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Originally published Thu, Jul 21, 2016 at 11:09 AM on

There are two kinds of strip clubs in this world: gentlemen's clubs and tittie bars.

Gentlemen's clubs are sleek-looking nightclubs filled with fist pumping, white collar Todds who do more key bumps than tipping. They are more interested in how many people see them spending money than actually enjoying what they've spent it on. These clubs are systematically designed to make you feel like the big spender you probably aren't. It's genius.

Tittie bars are the often-overlooked little sisters of Gentlemen's Clubs. Characterized by their retro neon lighting, tacky decor and poor ventilation, they exude a greasy disco vibe. They are typically patronized by the blue collar Johns of the world who are happy to spend their hard earned cash in exchange for a compassionate ear and a simultaneous dry hump. The drinks are strong and the classic slutty rock jams blare.

From the permeating stench of gardenia and cheap cigars, to the hanging red lamps above its leather couches, The Girls of Glitter Gulch was a bona fide tittie bar - the last of its kind in Las Vegas. It breaks the hearts of many Johns and Destinys to report that, after 23 years of lukewarm tequila shots and enthusiastic motorboats, The Glitter is closing.

Like anyone who’s waltzed down Fremont Street, I strutted by The Girls of Glitter Gulch many times before ever venturing inside.

I was three years into my chosen career as a stripper, having gotten my start while travelling Australia. After twirling my way through strip clubs and burlesque houses across the globe, I eventually came to settle in stripper Mecca - Las Vegas. I took a job at an infamous corporate club: it was big, fancy, and I hustled there for a year before I could finally admit to myself that I was miserable.

Vegas' corporate strip club politics drained me. To get ahead of the hundreds of women hustling the floors each night, you had to be prepared to pay off the right people for an introduction to the big spenders. This put the maximum earning potential in the hands of the men who worked at the club, not the women. This bureaucratic, power-tripping bullshit made me resent a job that I love and am really fucking good at. I was left to decide between adapting to their crooked system or going rogue and risking a significant pay cut.

Anyone who’s been stripping for more than a week is not naive. I welcome a pro quo scenario, so long as it's fair. But there is a difference between "I help you, and you help me" and extortion. The nerve of these washed up former UFC and NFL athletes turned VIP Hosts had them literally forming a human blockade, denying me access to areas of the club where the big spenders were sat. This was because I refused to tip them more than 20%, which is the universal standard of gratuity when it comes to exceptional service in most other industries.

So I went rogue.

Defeated, I considered retiring, but the stripper moon blessed me with a sprinkle of good industry gossip that would change everything.

It was a perfect spring night (a fleeting occurrence in Las Vegas) when I got to talking about this very topic with Mercedes, a Puerto Rican seductress whose fiery attitude paired with her mega-watt smile worked wonders on a NASCAR crowd.

Over a frozen margarita (or seven) I lamented about the pickle I was in: I had finally made it to Vegas - LAS FUCKING VEGAS, STRIPPER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD - and couldn't find a club where I could hustle without hating everything I'd grown to love over the years. Mercedes listened, sipped the last of her cocktail, and stared me dead in the eyes and said, "I know it looks like a dump, but come to The Girls of Glitter Gulch. Trust me."

I trusted her because she was a kindred spirit who loved her job and strongly believed in strippers being protected and respected in the workplace. She was right. Two and a half years later, I'm still here. I will be until June 26th, the day it finally shutters its doors.

I've always preferred a no frills tittie bar to the pomp and circumstance of a gentleman's club. Due to The Glitter’s sordid reputation as a hard hustle dive where strippers go to retire, I found myself constantly defending it. Any time someone asked why I chose to work there and not at one of the seemingly more polished corporate clubs, my response was always the same: "Because I love it here."

Talk to any veteran Vegas stripper and she'll wax poetically about the "good ol' days" or a time I like to refer to as the Golden Age of Grinding.

