[TW: Sexual assault]
I only worked with Presley for a short time. It was the mid-2000s. I didn’t know much about her, but I loved to watch her dance. She’s not a big person, but on stage, Presley Arcana was larger than life. Beautiful and bubbly, she drew attention and dared you not to have a good time. A natural performer with style, grace, and cute as hell. Backstage I always found her to be sweet and charming.
She doesn’t describe a happy home life growing up. She dropped out of high school, and when she began to look for some direction, she was curious about becoming a stripper. Cautious at first, and much to the dismay of the managers working, she spent weeks just observing the strippers before finally deciding to audition.
“I grew up in survival mode,” she says. “I didn’t have a clear understanding of adulthood. I was told to go to college, get a job. But I wasn’t told how to do that.”
Despite her observations, she still found herself utterly underprepared. But by the end of her first stage, she got over her jitters. Once she got the basics down, she learned how to engage the crowd. She came into her own and started to enjoy the empowerment. She sought out objectification and learned to use it to thrive under the lights and music.
Part of the job that she wasn’t prepared for, and probably not something you can totally prepare for was the lap dances. For most dancers, the stage is the easy part. People that are drawn to this profession tend to have a natural inclination for performing in front of people. Although, when the night is slow or the reaction from the crowd is less than stellar, it left her feeling vulnerable. The attention and the positive feeling from performing is much like the money, it is feast or famine. You can feel really good when it is going well, but just the opposite when it’s not. Getting back on stage after a bad night takes a strong sense of resilience.
Off-stage performance is a harder skill to master. Selling the fantasy on stage is much different from selling the fantasy to an individual. Presley learned to love being on stage but was disappointed that the most lucrative part of the job involved learning to flirt with guys she didn’t necessarily like. Being on stage can make you feel like a rock star; lap dancing can feel more like you’re competing with Meryl Streep for an Oscar.
“When I’m on stage, I feel like a rock star. I own the room. Eyes are on me. I know how to get attention. I know how to interact with the crowd. I know how to make it more than just me dancing around, taking my clothes off. I’m engaging people, and that’s exciting and fun and playful.”
Presley had been experimenting with drugs as she started out as a stripper, but an incident on her first weekend shift saved her from going much farther down that sketchy path. As she was about to go on stage for the first time during a busy shift, she went into the bathroom to smoke a cigarette. While in there, she heard moans and cries coming from one of the stalls. She investigated and found one of the top girls at the club on the floor. This was someone she had admired and looked up to, a top earner and someone she hoped to learn from. The dancer was in the middle of a very obvious overdose.
Presley called a manager, and the dancer was taken to the hospital.
Presley never heard what happened, but it was a pivotal moment for her. She had watched a dancer who was the epitome of what she wanted to be overdose and possibly die. She felt she had to choose between being a successful dancer with a good income, or using drugs.
She chose the former.
“In a lot of ways, it saved me,” she says. “If I’m going to commit to being a dancer, okay. It’s either drugs or dancing but not both. The dancing will get me paid, and at least dancing makes me feel good. The drugs will do that too. But at least the dancing won’t get me vomiting on a bathroom floor.”
Despite misgivings at the start, she found most of her clients and customers were respectful. Younger guys tended to be more difficult to manage and could be unpredictable at times. But she found that most of her older customers were simply lonely men, looking for a connection in addition to the sexual aspect of stripping. Presley describes dancing for many married men who had lost that connection with their wives. Men who felt like their partners no longer made space for them in their lives. She was able to provide that space for them to be vulnerable and feel like they were being listened to.
Presley found camaraderie with most of the girls. She made a lot of good friends with the other dancers. But she understands why she couldn’t be friends with some of them. Maybe due to her first experience, she is very forgiving of the ones who had issues with drugs and alcohol and didn’t hold their bad behavior against them. It might be a fringe sisterhood, but it is still a sisterhood. There were many toxic elements to the relationships that can be formed in the strip club, but there are times when these are the only people who really understand what you’re going through.
She doesn’t have as many fond memories of the male staff at the clubs she worked at. She sensed the favoritism that permeates the industry. Much of the way you’re treated can depend on the bouncer or manager’s personal feelings toward you. Maybe how much you tip, or whether you complain too much. It can be hard to get past the feeling that you are expendable or replaceable. Which is mostly true. And that is a harsh reality that can make it difficult to connect with the male staff at a club.
