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Eric Jost

By Eric Jost
Eric Jost received his BA in anthropology from American University in Washington, DC and is currently an MPH candidate at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. He is a contributing writer for the Sydney queer newsmagazine, SX, and writes on a variety of issues including queer imagery in the media; GLBTQ rights; sex worker rights; feminism; sexual health; and sex positive culture. When he is not working or studying, Eric spends time writing for his blog, "Confessions of a Gay Male Feminist."
This text will be replaced by the flash music player.

he night I stripped for the first time was the night I became an activist.

It was December 2003, and my friends and I – having just finished final exams – decided to celebrate by going to a gay male strip club in Washington, DC. I had no idea what to expect; I had never been to a strip club before – gay or straight.

Approaching the club, I could here the thumping bass of the music from inside, and my heart was quickening in time with the rhythm as we made our way toward the front door. We paid a small cover charge and made our way onto the main floor. The source of the music came from floor-to-ceiling speakers on either side of an enclosed DJ booth. In front of us, patrons sat around a bar while nude dancers performed acrobatic routines from brass poles hanging from the ceiling. The small main stage – backed by sparkling gold streamers – lined the far right wall as a muscular policeman slowly removed his clothing while a bachelorette party watched in awed anticipation. Along every wall, television monitors broadcast images of men in every possible sexual position.

My friends and I stood in shock, attempting to process the sensory overload that had hit us only moments earlier. I hadn’t even been inside for five minutes before the club manager – a smallish man in his mid-thirties – walked up to me and asked, “How would you like to dance tonight?” His question caught me off guard. Me?! Dance? Naked?! Only a few months had passed since I lost my virginity, so being suddenly propositioned to enter the sex industry, however briefly, was a complete shock. I glanced at my friends, giggled, and coyly declined his invitation. He didn’t persevere, but told me to let him know if I changed my mind.

After much deliberation with friends, and after the manager and several dancers again attempted to sway me, I decided to suck it up and get on stage. With gold streamers twinkling behind me, I stripped down to nothing but my socks (where of course attentive customers would place their generous tips).

Like any virgin, my first time was less than spectacular. I don’t imagine it was very erotic as I had no idea what I was doing – and I wasn’t particularly confident with my body. Not to mention the fact that my two best friends were staring up at me from the floor below! Additionally, whenever I noticed one of the club’s patrons watching me with any interest, I would quickly look away, embarrassed by their attention. But I finished my thirty minute shift, collected my tips (a paltry $20), and left the club quickly, afraid to hear any comments from the other dancers, patrons, or the manager. But as I exited the club, my emotions took over and I felt a rush of exhilaration at having broken out of my comfort zone and tried something new. I was hooked!

While I had a great time on stage that night, my overprotective boyfriend and a stint overseas to study abroad hindered my return for almost a year. When I was given an assignment in class to develop an ethnography around a designated “queer space” in DC, I immediately thought that the strip club would be the perfect place to conduct my research – and possibly make my return to the stage. So I made a deal with the manager who had months before coaxed me onto stage: I would strip periodically at the club, in exchange for interviews with club patrons, employees, and other dancers. And, of course, I got to keep all of the money I made. It was a perfect arrangement!

For the next four months, I became something of a regular there, talking to dozens of customers and strippers while writing furiously about the ins and outs of participating in this particular queer space: How the dancers interacted with the customers; how the customers interacted with each other; and how the venue itself facilitated social networking among everyone in that space. Concurrently, I felt empowered by dancing. Never before had I been admired for my body – and the ability to make money simply by using what nature gave me was liberating and my self confidence grew immensely.  

As time went on and my research project came to a close, I felt that it was time for me to make a decision: to continue stripping or end my career as I ended my project. Although my friends and my partner all knew that I was doing field work at a strip club, I had decided not to tell anyone about the full extent of my involvement. I felt gratified by the work, but the negative reaction from my boyfriend after my first foray into the world of stripping frightened me into keeping my silence. And that fear ultimately made my decision for me: I would stop dancing. At the time, I couldn’t bring myself to face my friends’ reactions, and although it saddened me, I felt such a relief upon quitting. No longer would I be lying about where I was going or what I was doing there. In fact, I found myself so afraid of what people would think of me that I didn’t tell anyone about my work until several years later.

