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  • Valerie Stunning

I am naturally and quite possibly genetically gifted with a massive ego. After all I come from flamboyantly bombastic stock, with equal parts Sicilian and Puerto Rican flowing through my veins. Two cultures that aren't exactly known for their subtlety and compliance. At least where I come from. I relish this trope as I’ve always known myself to be a very passionate person. A holler what I believe person, and at times a balls to the wall act before I think person.

Back in the exotic old country of New York City and Northern New Jersey I honed my vigilance and shit talking prowess from birth until 25. Hell, I have core memories as a toddler of my young mother yelling down at me as we sprinted the subway platform to catch our train. “Stop talking to strangers!” “Move your ass!” “Time is money, money is time!” Because I grew up fast in one of the most densely populated and culturally diverse areas in the country by the time I began stripping I thought I knew it all.

As mentioned in Part 1 of this piece my Baby Stripper self was convinced that my street smarts and tough guy exterior granted me some kind of mythical hall pass on being effected by strip club fuckery. The kind of fuckery that unfortunately seems to be a rite of passage for many of the young and inexperienced in this field. That somehow because I had been raised around tough people in a tough environment, and started this work at 26 (which was ancient in stripper years back then) I was exempt from the hard lessons this job can teach. Like the dangers of conflating respect and worship.

But first, a quick aside…

When I first started writing this piece a few weeks ago, I wanted to unpack how ignoring the emotional labor I was performing at the club (labor that is often expected of us as Strippers) was detrimental to my overall well being. I pinpointed therapizing and worshipping because I feel customers who unload on me as if I were a therapist or worship me as super human have been the most vampiric.

However, I’ve learned something while writing this that I need to get off my chest…

I’ve learned I am also naturally and quite possibly genetically gifted with a penchant for soap boxing strong opinions and bold statements. And I’ve come to understand that to say something with confidence and conviction is not enough. When I re-read some of my older posts an issue I have with my past writing is the same issue I have with a lot of content these days. Which is, when a strong opinion or bold statement is delivered without clear background info as to how the person arrived there it gives major sermonizing vibes. Which makes me weary that the writer / speaker / whoeverthefuck is trying to harvest my emotions in order to sneakily sell me on some bullshit.

I now see that by oversimplifying and confining complex ideas to soundbites and social media posts we rob said ideas of their potential substance and excuse the people delivering them from accountability. It takes something alive and nuanced and falsely sells it as static and one dimensional. It’s cheap. It’s fugazi. And I believe it’s an insult to the audience.

Moving forward it’s a standard I aim to hold myself to. You know, not just talk about it but be about it.

On worshipping…

It is rare, like hitting the lottery rare, that a customer who immediately comes at me like they worship me (I’m talking no prior rapport or consent) is not a soul sucking narcissist. Sure, they might Goddess this and Mistress that, but their quick-to-signal devotion, submissiveness, and/or victimhood is a thin veneer masking everything from cringey entitlement to serious predator behavior. They target workers who are either inexperienced or have their guard down (due to fatigue, intoxication, a bad day, etc..) and they weaponize their praise and false humility to groom you into situations you do not want to be in.

Like this one type of chode who I seem to meet at every club. He stares at me blankly, his smile never reaching his eyes. Within one to two songs of chatting he’s already cultivating an image of himself that he thinks I want to hear. Which typically goes like: He’s a great guy but women always do him wrong. He’s a giver and really likes to spoil (tho hasn’t given me one dollar) but he can’t seem to find a “good girl” or “someone real.” And he uses his dog as evidence of his sensitivity and compassion. He’s super complimentary and performs infatuation even though I’ve yet to get a word in edgewise. And if he does end up going for a dance, which is rare, he immediately tries to cross boundaries while simultaneously using submissive language. Gross.

I find it’s a slippery slope from this behavior to what I’m about to share next. Or maybe it’s two sides of the same coin. (trigger warning)

Back when I was still a brunette, so it had to be year 2 in my career, I worked for a short time at a well known strip club in New York City. On a slow night one of the club’s investors asked the manager to pull me off the floor to have dinner with him at the adjacent steakhouse. Over the course of an hour I snacked on whatever he ordered for me, drank champagne, and listened as he succinctly and enthusiastically praised me as the Queen Goddess of his dreams. Part of me could sense he was a smarmy cunt but the carrot he dangled of “money not being an issue” and “wanting to spoil and worship me” got the best of me. And I fell for it.

