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  • Valerie Stunning

Once You Know, You Can't Un-know (Part 1)

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


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