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Someone who was trying to sell me something once, paid me a compliment by saying I was a weapon. Having built an entire career out of engaging conversation and paying people compliments, I am typically a tough sell on flattery. But visuals are my kryptonite, and if the stars are aligned use of strong imagery can act as a speak easy entrance to my skeptical mind. 

I disliked the messenger but took to the message. Mostly because I interpreted being called “a weapon” as being atypical, underestimated, and dangerous. It was a solid line and confirmed my bias. Who doesn’t like to be considered a little dangerous?

Today as I write this, from the second floor of an Angeles City cafe, squeezed into a wooden booth that was intended for a population that does not woman spread or grow past 5’3... I am a dulled weapon. A dulled gluten infested weapon. If I were a knife you’d get better use of me by throwing me at the person you were trying to stab. 

To be fair, I knew this was likely to happen, it is the Philippines after all. And after years of working to holistically heal my body of chronic inflammation and G.I. issues, I know the first thing to go when I’ve been gluten-ed is my clarity, focus, and an ability to think objectively. Some call it brain fog, but catchy phrases are like assholes, everyone’s got one. Or something like that.

I ended up in the Philippines because Boo had a work trip and now that I’m no longer at the mercy of the strip club’s “busy season” (read about my stripper retirement here) I was fortunate to tag along. After all I could contemplate my next career move and vacillate between celebrating the end of an era and existential crisis from anywhere. Mabuhay! 

Because business, this trip is taking place in metropolitan Philippines not remote island Philippines. Which is a blessing because the archipelago this time of year is an absolute inferno, and I need to be indoors with reliable AC. So far I have learned that the thing about being in the cities here is once you leave designated tourist areas, you are confronted with the the day to day survival of people living in a developing country with a GDP per capita of about $4000.00 Compared to the US’s GDP per capita of about $75,000. 

It is a far cry from the turquoise waters, frolicking bikini clad babes, and jungle adventure bros that travel magazines and influencers' social media posts might have you believe is the entire experience of the PI. I was also mentally prepared for this. But it doesn’t seem to matter how prepared you think you are to witness extreme poverty, seeing it IRL and sensing the humans it directly impacts is always hard to hold.

What I wasn’t prepared for was just how much this heat would kick my ass. I thought after 10 years of living in the Mojave Desert, one of the hottest places on Earth, that I could handle heat. But not this heat. Have you ever been so hot that you unknowingly black out in a fit of anxiety and near combustible rage? Only to realize once you’ve cooled down that you didn’t hate yourself, your life, and everyone in it, you were just heat exhausted.

It’s so damn hot even the locals are cursing the conditions. The only people outside are dumb tourists, folks going to and from buildings or cars, construction workers, and Edward, a 62 year old Filipino man with a coiffed bouffant and an empty cell phone holder clipped to his belt. 

Edward was kind enough to corner me at the park as I was making my way to this cafe so he could tell me his entire life story. Maybe it’s my tattoos or the leopard print shirt, but Edward knew I wasn't from there, and as he approached me demanded to know where I came from. Over the course of our conversation I learned Edward divorced his wife because all she did was talk, and that his daughter was currently trying to get a visa to work as a butcher in Canada. I may have told him I was Canadian. 

That said, since we arrived to the Pearl of the Orient* my biggest complaint, besides the heat and the jet lag (I haven’t slept a full night in 5 days) is that there has been a trace amount of gluten in pretty much everything I’ve consumed. The mineral water, gluten. The papaya, gluten. The watered down tequila and herbal cigarette (that garnished a cocktail at a jazz joint in Manila), gluten. *Pearl of the Orient is a nickname for the Philippines bestowed by some Spaniard Missionary in the 1700’s and later adapted into the Philippines national anthem.

Admiral Hotel. Manila, Philippines

The point is, my precious western gut is struggling to not be that precious western tourist who just can’t deal. Yet here I am throwing back handfuls of digestive aid, searching for the traveler I once knew my twenty something self to be.

The wide-eyed young woman who could show up with nothing more than a backpack and sheer will to a developing country and thrive. The one who could carry on in spite of 400° weather, eat whatever she wanted, and filter the local way of life through a nonchalant lens without internalizing it. The one who would look disapprovingly at the other Americans she observed abroad who appeared unable and unwilling to participate in local cuisine and customs. 

