Sifting through my closet, my sister pulled out a tank top and a pair of jean shorts. I tried on the top, yanked it off, and tossed it on a growing pile of clothes on my bed.
“I can’t believe how nervous you are,” she remarked. “Since when do you care this much about a first date?”
I shrugged as I squeezed my legs into the shorts.
After COVID-19 landed in New York City and spread across the boroughs, my desire for companionship—for love—took me by surprise. As I hunkered down in my apartment, I first thought that I was simply having an emotional reaction to the world fluxed into chaos. But, as the weeks stretched into months and the unreal quality of the pandemic stabilized into a new normal, I began wondering if something else was responsible for these new feelings.
How I Learned to Make Money with a Smile
Before New Yorkers were ordered to stay at home, I worked as a stripper for a little under five years. While I’ve taken breaks from dancing, the pandemic has been the longest time I’ve been away from the club. Over the course of my career, I dated sporadically, a few flings here and there, but I never experienced the intensity of a new relationship. I kept flings at arm’s length, unwilling to accept vulnerability to heartbreak or rejection. Now, for the first time in half a decade, I felt a flood of uncertainty and excitement for a date.
When I first started dancing, I wasn’t worried about whether I would be able to date while working in the industry. I was more focused on how to make money. I was 24 and in $80,000 worth of debt amassed from an undergraduate degree. Sex work seemed like the only industry that would allow me to pay off my student loans, afford rent, and grind towards a career. Materially, I was right. I made more money and worked fewer hours than I would have as a waitress or bartender.
I didn’t mind the salacious aspects of the industry—like stripping down to a thong or having my breasts and body touched in the less monitored areas of the club—but making real money dancing required more than just interacting sexually; it required that I form relationships with customers, feigning desire and adoration for strangers in the hopes that they buy lap dances in private rooms.
As a moody, critical person who didn’t naturally like, or gravitate to, people, this was always the most difficult part, but, in order to earn a decent wage (and to protect myself from difficult customers in the rooms while doing so), it was necessary to embody a persona that mimicked an authentic person: someone who could express genuine interest, desire, and elation for the multitude of people who walked in the club. This ensured my income and functioned as a harm reduction tool from pushy or violent clients, who were pacified more easily through coyness than through confrontation.
While my years stripping did, ultimately, accomplish what I had hoped—it wiped my debt clean—I didn’t account for how this constant emotional performance would impact my capacity for intimacy—I didn’t realize what it would cost me.
To understand the emotional demands of jobs that interface with the public, particularly what’s required to stay safe, I have to go back to the roles I held before I became a stripper. In reality, this story starts my first year of college when I accepted a position as a shot girl. There, I sauntered around a dive bar and sold shots of tequila, gleaning tips by pretending to be overly enthusiastic about the bargoers’ lives. It was a rowdy, grabby crowd, and the more gleeful and optimistic I came across, the better I was treated.
When I showcased this cheerful demeanor, I was tipped more, fed compliments, and treated with respect from the throng of customers who walked through the mouth of the bar. However, on nights when I could not muster this persona and my face showed hints of frustration, drunk patrons—both men and women—squeezed the back of my jean shorts without my consent. My irritation somehow read as either a challenge or an invitation, making my body a target. Acting fun and flirtatious, however, seemed to safeguard against unwanted advances.
At 18, it was easy to perform happiness. I didn’t think much about it at the time because I enjoyed the attention. But that role taught me, albeit unconsciously, that not only was my income directly correlated with amiability, but my emotional countenance shaped how others treated me.
I carried that knowledge into a six-month stint at a call center in Australia, where I educated disgruntled customers about their health care options and sold costly private plans. During the month-long training, I was instructed to accommodate anger and skepticism about the increasing privatization of medical treatment by acknowledging feelings, by keeping my voice warm and steady, and by asking personal questions. Here, too, performing concern placated sometimes exasperated customers.
Just like at the bar where I made sure my eyes crinkled with my smile, on the phone I tried to sound “real” or naturally feminine. Not too syrupy, nor too haste, I worked to lace my voice with compassion and zeal, thwarting any traces of irritability. I learned pretty quickly that coming across as real thrives in service professions. And, real, I also learned, is an exhausting act to put on. When I got home from work, I quickly downed two glasses of wine and zonked out in front of reality TV, needing a few hours to let go of the vigilance I clamped over my emotional expressions.
