Photo cred to Jane Dinh

Stripping: the golden mask and the harsh reality

The toughest lesson I learned as a software engineer and an exotic dancer

About four months ago I was on a quest to make my life more interesting than it was. I thirsted for adventure, for a sense of glamor.

I love pole dancing and I thought I would give exotic dancing a try. I have always been curious about it and I thought it would fulfill what I was looking for at the time.

How fascinating would it be to have a true alter ego? To live as asoftware engineer by day and exotic dancer by night.”

I signed a three-month contract with a club in San Francisco and I danced there for a few times during that temporary period.

I had never previously felt a greater level of sexiness. Therefore, in a way, I did attain my yearning through that esoteric experience.

Even though I temporarily provided my life with what I perceived at the time to be glamor, looking back, I wouldn’t categorize my mission as a success. I really thought my double life would become something I’d be able to maintain for months. That’s not the case at all. After my contract had expired, I knew for sure I would not sign another one.

This isn’t to say my experience was a failure. It wasn’t.

What I am saying is that every worthwhile story has its dark days. Nothing in this world is ever black and white, and the world of exotic dancing is no exception. When it comes to this world, the deeper you go, the more complicated it gets.

For some time now, I have wanted to write about the depth of a world I knew nothing of just a few months ago. However, I struggled tremendously on how to present it in the clearest and most authentic way. Nevertheless, I shall try anyway.

On the outside surface, exotic dancing — especially at a high-end club — is glamorous. When I visited the club, I couldn’t help but think how attractive the place and the dancers looked.

The club had crystal beaded curtains against the back wall of the gigantic main stage. It had two floors, both with exquisite white leather seats. It had great service, well dressed staff, and incredible food and drinks.

The place struck out to me as a contemporary speakeasy with an incomparable atmosphere.

However, beneath that exterior layer of gold lies a darkness. It is a darkness I personally had the luxury of never experiencing, a darkness whose surface I barely scratched.

When I first started dancing, I was captivated by excitement and novelty. I was experiencing a world through rose-colored lenses. My writing was indeed reflective of only one shade of hue. I was so encapsulated in my own imagination that I wrote piece after piece glamorizing my own experience.

I was telling people they were wrong to judge exotic dancers because “Hey! Look at me, I’m a smart, beautiful, MIT educated Silicon Valley software engineer. Are you really qualified to stigmatize me?”

I’m not saying my words are lies. They are all truths. My own experience was amazing. It was empowering. Stigmatization is wrong. I do want to live in a world where it doesn’t matter whether I tell someone I’m a software engineer or an exotic dancer.

However, because of my limited viewpoint, I wasn’t writing a story from a wider angle. My story wasn’t complete.

I came to this conclusion after reading some the comments I had received.

By claiming you are breaking a stereotype by being an MIT-educated, intelligent woman at a strip club, and waxing poetic about how pleased you are about these [presumably white and well-off] men and what they think of you, you are perpetuating another gender stereotype, another form of sexism — pedestaling.” — suprihmbé
please try to remember that while exotic dancing may just be a part of your journey, for a whole lot of other people it is a necessary and painful dead end. That there are many people trapped in what is essentially a dead end job that makes them feel gross on a regular basis that they can’t escape from in the short term due conditions largely outside of their control.” — sky2fall

This feedback really pushed me to think deeper about what I was telling the world. I started reading research articles about exotic dancing; I talked to the manager of the club to get his insights.

Every piece of information I gathered furthered my realization that it is unfair to only portray the world of exotic dancing and address the stigmatization associated with it through my own personal lenses.

It is unfair because I’m not addressing the problem of stigmatization at a fundamental level.

Looking back, I remembered a particularly uneasy experience.

One time, I met a rich drunk birthday boy who was willing to spend hundreds of dollars for a private dance. His only criteria: he wants to see me dance naked.

I told him not only is that out of the question from a personal perspective, but that it is also against California law. Nudity is not permitted in California clubs that serve alcohol. However, his drunk state of mind just could not comprehend this concept. So I walked away.