As I suck down the last of this iced peanut butter soy latte, trying to focus in spite of an indoor temperature of what’s got to be 106° and the aroma of human excrement wafting from a modern looking restroom with archaic plumbing and zero ventilation, I think it’s safe to say… that bitch is gone. And good riddance!

Twenty something traveler me was new to the world but somehow above it all. She thrived on calling out supposed bias in others but never considering a reality where multiple truths exist, or gasp, that she may have been privy to a partial truth of a situation. Or no truth at all... Between the heat and the brain fog I could not with her amateur disdain and self righteousness. It was fun while she lasted, but buhhh-bye.

This cafe’s stench coupled with the overall heat and humidity brings up memories of when I went to Cuba in 2017. The friends I travelled with had planned to explore both Havana and Trinidad, but I came down with travelers flu two days after we arrived and was only able to experience Havana. 

Being in Cuba was the first time I had ever been to a country where the GDP per capita was only a sliver of what it is in the US. It was also the first time I observed how failed governments blatantly ignore general public health and safety, and hoard resources at the expense of their constituents livelihood. (I know from living in poor urban areas in the US that even here an obvious disparity exists with what low income neighborhoods lack in comparison to middle and upper class neighborhoods. But Cuba gave me a new perspective on what we in prosperous countries consider poor.) 

Based on what I learned from the film Scarface, high school history class, and the internet, I had known better than to have grand visions of opulence for the place. But I naively hadn’t considered that basic infrastructure such as running water, safely constructed buildings, and city sanitation were emblems of being rich. 

I remember roaming the capital’s streets and being taken aback by the juxtaposition of state wealth and civilian poverty. Havana is the most populated city in Cuba with about 2 million people, and there in the city center, a lot of the apartments barely stood. I saw collapsing roofs, places without front doors, and in general the kind of shoddy infrastructure that would have deemed a building condemned in a wealthier country. The occupants of these apartments, adults and children alike, many without shoes, crowded around doorways and flowed into the streets. Some folks were sitting and shooting the breeze, others were hawking whatever they could, and a couple hollered at the gringa strolling by.

Decaying matter and trash accumulated along the curb, and there was a noticeable squish beneath my sneaker of whatever gunk hadn’t properly drained into the sewers. Which now collected in the crevices of the cobblestone. It smelled the way I imagine a hospital waste bin smells after fermentation. 

Every so often I’d walk past a gleaming white government building standing proudly erect. Their properties showed no signs of decay and there was no trash. They all appeared to have doors and roofs, and to be in comparatively pristine conditions. I wondered what the workers inside were wearing. Did they have shoes? Did they go home to dilapidated remnants of what was once a an apartment building?

I left Cuba feeling the same way I’d eventually feel when I left Morocco, parts of Colombia, and likely the same way I’ll feel leaving the Philippines. With a checked sense of privilege.

Something my twenty something traveler self was incapable of.

Seafood Kare-Kare. A local dish from the Pampanga Region, the culinary capital of the Philippines.

When I left the US for the first time I had the tolerance for diversity and street smarts of a kid who grew up with multi-cultural exposure. But even so, all I knew about the world when I ventured off was still only derived from the limited experience of having ever lived between northern New Jersey and Brooklyn, New York. 

It took me one passport stamp to pick up on the reputation American tourists have for being entitled, ignorant, and at times sloppy. We request chicken fingers and soda on foreign menus, rarely learn the 101’s of a nation’s spoken language, and don shorts and flip flops everywhere. In a historical plaza packed with multi-national visitors, 9 out of 10 times Americans are critiqued as the ratched ones. 

I remember feeling deeply embarrassed by this revelation. Being relegated to such stigma would have devastated me. I may have been an amateur traveller, but I desperately wanted to prove myself as an un-American American. Cool and worldly in ways the others weren’t. 

To overcompensate for this insecurity I adopted the habit of leaning on my niche exposure to various ethnicities, races, and immigrants back home as some kind of international affairs degree. As if somehow growing up in a melting pot gave me license to critique or be dismissive of the social and political climate of whatever country I was in.

Even when my opinions were in agreement with the local I was talking to, what did I really know? And how could I? I wasn’t from there. 

