While I was away for my sophomore year of college, a close friend of mine back at home started working as a dancer at a local strip bar. He was a brother figure for me, and had been an enormous support during much of my own coming out process, so I felt the need to be just as supportive of him in this new venture. However, I was ignorant of the sphere into which my friend was entering, and found myself confronted with a set of questions I had never had to ask in our relationship before: Is he going to be safe? Is he going to be treated well by the club’s patrons, and by the owners? Will he be subject to violence? Should I be seeing this situation as a problem? As his friend, should I mind my own business or intervene? In the end, I decided that the decision was his to make, and that I should support him by trusting his judgement, asking honest questions to make sure he was in a healthy environment, and giving him the space to create his own path. Even so, I remained uneasy about the situation, and was not convinced that I was being the best friend that I could.
It was not until I was home for fall break and was actually able to visit my friend at his job that I got a feel for what his daily life at the club really looked like. Upon entering, there was a bar located to one side, and small stage on the other where the guys danced solo and on poles. In the center was a dance floor where visitors mingled, made out, and talked to dancers that they were interested in. There were a few back rooms where private dances could be arranged. Cameras were placed around the entire facility to ensure that none of the rules of the establishment were violated, or that dancers were mistreated by patrons. Lube and condoms were also readily available from several counters.
As I took a spot at the bar with the friends I had come with, and was introduced by my primary friend to some of the other dancers, I began taking in the scene around me–the many Latino, white and Black men milling around, kissing, laughing and talking–and realized what a special place this club was. It was a space in which gay male sexuality was celebrated, yet was not the only theme. It was a business which employed a predominately brown and queer population of guys, many of whom were living on their own and had limited means of supporting themselves. And in the small, postindustrial city in which it was located, it was one of a precious few sites in which queer people–especially queer men–could gather together, connect and socialize in peace. My first visit to the strip club would subsequently lead to my introduction to the Sex Positive movement, and its profound influence on radical queer politics.
Gayle Rubin’s piece “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” which originally appeared in the book Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, lays the foundation for what would become the Sex Positive movement of the early 1990s. This movement, which was comprised of a wide range of academics, sex workers, community activists and others, was founded in large part as a form of resistance to the mainstreaming and corporatizing of queer politics in wake of the initial AIDS epidemic. Protesting the demonization of HIV/AIDS and those who had contracted the illness, the Sex Positive movement sought to honor, empower and galvanize a healthy community without denouncing sexuality, or marginalizing poor, homeless, working and brown queers. To many members of the sex positive school, this meant encouraging a culture in which sex was celebrated as a central part of queer identity, not treated merely as a risky and sickness-passing act. It also meant acknowledging and supporting members of the queer community who were involved in the sex industry, imagining their work not only as a reality for queer populations, but as a feasible and prideful life choice, one which entitled them to the same rights and protections as all other working people. The goals of sex positivity were not simply visibility and acknowledgement, but ultimately enfranchisement, autonomy, and the ability to practice sex work free from stigma, violence or persecution. For myself, learning of this movement, the impact it continues to have on radical queer politics, and the relevance it bore to my own community, was genuinely revolutionary.
This important personal realization, and the impact that it had on the friendship I have with my brother, is not to romanticize the life of a sex worker, generally or in the specific case of my friend. As he and several other of my close gay male friends continued working at the bar, they had countless problems with being taken advantage of by management, losing temporarily and then gaining back their jobs, missing paychecks, and other incidents. Few of them could afford dancing there as their only job, and had to juggle other shifts with other business with their night hours at the club. The necessity of the space as a hangout was counterbalanced by the stigmas associated with spending time there, and the mistreatment of workers by management was a weekly reality. Even so, the club became a crucial social center for myself, my group of friends, and continues to be for much of the brown and working queer community in my home region. The hardships faced by that specific community are not ones perpetrated by the space itself–as is usually the assumption–but rather through a devaluing of the type of work and socializing which take place there, and of the people who participate. My friend, whom after several years of dancing no longer works at the club, continues to be one of the hardest-working people I know, and is the primary figure in my life whom I turn to for help with my own sex, relationship and life questions. For me, supporting him and the community to which we belong means valuing sex as a social component, advocating for the needs and rights of all workers, and taking a sex positive approach towards each of the ways we find to interact, survive, and love one another.
This post is dedicated to the memory of $pread Magazine. Thank you for giving pride and voice to our communities, and for your fearless commitment to justice. You are sorely missed.