Friday, October 10, 2008

Naked Truth Profiled on YNOT.com

I was recently contacted by a journalist who writes for some adult zines such as klixxx.com, avn.com, and ynot.com. He asked if he could interview me about The Naked Truth. I agreed, and we corresponded by email. I rambled away and probably really overdid it with my responses. But in case you're interested, here is the interview:

The Naked Truth: Speaking Truth to Power for Exotic Dancers
By Peter Berton

(i like the title!)

YNOT freelancer Peter Bergen has once again ventured into uncharted sexual territory and emerged not only intact but brimming with information about the Canadian exotic dance scene and how one woman is working to keep her fellow professionals safe and informed.

YNOT: What is www.NakedTruth.ca, and how did it get started?

TNT: The Naked Truth is a resource and advocacy website for exotic dancers. I created it originally as a hobby website. I wanted to learn how to build a website and I’d often thought that dancers could use a resource like it. So, I built the site using Frontpage, had a friend add the forum, and the rest is history.

YNOT: What are you trying to do for the dancers out there?

TNT: What I’d hoped would be gained from the site is that dancers could share information on gigs they’ve worked at or ask about gigs they are planning to work at. Before The Naked Truth (TNT), I’d often show up at a gig and find things that I hadn’t been told (read “warned”) about when the gig was booked.

How it works is agents will ask dancers to work at certain clubs they have trouble booking. For the really crappy clubs, they love asking new dancers or dancers who have never worked at those clubs, because it is easier to fill the shows on budget. Some dancers arrive and find out that the club has ridiculous rules such as mandatory floor time or requires free shows. Or they get there and aren’t able to get in because no manager is on duty at the hotel. They end up waiting for hours with their suitcases sitting on a curb.

Other things that have happened: you can find out there are bedbugs in your room when you suddenly see one running across your bedspread. Or you might only find out when you get there, that they cut shows when the club is slow and it’s slow all week. Or local customers have keys to the accommodations. Or you have no heat in the middle of winter. There are a lot of surprises as an exotic dancer.

Through the TNT forums dancers are sharing information about what to expect at clubs and able to choose where they will or won’t work. This forces some clubs that are having a hard time getting dancers to fix some of their issues – such as holes in the stage, or exorbitant Socan fees.

Another goal of TNT was to give dancers permission to enjoy their jobs without feeling ashamed. Being a dancer can be very isolating because you work long days, a different place each week, and the stigma around the profession prevents you from talking about work to most of the people around you. The Naked Truth allows dancers to talk about their work – the good, the bad and the ugly – without feeling that someone will jump on them to quit or think they are trying to get attention by talking about it.

Dancers can’t usually go home and talk to a parent or significant other about what a good or bad day they’ve had. If a customer was ignorant, they can’t go home and complain about it like a lawyer or a server, for that matter. Our loved ones usually misunderstand the work, so they can’t hear about it objectively.

Through TNT we can support each other in ways that other people can’t because they don’t understand the nature of the industry. It decreases our isolation because we can turn to the other dancers on TNT to laugh about a sweet customer or cry about a particularly vicious one.

Exotic dance has been condemned by many women, as well. The extreme feminists still exist today and work to abolish all forms of sex industry at the expense of other women’s incomes and dignity. This was another reason I wanted to start the naked truth. I had been a student at SFU while dancing and one of my Women’s Studies TA’s led me to a book called Whores and Other Feminists. It really opened my eyes about how all these feminist ideals about objectification and porn-equalling-violence had pushed their ways into the mainstream, conditioning people to believe these theories are facts.

This can lead to internalized oppression among dancers. So, even though they could look at their work as something empowering and enjoyable, they’ve been conditioned to be ashamed of their work and to consider themselves “bad girls” for doing this work. They may even start asking themselves questions like “am I a dancer because I come from a broken home?” Or saying to themselves, “I am a dancer because I was sexually abused as a child” or other stereotypical assumptions people make about women in the sex industry. No one ever says, “I am a doctor because I was sexually abused as a child.” The correlation is ridiculous, as it is with being an exotic dancer.