Hitting its stride around the mid 1990's, the enthusiasm for girls, girls, girls was so extraordinary that it wasn't uncommon for dancers to have to turn away clients simply because there weren't enough hours in a shift to accommodate them all.

Dancers were championed in their home clubs as the rock stars they were because the trickle down effect had everyone working at the club swimming in loot. This iconic era of rump shaking began to fizzle around 2008, when the economic shit hit the fan and many devoted rain makers had to forgo their strip club budgets in order to make ends meet. May they rest in peace.

Generous clients became less abundant, and club owners and management began heavily nickel and diming strippers in order to keep their pockets full. As much as 40% of what dancers earn from lap dances and VIP rooms became a mandatory tip out to the club, in addition to the requisite nightly stage fees*.

They also started enforcing rules and codes of conduct that essentially negated our status as independent contractors** and closely mimicked that of an employee, albeit without the legal protection of minimum wage, overtime and health care.

Defying these rules and refusing to fork over a hefty portion of your earnings resulted (and still does in most strip clubs) in additional fines which you're obligated to pay should you want to continue working there.

Not at Glitter.

True to their old school roots, we were never told how to run our businesses. Any gratuities we offered back to the house were not extorted, they were earned. Management had our best interests at heart, and they were quick to bounce a patron should he or she ever cross a line.

We were given respect and in return, they had our loyalty. Some dancers have called the place home for over a decade.

The Girls of Glitter Gulch was renown for its open door policy, so long as you wanted to hustle and were able bodied, then you could strap on your stilettos and march on in. In our industry, having a reliable home club where you can come and go as you please is as valuable as the potential money you'll earn there.

They were also nontraditional in their hiring process, which contributed to the harsh way outsiders judged it. You didn't have to represent a conventional beauty ideal to work there. In a world of increasingly impossible body standards for women, I appreciated this. I know I'm tall and thin (and very blonde) but diversity is important. When strip clubs hire different kinds of women, they fight dangerous conventions that bombard our society with notions of what it is to be sexy. It also makes the experience more dynamic for customers who come to clubs to indulge in their personal fantasies, not a narrow corporate idea of what they should be turned on by.

People love dismissing women past a certain age as sexual beings. It's painfully evident in our culture, and quite ironic, that our desirability is completely devalued once we actually begin to come into our sexual prime. You are then twice as demonized if you should, heaven forbid, choose to work in the sex industry past said expiration date.For every crude joke (and believe me, I've heard them all) made at the expense of the older babes at Glitter, there were twice as many men enthusiastically emptying their accounts to spend time with them.

A veteran stripper is the hardest hustler I've ever met. She is profoundly adept at her job and teaches me new things every night.

It was because of Serene, a mesmerizing Haitian vet who's cascading curls could rival Beyoncé’s, that I began effectively asserting myself when talking money.

On a slow summer night, just after I began at The Glitter, she offered some unsolicited -- but forever appreciated -- pearls of wisdom. In her silky patois she cooed: "Behbeh, you young girls don't get it. These people coming here because they have money and you are the reason they wanna spend it. Stop suggesting nicely and start demanding what you're worth. If you value yourself, they will value you. Don't waste your time."

It was a fundamental life lesson, taught to me by a woman well into her forties who had the hustle down to such science that she could sometimes earn thousands a night without ever removing her bra. Respect. In fact, the only people in this business who don't respect the veteran dancers are strippers on their first ever shift.

You quickly realize that if you want to earn the big bucks- these industrious babes who've spent years honing their skills are something fierce to aspire to.There is so much to be learned from their finesse and keen understanding of negotiation and sales, just ask any savvy business man who's wisely invested in her time.

Anna, a raven haired Bulgarian vixen, told me that because of the lack of opportunity (read: ageist discriminatory vetting process) for more experienced entertainers in our industry- especially in Las Vegas- a lot of her older friends at The Glitter will be forced to retire.

I am outraged at the idea that a woman, still viable in her industry, is forced into retirement simply because someone else has a problem with the idea of her commodifying herself past the deemed "appropriate" age. I worry what will happen to these women when all the Glitter Gulches close their doors.

