The Naked Truth
And the prices paid are more than financial. Eaves writes that Zoe had bought freedom in her life at large--freedom from a nine-to-five job, and freedom from having to choose one single role to play. But she had done it by conforming over and over again to an exacting, specific role--the sex object that says, in appearance and words, Pay me and I'll be what you want.... She was earning a living that made choices for her. Honest decisions about boundaries and sexuality were impossible, because they had both become subservient to cash.
For all they have in common, Strip City and Bare are two very different books. For starters, Strip City is practically a joy ride. Burana is a great writer; her self-deprecating, casual style is not only engaging, it's seductive. As she begins her trip at the Pure Talent School of Dance in Clearwater, Florida ("the nation's only academy for professional exotic dance"), and moves on, with breaks here and there, to dance in clubs from Pueblo, Colorado, to Newark to Dallas to Las Vegas, we see her fret about her body, her boyfriend and her bank account. With precision and humor, she describes each dance she does, each club and each emotion her journey evokes. There's real joy when Burana wins "Best of Show" in the Miss Topless Wyoming contest, and real disgust when a coked-up guy in an El Paso club beckons her with, "C'mere so I can do a line off of your tits." Burana doesn't glorify her work, but her honesty certainly glorifies her.
And while it tries to reach into the deeper meanings of dancing and its effects on the women who do it, Bare fails to address the subject of erotic entertainment with the sexiness that oozes from Burana's every sentence. Eaves's style is almost academic, which would work in an objective study of the sex industry, but doesn't in a book that's part memoir. Eaves declares early on, "I have always been terrible at revealing anything of myself," and she proves to remain so. Despite her intimate revelations--which are many--she often appears at a distance, as if she's observing herself experiencing things. Elisabeth Eaves, we learn, is pretty, smart, exceedingly comfortable in her body and a little prudish when compared to other dancers. But we can't hear her voice or her laugh, or see the big smile that she wears during her audition at the Lusty Lady. She fares better in bringing her co-workers to life, but only because we observe them with Eaves's sense of awe.
Neither writer spends too much time worrying about the political implications of being a stripper, or whether you're a better or worse feminist for working in the sex industry. At this point, it's a pretty tired issue anyway. If you're under 30, chances are that you know someone who has stripped, whether for the money or just to prove she could; there are readily available feminist arguments to marshal support for her: A dancer controls men and destroys the patriarchy by dancing in a peep show, where each customer is at your mercy. Making men "pay" so much for something so simple is subversive. Taking off one's clothes is liberating, and a flagrant display of power and beauty that exalts all women. I could keep going. There's some truth to all of this, as well as some self-serving justification. Whatever political power dancers derive from their work, there are major personal tolls to pay. Burana recalls experiencing "stripper damage" at 24:
Stripper damage isn't something quantifiable. It's a state of being. In this job, there is no neutral territory. No repose. It's chaos.
You're managing the chaos, you're in control. Then, suddenly one day at work, you're not. That invisible thread that keeps you together just snaps and shit's flying everywhere.
Exhaustion. Men in the club sucking the life out of you and women outside the club sneering at you and bitchy management and bitchy coworkers and you feel fat and old and insignificant. And then the inner monologue begins...
...If this is all I'm good for, then what good is my life? How much time do I have left, anyway? You'd think that for all I go through I'd make more money, but what if I can't ever find a job that'll pay me more than this?
...The promise you made to yourself when you started that you'd work the business and not let the business work you seems like a joke now.
Indeed, the difficulty of leaving might be the most dangerous part of stripping. In the end, Eaves can only think of "dancers in terms of when they would leave their jobs." And not just because of the money. Relationships with friends and family are often strained for sex workers, not to mention with lovers. Straight dancers seem to have it worse than lesbians--of whom there are many in the sex industry--in part because their partners are more likely to be jealous but also because dancers are under pressure to make sure that the man they are with is not like one of the nasty guys from the club. In Strip City and Bare, both writers are very particular about the way they want prospective partners to respond to their dancer pasts. If a date is too eager to hear about dancing, or judgmental, or overly impressed, he's out the door.
Then there are the lasting effects. A dancer is always trying to tough it out a little longer, hoping to earn a few more bucks, pushing just a little harder. Boundaries are broken all the time; shame, disappointment and rejection are emotions that just come along with the power and pleasure the work and money bring. But even once she's out, the feelings linger--that's why we have these two books. It's clear: You can take the dancing girl out of the business, but you can't take the dancing business out of the girl.