While these jobs were brief and what I thought were inconsequential parts of my late teens and early twenties, they began sketching out a reality that stripping would color in: emotions deemed negative such as pessimism and indignation led to rejection and abuse. Forcing positivity was a way to stay safe.
Performing Happiness as a Shield Against Violence
In order for me to illustrate the conflation of dancing and intimacy, I have to go back to my second year of dancing, to a weekend that distinctly stands out in my memory.
On Thursday night, I rolled out of bed and tried to garner enough energy to assemble myself into a sultry and sprightly conversationalist. I had a fight with my mother earlier in the day, and I hoped a nap would make me feel better. Even with the extra sleep, I still wasn’t in the mood to work, but I needed to make money.
After I got to the club, I walked around the floor and met a wall of dismissals. Each customer refused to buy a dance, many of whom followed other dancers back into the private rooms a few moments after I asked. Undeterred, I swished back two shots and pressed on. “Let’s go back and have some fun,” I said. The man I was propositioning crossed his arms and inspected me. “What’s going to happen back there?” he asked. I giggled and ran my hands up his shoulder, forcing my eyes to meet his, trying to erase any signs of annoyance on my face.
Eventually, he relented. Once he stepped into the private room, he started to yank off my lace teddy. I let out a tiny laugh. When he didn’t stop, I gently pushed him down onto the couch, danced above him, and then straddled him. His hand reached around me and rested near my asshole. I stiffened. When he didn’t move his hand, I wiggled away, giggled, and told him we’d get in trouble. “Come on,” he demanded.I offered him my nipple to distract him. His fingers pushed through my pubic hair. I wrestled his hands out from inside me and placed them in the middle of my back. They sank back down.
We played this cat-and-mouse game for the duration of the fifteen-minute room. I wish I could write that I told him to fuck off, or that I, at least verbally, voiced my boundaries, but I was more worried about preventing future incidents like that. I wanted to make “easy” money, or at least money without rejection and fear of violation. I collected my 50 dollars, left the club after that, lingered in bed for a day, watching television shows that I had already seen a handful of times. I ignored phone calls. When I ventured out, I avoided eye-contact and interactions. I tried not to speak, tried not to think. I had to conserve my energy.
“Emotional labor” has become a catch-all phrase for the work women tend to carry in relationships, from household chores, to offering therapy to their emotionally stilted partners. But Arlie Hochschild’s original definition in 1983 in her book Managed Heart, was designed to capture how service workers manage and suppress their own feelings to draw clients into the right mood to spend money. It’s the invisible and demanding work that fuels our economy. The mask capitalism wears to the world.
Luring people into the state of mind to suspend doubts about consuming relies on the ability to control difficult and demanding customers. In his review on the function of emotional labor, Sushanta Mishra discussed how workers had an easier time mollifying their clients’ arduous emotions when they came off sociable, pleasant, and likable. Laborers accomplish this by deep acting, which Hochschild defined as the “effort of changing how you feel so you display an emotion that will positively impact what target audience experience.” As opposed to surface acting, or bluffing emotions that aren’t actually felt, deep acting is grueling, all-consuming labor that deteriorates the demarcation between real and feigned emotions.
Bluffing an outward countenance at the call center and dive bar was tiring, but I kept a grip on my sense of self. I knew, for example, that I was exaggerating when I told the raucous regular at the dive bar how much I loved his haircut. In the same way, I was aware of the pangs of anguish and anger that I suppressed to calm down aggravated customers who were rightfully upset about their health care bills.
In other words, there was a wall between me and work; a breathing space that allowed me to feel comfortable expressing a range of emotions outside of work, and thus, comfortable expressing a range of vulnerability needed to connect with people. Yet, with the lack of physical and emotional shield between me and my customers, it wasn’t enough to act on the surface.
During the first few weeks of dancing, I worked at designing a character that wouldn’t signal deceit. Because I knew from my other jobs that real sells, I pretended to be a yoga teacher and nanny during the day. I didn’t shave my pubic hair completely off. I wore minimal makeup. I smiled, laughed, flattered. Still, I struggled to make money, and when I did, I dealt with customers who pushed for more than lap dances or customers who didn’t want to spend money unless they were getting something “extra.” There is no shame in full-service sex work, but it was outside of my boundaries in the club.