As for me, I will continue to comb the valley for remaining tittie bars with hints of the Golden Age of Grinding left to it, if they exist. Though I already know nothing can ever replace the magic of Fremont's greatest salacious treasure. It's closing marks the end of an era, not just in Downtown but in all of Las Vegas.

Through and through, The Girls of Glitter Gulch was one of a kind, and above all I loved it because it felt like home. I knew every single person working there, and I made friends with some fascinating and kind-hearted people. We treated each other with respect, and ultimately had each other’s backs. Traipsing around The Glitter was some of the most fun I’d ever had working in this industry, and I'm heartbroken to see it go.

Valerie Stunning, Girls of Glitter Gulch Las Vegas. Photo Credit: Sophia Phan

*A stage fee also known as a "house fee" is a fluctuating amount of money, determined by the projected busyness of the shift to be worked that is to be paid every day you choose to work it. It is likened to "renting" the club to conduct your business. You receive no base pay or benefits from the club because you aren't an employee, and therefore everything you earn, in theory, is yours to keep.

** Strip Clubs have been classifying dancers as independent contractors since before I was born. What this allows clubs to do is legally avoid paying state and federal tax on said "contractor". It's also a neat loophole that excuses the club from paying dancers minimum wage, overtime, or providing health care or 401k.

I don’t Jeopardy often but when I do I am instantly transported to 1991-1992, when I was about 6 to 7 years old. The game show takes me back to when my mom, my brother’s dad, and I would catch the after-dinner double feature of Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune on our wood paneled television. The television, like the plastic covered couch and stalactite prone basement were accoutrements of the creaky old house my great-grandmother left to my mother when she died. I hold tight a handful of childhood memories from the couple of years we spent there, and living out my fantasy of being a high scoring Jeopardy contestant is one of them. 

The other day I binged three episodes of Celebrity Jeopardy without a pee break and as I yelled answers at the screen a few things became apparent:

1. Ken Jennings is aiiight. He honors the boxy suits, precise diction, and droll humor that the show’s longtime host, Alex Trebek made iconic.

2. As each of the 9 celebrities explained the charitable cause that their winnings would benefit, the apparent buzz word of the day was “underserved.” 

3. I was annoyed. 

It was clear that each celebrity had expertly delivered their media trained talking points on “how to speak to a mainstream audience on network television about people who are suffering.” And while I don’t hate the player, I am side-eyeing the game. Not Jeopardy. No, Jeopardy is perfect. Well, nearly perfect. I personally felt LeVar Burton was the superior choice to replace Alex Trebek.

What I’m side-eyeing is the use of the term underserved. Where did it come from? Who does it benefit? Who does it detract from? And who’s two cents were taken into account when deciding that we were going to collectively use “underserved” and words like it as blanket terms for people in need? 

And while I’m at it, as I side-eye, I am also steeping in a bit of shame tea at my own past dalliance with these froufrou terms. 

Let me explain…

During the last five years I lived in Las Vegas, I sat on countless floors throughout countless sex worker led organizing (or as I like to call it: whoreganzing) meet ups. Topics of these meet ups varied, though mostly circled around staging rallies and protests, raising mutual aid, providing street-based outreach and supply drop offs, hosting community events, and cold calling district representatives in support of or opposition to circulating bills that directly affected sex workers rights. 

The experience was incredible. People from various socio-economic, ethnic, race, religious, gender, and sex work experience voluntarily assembled to contribute their knowledge and opinions to the topics at hand in a non-hierarchical format. In spite of how chaotic these forums occasionally felt, or that they always seemed to run over time, the fact that all of us came together to pool our collective resources in hopes of affecting change was no small feat! I am proud to have been a part of it. 

But multiple truths can coexist. And thinking about the Celebrity Jeopardy contestants use of the word “underserved” reminded me of a part confusion, part grievance I had back when I organized that I wish I aired sooner.

