration of cultural dualisms by presenting embodied theories that confound either/or thought structures; liminal experiences of dis/empowerment and multiplicity pervade sex worker discourse, challenging both stigma and stereotype.

Strip clubs are inherently phallocentric environments (Egan, “Fantasy Girl” 111) requiring direct interaction with customers and thus a great deal of emotional labor (Bruckert 86). A successful stripper maintains a believable performance of a role/persona, indulging clients’ whims: in catering to customers’ demands by concealing “undesirable” facets of their subjectivities, strippers alter their expressed selves for profit. A context that demands female capitulation to male desires seems entirely phallocentric, yet many aspects of the strip club context defy distinct categorizations (Perrucci, “Transformative Power” 333). I will argue that feminist stripper ethnographies indicate potential liberation through multiplicity, via roles/personae performance. Drawing on my own experience, I will demonstrate how reflexive engagement with the environment yields a “layered account” of how roles of stripper and researcher affect one’s subjectivity; multiplicity becomes a source of strength, and “the self produced in this text is emergent from the interaction of these roles” (Ronai 105).

Acceptance of multiplicity allows roles/personae to become tools of what Danielle Egan calls “covert mimesis” : strippers excessively perform versions of femininity, knowingly entrenching phallocentric forms yet utilizing their object status in covert resistance (“Fantasy Girl” 111). This performance is covertly mimetic because a dancer mimes aspects of traditional femininity, but only she understands how they differ from her self-image. Covert resistance is largely invisible because her inner self is unimportant to customers: she mirrors the self they desire, allowing her to subvert gender norms while seemingly entrenching them. Building on Egan’s term, I argue that covert mimesis fosters movement between selves (jettisoning the polarized “true” and “faked” self), performances of femininity which acquire new power when seen through a lens of excess and performance (Johnson, “Pole Work” 150). In this sense, roles and masks can be liberating even while they seem unfeminist on the surface (Perrucci, “Persona and Self” 39): Ironically, the strip club (a homogenized and repressive environment) can supply more freedom of sexual expression than its participants may enjoy in everyday life (Perrucci, “Transformative Power” 324).
My thesis will consist of three parts. The first chapter traces the history and content of the feminist sex wars, arguing that the resulting polarization within feminist discourse is due to focus on dis/empowerment, and fuels feminist sex worker narratives. I analyze positionality within feminist stripper literature, emphasizing reflexivity’s crucial role in conveying subjective realities of stripping, and describe how polarizations fueled my entry into the industry. The second chapter unpacks those subjective realities of stripping, focusing on emotional labor, the use of roles/personae and their development into a multiply-situated identity. The third chapter explains how multiplicity is a tool of covert mimesis, necessitating conscious acknowledgment of and movement between selves. Finally, I show how conscious, dynamic multiplicity and resulting covert mimesis fosters privacy and personal empowerment, while enabling increased freedom of sexual expression.

Literature Review

The sex wars represented anti-pornography feminists’ critique and attempts to silence voices of empowerment within sex work, thus provoking an onslaught of feminist sex worker narratives. Steph Weene’s “Venus” represents a basic articulation of multiplicity and possible empowerment within the club’s phallocentric environment. Writing at the height of the sex wars, Weene refutes cultural disavowal and feminist criticism of her willful self-objectification with analysis of her gendered performance of beauty and eroticism that avoids reduction to stereotypes. Originally, Weene’s stripper personae led to self-alienation by commodifying her sexuality; resisting multiplicity is a tendency imposed by the mind/body split, which strippers must overcome before unproblematically engaging in covert mimesis. Thus, she names her reclamation of pride and power “feminissima” (37), essentially a personalized description of covert mimesis and an early description of agency within stripping. Weene’s theory serves as an excellent example of proactive mimetic resistance, and provides a doorway for deeper exploration of multiplicity and privacy in relation to empowerment.

