I knew it was coming sooner or later, but it would happen to be at the school gate, by a mum, bless her, who looks as though butter has never melted in her mouth.”Is it true you used to be a stripper?” she asked, just loud enough to be heard by the crowd of parents waiting with their children by the front door to book a slot with the school photographer. What on earth could I say, on my way to work, but a slightly on-the-hop “yes”?
I’ve always been careful to segregate my writing, from the relatively “safe for work” musings on parenting and society on my main blog, Raising Jonah, and my other, more visceral rants on here. It’s testament to the way I feel society views me as a woman: a mum, fine; a sexual woman, altogether a more dangerous entity.
Like Lauren A, the college student whose frat boy classmates subjected her to a torrent of abuse online and on campus when they found out she was funding her studies in the porn industry, I’ve never exactly offered up information about my lap dancing ‘past’, particularly as a working mother, but like her, I’ve never been ashamed of it either. It served its purpose. It was no better and no worse than a lot of jobs that exploit the young, a point I’ve made on here often enough. But I’ve been cautious about mentioning it closer to home, more concerned that it makes my children a soft target for “your mama” jokes when they reach the age of dubious teenage hilarity or internet bullying, than any embarrassment on my part.
But when Mumsnet asked to host this blog on their site, I thought, to hell with it. Good on Mumsnet, I thought, perhaps newly emboldened by the viral “penis beaker” thread, for addressing edgier topics. But then, sex and motherhood are intrinsically, irrevocably linked, in case anyone didn’t get the memo. And it’s only by talking about normalising female sexuality, in all its glory, that we take it away from its usual billing of “sluttishness” and put it into the mainstream.
But I knew I was running a risk of getting “found out” as an ex-stripper, by people who only know me as a mum. But then, these days, I am slightly beyond worrying what people think of me, so like I said, it’s only the potential kick back against my kids that concerns me. But nonetheless, as I crumpled slightly, keeping my bike steady as I held open the school front door, surrounded by a sea of parents, I felt compelled to bite back slightly against what I felt was a slightly passive-aggressive, if not just mildly thoughtless question: “I’d never have put myself through university otherwise.”
As if, somehow, educating myself with my “ill-gotten gains” was some kind of justification, making it acceptable, rather than doing it for the sheer love of it, or through some other more dubious financial need.
But the fact is, according to yesterday’s Daily Heil, a third of lap dancers are now dancing their way through university. Whether this is the testament to rising uni fees, stagnating parental income and the growing acceptability of lap dancing as a legitimate career choice for young women, it’s hard to tell – a combination of all three, most likely. But the Mail’s headline, with its censorious use of the word “lured”, implies a lack of volition: that these middle class, educated girls, rather than making an informed choice about how to pay for their studies, are sinking into society’s slimy underbelly by its dark overlords because “nice girls” would never choose sex work because sex is bad. Typical. But that’s to be expected from the guardian of the nation’s “morals”.
But it’s hard to ignore that my response to the off-guard moment at the school gates demonstrates my sensitivity to the stigma of sex work. “What a life you must have had,” said the mum, a sweet-faced stay at homer, shaking her head in what I couldn’t quite ascertain was a pity, respect or judgement – perhaps a mixture of all three.
After all, the element of shame in sex work comes from its sense of necessity, that one is compelled into it by circumstances beyond one’s control; that there is a lack of better options, that girl would never do THAT unless she had to. But that’s simply not true. I’ve known enough girls in my time who get a total kick out of being an exhibitionist and found a natural home for that expression in a strip club. Yet outside of these designated areas, this type of brazen – and I use the word with a degree of irony – display is still not quite the done thing. Perhaps it never will be – unlike the pride that similarly bedecked men carry themselves through the streets in their annual outpouring of gay sexuality – though why overt sexuality in the gay community – and promiscuity come to that, is growing increasingly acceptable in the west, while for women, it is not should be queried by anyone who thinks of themselves as pro-equality.
But anyone who considers strippers (and sex workers) as somehow dangerous and destabilising to society should consider this: the husbands and partners who are happy to return to their mildly repressed (?) other halves after a night being titillated by dancers, or playing out their fantasies and sexual needs with prostitutes who are perhaps happier to accommodate them, don’t tend to run off with them. For all that women have a right to be pissed off that their other half has blown £100 at a lap dancing club, how much of society is propped up by men having discreet access to sex workers? I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. The public service aspect of the industry should not be underestimated. The lap dance club (and brothel for that matter) has as much place in society as the school gate. Isn’t it time we accorded the women who frequent both the same respect?