Occasionally, adult talent agents will come into the club looking to recruit nude models and new porn stars. Traditional pimps come in too, but they are usually thrown out when their intentions become known. At least that is the case in the places where I’ve worked. Talent agents have an air of legitimacy that doesn’t come across as sleazy or as malicious as pimps.
When Presley was approached by a porn talent scout, she was interested. She knew of other girls who had good experiences and made a lot of money. The first guy whose offer she accepted flew her down to LA to shoot stills for various magazines. But when he took her to a clinic that tests porn stars for diseases before filming, she questioned why she would need these tests for stills. He told her it was for the film that she was to shoot with him later—something he had failed to mention. She objected, said that she was not willing to do that, and went home without incident.
She ended up doing a few videos another time and was happy with her experience. But her agent had warned her about another agent who was asking about her for some extreme porn. What she describes as torture porn. He told her who he was and warned her to be careful of him. But when the guy actually contacted her, he gave her a different identity. She didn’t realize who he was until it was too late. She tried to leave, but when she called for help, no one was willing to help her out of the situation. The agent threatened her with legal action, taking advantage of not only the fact that she had no one to help her get home, but her legal naiveté.
Over several days, he and his associates raped her on film. They paid her less than half of the agreed amount. And they forced her to film a video explaining her willingness to participate in the films. When she attempted to tell the truth, they cut the tape and wouldn’t let her leave until she recorded what they wanted her to say. These videos still exist. When she sought legal help when she got home, she wasn’t able to find anyone willing to help her. She was shamed into silence for almost 15 years.
She spent many nights trying to figure out what she did wrong. She eventually became to believe that she was conditioned from birth to get taken advantage of. She never learned to say no. She wasn’t taught to value her own autonomy. She learned early on to disassociate and just get through it. So when she was stuck with this sleazy porn agent in a mansion in LA with no one to call and $18 in her pocket, she didn’t know she had a choice. She didn’t know that she wasn’t helpless. Faced with that situation, she felt powerless to leave. And everything she had learned up until that point reinforced that false perception.
Re-victimized by those who promised to help
Later as she started to process these events, she reached out to an organization that encouraged her to tell her story. They promised that her story would help others. That allowing them to help her, she would be facing down and extinguishing her own demons. But she would come to find out that this group weren’t any better than the scumbag who raped her.
“I had people reaching out to me, wanting to do podcasts and interviews, who neglected to tell me that the whole underbelly of what they’re promoting is to push religion,” she said. “That’s fine for them, but now you’re exploiting me and my trauma.”
The anti-porn evangelical groups exploit stories like Presley’s to further their own agenda. Rather than helping victims, they exploit their trauma to proselytize and push for the abolishment of all forms of adult entertainment. The last thing a traffic victim needs is to be told they need to repent, or that their abuse was all part of a supernatural plan.
Despite all this, Presley doesn’t believe that the adult entertainment industry should be abolished. When I asked her whether she thought as a whole if sex work was a net good or a net bad, she said it was a net neutral. She thinks that porn and other sexual entertainment is mostly beneficial. The problem is how women are taught to view themselves and their power of choice. Or lack of it. Focusing only on the abuse and exploitation that happens in sex work is pointless if you ignore the abuse that happens outside of it. Domestic violence and child sexual abuse is often overlooked because it can come with the same shame and stigmas as sex work. And that is a societal problem, not a sex work problem.
When she left dancing to work at a car dealership, Presley dealt with far more sexual harassment than she did as a stripper. Her picture was still used in promoting the local club, so she was unable to hide her former profession. She didn’t back down or give to the shame that they attempted to make her feel.
Presley has no regrets about being a stripper. Her advice to anyone who is thinking about becoming a stripper or sex worker is to make sure that they understand their own boundaries. To explore and be confident about what they’re comfortable with or not. Sticking to those boundaries and staying sober are the two most important things as well as to understand what exactly the job you are choosing to do entails.
“I think the sex industry is a net neutral, depending on what your purpose is. What is your Why? Is it for you? Do you have goals? Are you running away from something? I think there are fantastic positives to it. I would have a hard time imagining that I would be as comfortable with my body or sexuality if I hadn’t grown up in strip clubs.”
She hopes to help couples and individuals explore healthy sexuality and relationships. Presley endured abuse and trauma as a result of being trafficked. Her intelligence and strength allowed her to overcome it. But she didn’t just survive; she is determined to be a force for good in the world. Some people may have chosen to withdraw, or become disillusioned with humanity itself. But Presley is not that person. She chooses to see the goodness in people. She also sees the potential for change in the attitudes around sex and abuse victims and intends to help make that happen.