The most fascinating aspect of stripping is that you can watch how your colleagues work; what type of personas they become to earn. Every dancer has their own method, but the top earners, I noticed, pushed men into compliance by their mood alone. They were always happy, dripping with warmth and vigor, never showing signs of exhaustion or irritability. Watching them, I learned that it wasn’t enough to mimic correct facial expressions and reel off nonsense about how interesting my customers were. I had to actually feel happiness, feel desire, feel ardor. I had to erase my anxious, pessimistic self and transform into the breezy girl next door who I performed.
Creating a Fake Real Me
One Saturday, I tried my best to suppress any crankiness, anger, or distress before work. I wanted to show up to work in a good mood. Right before I hopped on my bike and rode to the club, I swallowed an Adderall and poured a shot of whiskey.
At work, I spotted a middle-aged man at the bar who I quickly headed over to. With stimulants pumping through me, a barrage of questions rolled blithely off me, as did my adoration for him. My eyes frequently met his. My nails ran up and down his arm. More importantly, I created a space where reality melts away; I pulled him into the high-priced champagne rooms under the intoxicating stirs that mimic a new relationship. Before I broached the private room, I suggested we drink a shot, needing the lift to keep my mood up. “Should we go back and have some fun?” I asked after we sucked on limes. He nodded without hesitation.
I sat him down on the booth and closed the curtain and decided to let the waitress who manages the rooms outline the prices. I sensed he would spend money, and I didn’t want to spoil the fantasy of the girlfriend experience by mentioning cost.
After the waitress took our drink orders, he booked two hours in the private room. He talked. I responded with enthusiasm.“God, you’re so wonderful,” he whispered as he kissed my neck. He rubbed my calves, and I noticed didn’t try to move his hands up my legs. “I would kill to have a girlfriend like you,” he said.
Later on, I curled up in bed and sipped a lowball glass of whiskey as I counted the 900 dollars I earned that night. He texted me asking me out to dinner. I didn’t usually see clients outside of the club, but he was easy. He just didn’t mention payment.
I asked a colleague how to broach money without scaring him off. She warned that I couldn’t straight up ask for cash. “You have to make it seem like you want to do it free but can’t,” she said. She fed me the tired stripper line: I’d love to have dinner with you but I need to work. Would you help me out a little bit?
Around noon, he responded to my message. I really like you but you shouldn’t need money to enjoy yourself at dinner. I just want you to be real with me.
I laughed and shook with fury as something deeper and uglier sputtered. I shut off the phone, curled back into bed, and pulled the covers over my head, needing to hide from the pressure to perform.
I did not process what happened that weekend until I sat down to write this essay. Customers asking me out for unpaid dinners and trying to force their fingers in me were not unusual occurrences and not worthy of contemplation at that moment. The only reason I remember it was because I wrote down in my journal that his text message felt more violating than the customer who assaulted me.
Because he didn’t, despite what he thought, want the real me; he didn’t want the grumpy person I worked so hard to squash. He spent time and money on the cheerful and thoughtful person from the club, the person who shrunk so he could see his reflection. He wanted the fake real me.
I designed this self to not just earn a living but to stay safe in our current capitalistic system that devalues the humanity of workers. And being asked to perform my persona for free is what I can only describe as…annihilating.
The Human Toll of Capitalism
Throughout my time stripping, whenever I attempted to flirt at parties or chat on dating apps, I felt a crushing grip of dread. If I pushed past it enough and ventured on a date, I didn’t care either way whether it turned into a relationship. I wanted a partner, I wanted love but connection relies on emotional vulnerability, which Brené Brown defined as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It’s impossible to bridge the gap from acquaintance to relationship if we harden ourselves into molds of positivity.
This was something I understood in theory but working with people unconsciously taught me that I was only likable when I was in a good state of mind. The work conditioned me to feel unsafe expressing a range of emotions.
This is the human toll of capitalism. When we commodify our energy to make our current system appear enjoyable and fulfilling, we’re left with shells of ourselves. The mask of strength we wear to earn a living, the shimmery cloak of optimism, it empties the soul and strips us of the opportunity for connection. If realness can be defined by our ability to experience a rainbow of emotions, then emotional labor erodes our humanity.
Back in my room in COVID-era Brooklyn, I hugged my sister goodbye, dabbed my makeup, and rushed out of my apartment. The sense of dread was only a small flicker, replaced by new and much louder feelings: a flutter of excitement and hope. Walking up to the park to meet my date, it hit me that the pandemic has made one thing clear:
I don’t want to be the real girl anymore.
Reese Piper is a writer living in Brooklyn. Before the pandemic, she was a stripper for a little under five years. Now she’s working on a book about autism and sex work.