Even though my tenure in the sex industry was relatively brief, my work at the club impacted me immediately. I began reading anything I could get my hands on regarding strippers, sex workers, and others working in the sex industry. Unfortunately, most of what I read was disheartening. Little to no testimonials or research have been done on or by male sex workers, and many of the texts I read addressing female sex workers were derogatory and unenlightened. Sex-negative feminists, such as Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, viewed sex work – even gay male sex work – as being exploitative of women and inherently evil; and many of their colleagues seemed to subscribe to that particular point of view. From what I found, it seemed that academia had agreed that the sex industry was put in place for one purpose: to exploit and degrade its workers... (continue reading)

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Patrick Julius said:

Listening to your essay on podcast, I found myself identifying with a lot of your experience; I'm not actually a stripper myself, but I work in webcam porn, which is basically its cyberspace equivalent.

In fact, what I can most identify with is the fact that I'm a little bit scared and ashamed to acknowledge that I've worked in this for reasons I can only partially explain and cannot at all justify.

I keep thinking, "What if my parents knew?" "What if he knew? What if she knew?" I keep worrying about what people would think of me. I'm much more closeted about working (even so mildly) in the sex industry than I am about being bi.

On some level, I want to take the direction you did, run with it, maybe even get into actual stripping (it pays much better; that "paltry" $20 for a half hour is more typically three hours at what I do, because 95% of the time is unpaid); it seems like it'd be fun, exciting, lucrative, and indeed liberating and a step towards justice.

But on the other hand, I worry: in the world in which we live at present, these sorts of things can very easily bite oneself in the ass. If I gather a reputation as a sex worker, will people not want to hire me for jobs? Will universities turn me down for research positions? I wish I could confidently say it is not so, but I can't.

Posted at: August 5, 2008 2:29 PM

Rob Walker said:

Hey Eric!

I just wanted to make a comment, which you might consider odd from a Christian queer guy. I'm an anti-assimilationist. I don't think queer sexualities need to fit the straight boxes that mainstream GLBT orgs seem to push at the moment.

On the other hand, I feel a little nervous about an interpretation of "sexual freedom" (not necessarily your own) that contributes to dehumanization because we excuse it under the rubric of "mutual consent." I would hope that queer people could develop communal "ethics" that allow queer spaces to be really queer AND that recognizes people as whole entities rather than primarily as dis-associated body parts.

Is there are way to reconcile these concerns, in your opinion?

Posted at: September 13, 2008 7:05 PM

Trevor Hoppe said:

Rob, my dear, you always know how to ask the most poignant questions! I think you're pointing to a tension that exists between "radical sex" philosophies (exemplified by the work of Pat Califia) and feminist philosophies (with many strains arguing different, but somewhat contrary points).

This is a tension I have trouble navigating. On the one hand, I do not want to criticize gay male communities because of the kind of sex they have, because I do not wish to contribute to a deeply anti-sex, normative literature that demands gay men to zip it up and get hitched (see Larry Kramer's most recent diatribe, "The Tragedy of Today's Gays"). On the other hand, I'm tempted to make some distinction between something I'd like to call "healthy sex," and something that I'd like to say, well, isn't quite so healthy.

For instance, while I believe that hooking up can be quite healthy and productive for people in many circumstances, I think it can become quite monotonous and dehumanizing at some point. When pleasure stops being a person's goal or concern, I start to think that something suspicious is going on. I think this is just what's happening in some online / urban gay male sex cultures. That troubles me.

Phew. Too many words from me. I hope Eric chimes in.

Posted at: September 13, 2008 7:17 PM

Eric Jost said:

A million years later I respond. :)

I want to focus on Rob's comments (and Trevor's by extension) about the ideas of good sex vs. bad sex and dehumanization.

I always find it interesting that sex, when it is consensual but involves a transaction between a sex worker and a client, is often viewed as demoralizing or degrading. Although I never exchanged actual sex for money, only getting money for showing my body, I did find it empowering. It was only outside perceptions of the industry/industries (ie my boyfriend, friends, etc) that resulted in my feeling bad about my then-career. The perception that working in the sex industry can never be valid or empowering, as Trevor hints about, is really the socialization that there is such a thing about good sex vs bad sex. However, before I get into muddy waters, I will say that consent(ie rape) is they keyword. As long as both or all parties are ready, willing, and able, then who is to argue or judge?

As far as dehumanizing, one of my favorite stories to compare my time as a stripper to is my many years working as a waiter. Working as a server, I was told not to make eye contact with certain customers, to never contradict customers, and my very livelihood was dependent on doing so. So is working in a restaurant for tips and being treated as lower class in comparison to the guests more noble simply because I'm not fucking the customers after their meal? I don't believe so. In fact, I felt I had more power as an employee of a strip club than I ever had working as a waiter.

