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This is part of our Taboo Series.

Brooklyn is a close friend of mine. She was an important ally in my younger years. I’m not sure I’d have made it out of stripping without her. Brooklyn saved me from at least one broken nose and countless other bad situations in the strip club. I very likely owe her my life. Or at least my face, because I’m pretty sure the Glitter Queen, a nemesis on my first night in a new club, would have happily rearranged it for me. 

I was impressed from the moment I met her. She possessed both confidence and a stage presence that were intimidating. The way she commanded an audience, both on and off stage, was awe-inspiring and sexy as hell. And strong. She had a no-bullshit attitude that made her hard to ignore. Tall with long hair and a wicked twinkle in her eyes. She was everything I was not.

We were friends through most of my time as a stripper, but I didn’t really know how she got into stripping. We were close on and off, and she was someone I could always count on to tell me the truth. A true professional. She seemed like she was born for it. Loved it, and used it to her advantage. Smart, determined and self-reliant, she was a role model for me, despite being a couple of years younger.

Brooklyn grew up with an abusive father and distant mother. While not sexually abused, she was subjected to physical abuse. Her mother seemed to resent her, although they grew closer as she got older. And while her little brother was given free rein to do what he pleased, she had a strict curfew, and she knew why: She was a girl. It was for her own good to keep her safe. Perhaps an unfortunate example of benevolent sexism.

A self-described nerd, she graduated six months early from high school and spent half a semester in college before deciding she wanted both individual and financial independence— something that is hard to come by living with your parents and going to school.

One day while she was working at a car dealership, a couple walked in to buy a Mustang Cobra. When she asked what they did for work, she found out that the lady was a stripper and the man a bouncer. Brooklyn made fast friends with them, and began to spend time with them and in the club. At 17, the glamor of the money and freedom the club offered were enticing.

The environment in the club was a welcoming one, and her age didn’t seem to be a problem. At least at that club. One evening the bartender passed out from his own supply, and she was thrown in to take his place. Soon she was drawn to the stage, filling in the dancer list when they were short on girls.

Though she was only 17, her boyfriend at 26 was in a position to prepare her for the strip club. She describes him as a groomer. Looking for a way out of her house and a way to support herself and her developing drug habit, the excitement and money became too much to resist.

But she doesn’t say that she was forced into anything. She always felt as if she had a choice, and not only takes full responsibility for that choice, but doesn’t regret either. Which is utterly unlike another lady I worked with early on, who credits all her bad choices to God’s plan and uses her experience to entice others into supernatural servitude. She went on to head an outreach group that claimed to fight sex trafficking, but whose actual targets were legitimate strip clubs.

Graduating early with honors and a 4.0 GPA, Brooklyn was smart but never felt pretty. Or sexy. Stepping out onto the stage for the first time was exhilarating. She became who she was. She owned the stage. The applause, the money, excitement, and the empowerment. She was beautiful, sexy, in control, under the fake smoke and the strobe light she found herself.

But she also found community. She found a kindness and support that she had been missing. And despite the drugs and alcohol, she felt safe. While that may sound unlikely, with a few exceptions, the owners and staff are very protective of the entertainers. There were only a handful of times when she felt like they didn’t have her back.

The men and women who work in the sex entertainment industry look out for each other. There is a sense of belonging. When the rest of the world is judging you, finding other outcasts is validating. People who know that they won’t be welcomed in polite society tend to band together partly for physical safety, but emotional safety as well.

The glamor, power, and financial security are hard to let go of once you have them. Even the sexual objectification becomes addictive. Choosing to be objectified on stage as a performer is not the same as being cat-called walking down the street, the distinction being the control a performer has on stage, surrounded by big burly dudes.

It is exploitative, but not in the way that most people think. From the perspective of the stage, it’s the men being exploited. They are objectified in the sense that they are individually decimated and viewed as revenue sources. Each encounter becomes a challenge and an opportunity. Some pleasant, and some not. Brooklyn says about 80% of the men she danced for were scum, but the other 20% were kind and caring and became valued friends.