The fact is that dancers come from every kind of background you can imagine (not just horrendous ones) and usually get into the work for a few different reasons but particularly for the money. Once in for the money, we find out that there are lots of other perks. Choosing when and where to work. Taking time off whenever we want. Travelling. Writing off expenses at income tax time. Using our creativity and skill to build our shows. Comradery with other women. The power and attention that we become accustomed to – most dancers will admit to missing it when they leave the industry.

For different dancers there are different reasons for continuing to choose this work. And most dancers find it very hard to leave. Not just because of the gap in the resume but because they can’t find jobs they like more. Most dancers will go back to dancing after they’ve left because they realize they enjoy it far more than any other job they get. And some of these jobs are lucrative. But they just aren’t as fun. Being an exotic dancer doesn’t make you automatically a victim despite what many feminists say. They say straight out that dancers are too degraded and incompetent to speak for themselves or to even realize their own degradation. This is women oppressing women. I find it shocking that intelligent, strong women are so caught up in their own victim mentalities that they can’t see how they are re-creating the oppression they claim to oppose. I also learned that you could be a feminist without conforming to the anti-sex movement it has come to be known as.

So, I wanted TNT to give dancers permission to enjoy their jobs, consider themselves feminists if they’d like, and stop internalizing the shame that is forced upon them by the feminazi’s. I had some peripheral goals for TNT, too. The main one being to challenge stereotypes. I wanted people to Google strippers and find TNT. On TNT they would read articles that would open their previously blinded eyes to the naked truth about exotic dancers – they are women just like every other woman in the world, with one distinct difference! They are comfortable with their sexuality.

So many people assume that sex industry workers are insecure. I beg to differ. In fact, every former sex industry worker I’ve ever asked told me she felt more secure and in control when she was working than she does now or did before. It actually is an empowering career choice. And getting regular exercise is really good for a person’s mental health, as we all know. I’m sure it counteracts a lot of the bad club food and smoky air.

I also wanted to use TNT as a tool to teach customers how to treat dancers. Many of them want to say and do the right thing, but just don’t know what the right thing is. So, the naked truth gives dancers a chance to tell customers what they like and don’t like. For instance, please don’t blow on the dancer’s cookie. Please don’t say vulgar things or waggle your tongue at the dancer. Do give compliments. Do clap after every song. Do tip. Don’t touch the dancer or pull her blanket towards you. Do smile at the dancer. Do buy posters. Do know that we appreciate politeness and sincerity.

So information and support for dancers were primary goals of the website. Then combat internalized oppression. Present a sex industry feminist point of view. Challenge stereotypes. And engage and inform customers.

The final goal of TNT was to build community and that kind of came as an afterthought because it was beginning to happen anyway. Through the naked truth, we now have an industry community that includes dancers, customers, agents, club owners and staff, DJ’s, and businesses that serve our community too, such as costume designers, etc.We’ve held several successful fundraisers through this community of naked truth members. We’ve built bridges between different members of the community – agents, clubs, dancers, customers. And recently, we were even able to change some laws pertaining to exotic dancers in British Columbia. There is a lot a community can accomplish when they work together and provide support to each other. This is what we’ve been able to accomplish.

YNOT: There is a lot of information aimed at rookies. Why so -- and what do they need to know?

TNT: We are all better prepared for any job when we’re trained, so the information aimed at rookies is to give them a bit of mentorship-like training. Historically, sex industry workers have passed information down to each other through mentor-style relationships. Everything a rookie dancer learns, she learns from the other dancers. She’ll find out fast that taking all her information from agents, club employees, or customers can get her in trouble fast.

Because our industry is so marginalized, some of the people with power in the industry have used it to exploit the workers. If this were to happen in almost any other industry, people would be outraged. But no one touches the sex industry except to condemn and vilify it. Dancers are considered to be getting what they deserve for choosing this work. Or there is the attitude of “what do they expect?” Like, we are not entitled to work safely and free from exploitation.

