“The first time I ever stepped into a strip club, I was 18. I walked into the VIP section where dozens of men were getting lap dances and I thought, ‘This shit is like Caligula.’”
It was 1998 when “Claire” had her first taste of stripping–the career that would call her back throughout her life, even as she pursued and eventually obtained her Ph.D. in English Literature. Now Claire is in her early thirties and she still dances at a joint near where she lives in the southeastern U.S–the same region where she earned her Ph.D.*
“I’ve been in this field so long that it’s in my veins. I feel at home in a strip club. Totally comfortable,” Claire reports confidently.
It’s a performance, of course. Sure, some strip club-goers are relatively innocent. Just looking for some evening entertainment and a little female attention, however feigned. But most men who step through those blacked-out doors into the swirling neon lights have one thing in mind, and it doesn’t involve innocence.
The goal is to make him think she wants him, to make him think he’s the only one in the whole club that she wants to take to the couches. That’s where the real money is.
But, of course, he’s not the only one in the club. If he turns down her offer of a lap dance, she’ll just move on to the next guy. The next only guy in the club. They all want her to pick them out from the crowd and make them feel special. And she wants them to buy what she’s offering.
A room full of willing participants. A captive audience. And her task is to engage them all. To hold the attention of every single person in the room while simultaneously making each one feel special, like she’s talking directly to him.
This challenge will sound familiar to anyone who has worked as a teacher. Teaching is also a performance. Claire’s strip club description fits the classroom experience well. In fact, her very words could describe any veteran teacher’s career.
“I’ve been in this field so long that it’s in my veins. I feel at home in a classroom. Totally comfortable.”
Teachers are continually challenged to come up with new ways to reach their students, to convince them to buy what they’re offering. Teaching and stripping are similar careers, not counting the nudity and the lap dances. Some teachers are better at the dance than others. The good teachers are drawn to the profession. They have a tendency to stay with the job no matter how little it reciprocates that sacrifice. Some teachers know from the very beginning they’ve found their niche. Claire knew pretty quickly that she had found hers as a dancer–long before she returned to school for her doctorate.
“I’ve always had a way with men,” she explains. “I come from a family of southern beauty queens to whom beauty and charm are of utmost importance—and I mastered my feminine wiles at a precocious age.”
She’s candid about her past and about her talent. She knows her confidence is not exactly politically correct, but she’s not afraid to be honest about her thoughts on a successful career.
“I realize it is perhaps not socially acceptable to claim, ‘Hey, dudes like me,’ but they do, they always have, and I knew I could make money off of that.”
Sometimes the secret to success is simply recognizing your strengths and exploiting them. Other times you conduct field research and learn best practices. Claire goes on to relate some of the secrets she’s learned from her years on stage. Like how she gleans a customer’s name immediately upon approaching him, and then repeats his name as often as possible during their brief conversation. “Works like magic for emptying wallets,” she says. “Over the years, I’ve mastered the tricks necessary for convincing men to want me.”
In her 20s, Claire was confident that her life plan would involve a Ph.D. and a professorship. But as the reality of the academic job market began to loom large, she started thinking of creative alternatives. During graduate school, she had stepped away from the clubs for almost six years. The problem–as any grad student knows–was that the assistantship stipend just wasn’t financially feasible.
So, deciding to return to the club and ultimately to launch her own pole dancing business was easy. At the time, she was making a “fabulous $16,000 a year as an exploited graduate assistant,” which wasn’t cutting it. Bills had to be paid. Claire has a three-year-old child and her husband works a 9-5 job. She wanted to avoid an all-day daycare, so a night job was essential. “I needed to make adult money to afford our house. Stripping was the easiest and quickest solution.”
When Claire walked back into the strip club after a six-year hiatus, she was in the process of polishing up her dissertation for her Ph.D. in English. Her topic?
“Literary bad girls,” Claire explains, pointing out the irony of her chosen subject matter. I tried to push her for more detail, but she demurred on the grounds that the women she wrote about are too obscure to list without giving away her identity.