While her drug issues dominated most of her career, the people were the biggest factor in staying in the club. Despite the competition between the girls, Brooklyn took many of them under her wing. As had been done with her, she taught many of the girls how to make the most of their choices.

However unlikely it may seem, humanist values thrive in this environment. The relationships are nothing like what is portrayed in movies and TV. Owners, staff and entertainers rally around each other. Most people operate from a position of caring for their colleagues. Girls don’t push each other downstairs and club managers aren’t forcing anyone into compromising positions. More often than not, they are all there to offer encouragement and compassion when things get tough. There are of course exceptions. Men and other entertainers with nefarious intentions, but they are overwhelmingly not the norm.

When Brooklyn eventually overcame her addiction, it was with the help of her community. And when the drugs were gone, her friends remained. Her community was still there for her and is to this day.

Life after stripping

Brooklyn retired in 2008 and became a very popular and successful bartender. She has fond memories of being a stripper. She was able to experience things that she would not have otherwise. While she admits to making a few bad choices, she wouldn’t change anything at all. Stripping gave her the confidence and life experience to be who she is now.

Relationships can be a little tricky coming out of dancing. People outside the industry can have a hard time understanding the compartmentalization that happens between love and sex in such a hypersexual environment. There can be a disconnection between the physical and emotional that seems exclusive to the sex industry. When your body is the commodity, sex and sexuality become separate from intimacy in a way that can strain a relationshipespecially when one partner has no experience with the strip club community.

Brooklyn occasionally runs into patrons at her bar who attempt to shame her for her former job. True to herself, she will have none of it. She is not ashamed, and is in fact proud of herself and what she has accomplished in her life. Even now, everyone knows who she is and what she did for a living. She once commanded the stage; she now commands respect. She left the industry with a keen sense of who she is and refuses to conform to those who are annoyed by her lack of subservience to the corporate vanilla world.

She understands that she fits into some of the stereotypes that exist about strippers, but refuses to be defined by them. Rather than resent those who choose to judge her she all but pities them. She didn’t succumb to the identity that others tried to ascribe to her. Rather than spend her life cramming herself into a box that she wasn’t comfortable with, she forged her own path. And helped others along the way.

Brooklyn credits her determination and self-assured attitude with her success as a stripper. And while she is left with a few scars, she uses them to her advantage.

She acknowledges that not everyone makes it out the way that she did, but wouldn’t necessarily discourage young women from entering the business. If asked, she stresses the importance of being sober. A drink or two might sound like a good idea to loosen up before a shift at a strip club, but it’s a quick slide into hiding a bottle in your locker, or even becoming reliant on more elicit chemicals. If you can’t do it sober, don’t do it, advice that really applies to any career.

She thinks the industry as a whole is a net good. She doesn’t think that working in an office or vanilla job is much different, and can be just as damaging to mental and in some cases physical health as the sex entertainment industry.

Every job requires someone to trade their time, mental, and physical skills for money. Stripping in all its forms comes with challenges and dangers, as do all jobs. And the men and women who work in it are often dehumanized because of the sexual nature of it. I find it ironic that once someone takes their clothes off for money, society stops viewing them as completely human.

But they are people who may not have fit in no matter the job they chose. People who refuse to be told what to do or be embarrassed to be who they are. Stripping allows people to be themselves in a society that has a lot of hang-ups about sex and nudity. And the harsh judgments and misconceptions always come from a place of ignorance and arrogance.

Strippers are human beings. People with their own hopes, dreams, and insecurities. They are rarely the lazy or intellectually inferior stereotypes that come from the pearl clutchers who refuse to accept those who won’t conform.

I'm a former adult entertainer and author of Dirty Money: Memoirs of a Stripper and Expose Yourself: How to Take Risks Question Everything and Find Yourself- Humor and Insights from my life as a Stripper....