My regret is that I didn’t speak up when I felt frustrated by our organizations use of a prescribed media safe lexicon when addressing the public. Particularly the non-sex working public from whom we were attempting to mobilize aid and support. When we spoke amongst ourselves we tended to shoot it straight. More often than not we used plain direct language to describe what needed to get done and why. But once we were on camera, or being quoted for an interview, we (myself included) regularly used terms like: marginalized, underserved, under-resourced, and experiencing food/housing insecurity.

It was all very coiffed vernacular that permeates today’s social justice movements and I’m sure was intended to communicate the expertise our organization had on the subject. A thought I now find silly. As if our collective experience of being sex workers who regularly bumped up against the systemic blockades in place to keep us down wasn’t “expertise” enough. 

On one hand I felt like a poser. Why had I adopted this reductive language that did not come naturally to me? And on the other hand I let imposter syndrome get the best of me. Who was I to critique this seemingly official language? I don’t have any previous experience in organizing. Nor do I have a college degree which many folks within activism revere as the marker of having good ideas. 

While I believe myself to have good ideas, and often times the best ideas, what I tend to lean on to inform my ideas is mostly derived from my experience in the world. And in this case I think about my experience growing up poor.

I know being poor. Poor and I go wayyy back. 

I know what it’s like to see your parent break from the insidious stress of constantly being one meal away from not being able to feed a house full of kids. I know what it’s like to have to move every few months because eviction is always nipping at your heels. To occasionally not have electricity in the winter, so you sleep in all your clothes and keep perishables in a crate on the back stoop. I know what it’s like to accompany your parent when they have to ask for help in getting your family’s basic needs met. 

And because I know this, when I think about being a mouthpiece for an organization who aids families like mine or in broader terms, people who are suffering, I can’t shake this feeling that the audience is being coddled when we attempt to convey struggle in sanitized terms. 

When I say: “families where parents suffer chronic debilitating illness and can not work are disproportionately dealing with hunger and eviction”, it communicates the crisis at hand directly. If I say, “underserved people are experiencing food and housing insecurity” it reduces the urgency of the situation and takes the edge off at a time when the audience really needs to be confronted with the edge.

Let's take it one step further. If I describe my own experience in these terms: “I came from an under-resourced family who regularly experienced food/housing insecurity” it's a great way to completely rob an aspect of my story of it’s color and texture. It minimizes the living breathing experience of my humanity. And for what?! To make other people more comfortable?

Another experience I’m familiar with is witnessing countless people who’ve heard me recant stories about growing up poor nearly lose their bowels. I shit you not. What is spoken about casually and often with wry humor with folks who have shared my experience inspires a palpable discomfort in those who do not. 

One mention of food stamps, the OG ones that came in a perforated booklet that we had to tear actual stamps from, and their body stiffens. Double down with details about how most of my meals during the school year came curtesy of the free lunch program and the extra poor kid special: free breakfast (so much mystery meat and cartons of whole milk), and their intestines start rumbling. Top it off with fond memories of looking forward to the church’s food donations for the shear variety it offered, and they’re fleeing to the toilet!

“I’ll take ‘Poor People’ for $400”

The first forty times I encountered this reaction I thought it was because these people, people who did not share my intimate understanding of how hard it can be to survive, felt above it. Eventually I came to understand that nine out of ten times the anal clenching I witnessed was more of a sort of cultural wincing that occurs when people are directly confronted with another’s suffering. It isn’t that they feel above it, it’s that they can’t relate. 

But that’s not my problem. Nor is it the problem of anyone representing an organization who’s job it is to raise awareness and support for those in need. 

Holding space for another person’s suffering is not about relatability, it’s about looking it directly in the eye without judgement and accepting it for what it is. It’s a really human impulse to want to look away from suffering, or in this case use language that takes the sting away. But when I think about our collective agreement to use media safe language like marginalized, underserved, under-resourced (and the like) in place of saying the exact thing that is occurring, I am concerned that we are only successful in letting people off the hook from directly confronting it.

