Stripping away the facade of strippers

Maryann Kopp

A packed Fireside Room welcomed Bernadette Barton of Morehead State University to Bakersfield College March 21 for her hour-long presentation titled “Stripped.”
As a part of Women’s History Month, Barton’s discussion revolved around her doctoral exploration of the toll that the sex industry has on female exotic dancers. Her book, “Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers,” is the end result of the field work she did for her dissertation.
“I interviewed women from San Francisco, Honolulu, and Kentucky,” Barton stated. “I formerly interviewed 36 different female exotic dancers, with ages ranging from 21 to 40 years old. Their educational background ranged from elementary school to master’s degrees, with most of them having a college education.”
Driven by many different factors, Barton sought to find a theoretical middle ground in what she called the “feminist sex wars.” “On one side, you have the radical feminist perspective. Supporters of this perspective think sex work is exploitive, and it perpetuates patriarchy and abuse. This focuses on the impact of the sex industry on a macro level.
“On the other side, you have what are called the sex radicals. They believe the sex industry is empowering for women and focuses on the sex industry’s toll on a micro level,” explained Barton. Barton was most concerned about the temporal element, or how the dancers were effected over time, by working in the sex industry. Barton’s experience in the field of exotic dance led her to believe that both levels of the feminist perspectives did, indeed, occur in the lives of most of the dancers she interviewed. The dancers, should they decide to stick with it after their first day, may initially experience the positive side of their work on the micro level. They find themselves “intoxicated by attention and money” and the actual acts in which they engage while working. Over time, however, Barton found that the radical feminist perspective becomes a more predominate factor. This is part of what Barton refers to as “the toll.”
This toll is a “complex accumulation of experiences and emotions built up over time,” according to Barton. The strippers start to equate the amount of money they make with their own self-worth. “The mechanism of being bought makes the women feel objectified,” she said.
While dispelling many stereotypes and myths surrounding strippers, Barton also confirmed others while explaining the macro affect. Most dancers develop disdain for men, and see them as “just wallets” and “takers of sexual energy.”
Most dancers experience a reduced sex drive over time, and might fall into alcohol or drug abuse, as both are more easily accessed in the sex industry. According to Barton, there are five ways for these women to resist the toll: exploring attraction to other women, becoming sex activists and forming different groups or unions, developing critical consciousness towards social inequality, developing close relationships with other dancers for overall support, and quitting. “What dancers would like most is to be respected by clients, management, friends, and family,” concluded Barton.
Though the discussion was peppered with questions from audience members, there was also time at the end of the presentation for any other questions that the audience may have had.