Updated: Jun 3
Strippers respond to the recent age bans in Texas strip clubs
Blog Post Written By: Jessie Sage
On May 24th, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 315 into law, which makes working at “sexually oriented businesses” under the age of 21 a criminal offense. This comes in the wake of a growing moral panic about sex trafficking, as well as a conservative anti sex-work agenda which has been rapidly gaining momentum.
This is not the first law of its type; at the end of 2018, a similar age ban went into effect in Louisiana, barring dancers under the age of 21 from working in strip clubs that serve alcohol.
The TX law has already had a chilling impact on the clubs, which have often served as a reliable source of income for young women. Indeed, Marla Cruz, a TX-based dancer tweeted this after a recent audition:
“New manager told me the club had to fire ~55 dancers, waiters and bartenders this week bc of TX SB 315 which now bans under 21yrs from working at ‘sexually oriented businesses.’”
Those who pushed the bill may feel like heroes for “rescuing” 18, 19, and 20-year-olds from what they believe to be the horrors of the sex industry. Yet, in the wake of a global pandemic that has devastated the economy, and a lack of employment protections for sex workers, the sure harms of such laws far outstrip any imagined benefit, particularly for the young dancers whose livelihoods now hang in the balance.
It is often said that if you want to understand anything about sex work, you need to speak to sex workers themselves. While stripping may be distasteful to the anti-sex work lobbyists who push bills like this one, the dancers who have worked in such clubs paint a very different picture of their experiences as young dancers. Stripping between 18-20, for them, provided resources that were otherwise unattainable.
“Sex work offered me a way out of my toxic living situation that I would have had to wait years longer to get out of had I not began sex work,” says Elle, who started full-service sex work at 18, and stripping at 19. “I was still in school at the time, as well and was trying to balance that and three jobs to help with the bills at home, and try to save to get out.”
Baily began doing sex work in college when they realized that their parents weren’t going to offer them financial support. They say, “Sex work offered autonomy and financial independence at the time when I needed it most.”
In addition to some financial independence, the strippers I talked to also discussed the way that doing sex work at a young age helped them heal from trauma and gain self-confidence.
“Sex work was a balancing act of self-love and survival at the time,” says Makayla Montoya, who started stripping and camming the week she turned 18. She continues, “I had a lot of trauma from my adolescence I needed to work through, and stripping helped with that. I felt like I was finally in control of my life. The freedom that my schedule provided gave me the time I needed to deal with my mental illness and take care of myself, without worrying about being completely broke.”
Marci, who started stripping at 19 after being introduced to it by a friend, had a similar experience. She emphasizes not just the flexibility of the job, but the community she found in the club. “My introduction into the sex worker community at 19 helped construct my sense of self and purpose far more than I would have experienced had I followed a ‘traditional’ career path,” she says. “The bipolar disorder and anxiety diagnosis that had convinced me that I was worthless was silenced by a newfound sense of power and independence. I had, for the first time in my life, finally felt like I had found a community of people who accepted me.”
After being discharged from the military because of a broken hip, and leaving a marriage, Kehlani started stripping at 19 and credits her financial and emotional stability to this experience. “Sex work before I was 21 was empowering,” she says. “It gave me the financial stability and knowledge to know that I don’t have to work 9-5 and bust my ass for minimum wage. I could work whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted. I would not be the bold independent, woman I am today if I wouldn’t have wanted into that [first] club.”
Though in her 40s now, Siren SaintSin started dancing two days after her 18th birthday. She was a single mom who had lost some of her straight jobs because her kid got sick, causing her to miss too many shifts. But in addition to giving her a reliable source of income and a flexible schedule, it also gave her a space to explore her budding sexuality. “It was liberating honestly,” she says of her early dancing career. “It was an awakening of my own sexuality as an adult woman. It was my body, my choices on how I represented it, and I could make money doing it.”
SaintSin was conscious to point out that saying the experience of working at a strip club was empowering is not to endorse everything that happens in the club. She says, “There was rampant drug use among my mutuals and patrons, alcoholism was encouraged by patrons and workers, lots of sexual assault (not unlike the civ jobs I had, but at least I had a bouncer instead of heartless HR), judgement from people including family, busted knees, late nights even if tired, burnout is real.” Though she adds, “It’s hard, hard work but so awesome, too.”
Marci also points out that strip clubs, while they offer many things, can’t be viewed as a panacea. She explains, “Stripping was not a solution to life’s problems itself, but instead served as a platform to reach the level of self-love and introspection I needed to become a fully realized person.”
Given that all the people who I spoke with feel that working in the clubs under the age of 21 was a formative experience for them, it is worth asking what is lost when 18, 19, and 20-year-olds are legally pushed out of the clubs.
For Montoya, the ability to work in the clubs when she was younger than 21 was lifesaving. “Without the ability to do the work I did in a safe environment, I would have been dead years ago,” she says. “Stripping provided me housing, food, financial stability, and a camaraderie with other sex workers.” She goes on, “Sex work changed the course of my life for the better, who I am now is because of who I was as an 18-year-old stripper.”
Marci sees her experience as a young stripper in a similar light. She says, “The club actually offered stability and routine at a time where I had none. I don’t know if I would be here without the help of the women I’ve met and the self-love I found in the process.” Similarly, Kehlani feels like she owes her life to sex work. She says, “I fully believe I wouldn’t be here today if I hadn’t found my strip club family.”
While Elle doesn’t necessarily think she would be dead without stripping, she does think that the quality of her life would be much poorer. She reflects, “If I had to wait until 21, I probably wouldn’t have graduated and would’ve been stuck in a household with an alcoholic/addict father and his partner who was also an alcoholic/addict and probably would’ve ended up using with them.”
SaintSin, who has made her career in sex work, comments, “Sex work saved me at 18 and it helps me thrive at 43. It is an industry formed by hard work and a drive to live. Sex workers want to live, they want to survive, and it is the method in which they can do it on their terms alone.”
For all these reasons, sex workers are rightly critical of the ban, and feel that it is patronizing for lawmakers to assume that they know better. Elle points out that 18-year-olds are adults who have access to jobs that are far more dangerous. She says, “If you’re old enough to have the bodily autonomy to join the military, you’re old enough to have the bodily autonomy to be a sex worker.”
In Baily’s words, “The continued infantilization of women needs to stop.” Such infantilization, she argues, robs women “of the choice to set themselves up in the life they choose.”
SaintSin also sees these laws as infantilizing. She says, “It’s a disgusting infantilism of adults who are forced to make very big decisions about life, while taking away opportunities for those who need them.” She goes on, “[The law] is extremely detrimental to young adults who are trying to survive in an economy not designed for their success or growth.”
Marci, who began her career in TX, says, “My heart aches for all the young dancers displaced from their home club and for the ones who no longer have the opportunity to audition at all.” Moreover, she points out that “displacing sex workers under 21 does not shield them from the dangerous of the industry, but instead heightens the issues of safety, discretion, and visibility that plague our community in general.”
Rather than pearl-clutching moralism, law makers would be better off listening to the chorus of sex workers who tell them that these laws are harmful to their community and young people who will be pushed into making more dangerous choices when clubs are no longer available to them. If they were actually interested in protecting young sex workers, they would listen to them; sex workers know what they need, and it’s not less opportunity.
Listen to this Peep Show Podcast episode by Jessie Sage for more on the subject.