The Mirror

I meet a lot of people at my strip club who work in the horror film industry.

This is partly because the owner used to work on cutting room floors at different post-production houses in Soho. His friends from come to hang out and catch up, and the girls respectfully give them space. These guys might be up for a chat or buying you a drink, but only new girls approach them for a dance and they’re gently told off. I like talking to them because the only film I really watched last year was a horror-comedy called Nina Forever. I’ve seen it about six times. I’m not a massive horror film fan but oh boy, can I talk to you about Nina Forever.

Horror people also seem to feel at home here because of the overlap between their genre and pornography. Both horror and porn are spaces where the implicit expectation is to see stuff that’s not allowed. Forbidden acts of sex, violence and power are both permitted and exacerbated. If my strip club was a horror movie, it would probably be something trashy like the Fright Night remake with Colin Farrell and David Tennant: it’s harmlessly sleazy, has lots of gratuitous shots of girls pouting angrily in Ann Summers lingerie, and is populated by celebrities who are clearly killing time between projects.

I get to know a horror film producer, Peter*, who spends evenings vaping calmly in a corner like the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. On principle, he never goes downstairs to even watch the stage dances, let alone buy a private one. So if he’s in, we generally hang out when it’s a slow night and I’m not getting any dances. I tell him about how brilliant the film Nina Forever is, and he buys me wine to stop me feeling depressed.

Peter is close friends with a pro-dominatrix who’s worked in London for many years, and gave him the inspiration for a feature he’s working on. It’s a psychological-thriller-horror about three women, where a nurse looking after an elderly woman with dementia gets caught up in something supernatural and sinister. The whole thing is really pressure-cookery and involves complex power shifts between the three female characters. I’m really into it and it sounds totally great. She — the pro-domme friend — also reminds me of the trajectory of a few dommes I know: the fetish space she created is where she subverts her own previous experiences of powerlessness with men. More than one femme domme I know is vocal about experiences of being subjected to oppression by men; whether that’s negative personal experiences or systemic oppression, or a combination of both. Domme-ing becomes a job, but it’s also a release, and a kind of revenge.

Within my friendship group of sex workers, people seem to wind up in an area of the industry that reflects a part of themselves. Like within most industries, I suppose.

Escorts are good at emotional labour — overt or otherwise — and playing every variation of a female companion from the constantly turned on sexpot to the attentive “girl next door.” Strippers are frustrated extroverts, performers, and/or straight-up ruthless businesswomen. Many of my stripper friends are performers in other areas of their lives, and experience the same internal and external battles. I end up running into so many conversations in the toilets or the dressing room with other dancers about generalised anxiety, and social anxiety. Many dancers at the club where I work would go elsewhere to make more money, but they’ve got used to the place, and the prospect of a new workplace and group of people terrifies them. Webcam models are also performers mixed with the intimacy of the fake girlfriend experience online. Both the physical distance and technical magic facilitated by the platform gives them enormous creative freedom. A transgender woman who’s been camming tells me it’s the area of sex work that best suits her “fear of embodiment in general”.

The mirror goes deeper than occupational or workplace preferences; it reveals deep-seated personality traits and patterns. A male friend who escorted for a few months while he was paying off debts said he managed to “hide himself” for about two hours before realizing that he couldn’t not just be himself around clients, and give them constant counselling and emotional labour. He’s deeply empathic and the majority of his work ended up being a perfunctory shag before having clients want to be intimate, cry and offload their anxieties. He was good at it because he’s naturally caring and a very careful listener, and he thought he’d found a shortcut that suited him better than sex acts. But the whole thing exhausted him to the point where he couldn’t cope. Peoples’ emotional resources are finite, and if you pull yourself inside out so you can use your skillset and emotional vocabulary to process other peoples’ pain, you deplete your capacity to deal with your own.

Again, this is limited to the privileged strata of sex workers who’ve had choice and flexibility within their line of work. I feel kind of unbearable making this claim about people gravitating to different aspects of the sex industry knowing that the majority of prostitutes in the UK are women waiting on the sides of the streets for whom the average rate for full sex is £20. That’s if they’re British and are fluent in English — in London, for full sex foreign workers can sometimes claim as little as a fiver.

My friend who trains at a free pole class with me describes us as “the bougie hookers” who can indulge this kind of luxury navel-gazing, and take up which line of work best fits around our other arts and activism pursuits with Sex Work HR.

I’m having a bad time at work one night and really struggle to make money, because sex work is like a mirror in another capacity; if you come into your workplace feeling off-centre or low, customers will see. On a difficult Friday, I wore a long mesh skirt over my lingerie for the first few hours, then changed and took it off at around 11pm. When I came back down into the bar, another girl looked over at me and said, “Finally, you change your dress! Now you will make money.” “I’m not feeling great today”, I told her. “I know you don’t feel good,” she replied, “I can see.” The forty quid I made that whole night saw that too.

Like any job though, you get good at faking it if you really try.

I’m feeling stuck. I’ve decided to put time and energy into finding a regular day job, and I was supposed to be working in the club for the first three nights this week to make money. The cash in hand is really helpful as it covers my travel expenses, food and day to day living costs while I look for another more substantial source of regular income. But my mental health has taken a real nose-dive, and I just can’t face it. I let myself off about not going into work on Monday night because those are a bit slow generally. If you have to skip a Monday it’s not hurting yourself over — but on Tuesday morning I wake up crying for no reason and can’t get out of bed until 2pm, so I decide to call it quits for that evening too. Its’ grim to see your bank balance slide back into the negative after you worked so hard to pull it back up, but hey — what can you do.

At this point, I’m doing occasional freelance copywriting and publicity work for a celebrity sex worker, stripping, running a sexual-health themed comedy gig in the evenings, and starting to write for a gay publication about sex and consent. I really thought I was quite chill about sex stuff generally, but the constant exposure has dragged stuff up from deep down in the recesses my brain, and now my head is ringing with it. That’s not the main reason I’m feeling ill, I think. Also, ironically, there is zero sex in my personal life now — I’ve shut down any sexual or romantic interactions and not even interested in dating, as the thought of intimacy with another person makes me physically freeze and want to keep everyone and everything at arms’ length.

Peter and I had a bit of a disagreement because he told me I was too “commercially-minded”, and that pissed me off. He has creative freedom and flexibility now because he worked tirelessly in advertising for twenty years. I’m hustling and looking for unabashedly commercial paid work because I don’t have any personal savings or anything to focus on other stuff. Ironically we first clicked in the club because we’re poncy middle class “creative types” chasing dream work in aspirational professions, and both did or are doing what we needed to to make that happen.. I feel like, under capitalism, your mental health is going to suffer no matter what — you might as well do what you like. I catch myself in the mirror and see that stripping has improved my general fitness levels and physique; it’s also given my skin that kind of red, speckled, puckered look from constant alcohol consumption, dark circles under my eyes from late nights and a constant frazzled look from erratic, wiry energy. But it’s not clear whether it’s stripping that’s done that or me.

Like what you read? Give Saffy Du Bien a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.