The exploitation has hurt our industry. It has caused many customers to stop coming to clubs because they don’t want to support our exploitation. And it’s caused many dancers to lose interest in their jobs – they spend less on their shows, work less hard when on stage, and even start to get snarly with customers. Agents discourage dancers from sharing what their show prices are. And competition for work can create hostility between dancers.

All of these things have contributed to a breakdown in the mentorship mentality between dancers. I was lucky to have a few dancers in particular who took me under their wings – Diana, Pebbles, and London, to name a few. The Naked Truth is an obvious place for rookies to learn more about the industry.

What do they need to learn? What they need to start – costumes, blanket, music, etc. – and how to pick those things. For instance, a dancer should buy a blanket that has two different sides so they can always place their blanket down on the same side. Stages are dirty, so having a “cleaner” side of the blanket is much better for our precious parts.

Rookies also need to know about etiquette – not to touch their pussies to the pole, keep their areas clean and compact because we’re all sharing the change room, don’t borrow other dancers’ things without asking, etc.

It helps them to have an idea of what to expect in show price so that they are not consistently given the low budget gigs just because they don’t know better. How to manage finances and what receipts to keep. To ask for their contracts at the beginning of the week but not assume they will get to see it. How to calculate their pay so they can check to make sure they aren’t being ripped off. These are all important things for a rookie to learn.

Also, because the social safety nets are disappearing under the Campbell government in BC, many women are turning to dancing to support their families now – they can’t afford to work fulltime and pay for daycare at any other jobs. So a question that is often asked is “how old is too old to get into dancing?”I mean, the list is endless what rookies want and deserve to know before getting into the industry.

On the topic of exploitation though, I’d like to clarify my viewpoint. I don’t consider exotic dancing any more exploitive than any other occupation – and I’ve held many other jobs outside of this industry. In fact, although I cannot deny that there is occasional exploitation in the industry, I found it to be much less so than I’ve found in other jobs. And the exploitation that is there is not pervasive or all encompassing by any means. It is simply the occasional infraction made by people who know they can get away with it because exotic dancers are not considered worth protecting. That’s why we have to fight twice as hard as anyone to be heard when we want to see change in our industry. I’m not complaining. The fight is fun.

YNOT: What are the good and bad aspects of working as a dancer?

TNT: Good: The money, the flexibility – when and where you want to work, travel, control over your own job, camaraderie with other dancers, attention and power, regular exercise, it’s fun, dancing to music on stage, hanging in the change room and joking around with other dancers, kicking customers asses at pool, the gifts, the interesting conversations with customers between shows, being able to show compassion for lonely men who don’t get it anywhere else, lots of laughter at work, having regulars who always make your day, the applause, getting to dress up and look beautiful every day, having an excuse to tan every week, time between shows to take car to mechanic or grocery shop, tips. I could go on and on. I really miss dancing. I like my work now, but dancing was the most relaxed, enjoyable job I’ve ever had and I doubt anything will ever touch it in comparison.

Bad: Some of the gigs are dirty or in disrepair, DJs who are on power trips, agents not being honest about the gigs they send you to, being bullied into doing gigs you don’t want to do (for instance, if you don’t do me this favour, I’ll bump you out of your next two week’s gigs), getting blacklisted by an agent because you didn’t give in to his demands, vulgar or really mean customers, jealous women customers, having to fight for your pay if you left a shift early due to sickness, mandatory floor times, half shows (getting naked twice in 10 minutes each for the same pay as getting naked once in 20 minutes), stigma, the way straight people treat you when they find out you’re a dancer, the assumption that you are a bad mother because you are a dancer.

YNOT: Put us inside the life of being a dancer: What is a day like?