The concept of irony comes up a lot in Claire’s life. She’s quite aware of the seemingly paradoxical relationship between her status as an academic feminist and her chosen profession in which she performs for the pleasure of the mostly male gaze.
Claire makes clear to any “feminist detractors” that she herself is a feminist, and that she can easily reconcile the two disparate identities.
“Please do not judge me as a victimized sex-object who doesn’t know any better—especially if you have never worked in the sex trade,” she says. “I am empowered in this position and if you don’t believe me, please see my paid-off credit card bill.”
She acknowledges the fact that some will judge her anyway. She knows that having a Ph.D. and being a stripper will always result in pity or outright criticism by some who will think she has failed her training. But Claire doesn’t feel like a failure.
“I feel empowered—not just in my ability to rake in benjis–but moreover in my bold decision to eschew a national job search in favor of pragmatically providing for the life I actually want. Indeed, I felt like I would be living a less meaningful, more wasted life if I forced myself into the academic path that I now regard as unduly stressful and all-consuming.”
Claire takes her position on feminism within the sex industry a step further even.
“It is taboo to admit, but I enjoy working in strip clubs,” she explains. “I like the glamour, smoking cigarettes and talking to strangers, dancing all night, a constant flood of compliments—and tons of money.”
To Claire, working in the strip club is empowering in ways that grinding through life in the academy couldn’t possibly be. She asks, “Would it be more ‘respectable,’ more socially-acceptable, for me to adjunct my ass off all across this state for peanuts and grey hairs?”
Her point is not lost on this adjunct.
Each year, more and more Ph.D.-holders end up on the dead-end adjunct professor track. The American Association of University Professors puts the number of comfortably-employed college professors as low as 30%. The other three-fourths of the profession is filled with contingent workers who have no contracts or retirement, and who earn a fraction of the tenure-track professor salary. It’s not hard to imagine why someone would decide to leave that life behind in favor of a more lucrative and exciting career–especially if she is supporting a family.
On the Overlap of Stripping and the Academy
Oddly enough, Claire argues that this transition from academic to stripper is much easier than one might think.
“My academic training helps me recognize the systems of power operating at the strip club, and that training informs my hustling strategies,” she explains. “This academic training mixes interestingly with a lifetime of experience manipulating men to get the things I want.”
According to Claire, the “bad girls” of her research complement her behavior at the club. Thousands of hours in classrooms and meeting with advisors taught her how to read an audience and to give them what they want. Crucial to both professions is audience awareness, and Claire is a master of it. The only question is through which medium she will practice her skill and training. For her, the decision was pretty simple. “I decided I would no longer give away anything for free.”
So, she took her academic training and left the profession in order to use it in a place that more appropriately compensated her for her skills. And speaking of compensation . . .
Claire tells me that the money is the best thing about stripping. “That kind of money is life-changing,” she says. Based on the numbers she gave, I would agree.
“At the height of my career, I made as much as $8,000 -$10,000 a month. That’s $500+ a night on a regular basis. Working three nights a week, I can usually count on $1200 – $1500 a week. On a weeknight, I’m stressed out if I make anything less than $300. On a weekend, I expect anything from $400 – $1000 a night.”
To give you an idea just how life-changing this income could be, consider the average pay an adjunct professor receives for teaching a course in freshman writing. According to the Adjunct Project, a self-reported database of adjunct wages that’s hosted by The Chronicle of Higher Education, the average adjunct pay per course is about $2,700.
An adjunct teaching a full-time course load of 10 classes each year would earn an annual salary of $27,000. Claire can make more than that in just three months. I’d say that’s life-changing.
Then there’s the free time factor that also sweetens the deal for Claire. As a stripper, she earns this kind of money while only working 24 hours a week. The financial reasons to abandon academe for the club are obvious–the earning potential doesn’t even compare. But, for Claire, the decision to leave was more than just a financial one.
