Many years ago I travelled to Japan and accidently became a hostess. Not so many years ago I went back to Japan to be a hostess again, arriving this time in a dimmer Tokyo picking up the dregs of a recession and the slashing of the expense accounts that had fed me a few years earlier. I wasn’t going to get rich hostessing this time around. After being fired by two clubs for not getting enough dohans, and then suffering through three weeks at one of the worst clubs on the block–-run by a megalomaniac ex-boy band manager and a mama who made us wear her old dresses then accused us of tearing them because we were all so fat --I did the sensible thing and started at a strip club instead.
I though this was pretty interesting: me working at a strip club, who would have thought? I couldn’t wait to email my friends back in the UK with the news. I was pretty gutted by the reaction. Talking about stripping lost me friends, set me up for derision, concern, and anger that I was selling out women. Stripping hurts all of us, I was told.
There is much to say about coming out as a stripper, but in my case what intrigues me is the comparison to the disclosure of my first foray into nightwork/sex work/adult entertainment, whatever you want to call it (I like the Japanese term mizu-shobai—“water trade”--its fits me because that’s where I got my feet wet.)
The first time I went to Japan and got a job as a hostess my stories were received with fascination, excitement and questions from my friends about how they could get such a job. Huge contrast to how the same people reacted when I told them I was a stripper. Now of course hostessing and stripping occupy quite different places within the sex industry. You might say that hostessing barely belongs there at all in that there is no inherent nudity or real/simulated sex involved. However the basis of my friends’ concerns (whose innocent minds didn’t know about lap dances--they thought that stripping just meant prancing around topless) seemed to be that I was setting women back by catering to men…and so on… Much of their concern could have equally been directed at my hostessing years before, but it wasn’t.
Example: In the strip club I undress for customers who don’t have to go through the standard courtship. Regardless of any lack of social graces, or hygiene, all they have to do is pull their wallet out. In the hostess club a customer asks for me--through the request system (shimei)--or I am told by a manager--through the rotation system--to sit with him and drink together. I do so and it is expected that I will not refuse, no matter how rude or repulsive he may be. Which is what ultimately convinced me to stay at the strip club and not go back to the hostess bar. In the strip club I worked for myself, the club did not give me an hourly wage and so was not in the position to tell me whom to sit with. If a customer was rude to me I was allowed to walk away; in the hostess bar I was expected to grin through any comments a customer might make, no matter how rude or offensive. “You’re too fat”, “your tits are too small” are remarks that I would respond to with a cuss, hair-flip and spin on the heel in a strip club—in the hostess club they were tolerated, and standard. Similarly in the hostess club if a customer made a lunge for my boobs my response was supposed to be to playfully hold his hands and gently tell him what a “naughty boy” he’d been. Similar behaviour, depending on the usefulness of the bouncers, got him thrown out of the strip club. Or I might have just slapped him—the hostess club would have fired me for that.
When I asked my friends why they were opposed so strongly to stripping they protested that I was letting women down. That this was never a concern when I was a hostess makes me wonder if there is something inherent in the nudity that plays into the hands of our enemy. If I had kept my clothes on would it have been OK?
But all that’s not the point, I’m not saying that one job was better than the other—in some ways I liked them both. What I meant to talk about was the delicate line you have to toe when you are talking about your work. When I started stripping I had never really heard of sex worker’s rights or sex-positive feminism. I wish I had because I could have used the support of a community, at least to know that there were others out there like me. The message I got was that it was all wrong. So I shut up. I felt marooned, over the edge of what was acceptable. So I just kept quiet and hoped no one would find out. But it is in this silence where dishonesty breeds. If we can’t tell our stories then no one gets anywhere closer to understanding—the stereotypes just continue along unchecked.
Then there’s my own dishonesty. When I did speak up I felt like I had to pick a side and stay on it--I had to defend stripping against popular opinion. To my friends I was the spokesperson for the industry so I wanted to paint as pretty a picture as possible. My true feelings are a lot more ambiguous than that—there are a lot of shitty things about stripping, but I didn’t want to mention them so not to give the ‘other side’ leverage.
I remember one customer sneering that all the strippers at his club traveled miles from their hometowns to work there “they’re not exactly proud of their jobs” he said. I wanted to scream at him: “No it’s you that does this to us. You force your stigma onto us and tell us that we should be ashamed to be strippers. You silence us and then take our silence as proof of the shame we should feel for working in the sex industry.” My silence wasn’t shame. I’m not ashamed. I don’t know if I would say that I am proud to have been a stripper, I’ve never been particularly proud of any job I’ve ever had. What I am proud of though is making the best out of what I had--on my own and on my own terms. For that I can say I am proud. I wish I could say it louder.