It could be argued that’s probably the most American thing I could have done in spite of my effort to be above our ratched reputation. I wish I would have asked more questions and passed less judgement. Or had been able to sit with the disillusionment of the world not living up to its idealized version in my head. But hindsight is a dish best served cold. Or something like that. 

I will say after fourteen years and more than twenty countries traveled, I no longer have the convenience of delusion. It has been proven time and time again that running our mouths about things we don’t really understand is not a uniquely American characteristic. Just ask the Swedish guy Boo and I recently met at our hotel bar. 

The Swede (let’s call him) appeared to be about late forties to mid fifties and was in the PI visiting his wife’s family. Born and raised in Sweden, he also held a German passport, and had spent a good amount of his adult life doing business and living across Asia. Which apparently made him an expert on all things America. It took about four whole minutes of us conversing before the Swede’s initial quippy banter turned into impassioned Eurosplaining: How, Where, Why, and When Americans gets it wrong. 

My favorite part of the diatribe was when the Swede lost track of his point and began peppering his one sided argument with the US television, film, and pop culture references he adored. I found his internal conflict of being deeply influenced by US culture but feeling a need to take an “anti” stance against US politics and how Americans live their lives, interesting. 

My least favorite part was when he invoked his own misogyny, racism, and xenophobia to draw parallels between what he believes is the current downfall of Europe to the US. If it weren’t all so unremarkably cliche, I might have felt compelled to push back. Instead I listened, and occasionally interjected to ask why he believed what he did. Because the news and social media, of course

This interaction left me wondering about the fine line between observing and being curious about why things are the way they are, and writing off an entire population because of stances we feel we must take. It's a line that seems to blur based on whatever our lens of the truth is.

Is it a lens of ignorance and idealism due to youth or inexperience? Is it a lens of inherent privilege that citizens of wealthy nations will never unknow? Is it a lens controlled by for-profit companies who strategically manipulate content to increase advertising dollars while padding their bottom lines with our outrage?

Sometimes it seems in order to qualify in taking resolute stances when talking to someone about their country’s political, societal, or cultural affairs, all we need is to also be from a nation with a horrific history of dehumanization, colonization, and exploitation. The selective memory has a way of automatically kicking in, allowing us to look down from our high horse as we tell people all about themselves. 

Looking around this Angeles City cafe, I see teenagers taking selfies, a group of young professionals sporting khakis and lanyards having a meeting, and a couple of construction workers seeking refuge from the blistering heat. The swamp cooler in the corner of the room is struggling to keep everyone from blacking out and murdering each other. A week of travel between two Philippine cities does not make me an expert on anything Philippines, yet I get the feeling there’s not a person in this room who would ever feel so entitled to tell me about myself. 

**I'm taking the summer off. Next blog post: September 18.

Crabs N Crack. Angeles City, Philippines.

After thirteen years of professional thotting- across 3 continents, 4 countries,10 states, 17 cities, and 37 clubs- I have officially hung up my Pleasers. As in done, D U N, done. That’s right. This puta is retired. 

You might be thinking, “Well duhh Val, the title of your last blog was Stripper Retirement, Probably. (Part 1)” but believe it or not, I actually didn’t plan on retiring until the end of the Summer. 

Yes, I was beyond burnt out. To a crisp. So much so that my therapist and partner (on separate occasions) even expressed concern that my relationship to this work was slipping into dangerous territory. That the weariness I exuded from 8 days of work a month eclipsed any dollar amount I brought home. Stripping was increasingly taking more than it was giving me and I could feel it. As the months rolled by it was increasingly harder for me to shake off the internalized stress from a weekend of club work and slide back into my civilian life.

But in spite of my physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimming, I still clung tightly to this abstract idea of exiting on my terms. Which in reality I did exit on my terms. It just didn't look or feel the way I thought it would. In retrospect, I’m not even sure what I thought it would look or feel like. I just know I had an iron tight grip on it.

I can safely say that "on my terms" didn’t look like a closet stacked with hundreds. And regrettably, it wasn’t a parade with an accompanying lifetime achievement award for “What Dat Ass Do.” While I believed I hadn’t felt bound in quite some time to some standard of enough that I witnessed other sex workers hold themselves to, I do admit I’ve caught myself every now and again looking at the houses my sex worker friends have bought and the respectable on paper civilian careers they now boast with an envious side eye. In my most insecure moments I have questioned, did I do it wrong? What have I got to show from all these years?