Unfortunately, post-sex wars quantitative researchers and anti-sex work feminists often ignore sex worker narratives of liminality within dis/empowerment. Chris Bruckert’s book Taking It Off, Putting It On: Women in the Strip Trade challenges academic silencing of sex workers by placing embodied experience of hidden transcripts and passive resistance at the center of discourse, and integrating others’ narratives into an intersubjective, cohesive project. Through passive resistance, strippers are in a unique position to invert/manipulate oppressive scripts, forming a hidden transcript that could impact mainstream discourse. While Bruckert’s work supports multiplicity by integrating various narratives, it also upholds an arbitrary distinction between “true” and “faked” persona, thus entrenching the myth of a singular, fixed self: engaging in emotional labor, strippers are “alienated” from their “social selves” (88), though emotional labor is compulsory it “need not touch her self” (95). Expanding upon Bruckert’s work, I argue that strippers’ multiply-situated selves enable covert mimesis (which Bruckert links to transcendence of the self without internalizing repression), and, more importantly, conscious shifts between selves prevents self-alienation when engaging in covert mimesis. These conscious shifts indicate strippers’ proactive and agentive assertion of positively-oriented subjectivities within the sex work context, challenging anti-sex-work feminist claims that strippers are necessarily degraded or victimized by objectification.

The phallocentric strip club context threatens strippers’ self-esteem, thereby making maintenance of roles/personae and covert mimesis essential to a strong sense of self. Danielle Egan’s book Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love: The Relationships Between Exotic Dancers and Their Regulars sketches liminal experiences of strippers and customers in relation to the complex power structure within strip clubs, where “white, heteronormative masculinity operates unproblematically and is reiterated for profit” (39). Strippers’ performance of “object” elicits a fluid sense of subjectivity, a challenge to embrace “both/and” (145) and highly personalized mimetic strategies of resistance. Egan, like Bruckert, appears to consider the alteration of mainstream discourse as the main goal of resistance; thus, my work will demonstrate that empowerment through subjective theory and privacy are more immediate goals than significant shifts in mainstream discourse. While overt resistance is “anything but futile” (146), subversion on a covert, personalized level can yield just as much personal empowerment but is rarely noticed by scholars of resistance (Paules 181-2).

Movement between selves via engagement of roles/personae is essential to empowerment through covert mimesis and stripping. Merri Lisa Johnson’s article, “Pole Work: Autoethnography of a Strip Club,” identifies the mind/body split as necessitating embodied movement between “many versions of female sexuality” (149). In describing her feminist subjectivity of stripper/researcher, Johnson finds the strip club a space to “wholly be” (151) by utilizing embodied experience to continue feminist theory’s “assault” on dominant discourse and conceptual roles (156). Articulating a lack of “literally embodied activisms” (151), Johnson presents the analogy of “pole work” as an embodied straddling of dualisms, facilitating reclamation of selfhood through movement between hyphenated dichotomies like “stripper-scholar” (156). I extend Johnson’s theory by integrating her binary-subverting “pole work” into other theories of excess and mimesis, showing how a multiply-situated, self-authored subjectivity can positively impact strippers’ feelings of privacy and therefore empowerment.

Engagement of roles/personae results in multiplicity, but conscious deployment of multiplicity is as crucial to empowerment as the roles/personae themselves. Alissa Perrucci emphasizes the importance of acknowledged multiplicity to strippers’ identities in her article, “The Relationship Between Persona and Self in Exotic Dancers’ Experience of Privacy,” arguing that by accepting (as opposed to resisting) the conscious engagement of personae, strippers challenge the myth of a stable/fixed subjectivity, thereby preventing internalization of stigma and alienation from “true” self (38). Multiple subjects allow “authorship of self” (39) within a role without being reduced to stereotypes, permitting feelings of individuality, agency, and privacy within a phallocentric environment. Expanding upon “authorship of self” to include covert mimesis, I extend Perrucci’s privacy argument by adding Johnson’s emphasis on liminality. I will argue that movement between personae offers a more dynamic example of multiplicity than an arbitrary distinction placed between “true” self and “faked” personae. Moreover, conscious acknowledgement of role/persona engagement, as exemplified by Weene and Johnson, demonstrates strippers’ subject
ive agency and makes possible personal privacy and empowerment within sex work.

