The Hardest Part About Stripping Wasn't Taking My Clothes Off

Before Holly started stripping, she didn't realize how much emotional labor the job would involve—or how empowering financial independence could be.

by Holly Darling; as told to Sirin Kale
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May 3 2018, 9:26am

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week, we're talking to Holly Darling about her first experience of working in a strip club. You can catch My First Time on Acast, Google Play, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

When I began stripping, I was going through a period where I was really broke and struggling with money constantly and just trying to make ends meet. I had a lightbulb moment one day where I thought, I'll just become a stripper.

I lived near a strip club so I decided to go into one and check it out. I'd never been in one before. I went in and there was this sea of men in suits. I remember being blown away by how beautiful the woman on stage was, and how sensual and erotic her performance was. I bought half a pint because I thought I had to buy something, watched and chatted to some of the girls, and then left because I felt out of place.

I was carrying a lot of stigma and inherited hang-ups about stripping around with me. I was definitely one of those people who thought strip clubs were dangerous, bad places. I thought that everyone there was a victim, and because they had no other choice.

The day I auditioned, I arrived and changed into the one set of fancy lingerie I owned, and they played a song and I danced on stage for about a minute. I remember thinking it would feel more like something, and it didn't. I thought I would feel more naked or exposed than I did. After that, they hired me. It was very straightforward. They gave me some forms to sign and some shifts for the following week.

Working there was very different from what I'd expected. The things I'd thought would be hard, like taking off my clothes, were easy. What was difficult was that I didn't realize I'd effectively signed up for a sales job. One hundred percent of your job in stripping is to approach people and sell you and your personal brand.

Learning how to do that was a process. I'd look at other girls and see what they were doing. Stripping has an interesting effect on your self esteem: you're selling a product, and the product is you. Although the money was usually really good, sometimes you'd have an off night. To see other people succeeding and earning money, when you're having a slow night, is hard. If you're not making any money in that environment, it makes you feel worthless.

My first shift was quite quiet: I probably made $275 to $415. I just started approaching people and asking them if they wanted dances. It felt a bit like the first day of school. All the girls knew each other in the dressing room, so I kept to myself a bit. I thought it might be aggressive or catty, which can sometimes be true, but strip clubs are also the places where I've experienced the most camaraderie, sisterhood, and support. The women working there are powerful Amazonian businesswomen and mothers.

Making myself financially stable felt like the biggest rush. Being broke all the time was making me feel shit. Finally feeling like I had some money was empowering. I thought taking my clothes off for money would make me feel shit. I'd inherited all this whore-phobia and assumptions about sex workers in our society; I judged people who used their sexual power for financial gain. But when I actually started working in the sex industry, it wasn't like that at all.

That said, there are some things about stripping that were difficult, especially how much your self-esteem becomes so attached to how much you earn on any given day. While I found the actual dancing easy and fun, although physically quite tiring, what I wasn't prepared for was the emotional labor stripping often entails.

Around six months after I began stripping, I moved to another club where you principally did sit-downs with clients, where someone pays for your time, and you talk to that person. Your job is basically catering to the egos of the men that you're talking to. You have to pretend you're really enjoying yourself, all of the time, and generate all of this positive energy.

The men want to talk about almost anything. You're part-cheerleader, part-therapist, part-friend. You have to be empathetic, listen to them, compliment them, and make them feel good at a personal level. I found it really draining and exhausting. I preferred stripping.

Sometimes, as a sex worker activist, you feel like you can't talk about all the things you dislike about the industry, because people ask why you don't just get another job. But I want to live in a world where all sex workers feel like they have agency and a safe working environment. We silence people when we question their choices to work in those jobs.

I'm very concerned by what's happening in the US with FOSTA. Sex workers can help keep each other safe by sharing information online. When I started stripping, the internet was such a valuable tool for me, and it helped me feel connected in an industry that's often really isolating.

When I first started stripping, I didn't tell anyone. But having a secret was hard. I was bursting at the seams to tell someone. I told my best friend, and I was so sure she'd be supportive. But when I told her, she was like, "Oh." I don't think she was judging me, but she wasn't as enthusiastic as I expected her to be. I was disappointed that she wasn't thrilled by this adventure I was going on.

Working in a strip club is like any other job. There are days where it is tedious and there are colleagues you don't like and management you don't agree with. But overall, stripping is pretty pedestrian.

It's not all perfect. Sometimes management creates an environment that's very stressful for women to work in. When you turn up for a shift, for example, you have to pay a house fee that can be anything from $14 dollars to $206 to work an evening. So before your shift starts, you're already in negative money. Sometimes club owners hire loads of other girls, so there's too much competition.

It's so important that the perception of stripping changes. We've inherited this bag of lies about what the problem with stripping and sex work and the industry is. We've been told that it's gross and it would be better that strippers don't exist; that the women who do it are broken and had a hard life and that men who purchase it are creeps. The truth is, that kind of cartoonish representation of the industry serves no-one. Like anything else in life, stripping is rich with nuance.