As a sex worker, consent is complicated
CN: sexual harassment and assault
We make tough decisions all the time for work.
Every job takes pieces of your freedom. We concede our personal time, our bodies, and sometimes our health and happiness to earn a living. It is, as one might say, a part of life.
It’s important, though, that we understand what we are giving up to make money. Is the job stressful? Dangerous? Does it involve long hours?
Is it worth it?
When we accept job offers, we agree to job duties and conditions in the workplace. We yield personal time and sometimes our health and well-being in exchange for money. Yet, even though we make concessions, we still have the capability to set and assert boundaries at work. We have the power to say no to additional job duties, poor conditions, and unwanted work relationships, for example. Work doesn’t deprive us of our ability to consent.
Consent is simple: it’s an agreement between people to engage in an intimate, emotional sexual and/or labor exchange. It can be voiced eagerly, matter-of-factly, timidly, or silently. The exchange may be wanted or unwanted, for money or for free — but consent must be given without coercion or pressure.
It was glorious to dictate the terms of someone else’s proximity to my comfort zones. How many other jobs do you feel you have such power to say no?
Simple, yes, but consent is ignored every day in workspaces. Waitresses do not choose who they serve and cannot walk away from abusive or harassing patrons. Call center representatives have to listen as abusive words are hurled at them over the phone. Rideshare drivers are not aware of your destination until you get into their car. Miners have to descend deeper into the ground and chip at silicone dust at the expense of their lungs.
How much say people actually have in these workspaces is murky.
And those who have the privilege of having a voice at their jobs sometimes still have to make sacrifices. People may take on unwanted duties to pay off mounting bills or endure toxic work relationships to get ahead. I, too, have had to make tough decisions working in strip clubs. But I have a say in the conditions — and I am lucky for that.
When I started stripping, I was firm on addressing boundary transgressions during lap dances. I slapped hands away if they inched near my thong, sternly saying, “Stop! You can’t do that.” I ended dances if they pulled my hair or slapped my ass. I relished every night in the power of voicing my boundaries. It was glorious to dictate the terms of someone else’s proximity to my comfort zones. How many other jobs do you feel you have such power to say no?
The capacity to set and assert boundaries with customers as a sex worker determines both our income and our emotional well-being. Like every other profession, it is one of, if not the most important, ingredients for success. But how to navigate consent in an invisible profession — in a job that encompasses emotional, physical, and sexual labor — was difficult to learn at first. The club opens its doors to good and bad customers alike, and there isn’t a manual on how to disentangle the safe from the dangerous.
Boundaries and consent are rarely discussed in dressing rooms, so I had to learn to maneuver the club safely in the dark, both figuratively and literally.
I was 24 when I started stripping, and I was not quiet about my boundaries in the slightest. My voice was loud and clear in the club. After a few months into the job, though, I noticed a trend in my interactions with customers. More often than not, after my verbal “no,” “stop,” or “I don’t like that,” the customer never bought another dance. This was not worrisome at first, as I was just dipping my feet into the industry, but as the opportunity to chip at my student debt loomed over me, I started to think about how I could make more money. I enviously watched the high earners in the club make my weekly salary in a night's work.
Interestingly, the women rarely articulated verbal consent, yet they never seemed out of control. It was a dizzying paradox.
Through careful observation and pestering questions, I discerned that when there was potential to earn a lot of money, they communicated their boundaries and the club’s rules non-verbally. They moved customer’s hands from their boobs, for example, to their backside if they didn’t want them near their chest — or diverted their attention through deep conversation or comical entertainment if the customer was too handsy.
And most importantly, they never broke character as sexually available women.
Strippers sell an image as wild and sexual promiscuous women. They are the anti-wife; the whore to the madonna. This is, of course, is a performance — but it’s a lucrative performance. My income is directly correlated to how overtly sexual I act. Asserting a “no,” however, bursts that illusion and halts the flow of money. And for some customers — not all, but for some — when I verbally enforce my boundaries, I am no longer one of the carefree, sexually liberated women swinging effortlessly from poles. My heels, makeup, and curls melt away. I become reality.
I started to grasp that after a few months, but I didn’t want to sacrifice my safety and push at the contours of my limits. The dancers I watched, though, did not seem to wager their boundaries for money. They circumvented verbal no’s with coded strategy to uphold their agency. I followed their lead and started communicating consent non-verbally when the potential for money was present, all the while never breaking character as a stripper. It worked. I started making more money, and it’s a strategy I now employ often.
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Last night, for example, I brought a young man back into a private room for a $20 three-minute dance. It was 9:10 pm, only 10 minutes into my Saturday night shift. A bouncer sat outside the room and my manager was monitoring the dance behind a camera. I had backup if needed. I sat him down and started the dance, leaning into him and straddling his legs slowly and intimately. He reached behind me and grabbed my cheeks roughly. I squirmed away from his touch, standing to pick up our drinks and momentarily distract him. I resumed the dance and he reached for my ass again, grabbing like he was pulling apart play dough. He was hurting me, pushing my boundaries, and inciting fear of assault and reprimanding; the bouncer will come to my rescue, but ultimately it would be perceived as my fault for not controlling my customer.
I have a choice here: either I tell him to stop, or I can avert his hands elsewhere.