I’m not proud of it. But I’m also not above it. Even so. While I can recognize that petty comparison can occasionally creep up and get the best of me, I’m also confident that temporary envy is not enough to keep me engaged in self destructive behavior. 

I'm sure of this because throughout the entirety of my sex work career I have never once aspired to pursuing a college degree or buying a house. Hell there were many years I didn’t even want to own a couch. 

When I started stripping at 26 what I wanted was to move through the world untethered, to come and go as I pleased. And I did just that. 

I used the time and money stripping afforded me to live in a way women in my family never had the chance to. I travelled as far as I could and experienced as much as possible. I made intentional choices that kept me buoyant and pliable. I made reckless choices and accumulated a proper amount of regret. I’ve been fortunate enough to see the sunset from countless vantage points on this Earth, and privileged enough to rest comfortably on my soap box and pontificate about my life. 

I did all this based on how I wanted to live. Not according to someone’s idea of what I should be doing.

So why, after sucking so much juice out of life, did I still feel compelled to push myself beyond burnout and continue with a job that was now sucking the life out of me? I suppose I could explain myself with the same ol' go to's, but this time I don't feel it's enough to solely relate my behavior to starvation mentality. Or group think. Or even capitalism. What is that insatiable thing that shames me into believing that I didn’t do enough? That there’s still bread on the table and it ain’t over till I get every last crumb.

You know, logically if I break down the labor I regularly traded for money, it’s easy for me to understand why burn out is an inherent part of this job. The level of compartmentalization required to do this work is in and of itself a lot for any one person to process from a single night, let alone years on end. 

To give those of you who aren't personally familiar, here’s an idea of the baseline of things I am managing during any given dance:

There’s the close proximity to a complete stranger which of course entails various degrees of physical contact AND the sensory overload that comes from smelling and touching new people all the time. Then there’s the energetic exchange and absorption that comes from being that close to someone. *I don’t care how woo woo or not you consider yourself to be- I know for a fact that we human animals are constantly picking up what other people are putting out energetically… 

Then there’s the hyper vigilance of making sure while I’m performing eroticism and intimacy through intricate movement and dance, I am also safe. 

  • Is the customer respecting my boundaries? 

  • What happens if there is a sudden shift in their character (because sometimes they do bait and switch and who they become during a dance was not who they were on the floor) do I have an exit strategy? 

  • Am I quick enough, strong enough, savvy enough to deescalate a possible dangerous scenario? Sure, security.. but can they get there faster than it takes a potential predator to try some bullshit? …

Meanwhile, as I’ve calculated all this, I’m moving with a fluid sensuality, grace, and effortlessness designed to seem natural and turn someone on. I’m also projecting a playful/slutty vibe that’s tailored to compliment the energy each customer is seeking but hasn’t necessarily specified…

As I’m keeping rhythm and showcasing my labia, I’m searching for that thing, the key to keeping a customer enraptured and spending. Is it deeper conversation? Is it a flying somersault? Is it light BDSM?  

I’m also counting songs to mark the time…

And I’m calculating the numbers in my head. 

  • What is this customer’s spending potential?

  • How much energy do I need to exert based on this perceived information? 

  • How much in tips do I need to earn to cover the percentage that goes back to the club?

  • When all is said and done is there enough money to make me feel good about the labor I’ve traded for it?

All this while operating anywhere from dead sober to proper buzzed on shots of tequila. And that’s just a dance. Keep in mind this isn’t considering watching and working the floor, dancing on stage, and intercepting colleagues energy/issues/drama. It’s also not taking into account my personal life and all I’m managing with myself and family on any given night. Capeesh? 

A while ago I received a comment on IG from a fellow veteran stripper who had hung up her heels after seventeen years of hustling. I remember at some point during our exchange she said something along the lines of feeling that although she had been out of the club for awhile, she still felt like she was processing the experience. 

In the few weeks since I’ve retired, I feel that so hard. And it’s only been one month. I remember thinking when her and I were messaging, what a wealth of experience and advocacy she was sitting on having had the perspective that only time and distance can shape. It’s way too soon for me to say something profound regarding the summation of my stripping career, if it ever comes. But if does, you’ll be the first to know.