TNT: I answered this question on TNT when I was still dancing. Here is how it went when I was working close enough to home to drive everyday to work:

Depending on where you’re working, a day can last anywhere from three to 12 hours or even 13 hours. Unless you’re on a night shift in which check-in times vary, you must checkin by 11:30 Monday morning because first show starts at noon usually. On Monday you get your schedule for the week (usually) and then you are expected to be at work a half hour before your first show for the rest of the week. Different clubs have different rules but that is the general way it works.When you get to work you check-in with the DJ or the bartender (or sometimes the manager). Put your stuff in the change room and organize your own things where you’d like to keep them. It is common courtesy to not take up too much room and keep your stuff tidy as a courtesy to the other dancers.

About 10-15 minutes before my first show, I put on makeup, choose a costume and music depending on how many people are in the bar or who is in the bar. Check my vaginal area for lint or toilet paper because it glows under black lights. Run some frizz control hair gel over my dry hair. Then I get dressed, make sure I have my blanket, music, and cover-up, then head to the DJ booth. I try to be there about one to two minutes before my show, but some bars require five minutes and it really depends on the DJ.

YNOT: What keeps you in the business?

TNT: Since I am not in the business anymore, I will explain why I chose to leave. I left dancing because it is primarily a night job and I like to put my own kids to bed. There are less and less day or night shifts available close to home, so I find it hard to keep working and not take on long shifts. I am unwilling to work 12 or 13 hours a day away from my children six days a week. I am unwilling to travel and be away from my children. So really, it’s just not a great job for me as a mother in some ways.

However, if I was to dance as a private dancer and only work nights every week at the same club, I could probably manage to keep working but I’d still not be able to put my own kids to bed. But I do know that it’s always an option, if I need it in the future. As it stands, I prefer not to hustle, so I won’t if I don’t have to. I did both when I was dancing, stage shows and private dancing – and for me, I found stage dancing more enjoyable and relaxed. Whereas, with doing private shows, I found the hustle to be mentally exhausting and it would burn me out fast.

YNOT: I imagine some strange things on the job. Do you have any anecdotes you can share?

TNT: When my daughter was a year old, I went back to dancing. I was convinced by an old regular of mine to take a titty tip while I was on stage. When I squeezed my breasts together, milk oozed out of my nipples all over my hands and his face! Although I wasn’t breastfeeding anymore, there was still some milk in there and I guess the hot stage lights warmed them up and increased the flow. The customer in question was not upset by this in the least. In fact, he quite liked it – the old pervert. I was a little embarrassed but not overly so. It was the look on some of the other customers’ faces that worried me. Not everyone was amused.

YNOT: Society is very biased against dancers (one told me that she was 'barred' from becoming an elementary school teacher because of working as a stripper). Can this be overcome?

TNT: I think it can. The more dancers speak openly about what they do for living and do it without shame, the more people will be forced to accept the normality of it. I also see a new generation of women who are not of the victim mentality and prefer to consider their sexuality a source of their power rather than a source of their oppression. These women will not be jealous when their husbands look at porn or go to strip clubs. These women are already arriving at strip clubs in hordes – and showing their appreciation and support for the dancers who grace their stages. It is this new generation of women who will inspire the change in general opinion of the sex industry.

The old rhetoric would have us believe that the only power women have sexually is to withhold it. What a shame that more women don’t understand and use their power. It is something to be embraced. It is something that can be used for good. The sexual power of women is healing for women and men.

When we are sexually secure, we know that men love our bodies regardless of what we weigh because they are just happy to have a naked woman in their arms. We know that men like to look at lots of naked women, but that doesn’t mean they want to fuck them (maybe they fantasize, but that’s different).

Sexually secure women allow themselves to be aroused by looking at men – even men other than their own. It doesn’t mean we want to fuck them, but we might fantasize. And that’s okay. Sexually secure women don’t want to withhold sex from their men. They want to know that their men’s needs are met, just as they want their own needs met. Sexually secure women want to see an end to the shaming and criminalizing of men. We don’t want to be victims with men to blame. We want to have shared, loving relationships with men. To me, these things are all connected.

