Antonia Crane has been a stripper for 22 years
She started dancing to pay for college
Now a writer and a visiting professor, she says dancing has taught her about humanity
Go inside the world of the traveling stripper on "This is Life with Lisa Ling" Sunday at 10p
Editor’s Note: Antonia Crane is a writer, professor and stripper. She is the author of “Spent” and she’s working on another memoir about her life as a teenager in Mumbai, India, and a self-help book for strippers. Lisa Ling goes inside Crane’s world and that of other traveling strippers on “This is Life with Lisa Ling: Road Strip” Sunday, November 2, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.
I’m neither a happy hooker nor a sad stripper. I don’t have a boyfriend in jail, any kids or a drug habit. I’m a writer, teacher and stripper.
If 10,000 hours clocked in as a stripper makes me an expert, then I’m at the top of my game. Twenty-two years ago I followed my friend into one of San Francisco’s oldest, sleaziest clubs in the Tenderloin, because it seemed like an interesting job that could offer financial relief and sexual empowerment.
Initially, my goal was to pay my rent and afford my exorbitant college tuition while taking down the patriarchy one lap dance at a time. I was studying post-structural feminist theory and the civil rights movement and stripping complemented the art and literature I was exploring at that time.
I figured I’d make plenty of money performing on stage and gyrating on laps by using my femininity and dance background to extract enough money to carve out time to study and write. As a temporary side gig, stripping would be like working in coffee shops, cleaning houses or modeling nude for painters.
My plan was to strip for a month or two, pay some bills and walk away unscathed with a cushion in the bank. Why not?
Every stripper (or sex worker or dancer, as some prefer) I have ever met assumes they’re just going to strip for one weekend to pay a stack of parking tickets or buy a plane ticket, but that’s not what happens.
Strippers never really quit. We are like ghosts dragging our chains from club to club, city to city.
We change our names, get implants, Botox, braces, tattoos, spray tans and dye our hair and move to another club and start over as the new girl. New girl money is addictive, the sexual attention flattering, the quickness of the cash exhilarating.
At work, I vacillated between boredom and anxiety, enjoyed my relative anonymity and late nights, transient elements more akin to a gambling career than any service job that I have ever had. I had the freedom to work whichever nights suited me and my shifts were usually 4-5 hours long. I left with untaxed green: a private contractor with no benefits but plenty of freedom. Sometimes I even met men who became my friends.
While stripping, I continued to pursue my education and had plenty of other jobs, but I always fell back on stripping because it provided me the most money for my time and I was great at it.
It’s true that women make much more than men ever have in the adult industry, but there’s no such thing as easy money. It’s a hard job not suited for everyone.
Social skills, politeness and an upbeat attitude are key, and the ability to seduce a stranger is an art form. My intense focus has set me apart from the pack at times. I’ve been called a piranha, a hustler, and a prowler by management. I’ve shrugged off many drunken marriage proposals. I’ve turned away many rich men “seeking arrangements.”
That I make more money stripping at 42 than I ever have teaching, writing, counseling homeless youth, waiting tables or tending bar is a problem of sexism and living in a sexist culture, not a problem of the sex industry.
Will there be a backlash from academia due to my detour in the sex industry? I hope not. Many writers I admire – including William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Michelle Tea, and Stephen Elliott – have written about and lived alternative lifestyles and have been respected academics.
I trust that with hard work and tenacity, I can support myself doing what I truly love the most: teaching literature, creative writing and composition.
Some say the sex industry exists because of misogyny and sexism. Some feminists think that men have dominion over women because they have money in the clubs and use that power to manipulate and subjugate women, but it’s more complex than that. I’ve held men who cry during lap dances, bewildered by their failures as fathers, sons, lovers and husbands.
I have, many times, felt like the more powerful and needed one in that context.
I’ve also been exhausted by my own compliance when it has meant more money, which I desperately needed at the time. Although it’s rare to find love in a strip club, what is found there is a more simple intimacy: human connection, compassion, desire and touch.
Strip clubs exist because people are acutely lonesome. We walk around with these giant knots in our hearts, like a cramp that can’t stretch out. It tugs and pulls at us all day while at our jobs, surrounded by people and gadgets and family members who don’t listen to us like they used to, highlighting our own failures to connect to people easily in a meaningful way.
What I’ve learned about humanity in my protracted tenure as a dancer is that we are a culture dying of loneliness in a frenzy to feel less so. Sex workers offer a reprieve from that loneliness. I’ve learned that everyone may be fighting a great battle, caring for a sick spouse, worried about their meth-addicted daughter or struggling with a medical condition.
I’ve learned that timing and kindness are more important than big boobs.
Men wander into strip clubs not to cheat on their spouses (statistically, cheating happens in the mainstream workplace. I’ve met thousands of men who have affairs with their co-workers, secretaries and assistants), but to nurse a beer and pay a person to listen to them—a woman who does not require anything from them emotionally.
I’m not going to tell you about the nights I was rejected and insulted, stolen from and threatened, nights I didn’t make the money or the nights I wasted time with guys who did not pay off. Like many other jobs, those sketchy elements come with the territory and I’m no victim.
The more I segue into my freelance writing and teaching career, the happier I am. I hope to build a life so huge outside the strip club that I won’t need to dance anymore because I am too busy writing and teaching; creating other moments of joy and human connection in the classroom and on the page; to rise so far in that field that I won’t need to land into laps again, but until that happens, I will strip.