As we neared the end of our two-week Missoula stretch, it became apparent to me that in each of our interviews with each of our dancers, there was a series of commonalities. It wasn’t so much the women’s backgrounds. Those were diverse—a teenage runaway, a victim of sexual abuse, a country girl who grew up working on the farm, a Native American woman who simply wanted to find her way off the reservation. Each of these dancers was unique. But in every interview, we encountered a similar ideology about the purpose of dancing, beyond making money to feed a family or pay for school. It’s an ideology that might seem ludicrous to some, but it’s important to address, especially considering I was a person who once made my own unfair judgments and assumptions about exotic dancers. Spending the past two weeks with these women really opened my eyes…by allowing me to actually see through their eyes.
On the outside, it’s easy to assume what might be happening on the inside. But even if you’ve been to a strip club—as I have—it doesn’t necessarily represent the whole. I see what I see, as a woman in a monogamous relationship. It’s easy to feel disgusted by the visual. I certainly wouldn’t want my boyfriend to go to one without me. Why would I? Don’t I give him enough? When I was married and my son was little, I would’ve been crushed if I ever found out my husband had gone to a club. I would’ve questioned our relationship. I would’ve questioned him. That’s me. On the outside, looking in. But what I see is very different than what a dancer sees. To her, she’s merely performing for money. She’s being an entertainer. She’s often being a counselor. And like any other working person, it’s just a job.
“I’d rather my boyfriend go to a strip club than a bar,” one dancer said. “95% of the girls who work at the clubs are married or have boyfriends or have kids to take care of. There’s less of a threat they’d want anything to do with another woman’s boyfriend or husband. They’re there to work, not to flirt. At a regular bar, girls are drinking and having a good time and flirting. There’s a different motive there.”
“This is just a job,” another dancer said. “If it wasn’t for strippers, wives and girlfriends would have to deal with some weird shit. Period. They don’t always understand the kind of stuff their men fantasize about. These guys will come in and tell us about it. And some of it is really weird. And I don’t think they’re bringing that stuff home. We’re counselors.”
A third dancer said, “A lot of times, I play counselor. I kept a man from committing suicide one night. It’s an emotionally draining job at times, but I love it. People have asked me if it’s degrading to be a dancer. No. By just being me, I can take care of my family. A lot of people don’t see that. They have this image of exotic dancers, and they can’t get that out of their heads.”
Melissa, Kacie and I left Missoula in three separate cars. On the drive to Butte for scheduled interviews with two of the dancers there and the owner, Virginia, I thought about what these women told me, and I began to understand them a little better. And by understanding them, I broke through my own prejudice because, not only was I understanding them more, but I was also understanding their customers a little better too.