BTS Photo: Valerie Stunning

Teetering on the kind of hysteria that only blaring trap music in an empty strip club can incite, I grabbed a blanket from VIP and huddled in a corner booth to do what I often do when it’s painfully slow. Contemplate my life. 

Sure it was a Sunday, but it was also America’s favorite drinking holiday. And we are located right outside of an army base. Why weren't there, at the very least, a line out the door of inebriated GI’s hell bent on making questionable decisions that they may or may not remember?  

Instead I had been sitting around for four hours in pricey lingerie and a well worn pair of 6 inch Pleaser stilettos. In this time I had given a single lap dance, read about the delicate science behind roasting a perfect chicken, and learned the do’s and don’ts of a resume. 

After exhausting my scroll tolerance, which is now a lot lower since I went on a complete social media hiatus back in January, I put my phone down. But because I’m still a masochist, a masochist fresh off of tax season, I began mentally sifting through my 2022 earnings (Las Vegas) in comparison to my 2023 earnings (Colorado Springs.) 

For the record I was well aware that when I decided to move the volume of patrons in the Springs couldn’t possibly touch what Vegas pulls. I was mentally prepared for a pay cut. Throughout 2023 this pay cut became more and more evident as I made my rounds working each of the three clubs in town. Apparently, here it is standard operating procedure to sit around for hours and wait for weekend warriors to trickle in. 

But god damn. 35% less! Thirty Five Percent. I worked five days more in 2023 than I had in 2022, averaged much longer shifts, and earned thirty five percent less. And don’t you dare say it’s the economy. It is not the economy when the average COS jiggle joint customer can easily afford a season pass to the Breckinridge slopes. No, lack of expendable income is not the issue here. 

I took a break from feeling sorry for myself long enough to check the floor to see if anyone had wandered in. Aside from the one customer who had been stationed in the same seat since before I arrived, and had turned every girl down because he was in search of a “deeper connection”, there were several other women in various states of undress strewn across chairs and couches. They too had kicked off their plastic stilettos, were scrolling their phones, and may have also been contemplating their lives. 

I made like that Homer Simpson gif and receded back into my corner. 

Annoyed that I had traded in a cozy night with boo and our dog to sit in an empty strip club and not get paid, I began to curse the health consciousness and outdoor fanaticism Colorado breeds. To hell with these people and their Patagucci wearing, asleep by 10pm, no cheap thrills having asses. It was obvious that the cult of fourteeners*, jeepers**, and snow sport enthusiasts were in a cabal to decimate my livelihood. 

I paused to consider the likelihood of a secret cabal of polite Type A people dripped in expensive eco friendly athleisure out to eradicate adult entertainment. But just as the image of a passive aggressive mob jousting walking sticks at the strip club began to crystalize, I stumbled upon a sneaking suspicion. 

Damn it. I really wanted to keep hating on the culture of my temporary home, but once I catch a whiff of my own bullshit it's too late. I was already on to the fact that behind my internal temper tantrum there lay a touch of hypocrisy and a greater truth that had nothing to do with me earning less, or the club being slow, or Type A people living their best lives. Well, maybe a little, but not entirely. 

The thing is, I too relish in the majesty of the Front Range and capitalize on all the outdoors-ing it offers (so long as it doesn’t require me to be cold and wet.) I too am in bed by 10pm most nights I’m not working. I too dedicate significantly more time to my mental and physical health practices than over-consuming substances and making questionable decisions that I may or may not ever remember.  

Truthfully at this point in my life, it might be fair to say that stripping is taking more than it is giving me and I no longer find this work worthwhile. 

So what next? 

*Fourteeners: People who pride themselves on hiking and sometimes running up mountains that sit at 14,000 feet altitude or higher. They can often be identified by the bumper stickers on their utility vehicles and the tee shirts they wear exclaiming as much.

**Jeepers: People who live and breathe owning and driving Jeeps. They can be identified by their mud caked Jeeps and how fast they whip out their phones to showcase the off road jeeping they've recently conquered.

Photo: Valerie Stunning (Last month in Vegas for my 39th birthday.. living my best Type A life)

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