Without going into gratuitous detail, I ended up in a locked VIP room with that man, who was twice my size, and narrowly escaped a violent assault. When I finally made it back to the dressing room, I was shaking and crying so the house mom asked me what was up. I told her everything that happened. I told her how I had been trapped with the investor for an hour in a hidden sound proof room (that until that night, I had no idea was there). I also told her that he never paid me for two-ish hours I was with him. As in nothing. Zero.

Not one word was ever mentioned of what I told the house mom. Not even as I was telling her, just after it happened. Instead, as if on cue, she sat there quietly until I was finished then instructed me to come see her before I left. I opted to leave early, changed my clothes, and on the way out she handed me a check for $350. Subject line: 1/2 hour VIP.

And that was that.

There’s a lot that’s fucked up about what had happened that night. And perhaps in my memoir I’ll unpack all my thoughts on it. But for now, for the sake of staying on topic, I want to emphasize that what happens with people like the investor or the aforementioned chodes has nothing to do with genuine adoration, consensual role-play, or any kind of role-play for that matter. Instead it has everything to do with these people intentionally preying on those they deem vulnerable. And because their bad behavior rarely comes with consequences it sadly gets lumped in as an aspect of the job and internalized by workers as something we have to put up with.

Over the years I have learned that people who really see me offer respect and never worship. I am now weary of anyone, professionally or personally, who puts me on a pedestal and exemplifies worshipping behavior (outside of agreed upon role-play.) Because it is rarely about me and is often about what they are trying to get from me. It’s dehumanizing and it can be very dangerous.

Photo: Valerie Stunning by Sophia Phan

  • Valerie Stunning

I have often considered myself the McDonalds of strippers. Particularly when hustling in Las Vegas. My particular skillset and emotional bandwidth are prime for the off the cuff late night indulgence. The customers I regularly entertain are either curious first timers or hell bent on self destructing. And in the decade I spent shaking my ass for money in the Entertainment Capital of the World, I have never seen the same client more than three times. Ever. They slink in, they go hard, and they stumble out with the requisite tequila soaked memories that legends are built upon. “Bruhhh, this one time at a strip club…”

I hear a lot of bread is buttered from the long game output of repeat business. And logically it makes sense. A little bit spent over a long period of time can eventually amount to much more than a one time impulse splurge. I know it’s not uncommon for established regulars to come through upon request on nights when the only people in the club are other bored baddies prancing around in sparkly g-strings and the crotchety house staff. I also know regulars are not for me.

From what I’ve gleaned from other strippers, and the second and third visits of my own repeat customers, is that it is rare, like hitting the lottery rare, that a repeat customer does not eventually demand a shit ton of emotional labor. While I respect the hell out of folks who are able to work this way, something has never sat right with me about courting a long term “regular” relationship for its potential payout. Even if the payout might come with lavish gifts or absolved debt.

It’s not that I consider there to be a “right or wrong” way to work as a stripper. Lord knows I have done what I felt I had to to get my bag. I have weighed many risky situations and sometimes chosen the less safe option more times than I care to admit. I am not proud or ashamed of these decisions. Though I recognize the potential harm they’ve brought me closer to. I can also see in retrospect that if I had the tools then that I have now I probably would have made safer choices. But you only know what you know at the time. No, this is not about morality, so much as it’s about how I’ve learned that the labor, particularly heavy emotional labor I’ve performed at the club has crossed over and deeply effected my personal life.

You see, I used to be convinced that I was hard. From the time I can remember until my mid-thirties I measured this perceived hardness by my emotional flippancy and unavailability. Let’s call it survival skills I picked up from a young age. Minimizing, dismissing, and dissociating were the holy trinity of my tough guy religion and caused me to believe that whatever work bullshit was thrown at me would just roll off my back so long as I got paid. After all money is the great equalizer, right?

But the older I get the more my life experience and efforts to heal shape my perception of this work. Currently at 38 I find that my instincts are razor sharp and my boundaries are no longer defined by a dangling stack of Benjamins. (Which my therapist might argue were never steadfast boundaries in the first place due to how easily I would reorient them if the money was right.) I also find that I am noticeably less tolerant to the excessive therapizing and pedestalling that defines how a lot of customers participate at the club.

For years I thought that being dumped on like a therapist or worshipped as super human was a non negotiable part of the job. And so I allowed customers to project on to me whatever it was they wanted. At least three times a year, sometimes four, I would have to take weeks off of work to cope with burn out. But because I was so out of touch with what I was feeling and regularly numbed myself with alcohol, I had no clue that one correlated with the other. So I over-intellectualized, rationalized, and convinced myself that what I was experiencing was another non-negotiable part of the job.