I stood up and quickly pulled the curtain aside, assessing the crowd. Except for a few fruitless regulars, the club was empty. The potential to earn money in the next hour was sitting right in front of me. But will he buy another dance? I run through of list of characteristics in my head codified from two years of experience: he came to the club alone; he got the first dance without much hassle; he’s enjoying my company. Will he spend more? I think so. I consider one other factor: how much emotional intimacy is he expecting? Not much.
I chose to go with the latter.
“Do you want to have more fun?”
Non-verbal consent is a way for me communicate my boundaries when money is on the table. It allows me to have a say in my work conditions and control other factors in the club.
He nodded and dug into his pocket to hand me $60. I was right — he’s a spender. As I straddle him, I am more prepared this time. I move his hands to my outer rear, nearing my hips. His fingers claw my skin but I whisper seductively into his ear, “I like it softer.” He loosens his grip. He starts to massage my lower back, a safe zone, where conscious or not, he understands now that’s what I am comfortable with.
When the third song is over, I don’t press for more. Even though he’s potentially a goldmine, I have a 7-hour shift of ahead of me. It’s exhausting to repeatedly set and assert boundaries, and although he listened to my cues, I don’t trust he will honor them for, say, an hour or 2. I end our time together. He hands me a $40 tip and I smile proudly.
I made a 100 dollars in 15 minutes and didn’t push my comfort zone. I managed our interaction safely and lucratively, albeit non-verbally.
Non-verbal consent is a way for me to communicate my boundaries when money is on the table. It allows me to have a say in my work conditions and control over other factors in the club. It was a quiet start to my shift. I knew if I made enough by 2 AM, I could maybe go home early and get some sleep. But if I hadn't thought he would spend, I would have said “stop,” or cut off the dance entirely. I have nothing to lose in that case.
Last month, I worked 6 days. Familial obligations kept me away from the club, which meant it was imperative to make money when I did work. At the end of the month, I went to the club full of positivity and hope, but by 1 AM, I had only made $60. Frustrated, I considered leaving, but I spotted an eager customer standing idly at the bar. He bought 5 dances — $100 worth — upfront. I smiled with relief, but after a few minutes I realized this interaction was not going to be easy work.
He pinched me, licked me, and tried to pick me up. I tried the non-verbal consent method to no avail. I weighed my options. I could end the dance, but if I kept going and made enough money, I wouldn't have to worry about my bills for a while. But I didn’t want to risk assault. The bouncer is nearby, but a finger violation can happen quickly — so I devised a new plan.
I popped my head out of the room and tapped the bouncer. He came in — I nodded to assure him that I was okay, but I used his momentary presence as a tool to continue this interaction cautiously and profitably. I gripped my customer's hands, “We have to behave. You’re going to get kicked out and I’m going to get fired!” The we, of course, is a forfeit; I haven’t done anything wrong.
But it helps me vocalize my boundaries without revealing cracks in my character performance. The we says: I want it just as much as you.
I released his hands. He kept them by his sides for the remaining 10 minutes of our time. He bought another 10 — $200 worth — and then another 10 after that. A half-hour in, he started to lick and grab again. I sat down next to him, slapped him playfully, winking. “You’re so naughty!” I whispered in his ear, conspiratorially, “but the bouncer is watching.”
He stopped grabbing.
Our hour-and-a-half together was uncomfortable, annoying, and exhausting, but not violating. I chose to engage in an undesirable intimate encounter for monetary gain. I was not tricked into it or pressured or coerced, and thus I maintained my agency.
Unwanted labor is a tough call, but it’s a decision people make without much thought every day — from the cubicle to the mine to the strip club.
Sometimes, though, I don’t have the tools available to strategize different ways to communicate my boundaries. Some clubs don’t have bouncers that interfere — and now and then, even in safe clubs, I don’t have the mental strength to covertly protect myself in lap dances. In those cases, I weed the patrons apart at the bar, decoding the details in our conversations: Are they standing in my personal space? Are they interested in my hobbies? Do they work a job where they bully people into doing what they want? All are factors that tell me if they will respect my boundaries.
I usually pick correctly. On those nights, I dance for customers who ask, “What are the rules?” and don’t have such rigid madonna/whore complexes. Customers who understand that money is not a form of consent, and no dollar amount provides endless access to my body. My labor here is enjoyable; I savor our intimacy. And I am grateful that I have the power to choose my clients — it’s a privilege denied to workers in other industries.
And when I don’t pick right, my voice is loud and firm. I don’t waffle as I walk away. Yes, I take a pay cut, but the “NO” is a necessity to my well-being. It is the single most empowering aspect of the sex industry for me. And now I have no qualms about voicing what I want outside the club, either.
When I get home, no matter how tired I am or early in the morning it is, I like to take a bath and feel the relief of the warm water on my body and begin to recover from the taxing night. Stripping is not for the weak — it’s a difficult job that intersects with the dual risk of being a woman and sex worker. The complexities of club consent are a testament to that.
At times, I wish I could have stayed that innocent stripper who always verbalized “NO!” but it is a work choice that I am willing to make for personal advancement.
Non-verbal consent is a welcome concession. It keeps me afloat the industry; it's the life jacket that carries me safely home every night.
Moreover, it teaches my customers to honor non-verbal cues and reminds them that my body and soul are not there to take and take.
Consent in all forms is the current that allows me to dance with dignity.