Jake and I met about 4 a.m., an hour before my shift ended. He was witty, confident and stupidly hot — a refreshing change from the usual sleepy-but-too-drunk-to-leave after-hours crowd. We joked around for a minute, and then his buddy suggested that we get a dance before their group left. When I told Jake the prices, I was impressed that he didn’t try to haggle or tell me how invaluable my time was. Instead, we had a pleasant dance and, after politely accepting my routine refusal of a date, he seemed content to go on his way. But he was just too interesting — I couldn’t just let him walk out the door and take with him my fantasy of who he might be. Right as he was walking out the door, I hurriedly worked up my courage and gave him my number.
Three dates and two mediocre fucks later, I was in his bed, feeling annoyed with myself. I had lost sleep that would surely translate into lost money later that day when I would be trying to make sales during vampiric hours. We had hardly anything in common but, I had still instinctively made the experience pleasant for him even when I could see that he wasn’t doing the same for me. When I overheard Jake bragging to his buddies about “bagging a stripper,” it struck me that no matter how hot he was, fucking Jake had done nothing for me.
Our brief fling gave Jake social capital, but I felt that I had done most of the labor involved in making us actually work. During our dates, I had been the one carrying the conversation, asking the probing questions and generally doing the same things I do while at work. Both of us had seemingly made an implicit agreement that it was still my responsibility to manage the emotional tides of our interactions even though I wasn’t getting any sort of compensation.
Emotional labor is usually “unseen” labor that is part of most women’s everyday lives. It can include everything from putting extra thought into small mundane tasks necessary for a functioning domestic life, being hyper aware of the emotions of others, modulating one’s own emotions to increase the enjoyment of others (for example: “service with a smile”), as well as simply maintaining an awareness of the physical and mental space one occupies.
Stripping is one of the few jobs where workers are compensated for emotional labor. We talk our clients through midlife crises, give childcare advice and offer companionship through endlessly varied social conundrums. This kind of labor is crucial to many unofficially gendered jobs. Bedside manner is more heavily emphasized for nurses than doctors, child care and early education is a predominantly female field, and cocktail waitresses are expected to be flirtatiously pleasant. Women are expected to take on extra work but are laughed out of the room if they’re audacious enough to ask for compensation.
Unfortunately, the pattern that Jake and I fell into felt natural for both of us. We had been conditioned since childhood to believe that “girls are just better” at emotional labor. I, like many other women, was taught to unconsciously take up the position of emotional manager. Scrutinizing this practice is nothing new, but academics have mostly studied it as a workplace phenomenon rather than as something that is equally, if not more present, in our private lives.
When I first started stripping and realized I was getting paid to do something I constantly did in my personal life, the payment felt ridiculous. But, after the first few months, I found that I was burning out. I simply didn’t have the energy to work an emotionally intense 10-hour shift and then come home and be expected to cater to the emotional needs of a male partner or roommate. I began to realize the magnitude of the unreciprocated favor I had been doing for all of the men in my life.
Insulted that people I cared deeply for so easily took advantage of me and other women in their lives, I broke it off with Jake and became something of a social hermit. “Fuck you, pay me” became my motto and I threw myself into work with gusto. If I couldn’t get emotional reciprocation in my personal life, at least my customers would offer me a monetary one.
I’m still wary of most relationships with men — sexual or otherwise — but I have started to demand more of them. Some have responded with thoughtful change that includes learning to check themselves before they become enough of a burden that a woman feels compelled to educate them. Others have balked at such a seemingly “fussy” idea and, needless to say, have found themselves one friend shorter.
If my stripping career has taught me anything, it’s that my time and energy are valuable. There are throngs of people who are willing to give fair compensation for emotional labor — and learning to ask those in my personal life to reciprocate and shoulder their fair share has been incredibly freeing.
Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].