The color of need, desire, and freedom from shame.
The thing about working the dayshift at a strip club in the arid Coachella Valley is the color red: The grubby carpet, walls and stage, the bartender’s halo from the red light behind her, Ruby Woo lipstick, chipped red shiny nails, the wilted bow on my bikini top matching the red gingham booty shorts beneath: a nod to a much younger pinup gal of yesteryear who also personified red. Proud, blood red — the color of glamour, need, desire and heart. One might assume strategic marketing at play here at Showgirls as the baseline practically busts the speakers and the waves of Ronald McDonald orange-red hues erupt through the walls, making one drool on a cocktail napkin. But one would be mistaken. The mood here is advantageously rouge and accidentally hot: the ripe shadow of red eclipses day and allows erotic commerce to thrive between strangers while outside is a clear view of the San Jacinto Mountains — their sharp snow-kissed tips dancing against the eternal blue sky.
It was mid-afternoon and hardly anyone was in the club yet so as I watched a curvy, vivacious Latina with thick auburn hair down her back hump the pole and noted she was already drunk, step-stumbling over the round stickers on stage with her dark brown nipples out, against the rules. She used her fingers to slide out of her black onesie and shook her buns one at a time. It was so dark and damp, it was like stripping inside a mouth. I waved and gave her side-eye from across the room to let her know she was not solo, but Mikey, the deejay never bothered to enforce the rules anyway. Instead, he called us over to rub his back before we went onstage. I looked at my watch from my perch near the front door and dreaded hearing him call my name.
Then sunlight blazed through the doors for a half-second, bringing a gust of warm desert wind on my ribcage.
A man appeared with slicked-back grayish white hair. He walked right by me and sat on the round red barstool. He swiveled. Then motioned for me to join him with a hand-jerking motion. He said his name was Leonard, but I could call him “Len.”
I said I was Candy but he could call me “Candy.” He chuckled, removed his rimless glasses looked at me closer, then put them back on. He had a deeply lined face and was pushing sixty-five. He ordered a Crown rocks.
“It’s what I order when I’m feeling romantic,” he said.
I sat closer and touched his naked left knee and asked him why he’d ventured into the strip club on a Tuesday afternoon when he could be golfing instead? He grumbled and said he hated golf. Then I informed him of his great fortune. After all, it was the half-priced day, making him basically the luckiest man alive. It was truly kismet that drew him here to this very barstool where he could get two dances for less than the price of one. He sipped his gold liquid and when he opened his wallet, I saw the flash of a hundred. He paid the bartender with that Bennie and she counted his change, handed it to him, then walked away with her belly button piercing twinkling above her jeans.
Len told me he was getting service work done on his car next door. The trannie had slipped and it would take a while — be expensive. I nodded. Always agreeable. Exemplary customer service. My rosy cheeks hurt from over smiling. I asked him what kind of car, as if I knew about cars. I didn’t. I read books. Mostly memoir and the fiction in the New Yorker.
“I have a 1998 VW van that has more miles on it than you do,” Len said. I flinched. As an older dancer with decades under my garter belt, I’m keenly aware of my age. Still, this hurt. I wanted to smack Len.
“You should never say that to a stripper — or any woman,” I said. Then I proceeded to extract as much money from Len as humanely possible, but it wasn’t enough — it didn’t remove the sting.
Inside of a strip club may not be the most fruitful place to glean respect from people, but outside the strip club is no better. Len was one in a long line of people who took the opportunity to make demeaning remarks towards sex workers because they can. What disappoints me is the readiness of other communities to follow suit, in particular, liberal, lefty, open-minded, educated feminist-supporting progressives, like the literary community. I’ve noticed that the trend is the general dismissal and exclusion of sex workers from literary panels, academic opportunities and top-tier journals. I’ve also noted the across-the-board rejection of illuminating, clever writing from sex workers about our experiences by authors who chose to not change our names, nor lie about our occupation or hide behind fiction.
Bringing this realization into the light is my refusal to accept it: I refuse to internalize societal shame about sex and the sex industry.
Last year, I was invited to attend a prestigious workshop on the East Coast and was over the moon about it. For ten days I attended rigorous workshops and brilliant lectures. I interacted with accomplished writers I’d long admired and listened to readings by my super-accomplished peers. The morning of the very first craft lecture, I crammed into the creaky barn with hundreds of other attendees in an ancient theater chair with my pink notebook and poised pen. A Very Fancy Male Writer performed an enticing lecture about all language being derivative and pastiche: everything is borrowed or stolen and modernized from our culture and we should embrace that in our work.
And then he said, in the context of language: “Everyone wants to make a common whore their bitch.” And then, he continued, “Everyone loves a whorehouse.”
The room erupted with laughter. The derogatory remark tickled every person in the room except for me. Was I the only writer, sex worker at this place? I thought. Surely not.
As everyone else giggled. I shifted in my seat, painfully alone, feeling the gut punch of being fingered the whore in an academic setting.
My insides turned angry red — the color of embarrassment, the color of heat and sorrow. I saw red arrows and sequins bikinis: curvy ladies of sensuousness and strength. I remembered our collective tenacity and our picket signs when we fought our labor war and won in San Francisco back in 1998.
Then I thought of all the male writer friends I have with books out who email me for advice about where to host their bachelor parties and how to extract a stripper from a club—where to find a prostitute. They ask if I know someone, or if I am available for a show. When I direct them to websites that offer adult services and urge them to not ask strippers to leave the club with them because “It’s not safe and it’s frowned upon,” what I feel is, “This is dehumanizing.” Next time, they promise, they will ask me about my writing.
When the lecture was over, I saw the red of war, of tongues and words.
I left that smoldering barn knowing that I would have to keep writing about sex workers and whorehouses and the naked women I have worked with my entire adult life—not only for myself, but for my community of sex workers because we deserve better — freedom from shame.
Antonia Crane is a writer, Moth Slam winner, and writing instructor in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir, “Spent.” She has written for The New York Times, Quartz: Atlantic Media, The Toast, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, Salon, The Believer, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, DAME and lots of other places. Her screenplay, “The Lusty” co-written with Silas Howard about the Exotic Dancers Union is a recipient of the San Francisco Film Society/ Kenneth Rainin Foundation Screenwriter’s Grant, 2015. She is at work on an essay collection and a memoir.