Now, sex work isn't for everybody. I've wrestled for years with the idea of actually pursuing a career in prostitution and, admittedly, have reached the conclusion that it might not be the right fit for me. Just like I would never make a good nuclear engineer or painter. But because sex is involved in prostitution, for me, isn't the dealbreaker.

That was lot, so I will stop now, but hopefully that answered some questions. Thanks to everyone's comments!

Posted at: January 22, 2009 12:12 PM

Brandon said:

I don't see why mutual consent isn't good enough to say "period", "case closed". If it can be shown that both people agree to an act, what more is there to say? I don't mean to sound dogmatic; indeed, I just expressed my curiosity to know what light others can shed on the question.

Posted at: February 26, 2010 4:23 AM

Brandon said:

And I think I'm trying to probe even deeper into that question than Eric may have answered above. But, for me, it seems pretty clear.

Posted at: February 26, 2010 4:30 AM

Jaylene said:

First of all great post and comments here i really appreciate it as a young and naive girl as I am first looking for more understanding of sex and gender. This is the first site I have found informative and intellgent and realistic and not beating around any brush.
I'd love to hear more of where the friends, family, and society are coming from/what they say when shunning sex work so unrelentlessly.
I enjoy my sexuality and if it werent for the strong disapproval of my loved ones around the topic of sex work I too may have ventured to this sort of empowerment. I have rather blindly accepted that they may know better when demanding I should never mix sex and money. I know so little of the trade I am up late wondering..but it seems that if one even tries or experiments for fit the judgement and perseccution is inescapable. I'll ask why in more depth next time i hear it but I cant even count how many guys I've heard say they could never be with a girl who was a prostitute and a lot say the same for stripping.

As I chew this brain food I wonder if it is the objectification of a person that occurs when buying their body that seems so unacceptable. That maybe we(as a society) put too much emphasis and value on our physical being? With the condition that we need to make money or work in some sense to live how is selling our services and knowledge as a waitress or scientist or any job less objectified? are wages putting a value (practically worthless value considering the status of our legal tender) on humans? Gold is valuable because it is rare and pretty not because it is useful. We are within our bodies throughout our lifetime on earth but they inevitably wither away and decompose. how can our bodies be more sacred than our minds or spirits? are not each of us unique and more than our physical attributes. Im not so sure I get how people are so fervently invested in their dying bodies that they would degrade sex this way.

I dont imagine this was very clear or concise maybe not even comprehensible But can anyone here explain why selling sex is so embraced in media but when brought to the tactile market it is taboo? or even why it is taboo.. and AIDS may be a valid reason but not a sufficient or complete answer.

Posted at: April 11, 2010 5:25 AM

PR said:

It might just be, Jaylene, that you answered your own question in a certain respect.
You said: "I cant even count how many guys I've heard say they could never be with a girl who was a prostitute and a lot say the same for stripping."
If you think about that kind of response in the context of the sense of empowerment that many sex workers express, and which Eric mentioned, you might have your answer right there. We all collectively possess fantasies of allowing our sexuality to manifest without restraint. But society has a tendency to channel a lot of these desires into fictive exercises through the passive consumption of media(books,tv,film, etc.) including porn and strip clubs. The consumers of these prescriptive performances--what's presumed to be manifestations of their own desires--abstract the performer into a fictitious sexual idol(which is the point of constructing sex appeal). Consequently, it is the disjunct of having such a figure of their objectification, suddenly express a subjective identity that causes them to respond so negatively and defensively. It's a duality that many people cannot seem to rectify in their minds. In a lot of respects, this is also the same thing that happens when people mistake actors and actresses for the characters they play. When the objectified sex worker suddenly stands up and actively expresses subjectivity, those consumers lose their illusion of control over their fantasy production. They realize they never were in control to begin with. It was never their fantasy they were witnessing just the sexual desires they were told to value. It's like seeing behind the magician's curtain.

On the other hand, it is that very element of who controls the fantasy and what the variability and limits of that expression are that makes the some queer activist critics question what degree of agency sex workers truly have within that process, and whether or not the institution is one of irreparable exploitation of sex from worker through consumer. They believe that the structure of such sexual production is nonredeemable. Eric does not. That is where the division lies. Personally, I see no reason why a positive sex industry, in which the production of fantasy is decidedly and autonomously informed and consensual, should not exist and flourish culturally, without shame and indignation disrupting it at every turn. I say keep fighting!

Posted at: May 9, 2010 1:23 AM