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  • Valerie Stunning

Once You Know, You Can't Un-know (Part 2)

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


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