Sure, it might make for a tighter elevator pitch, but the more we make it easier to look away the harder it becomes to hold space for another persons suffering. And for the audience who is really listening, an opportunity is being missed to engage empathy and actually connect over real human conditions. 

How does this help those we are aiming to serve? Why are we putting too much of our already thinly spread energetic resources into cultivating clever words to convey conditions that are really quite simple, when we could be using that energy to connect people in need to what ever it is they need?

  • Valerie Stunning

After a thorough expedition through the metaverse I am happy to report that I did not half ass it. No. If there’s one thing about me, it is when I take interest in something and decide to pursue it, I am full ass all the way. For better or for worse, I consider it one of my finer traits. 

Over this past decade I have social media’d hard. While in the throes of optimizing engagement and building a “following” I had a lot of fun acquiring on the job training with brand development, digital art directing, visual storytelling, and SMO and SEO utilization. I had even more fun interacting with like minded spirits who share my passion for living fully on one’s own terms. And I had a lot less fun getting caught up in my own hype.. feeling reduced to a persona, and a slave to a corporation’s algorithm which inevitably only benefits them and their bottom line.

For a brief moment I had envisioned some kind of grand finale for this last blog that I’ll be posting on my socials. I thought about compiling a highlights reel of my top posts. Perhaps even sprinkling a few of my favorite smutty images in there and finishing off with a recap of all the wonderful projects I’ve built and promoted while engaging on this platform since 2014. A final digital shrine to my social media’s greatest hits. Because, if there’s anything I love to celebrate, it’s me. 

But when I brought a 10 week old Catahoula Leopard Dog home this past Thursday, I quickly got over myself. Nothing will snap you out of self delusions of grandeur quicker than a two month old living creature who needs you to teach it how to function in the world. 

It was a necessary reminder. That everything I am currently excited to engage with, and invest my resources in, exists out here in the tangible world. With its puppy turds on my stair case, slobbered furniture, and daily incremental signs of growth and development. So nuanced and minute, that if I’m not fully present I’ll easily miss it. 

It's a far cry from the manicured glamour and performance art I’ve excelled at curating here over these past years. And I am grateful. I am grateful that I have given myself permission to grow and change and step fully into a new era. 

I used to be a lot of things. I used to be 28 years old, like when I started this account. 

I used to be a Baby Stripper who was new to Las Vegas, and was arrogant and religious in my ways of thinking. I used to think that what I wanted and believed then would be what I wanted and believed always. I scoffed at people who owned dogs, put down roots, and had kids. I judged them as suckers and I would have fervently dueled anyone on that hill. Their way to do life was wrong, my way was right. Obviously. 

I am now approaching 39 and excited to log off and go analog. For how long? Who knows.. who cares?! I just know it’s time. 

I’ve been stripping for nearly 13 years and am starting to contemplate a change in careers. I’m also shopping for a plot of land to homestead. Me! A big city girl who didn’t own a couch for many years because I conflated being comfortable with being complacent. (more on that another time…) I’m also considering the small loss of self and sleepless nights I’m experiencing while training this obnoxious (but super cute) puppy as preparation for the new humans I hope to one day birth into the world. I’m no longer dying on hills about how other people live their lives. In fact whenever I find myself distracted by other people I remember the advice of a 103 year old man that I recently read: The secret to living a long and healthy life is to mind your business. 

Most importantly though, what I have extracted from this experience of living my flashiest trashiest internet life is how whenever life has bitch slapped me with heartache, loss, failure, injury, and illness, and I’ve taken long breaks from logging on, it was never the thirst traps I missed posting. Instead, what has always consistently lit me up is sharing my thoughts, philosophies, and curiosities on human issues via the lens of my personal experiences.

And so while this will be the last blog I promote on my socials (indefinitely), I’ll still be here writing. You can sign up via my site to receive my latest blogs direct to your inbox. And eventually when my book drops y’all will be the first to know. 

Thank you for being here!  

Valerie Stunning, circa 2016. Photo by Peter Karate. Styled/Directed by Sina King

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