It wasn’t until I started boozing less that I took into consideration how important it was to monitor my post-shift emotional recovery as much as I monitored my physical recovery. It turns out, I am not hard. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, I am hella sensitive. Fuck.

Unpacking all of that and learning to meet my myself where I am has been a gradual and often sticky process. You wouldn’t believe the crisis of identity that occurs when you start allowing yourself to soften after years of fronting. But that’s a story for another time. I will say that finally being real with myself about where my emotional and mental capacity was at allowed me to correlate two distinct experiences with customers. Customers who required little to no therapizing made for a quicker emotional rebound versus customers who unleashed their entire psychiatric catalog which completely drained me.

Identifying the real world consequences of my unbridled emotional labor shaped how I thought of the money I earned. For example, if a customer paid me $100 for a 3 song dance but the traumatizing shit that came out of his mouth in that time weighed on me for the next 36 hours, suddenly that $100 seemed like a lot less money. This was a huge revelation and prompted me to be more accountable in how I navigated conversations according to my capacity for performing as a topless therapist. If I had enough in the tank I’d labor within my means and if I was spent, I’d pass on the customer altogether. However it would take me a lot longer to understand how the insidious cult of worshipping was draining me even more.

*to be continued

Photo: Valerie Stunning by Rachel Lena Esterline, circa 2017

  • Valerie Stunning

I spent the last few years engaging less with the internet, and all it led to was a whole new perspective on life. Shocking, I know.

I began pulling away from talking shit on social media in 2019 as a conscious shift in focus because I was launching a new mobile food business. This was no easy feat as I had been blogging and thirst trapping for years, cultivating a decadent image that only the backdrop of Sin City could facilitate.

Initially the time my business demanded caused me to feel torn between two worlds. After all, social media had helped me discover my writing voice, a passion for sharing personal stories that promoted conversation, and a knack for creating fun images. It also consumed an obscene amount of time.

But slowly, a peculiar thing started to happen. The more I allocated time to engaging in the real world, the more the internet overwhelmed me when I eventually logged back on. It was as if I was losing my callous to it, and I began to feel drained by the formulaic content I was consuming and had become guilty of creating. The thrill was gone.

I found the tactical nature of running a business in the analog world refreshing and surprisingly quiet. So damn quiet. I hadn’t realized how all of those hours spent on my feed lived in my brain like late night infomercials with the volume turned all the way up. Which had become my new normal. And while the city of Las Vegas is not exactly known for it’s chill, it’s chaos only accounted for a fraction of the stress I schlepped around. By stepping back, I was able to notice how the rest of the stress I internalized came from the white noise of the internet and the very real issues that binge scrolling helped me ignore.

Though getting back in touch with my self after years of dismissing her in favor of my self image was not as cute as it sounds. This was not a joyous reunion. There was no slow motion running toward one another with happy tears streaming down our faces yapping about how much we missed each other and now that we’re reconnected all is forgiven. This was a cagey sizing each other up as we tentatively approached each other from opposite ends of the earth only to try and cross the street at the last minute in hopes of pretending like we never saw each other.

Admitting that I had been lying to myself was a really tough pill to swallow. It meant I had to get real about how being chronically distracted had tainted much of my decision making. And once I knew, I couldn’t unknown. I was living a life and pursuing dreams an outdated version of myself had dreamed but my present day self no longer found fulfilling, in a city that no longer inspired me.

So I did what all lost spirits do when they are being bitch slapped by an existential crisis, I went to Alaska. For those of you who’ve never been, Alaska is an excellent place to be depressed. Especially if you’ve lived an overstimulating life in one of the world’s most overstimulating cities for an entire decade.

Upon arrival you are transported inside a Bob Ross painting, surrounded by gargantuan trees, austere mountains, crystal clear bodies of water, and majestic animals. And, should you choose not to engage with anyone, you can easily go mute for two whole ass weeks. The people up there are gifted at reading the room, especially when the room is saying: “free falling down a shame spiral, be back soon.”

Unbeknownst to me, the 16 days I would spend in the frozen North sulking, writing, exploring, critically examining every aspect of my life, and being cared for by friends would come to be the tip of the ice berg (lol, had to) for the massive changes, life over haul, and renewed inspiration to come.

Valerie Stunning Alaska 2021
Anchorage, Alaska. October 24, 2021

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