Later, I was invited by one of his friends to have french fries with them when that birthday boy was receiving private dances from another girl. I told them about the incident and how it’s against the law to be naked.

His friend’s response was:

“You’re not supposed to do it, but that’s how you get the money.”

I didn’t want to argue with a customer and tell him that he was wrong.

I didn’t think too much about the encounter after that night until I took the time to internalize every feedback I had received from my stories.

Wanting to understand where the people who disagreed with my writing came from, I couldn’t help but think more thoroughly about my experience at the club.

I ended up asking myself one question.

What if I didn’t have the social and economic status an MIT education and a career in software engineering have given me?

In my head, I tried to replay many of the events I had encountered without the privileges I have. However, each time I tried I couldn’t bring my imagination to finish the story. I’m not sure I want to know, let alone picture, the answer.

I’m lucky. I have the social, educational, and professional support to render something dreadful to many as a mere exploration of mine. I have the luxury of walking into a club to have fun. I have the luxury of walking away from hundreds of dollars because I don’t want to deal with drunk or creepy customers, which would ruin the fun. I have the luxury of donating away everything I made at the club.

When I tried to imagine myself in that environment without the privilege I do indeed possess, I quickly realized that what had been a glamorous and empowering experience could have easily made a 180 degree turn.

Yes, anyone could walk out on a customer when a situation becomes uncomfortable, but in that instant, it’s difficult to keep the mental clearness. When money is on the line, when it’s between hundreds of dollars or none, when you’re trying to make ends meet, you will find yourself in a different mental state.

Indeed, after talking to the manager of the club I worked at, I learned that many girls do go beyond what is technically permitted by law for the cash.

Just like that birthday boy’s friend told me:

“You’re not supposed to do it, but that’s how you get the money.”

I’d like further adjust what he had said:

No one wants to do it, but often, it might feel necessary for financial reasons.”

I’m writing this story partly for myself as a reminder to keep observing and analyzing my surroundings and all aspects of society beyond the surface level. However, I’m also writing in the hope of encouraging others to think more in depth about judgement and stigmatization as well.

I used to be one of the people who stigmatizes dancers. I used to think they had no morals and were shameless. Now, having spent time to really think about this issue, I became aware of my unfounded prejudices.

It is a fact that some (definitely not all) of the women sleep with clients, abuse drugs, and all in all “don’t have their lives together.” However, I, myself, have not the slightest idea of the hardships and challenges they might have had to endure and still might face today.

A lot of the girls don’t have the same privilege as I. They came from a difficult background. They never had the chance or mentorship.

It honestly pains me every time I think about this. Every time I think about how easy it is to fall into a trap when you feel like you have to satisfy the twisted fantasies some people have in order to survive. It pains me to think about what the psychological consequences of such trap is.

In the end, we are all just humans. Everyone goes through challenges, pain, and heartbreaks.

I hope that before you judge someone else for who they are or what they do, you take a moment to reflect upon the luck and privilege that they might not have been born with.

I would choose friendship with a hardworking woman who’s doing exotic dancing to support a life in this difficult world over a friendship with a rich douchebag who has nothing better to do than to criticize and judge people.

What started as a quest to better myself and to better my life turned into a lesson much more valuable. Thus, even though exotic dancing ultimately was not what I initially imagined it to be, I nevertheless don’t consider my experience a failure.

I became more self-aware. I gained a deeper perception about the societal issues associated with stripping. I gained a greater sense of empathy. Most importantly though, I gained more courage, a stronger mind, a thicker skin, a greater ambition, and a greater confidence to embark on new adventures outside my comfort zone.

I hope you might find a source of courage or inspiration from my writing to step outside the comfort zone and to not be afraid of exploration. You never know what lessons these new experiences might add to your life.

I’d like to thank the amazing Jane Dinh for the pictures used in this story. Checkout her portfolio:

A version of this story was published on Huffington Post.

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The Fleeting Moments

Stories about love, loss, joy, heartbreaks, and lessons learned