The Risky Business of the Black Body
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
(Soundbite of song "I'm In Love With A Stripper")
Mr. T-PAIN (Singer): (Singing) I'm in love with a stripper. She popping, she rolling, she rolling. She climbing that pole and I'm in love with a stripper. She tripping, she playing, she playing. I'm not going nowhere girl…
CHIDEYA: Stripping and soft-core pornography have become a part of America's pop and hip-hop culture. But rarely do you hear the voices of people who have actually worked inside this multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry. Today, as part of our Sex and Sexuality series, we talk to Siobhan Brooks. She not only studies how African-Americans fare in the sex industry, she has been a part of it.
A former stripper at San Francisco's Lusty Lady, Brooks is now a graduate student at the new school in New York City. Thanks so much for joining us.
Professor SIOBHAN BROOKS (Sociology, Lehman College): Thank you for having me.
CHIDEYA: So you were at the Lusty Lady and filed a racial discrimination complaint against the club. Why was that?
Prof. BROOKS: Well, I filed the racial discrimination complaint because a couple of months after being hired, I noticed that the club was very stratified. Out of 70 dancers, I would say 10 were women of color. And out of the 10, five were black. And there was the stage and there was also another component of the club called the private pleasures booth, which you can make more money. That was the whole kind of impetus for working there. But it was still a peep show separated by glass, you and the customer.
So I auditioned for booths, and I was trained, actually, by a black show director at that time, Josephine. And then I was never scheduled to work in the booth. However, everybody else was working in the both. So finally I asked her. I said, you know, I want to make some extra money and I feel comfortable. You know, I want to work in the booth. And she blatantly - another black woman blankly told me, I'm sorry to tell you this, but white men would rather see black women on stage for a quarter - which is the main area - versus the five dollars for three minutes to operate the booth.
So that was baseline economics. She said that our bodies were worth 25 cents versus the three dollars to operate the booth. I tried to negotiate her and they did have this sort temporary thing where they would rotate the few black dancers in the booths so it would be like one black woman per week in the booth. But that was an impetus for me in terms of the unionization of the club because…
CHIDEYA: Well, let me just ask you this…
Prof. BROOKS: Yeah.
CHIDEYA: …because your struggle was documented in a documentary that came out a few years ago. And, ultimately, did you prevail?
Prof. BROOKS: Yes, we did. In terms of the race question, what my complaint did was it put pressure for the club to hire more black women. And so they did, and more of us was hired, you know, and also working in booths. However, there were still some cultural issues, you know, black women not fully feeling comfortable and understanding the rights with the union, but it was overall successful in terms of - basically, it was affirmative action.
CHIDEYA: This is something that really, I think, ripples out not just in the industry that you worked in and now that you study as a graduate student, but also in terms of how people see themselves. You know, the worth that black women may feel that society accords them is not just related to what you can get onstage as a stripper. It's also related to how people treat you on the street. Do you see a connection between those two?
Prof. BROOKS: Yes, I do. That's one of the things I'm studying in my dissertation, called "Desire and the Reproduction of Race: Erotic Capital, Race and Industry," in terms of just looking at the deep stratification of black women's bodies and how that mirrors obviously other industries outside of the sex industry. One of the things that I was fascinated by was the notion of hyper sexuality, right? Like the stereotype of black and Latina women is that we're hyper sexualized. We see that in music videos.
But to my surprise, what was interesting about being in the industry and then continuing my studies in the industry is that doesn't work in our benefit. You would think that would be a plus. You know, you're going in an industry where you're supposed to be sexualized, and so if you're seen as hyper sexual you would think that would, you know, be kind of like an up for black and Latina women. But what I found was it was the opposite. It was almost as if people felt, you know, we could see you anywhere.
We can turn on the TV, we can see you, you know, shaking your butt. We, you know, can see you on these billboards. We don't really have to pay to see you. So there's a resistance when you actually are charging money for some sort of sexual service that people should pay you what you're worth. So it was always interesting to me, you know, being sexually harassed…
Prof. BROOKS: …before going to work. Then, when I go to work, none of the customers want to look at me.
CHIDEYA: How about this, what is the difference, if any, in your treatment in a predominantly white club, which you just described, and treatment that strippers get in predominantly black clubs?
Prof. BROOKS: You know, that's a really good question, and that was actually one of my surprising observations in my research. You know, my own experience was working at a predominantly white club and dealing with the racism there. When I went to predominantly black clubs, mainly in New York and Oakland, both heterosexual, you know, quote unquote, and "lesbian," I noticed that, unfortunately, those problems were even worse at predominantly black clubs.
There was a sense of, again, lower value. So a lot of customers that I interviewed would go to black clubs and they would say, we like to go to black clubs because we can get more for less. So there's this notion that black women will do more with their bodies and you don't have to pay them as much. And this notion was coming from white men, black men, you know, Latin men. And there was also the sense of not having proper security. So the bouncers were not always doing their job to protect dancers.
So the unfortunate thing was those views were actually underscored in the black clubs. And in the lesbian clubs, actually, it was a similar dynamic. Women would be performing and they would do a certain performance that I felt spoke to their low erotic value. You know, sticking objects in themselves, you know, doing a lot of explicit shows for little or no money. Again it was the same sort of dealing with security or lack of security. Dealing with an overall lax climate. You know, there's this whole notion that you go to a black club to kind of relax, like that you don't have to have the same behavior, so to speak, if you go to a predominantly white club, where most men and to a lesser degree, I guess, some lesbians too, they know you have to act in a certain way in these venues.
Whereas with our own venues there's this sense of, you know, we're just among ourselves, so to speak. You know, we just want to come here and relax. But, unfortunately, that translates into a devaluing of black women's bodies. You know, men coming up and touching the dancers on stage, yelling, you know, throwing money, things that you wouldn't see, for example, at a predominantly white club in the same way.
CHIDEYA: Well, Siobhan, thank you so much for giving us this look inside the world of stripping and the larger look at how black bodies are valued. Thanks a lot.
Prof. Brooks: Thank you.
CHIDEYA: Siobhan Brooks is a PHD candidate in sociology at the New School in New York City. She's also a former stripper.
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