The worst thing about working in the sex industry? Other people's judgement

Date

Leigh Hopkinson

Does society's unwavering belief that only "damaged girls" do sex work become a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Does society's unwavering belief that only "damaged girls" do sex work become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Photo: Stocksy

Sex work. Those two little words sit uncomfortably side by side. By themselves they're two of the most normal things we do. But combining the two? It's a social disgrace. Never mind that we might be stimulated by porn, web-camming, striptease or physical sex in our private lives — publically, it's still unacceptable to work in a sexualised job. After stripping for two decades, I know how damaging such stigma can be. It can be more damaging than the work itself.

When I began performing nude stage shows in the back bar of a Christchurch brothel in the mid-nineties, I couldn't tell my family or friends. I thought there was nothing wrong with what I did for money, but society did, which made me think there must be something wrong with me. The cycle of adopted shame had begun, and was compounded when I finally admitted what I was doing.

At the time, I was many things: a daughter, a friend, a lover, a university student, an athlete, a budding journalist and a writer for the student paper. None of this mattered. The onus was on me to prove to family and friends, then to classmates and complete strangers, that I hadn't f--ked up, that the other parts of me co-existed alongside my stripping work. What I did for a job on weekends was seen as the sum total of who I was.

Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99), published by Hachette Australia.

Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99), published by Hachette Australia.

There was concern, but also blatant judgement, which lessened only marginally when I stopped dancing at the brothel and started working at a strip club proper. Oddly, many who judged me had never been inside a strip club. Nor were they interested in the perspective of an actual stripper. I was repeatedly silenced: what I did was wrong, full stop. The implication was that only a damaged girl would do such a thing, someone who had no self-respect. Their morality wasn't up for debate, and it was more important than my humanity. Over time, this attitude made me doubt my worth more than any paying customer.

Advertisement

By the noughties when I had moved to Melbourne and traded stage shows for table dancing, I realised most customers also chose to believe stripping wasn't something I did, but who I was. Though they were paying me, I was often asked "what do you do for a real job?" and "what are you doing later on?" Their money was real and my labour was tangible, but if these men had admitted my availability was a paid illusion, it would've turned the spotlight back on them. Better to typecast strippers as fallen women, available for the taking. In this way, customers and society—one predominantly male, the other male dominated — were on different sides of the same coin.

The stigma didn't stop there. Over the years, I've been subjected to other entrenched beliefs, including the notion that everyone who works in a sexualised job is a victim in need of rescuing. Yes, for many people, sex work is about making the best of a bad situation and limited choice isn't much choice at all. Yes, concerns about links between the industry, gender equality and violence against women are legitimate.

And yes, I've worked with many women who had other options, but, like me, preferred to take their clothes off for a living. The industry encompasses a spectrum and we can't address the negatives if stigma is our primary response.

Another form of discrimination I've encountered is the belief that sex workers couldn't possibly enjoy their jobs, that claims of enjoyment are attempts to assert control in an industry where they have none. When it comes to sex, it makes some people uncomfortable to think that work and pleasure might go hand in hand, that not everyone shares their norms and values.

There were times when I enjoyed stripping immensely and yes, there were times when it was the last thing I felt like doing. In this way, it was a job like any other. Dismissing the views of those who know the work best is not only disempowering to the workers themselves, it is also damaging to gender equality when the majority of people performing sexualised jobs are women.

Regardless of what you think about stripping or sex work generally, it's important to realise the dangers of stigmatising the people who do it. The more I was judged, the harder it was to own what I did for a living. Having to lie only added to the shame, and gave me a valid reason to feel bad about myself. I struggled to communicate with my parents, while my partner lied to his. My worldview narrowed: I grew wary of new people and situations, expecting to be disliked. I began to live down to society's low expectations.

Unsurprisingly, I gravitated towards the people who best understood me. The strippersphere became not just my workplace, but also my surrogate family and my community. This ensured I stayed stripping for longer than I might have otherwise, and made it much harder to stop. The more I doubted my worth, the more I questioned my ability to do anything else. And when I finally did leave I couldn't exactly put 'stripper' on my resume.

Eighteen months on from leaving the industry, it's still difficult for me to separate how I truly feel about stripping from the stigma society insisted I bear for my choice. In choosing to write about it, I am disowning the discrimination.

What I do know is that conversation and critique has to be better than silence and shame.

Two Decades Naked by Leigh Hopkinson ($29.99), published by Hachette Australia.