The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly : Coming of Age as a Sex Object -- Part III: The Good
(Originally published on January 13, 2018)
At 18 my husband and I were broke and in college. One thing lead to another and I ended up working at a strip club as a waitress and then as a hostess. It wasn't as bad as you think and it taught me a lot about the service industry, the adult industry and life. While only spent seven months in the “adult entertainment” world, it left me with lifelong lessons and impressions. (I eventually left to become a Legislative Aide in the Texas House of Representatives--which is a story for another day). While working at the club I was surrounded by young women mostly aged 18 to 25. A high proportion of them were high or drunk most nights. They had complicated family lives and many of them—not all—were financially, emotionally, and physically vulnerable. We dwelled in darkness, between predatory clients, sleazy drug dealers, and the fabrication of intimacy. The “girls” walked around wearing their work clothes: enticing tops, thongs and eponymous stripper heels. Waitresses wore more but often had complicated stories of their own. The hostess position was highly coveted. It required very little customer interaction, imposed no dress code (other than a pleasant presentation), and did not rely on tips. Any of these positions were subject to leveraging by our managers, who were men. This universe of women, selling experiences to inebriated men while living on a knife’s edge, with children to raise, bills to pay and—sometimes—dreams to pursue, was overseen by two night managers and one day manager. That was the extent of oversight: three men with near absolute discretion. They could have done a lot of damage. But they didn’t. And here is the “good.” While sexual harassment and victimization is a byproduct of toxic masculinity, which pervades our society, it is not inevitable—even in the most sexualized of places.
The managers who worked with us neither flirted nor harassed. Two events illustrate the way management can behave, even where circumstances could easily lend themselves to inappropriate and likely unpunished bad behavior. For starters, they protected us from patrons.
One night, I was standing at the bar dropping off empty glasses and picking up fresh drinks. I didn’t interact with him nor did I particularly pay attention to him. Nonetheless, he noticed me. So much so that he put his hand under my skirt, literally grabbing me “by the pussy.” I smacked his arm with mine, reacting so fast I didn’t even think about it. The impact was so violent I thought “this is ho bones break.” He looked at me in disbelief, shocked that I would defend myself, and exclaimed, “Why did you do that!” I had nothing to answer. I turned around and went straight to my night manager. My manager didn’t tell me that was my job. He didn’t blame my skirt or the setting. He didn’t ask me what I had done to invite this behavior. He didn’t even ask me whether I was sure I had understood what happened. Instead, he asked me where the man was. I took him there. He tapped him on the shoulder, told him to close out his tab and leave. The pussy grabbing offender was escorted out of the club less than ten minutes after he assaulted me. Nothing else was said about the incident and I moved on. If this can happen in a strip club why can’t it happen anywhere else?
On another occasion, a manager-in-training was let go with 30 minutes notice. Managers-in-training spent over a year handling “the floor” with a more senior manager. This particular trainee was a nice enough fellow but a little “informal.” One night, he was talking to the hostess who was wearing a long sleeved black shirt and black pants. He told her the pants looked nice. He was let go that evening. In a place as highly sexualized as a topless club, there was no tolerance for familiarity. This was enforced by other similarly situated men, which is further testament to the importance and feasibility of bystander intervention.
Fast forward a few years and I became an attorney at one of the top firms in the country. I worked closely with several men and my Managing Partner as a man. Regardless of the late nights, travel, and banter that naturally took place, never did anyone say anything untoward or behave in ways that were anything but professional. Now, did they have conversations behind closed doors that I was not privy to? Maybe. Did I care? No. Why? Because the power structure in my small corner of the firm did not benefit toxic masculinity. And while I want to credit the men for this I have to also credit the women. None of them would have taken any nonsense, from anyone, and the atmosphere in the office was that harassing behavior would have been eliminated on the spot. Our hiring partner was a woman. The Senior Associates and Of Counsel attorneys running the complicated cases were women. The Managing Partner obviously respected them and relied on their mental acuity. The power structure was both a meritocracy and included women in positions of authority. All of this made me feel safe. That, coupled with the fact that nobody ever acted like I wasn’t gave me the space to grow as a lawyer free from sexual harassment.
In other words, the “good” can happen—even in male dominated fields like the law and even in unexpected places like adult entertainment. What makes the difference is people willing to hold themselves to certain standards and engaging with women, regardless of their station in life, profession, or state of undress, as individuals worthy of respect. These experiences reinforced my belief that the “good” exists and that it can exist regardless of its surroundings. As a feminist and a woman’s advocate these experiences buoy me. Onward and upward; we have work to do.