Sometime in my first few months of dancing, an older dancer took me aside and told me to “carry myself like a mediocre white man.” In other words, act as if everything I did was magical, world changing and definitely the best thing to happen to anyone around me. It worked surprisingly well: My sales skyrocketed and my stage shows suddenly became something worth watching. Later, I would learn to carry this confidence into other areas of my life.
When I first transferred into UC Berkeley, I felt like a goose among swans. At Berkeley City College, I had been part of a tight-knit group of friends, had gotten close with many of my professors and had felt comfortable knowing that most of the students around me also had rough starts in life. In contrast, UC Berkeley felt cold, impersonal and my conversations with classmates constantly reminded me of how much better my life could have been. How could I possibly achieve the same levels of success as my classmates without their upper-middle class backgrounds? There just didn’t seem to be a place at UC Berkeley for a high school dropout who worked 30 hours a week and often had to stretch $20 to ridiculous limits. In short, I was experiencing full-blown imposter syndrome.
The cherry on top of my shit sundae was when the financial aid department called me in the summer 2013 of to let me know that the loan I had taken out two semesters ago was given to me in error. I was told that I had to repay $2,800 before the next semester. I couldn’t get a loan until the sum was repaid and the department just assumed I would be able to get the money from my estranged parents. Disgusted and frustrated with the bureaucracy, I withdrew from classes, doubting I would ever return.
I was broken. I couldn’t stop myself from self-blame even though friends familiar with my situation assured me I had done all I could. After several months spent in a deep depression, a friend lured me out of my stupor with a surprising life update: She’d started stripping. She didn’t have to do much to convince me that working at the club would be better than wallowing indefinitely while trying to scrape by on minimum wage.
I borrowed heels and a bra from my roommate, dusted off the one thong I owned, and went in for an audition. I landed the job but, like most baby strippers, was laughably awkward. The dancers around me snickered at my incompetence — but as they had a laugh, they also gave me pointers. I learned quickly and was gradually accepted into the fold.
Acceptance meant more than just showing me how to not look like an idiot. The dressing room became a place to talk about everything from starting a Roth IRA to having conversations about sexuality to who-banged-who last week. Out on the main floor, I would get pulled into private rooms and witness the older strippers handle the infantile behavior of executives, techies, professional athletes and celebrities with fearsome authority. When customers rejected them, they’d usually attribute it to a problem with the customer, not themselves.
As I watched, I realized that my coworkers were simply doing to these men what privileged men do to everyone else in their lives. When I started emulating them, my coworkers assured me I was finally doing the right thing. I had learned to approach high-powered people not as their positions but as opportunities for furthering my own goals.
By the time I was ready to return to Berkeley, I had spent enough time around strippers to be able to walk into administrators’ offices with a BBHMM mindset. The campus hadn’t become any more welcoming in the year and a half I had been gone, but I no longer cared.
When I applied to UC Berkeley, I expected to find a community that would empower and support me. Instead I found the opposite — until I started stripping. Sex workers are the ones who have taught me how to push past bureaucratic bullshit. Sex workers are the ones who accept me for my quirks and ambitions. Sex workers are the ones who have given me a home.
Trixie Mehraban writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].