Is Taking Off Your Clothes For Work Un-Feminist?

The other day, I met a stripper who works in the heart of the Silicon Valley. A drop-dead gorgeous former dancer, she makes thousands of dollars a week taking her clothes off while men watch. But what her clients really pay her for, she told me, is making them feel special through flirting, individualized touch (read: lap dances), one-on-one attention and eye contact. She told me she loves her work. It’s fun, it keeps her fit, and it allows her to have a good life in one of the most expensive areas on the planet. Plus, she thinks her work is helping lonely men in need of human connection.

As I was telling my friend about this woman, she interjected, “Don’t you think that kind of work is un-feminist?”

I paused. “Do you think it’s un-feminist?”

“Well, men are objectifying her,” she replied.

I thought about the times that men have objectified me in ways that made me feel used or degraded. What was happening in those situations that made their behavior feel so violating, so unsupportive of feminist values? Why, in contrast, is this stripper’s experience of being the object of male sexual desire apparently quite positive for her?

It’s all about consent. When “objectification” is under a woman’s control and within her personal boundaries, she may feel that she is reclaiming ownership of her body in a way that makes her feel empowered. In the very least, she is utilizing her strengths to get what she wants.

The reality of our time is that we have to commoditize our skills to survive and thrive.

Let’s say a woman has traditionally “feminine,” socially-oriented skills, like taking care of others or teaching. She could care for homebound autistic people, work for a nonprofit or become a schoolteacher. But her work is not going to be financially rewarded by our capitalist system the way someone in “masculine” fields like tech or investing would be. She may therefore have to rely on the financial stability of a partner in order to keep doing her work. This isn’t only an issue for women, of course. Many underpaid professions are associated with immigrant people of color or people from working class backgrounds. (For people who are both female-bodied AND from immigrant/working class backgrounds, the odds of being fairly compensated are even worse.) But for the sake of this post, I want to focus on how “women’s work” is valued by our society.

Modern society admires the woman who has worked her way up the corporate ladder despite the prejudices against her in the workplace. The ideal feminist woman has achieved power and financial independence by learning to thrive in a “man’s world.” If a corporate environment or traditionally male-dominated profession is where a woman’s skills lie, then that’s absolutely where she deserves to be, and men need to step it up to make the workplace as welcoming to women as it is to men.

But let’s say you’re a woman whose skills and interests don’t align with the corporate world or a traditionally masculine industry. If you are embodied, empathetic, expressive, open-minded, athletic/fit and enjoy performing, your talents lend themselves pretty damn well to stripping or sex work. If those careers would serve your goals and you feel in integrity about pursuing them, why shouldn’t you? Financially, society highly rewards those lines of work. In fact, they are some of the only women-specific areas of work that are well-paid. Yet those professions aren’t seen as respectable or safe. Why?

Because we live in a society where sexual liberation is simultaneously idolized and shamed. Because women’s bodies traditionally must be shared with only one man. Because women still aren’t seen as capable of protecting themselves or deciding for themselves.

In my opinion, as long as respect and consent are given from both sides, it’s noble for a woman to practice expressing her sexual liberation through stripping or sex work. In doing so, she is giving heterosexual men permission to feel connected to their sexual desires in a culture that eggs on yet simultaneously demonizes their sexuality. What could be more “feminist” than embracing the raw power of feminine sexual energy to support yourself, share your gifts, and heal shame around sexuality?

What do you think?

Is it un-feminist to take your clothes off or engage in sex work for a living? I’d love to hear your perspective!

Photo: Desert Spirits by Spencer Tunick, 2013

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