Strippers engage multiple personae by having the ability to choose when to reveal or conceal certain aspects of their selves; agency within multiplicity enables personal privacy, providing inroads towards liberation within sex work. Identifying strip clubs as spaces where strippers and customers alike can enact multiple gender roles of their choosing, Perrucci’s “The Transformative Power of Sex Work” emphasizes the ability to conceal and reveal information within interactions as crucial to preserving a sense of privacy, which Perrucci deems central to the formulation of a healthy self-image and therefore empowerment within sex work. The club space therefore becomes a site of potential transformation of sexual and gendered scripts, where men and women can subvert gender norms while seeming to entrench them (i.e. covert mimesis), ideally by engaging in a mutually satisfying interaction that furthers social movement towards increased sexual freedom. Though Perrucci connects a multiply-situated self to feelings of privacy and therefore empowerment, her article entrenches a mutually-exclusive relationship between objectification and empowerment via pervasive juxtaposition. By incorporating binary-imploding theories like Johnson’s “pole work,” I transcend Perrucci’s either/or thought paradigm by emphasizing the possibility of empowerment within objectification, and vice versa.


Shortly before I began official research into strippers’ subjectivities I was compelled to seek embodied knowledge on the subject, persuaded both by a perceived rift between literature written by sex workers and that written about them, and by an intense desire for insider knowledge. And so I began working as a stripper, intent upon interrogating how my feminist subjectivity interacted with the club environment. The methodology I employ here results from viewing my experiences through the lens of others’ auto-ethnographic, subjectively-informed theories: I use my body as a primary site of knowledge production, but articulate my experience via theories of my feminist/stripper/researcher predecessors. The product combines various facets of feminist auto-/ethnographic accounts of strippers’ subjective experience into a cohesive argument that subverts binaric paradigms (e.g. mind/body, self/other, subject/object, dis/empowerment) and provides space for resistance and empowerment within a phallocentric context.

Works Cited

Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Can There Be A Feminist Ethnography?” Women & Performance 5.1 (1991): 7-27.

Bruckert, Chris. Taking It Off, Putting It On: Women in the Strip Trade. Toronto: Women’s Press, 2002.

Chapkis, Wendy. Live Sex Acts: Women Performing Erotic Labor. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Egan, R. Danielle. Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love: The Relationships Between Exotic Dancers and Their Regulars. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

---. “I’ll be Your Fantasy Girl, If You’ll be My Money Man: Mapping Desire, Fantasy and Power in Two Exotic Dance Clubs.” Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society 8.1 (2003): 109-20.

Frank, Katherine. “Thinking Critically about Strip Club Research.” Sexualities 10.4 (2007):501-17.

Hunter, Nan D. “Contextualizing the Sexuality Debates: A Chronology.” Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. Eds. Lisa Duggan and Nan D. Hunter. New York: Routeledge, 1995. 16-29.

Johnson, Merri Lisa. “Pole Work: Autoethnography of a Strip Club.” Sex Work & Sex Workers: Sexuality and Culture. Eds. Barry M. Dank, Roberto Refinetti, Vol 2. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1999. 149-57.

Leigh, Carol, aka Scarlot Harlot. “Inventing Sex Work.” Whores and Other Feminists, ed. Jill Nagle. New York: Routledge, 1997. 223-31.

Lerum, Kari. “Twelve-Step Feminism Makes Sex Workers Sick: How the State and the Recovery Movement Turn Radical Women into ‘Useless Citizens.’” Sex Work and Sex Workers: Sexuality and Culture. Eds. Barry M. Dank and Roberto Refinetti, Vol 2. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers. 7-36.

Paules, Greta Foff. Dishing It Out: Power and Resistance among Waitresses in a New Jersey Restaurant. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991.

Perrucci, Alissa C. “The Relationship Between Persona and Self in Exotic Dancers’ Experience of Privacy.” Unusual Occupations 11.1 (2000): 35-53.

---. “The Transformative Power of Sex Work.” Humanity and Society 24.2 (2000): 323-37.

Ronai, Carol Rambo. “The Reflexive Self through Narrative: A Night in the Life of an Exotic Dancer/Researcher.” Investigating Subjectivity: Research on Lived Experience. Eds. Carolyn Ellis and Michael G. Flaherty. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1992. 102-24.

Weene, Steph. “Venus.” Heresies 3.4 (1981): 36-8.