Originally published in the Pittsburgh City Paper.
Reese Piper is an autistic writer and stripper living in Brooklyn, N.Y. She writes about disability, her experiences stripping, and the labor laws that impact her. This week, I sat down to talk to her about what it is like to be an autistic stripper.
When you were diagnosed with autism, you had already been stripping for two years. Were there ways in which your job as a stripper helped you to recognize your autism?
I think I noticed from the beginning that I was able to socialize a lot more in the club. I was able to look people in the eye; I was able to converse. I knew that I struggled with these things in the outside world. Dancing gave me a perspective; it built a dichotomy in my head. I would ask myself: Who am I? I am so flirtatious here, but I feel so bland outside.
Why do you think socializing was easier inside of the club?
I was able to do it because [the social interactions within a strip club] are so scripted. There were so many formulas. One dancer walked me through what kind of conversations she would have with customers, and I would do double dances with others. I would memorize what the other dancers said and did, and copy it with my customers.
I would say hello, ask how their day is going, ask them a few questions about themselves, relate it to myself, and then ask if they want to buy me a drink — that would tell me if they were willing to spend money. Through this job, I learned to have a back and forth conversation.
Also, because it is a job, these interactions aren’t supposed to be natural, I was taught how to have them. But socializing [outside of the club] is supposed to come naturally, and no one took me aside and taught me how to do that.
Besides the self-knowledge that dancing facilitated, do you think that there are other ways that dancing is a good job for those with autism?
Yes. At the beginning, in particular, it was nice to be in my body. I could pick my own hours and I had more control over my general mental health. If I was having a low day, I would take off work. Stripping gave me control over my autism in that way.
It also gave me a space to be good at something. I was so bad at so many things. In stripping, I could focus on one thing and do it well. There is only one goal: I was just there to make money.
Are there ways in which you feel like you, as an autistic person, are particularly well suited to be a stripper, rather than the other way around?
I noticed right away that it was easy for me to connect with random customers. In the club, it was just me and this person, and we could, for a short time, exist without the relationship boundaries that you have in real life. And because I don’t relate to people in real life the way neurotypical folks do, it was easier for me to exist in these heightened intimate spaces.
Also, the stigma that is associated with sex work didn’t impact me in the same way that it impacted others. I had less shame and less embarrassment about getting close with others. The dirtiness that is presumed by people outside of sex work … I just didn’t take it in.
Do you feel like your work has impacted your life outside of work?
It has given me a sense of my limits and what I can handle. I discovered I work well when I have one project. It taught me to really listen to my own inner knowledge.However, because I have learned to take some of that into my personal life, I no longer find stripping as interesting. I started having my own relationships outside of the club and no longer needed the club to experience intimacy.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).