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Written by Esther De La Ford.

Art by Marlene Juliane Schindler .

Content Warning: R*pe.

Stripping gave me my life back.

After I was raped, my mental health was in tatters. I was a shell of myself. A handful of in-no-way-connected traumatic events in my mid-teens left me with a diagnosis of C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), and the sexual assault meant that any romantic relationships I chose to engage in were erratic, co-dependent, and unhealthy. Sex was, at best, something I forced my body to engage in to feel like I was “fixed” — at worst, incredibly triggering and traumatic for both myself and my partners. My body was not a place I felt safe.

Then I started dancing.

During the five years I danced, I found a newer, deeper connection to my body after the trauma I experienced.

The first night I danced, I was equally nervous and excited. I tripped in my heels, got my bra stuck in my hoop earrings, and accidentally flashed some labia during a pole performance. But I made £200 cash in hand, and I had…fun.

I felt safe, I felt powerful.

There were cameras in every corner of the club, strict policies against touching, and bouncers ready to eject anyone who tried to break those rules. I felt protected and empowered, like I had agency over how I moved in my body and how I was seen for the first time. I was being sexualised, but on my terms and for my own profit.

During the five years I danced, I found a newer, deeper connection to my body after the trauma I experienced. It stopped being something I didn’t feel safe to exist in — something that had failed me, let me down, caused me pain, and refused to feel pleasure when I demanded it afterwards. It began to represent abundance, freedom and joy. The club became the unexpected safe space I needed to step into the parts of my sensuality that had seemed dangerous and dark, and reclaim those parts with an understanding of how sacred and perfect they truly were.

There seems to be a desire by some strippers, when given a platform to talk about the work they do, to promote the idea that stripping is empowering. We don’t want to perpetuate the notion we are all damaged, desperate women with daddy issues who just strip to get through college, pay the rent, or feed our children. That idea is already shared extensively by the media — you’ll rarely find a stripper on screen who isn’t being either glamourized, demonised, or victimised.

The conversation is always had in extremes. We are rarely looked at as full, complex humans who are capable of loving, hating, and being indifferent to our jobs, depending on how we feel and what is going on at the time. We are asked to prove the job is empowering, because if it’s not then it’s hard for people outside of the sex industry to understand and excuse why we do it.

We must be either powerless or powerful in order to be acceptable.  

But, really, like many things in my life, dancing has been at some point an empowering experience and a toxic one — an art form and a chore, both painful and pleasurable, deeply joyful and cripplingly sad. It seemed to amplify however I was feeling at the time. While the negative experiences rarely had anything to do with the actual act of dancing naked for money and everything to do with misogynistic, predatory men and corrupt management, that didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

Dancing became toxic for me last summer, when I was unexpectedly fired from my home club. I needed to report an incident with a customer and, when I asked permission from my manager to speak to the police, I was told that if I did so I would not be welcome back.

It hit me all at once. I had danced for years, believing wholeheartedly that should anything happen to me or anyone step out of line I would be supported and protected by management. But when shit really hit the fan, I was out on my ass. What about the other girls? How many dancers had chosen not to report something to the police for fear of losing their jobs? I knew from conversations with friends that other clubs could be cruel, forcing dancers who had been sexually assaulted to finish their shift or else face a hefty fine or being disbelieved when they asked for help. But I didn’t think it would happen at my club.

Still, I knew I was making the right choice reporting, even when it meant losing my job. I felt a lightness fill me up as I headed home afterward, taking the edge off the grief I felt at the closing of a big chapter of my life.  

But, really, like many things in my life, dancing has been at some point an empowering experience and a toxic one — an art form and a chore, both painful and pleasurable, deeply joyful and cripplingly sad.

As part of my annual goal-setting ritual in January, I set the intention not to engage in any form of sex work this year. I realised my relationship with sex work, at least for the time being, had run its course. I could feel it holding me back. Limiting beliefs I had managed to accumulate subtly and subconsciously during my time dancing started creeping in, making it harder for me to move forward with new opportunities in my career.

I struggled to believe I could make money from my therapeutic work with the same ease, effortlessness, and speed that I was capable of through sex work. I fell back onto stripping as a quick top-up over and over again, solidifying this belief that I had to use my body to make money. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with this, but I could feel it holding me back from fully committing to the work I really wanted to be creating in the world. This is the right time for me to exit the industry.

But I will never say never. I may want to go back to stripping in the future. Circumstances change, and whether I go back through necessity, for research, or because I miss the experience itself, I allow myself the freedom to make any decisions without shame. I’m not outgrowing the sex industry; I’m just moving on.

About the Author

Esther is a hypnotherapist and consultant who helps women reconnect with their bodies and sexual power after trauma. She makes videos for BBC’s The Social looking at consent, sexual assault awareness, mental health, trauma healing and pleasure inclusive sex ed. She is currently writing a book for survivors of sexual violence, renovating an old house and enjoying lots of giant puppy snuggles in between.

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