And I have no doubt that women are starting to realize the folly of the victim mentality and the harm that has been done by polarizing men and women through theories of sexuality. That’s all they are. Theories. The truth is in our own experiences. And my experience as a stripper is far from being degraded and exploited. The world is ready for a new order. And it’s this new generation of women who will deliver it. I’m relieved they’re finally here.

YNOT: What would a strip club owned and run by strippers look line; presuming you could manage to filter out the worst sort of clients? Is it possible to establish an environment where dancers and clients can have a mutually-satisfactory relationship, where respect and no BS are expected?

TNT: I’m not sure what a strip club owned and run by strippers would look like. There is a peep show in San Francisco that looks like this, but I don’t know how it might look in BC, where the strip shows are on public stages and you can see a naked woman for the price of a beer. It would be fun to find out though! If you hear of any investors, let me know.

I do believe that it is possible to establish an environment where dancers and clients can have a mutually-satisfactory relationship involving respect and honesty. If I was running a club, there would be clearly posted rules about how customers engage with dancers. The dancers would be given reasonable shifts, excellent pay, and a positive work environment. My club would have free workshops on how to handle tough customers, maximizing income, pole dancing, compassion, burnout, and stress management. The food would be healthy and delicious. And dancers would be encouraged to come to me with any complaints. In an environment where the men would be asked to leave if they behave disrespectfully in any way, customers would learn to behave appropriately. They would want to come back because the atmosphere would be a welcoming, non-judgmental, VIP type atmosphere. The shows would be great and the dancers would be happy. I’d love for someone to make me a full-time manager of a strip club and give me full reign someday.

YNOT: Finally, what does a dancer do when she's past her prime? What does the future hold?

TNT: I guess I am a dancer who is passed her prime even though I’m only 34, so I can answer for myself. Stripping is like hockey. After you get to a certain age, you have to retire. That is a general rule and doesn’t apply to everyone. Many women work well into their 50s and 60s and still look like they are in their 30s. And there are women who grow old and still dance using their age as a marketing tool. Isn’t there a woman in Vegas who is old and wrinkly, but still sexy and still dancing?!

I do think that it’s difficult for some dancers to leave the business if they don’t realize the skills they’ve acquired and how they can be used in other careers. Some of those skills include: ability to run your own business, self-motivation and drive, people skills, customer retention skills, fashion sense, conflict management skills, compassion and understanding for marginalized people, ability to walk in very high heels, exotic and pole dance ability, sales ability, and so much more.

Most of the dancers I’ve known who have left the industry went into careers like nursing or counselling – after putting themselves through school as exotic dancers. Others have started their own businesses such as tanning salons, makeup and hair, web design, and such. Still others have used their sales skills and are working at car dealerships or in real estate and jobs like that. And how about the many dancers who now own pole dance studios, too.

Me, personally, I work from home doing contract public relations work such as media pitching and event planning. I am a support worker at a transition house for women fleeing violence who also have substance abuse issues and face multiple barriers to leading a stable life. And I also get contracts through the BC Coalition of Experiential Communities, of which I am a member, to do proactive work to stabilize and improve conditions for sex industry workers. On the side, I decided to cash in on the pole dance craze, so I run my own business offering pole dance parties with my portable pole.

The future is full of possibilities for exotic dancers. They are a resourceful, resilient population. The work attracts these kinds of women – entrepreneurs with a zest for life. Chances are many of the bosses out there are former exotic dancers, but they’d never admit it in case they’d lose their jobs. You’d be surprised how many women come out of the closet to me because I am open about my past. And so many women who are curious about it. A few months ago, two elementary teachers from my daughter’s school came over for pole and lap dance lessons!

Life is good being a former exotic dancer. It saved my life when I started, and it propelled me to where I am today. And I just love my life today.


Peter Berton covers the adult industry for Klixxx magazine, and for websites such as www.ynot.com and www.booble.com. He likes to tell the stories of the remarkable, clever, and down-to-earth people who work in adult. Those with stories to tell can contact him at pbberton@yahoo.com.

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