Deciding to Leave
During her last year of dissertation work, Claire faced the decision all Ph.D. candidates must eventually ask themselves. Am I willing to leave behind my life and move to a small town in the middle of nowhere for a job at an obscure college in order to get that coveted tenure-track teaching position?
This is a reality everyone comes to terms with while on the academic job market. The chances of getting a job in a city one actually wants to live are slim. Can you live in small town Alaska/North Dakota/Kansas? Is a low-paying tenure-track, teaching-intensive position even worth the geographic sacrifice? For Claire, the situation was even more complicated by the fact that she had a young child and a husband with an established career. Could she ask them to give up their own lives so she could fulfill her dream?
She could not. She entered the local job market only, applying for every teaching position in her immediate vicinity and she forsook the national job search for the sake of her family.
“I asked myself, ‘What do you value? What do you love? What is important to you?’”
Once she thought about it, the decision became clear. As Claire puts it, “There were things in my life I valued more than analyzing books, teaching freshman composition, and engaging in an intellectual circle jerk through esoteric publications that only a few privileged folks read.”
Being a professional academic requires huge sacrifices. Minimum-wage grad school jobs, cross-country moves, uprooted families, seven-day work weeks. Claire knew she wouldn’t be happy with that life.
“What was I willing to sacrifice in order to be a professional academic?” she asks, and then answers her own question: “Not much, it turns out.”
The local job search didn’t pan out. As it happens, this wasn’t a big deal for Claire because she was quickly becoming disillusioned with the academy anyway. Her final few years of graduate school had exposed her to some of the pettiness and hypocrisy that academe usually hides from the outside world, and she was questioning whether she even wanted to enter the profession if she could.
Claire now views the academy with cynicism. To her, it’s a place “where a small group of elite people give lip-service to eliminating classism, sexism, and racism, yet this lip-service is written in jargon so intimidating that it is accessible only to those elite.” So much for the “proletarian philosophy of equality,” Claire chides.
“How do academics affect the world?” she continues. “How are academics change agents? Are we hoping for some kind of trickle-down intellectualism where our students receive a bit of our wisdom and go about disseminating it among the plebes?”
It doesn’t take much prodding to get Claire to share her thoughts on academe. She seems eager to let go of some brooding criticisms that were stifled during her graduate training.
“I don’t like most academics,” Claire writes in an email to me. I get the impression she’s only half-joking.
As you might expect from someone who dances for a living, Claire finds the academy too staid and boring. She is careful to point out that she’s grateful for the education and intellectual growth her PhD provided, but to Claire, the academy just isn’t “hip enough.” Probably not the first time that accusation has been leveled at the institution.
The academy didn’t have what Claire wanted, and vice versa apparently, so they’re taking a break from each other. For now.
Estrangement from academia like Claire’s is becoming more and more common these days. As the adjunct labor crisis deepens, would-be academics are jumping ship in favor of careers with more stability and better incomes. Like Claire, these grad students and early career professionals are disillusioned with an academic labor system that appears to be hypocritical. The false promises of eventual jobs in exchange for a decade of meager assistantship stipends are wearing thin for many.
As a result, some ex-academics and higher education experts have begun to call for a reality check in graduate school acceptance and placement rates. Some, like Karen Kelsky a former tenured professor and department chair who runs The Professor Is In, offer frank advice to those attempting to make informed decisions about academic careers.
In January 2014, Kelsky created a Google Doc that crowdsourced information about Ph.D. debt. A quick scan through the document reveals many Ph.D.-holders with six-figure debt balances and no job to show for their financial sacrifices. One column asks respondents how they plan to pay back the debt. More than a few simply state, “I have no idea.”
In light of the information this document provides, it’s not hard to imagine why some Ph.D. candidates abandon the career track before even finishing the degree, let alone after a few unsuccessful years on the job market.
As one who successfully walked away from her academic destiny and repurposed her Ph.D. in a very unorthodox way, Claire also has some thoughts for those contemplating a life in the academy.
“If you’re only pursuing an academic career because it is what you are most trained and qualified for—if you see academia as just your job—then it is not worth following to the ends of the earth,” she cautions.
Claire’s advice to other academics who are caught up in the passion of their work rings true. Moreso than others, academics have a tendency to fall into the do-what-you-love trap. As a result, they get stuck in a mindset that will perpetually imprison them, thinking they’re doing something wrong if they don’t love every minute of their jobs.
Not only does this mentality perpetuate unhappiness and discontentment in higher education, but it also facilitates rampant exploitation of the workers who ascribe to this mindset. It’s easy to use propaganda to justify low pay when one is sacrificing for the sake of passion. Teachers, in particular, are prone to this kind of economic oppression due to the political rhetoric of “self-sacrificing” professions. Claire’s self-empowering revelation was that she could decouple her career from her passion.
“Your job does not have to be your passion. You can just have a regular old job that pays decently and you can fulfill your passion in other areas of your life,” she points out.
Intersection of Two Lives
When it comes to those other areas of Claire’s life, she likes to be a bit more careful than most about keeping them separate from her career. She has a family and a different life outside of the club. The two worlds almost never mix. She explains that “no one in my academic life, outside of my most trusted friends, know about the stripping.” Claire is very aware of the judgment she could face from the academy if anyone were to find out about her second life.
She tells me that former advisors and colleagues would likely see her decision to leave the academy as a failure–especially in light of the job she now holds and its perception as being antithetical to the principles under which she trained in her doctoral program. But, if you haven’t gathered by now, Claire doesn’t back down from a challenge. She fires right back that she’s “suspicious of any framework that disallows female sexual expression as somehow socially irresponsible.” The feminist training fails her not.
Claire is savvy, though. She realizes her background can work to her advantage in the club with the right kind of client. She isn’t afraid to put the degree to use when she sees an opportunity.
“My strip club caters to a very high class clientele, and I use the PhD shtick all the time when I sense the customer might like it. These men are often millionaires and are interested in a woman with some culture. With these men, I will usually talk Faulkner topless for $600/hour.”
The Sound and the Fury will never be the same.
Planning for the Future
Claire’s wish to maintain her anonymity is rooted in her desire to keep her two lives separate for the sake of both her family and her sanity. But she also has another reason. A small thought in the back of her mind tugs at her, calling her to one day return to the world she left behind. Despite her open disparagement of the system that pushed her out, she admits a desire to stay connected to it. To a certain extent, once an academic always an academic. The hunger for deep intellectual engagement never goes away entirely, and Claire tells me she still holds out hope for a low-key academic job in her city.
If something good came along, she would take it. Hence, her need to remain anonymous about her current lifestyle. She states her apprehension more bluntly: “Who wants to hire a slut? I cannot come out of the closet.”
In the meantime, Claire is pretty content with her life. The stripping pays well for now.
“I’m a pragmatist. I just want enough money to live in my modest home and not freak out about bills. Enough money to go on a family vacation every now and again. A job that I could leave at the end of the day. A job that wouldn’t consume every other aspect of my life. A job that wouldn’t become my whole identity.”
Claire is an “alternative academic” in the truest sense of the phrase. She is an academic who has found a nontraditional medium in which to practice her knowledge in a way that provides for herself and her family. She may have left behind the university, but she hasn’t left behind her training and experience. She continues to use her writing and theoretical background whenever possible. In fact, Claire has begun chronicling her exit from academia anonymously at her blog, Doctor Outta Here, where she discusses her reasons for leaving and her current life post-Ph.D. Though she feels the judgmental eyes of the academy, she is not ashamed of her career and her life decisions.
“Yes, I am a stripper with a Ph.D. I own that, and I’m proud of it,” she writes in an email. “I think it’s a neat thing to be. Complex, contradictory, different.”
*This piece is the long version of an interview with Claire that was first published at The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae.