I'm a nude dancer trying to finish my Ph.D.

I love being a grad student stripper but I'm worried about fallout from family and professors.

Published February 4, 2008 12:05PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am a graduate student in a college town. When I was in college here, I worked as a full-nude dancer in a neighboring town (also a college town) in order to support myself and to work a few hours at a more compassionate, poorly paid job in the meantime. On a couple of occasions, people I knew showed up at the strip club, including a former instructor, and I laughed it off, telling them that anyone who knows me had better buy a lot of lap dances from me to make up for my embarrassment.

I need to study for my Ph.D. exams this summer and I won't get any funding. This means I will need to get a job, but the more hours I spend working, the less time I will be able to devote to studying. I have started to consider going back to this old job, where I could probably make enough money in three shifts a week to actually come out ahead this summer. (At my university, graduate students typically end the summer with credit card debt and have trouble paying September rent on time.) I have a job that I could work at a few hours a week (it is too difficult to work more than an hour or two per day) as my cover if people ask me how I make ends meet. And working as a dancer would be good for my physical health, as scholars spend a lot of time hunched over and I tend to get back and neck problems from studying.

I come from a very socially conservative religious background and decidedly gave it all up, which means I have few hang-ups about walking around scantily clad. The main unpleasantness of working that job is that I am not a very good salesperson, and I used to get fed up sometimes with trying to find people to buy lap dances. But I love dancing, and I enjoy having a stage to myself. This club lets the dancers bring in their own music, and it is possible to do something artsy and fun. I have worked a lot of other kinds of jobs, but this really seems like the best money for the least effort. I want to put as much as I can into studying for my exams.

So why am I writing you if I seem to be convinced already? There are few people I can ask for advice, since I do not discuss this with many. I want to keep it a secret, mainly from my family but also from my professors and my undergraduate students. I have been working as a T.A. and have had a few hundred students over the past years, and I am afraid that some of them might come into the club and recognize me. I am not ashamed of my naked body, nor of the fact that I would dare to do something like this in order to make ends meet and to keep the focus on my work (everyone should know that graduate students are poor!). But I am worried that other people's prejudices may hurt my standing with them when it counts. Would the faculty lose respect for me or find excuses for kicking me out of my program? Would the students take pictures of me with their cellphones (evading the various bodyguards somehow) and send them out to their peers? If people did find out, would it hurt my career or get back to my family somehow? I guess I'm wondering what the worst-case scenario for something like this is, and what my options would be if anything happened.

For what it's worth, I'm in the humanities, where stuff like this isn't supposed to be blamed on the dancer but on the social structure that puts her in that position ...

I hope that you will consider this letter for a response, as I think you are unlikely to be as judgmental as other advice columnists and I can't rely on a network of friends to discuss this one. You also seem familiar with the academic world, and you seem to have access to various legal and other experts.

Thank you very much.

Starving Student

Dear Starving Student,

First of all, let's just say that this is what you're doing, and work to mitigate the possible fallout. We can't predict what precise fallout might occur. But it makes economic sense to be a stripper. So do it and deal with what happens when it happens. It makes much more sense to do that than to try to figure out whether to do it based on stuff you don't even know will happen or not.

It sounds like you have already had an encounter that you managed to handle with wit and humor. So you have what it takes. Since you obviously are a thoughtful person, I suggest you devote extra time to mapping out and visualizing various responses to the people who might show up. Just shore up your natural capacities for humor and wit and self-confidence. Be an actor. Play the role. For it is theater, after all. It is bawdy theater. (Sounds like "body," doesn't it?) Keep in mind that whatever reactions people have, it is indeed the cultural forces of the world they have created that have made this a logical, nearly inescapable option.

And that's what really interests me. You are like a neon sign blinking all night outside the cultural studies department that says, "This is a female graduate student's rational response to the current economic and cultural climate. Deal with it."

You know, when I was young in the South there were sharecroppers. These were people who always owed. The idea of owing your crop to the landowner was really frightening. Those sharecroppers would be working all winter and spring on credit from the landowner in the hopes that in the fall they could pile up enough tomatoes and spinach and green beans to come out a little ahead for the year, until borrowing again in the winter. That idea just terrified me. It was, as I understood it as a young boy, slavery lite. It was an attenuated form of servitude that had grown up around what was in many cases only a technical prohibition against slavery.

So when you say, rather offhandedly, that most graduate students end the summer with credit card debt, it reminds me, more than anything, about the relations we workers have with owners. We have been transformed into sharecroppers.

And what could the landowner do if the sharecropper failed his obligations? He could put that sharecropper out of his house! He could put him off his land! The sharecropper and his family would be unhoused, in the rain, in the heat, living in the forest then, stealing chickens, made into nomads, hill dwellers, nonpersons -- the rural equivalent of what we urbanites refer to as homeless.

What else could the landowner do? Well, he might take that sharecropper's daughter for his pleasure and, if the sharecropper was white -- for sharecropper relations existed between poor whites and rich whites as well as between whites and blacks -- he might give that sharecropper's daughter to one of his sons to scrub and cook and make babies. It was de facto slavery.

So what we have to do, we cultural workers, having seen that we, too, are sharecroppers, is grab whatever equity we can grab, and turn it into working capital -- for example, if we own houses we have to make our houses into factories that make and sell cultural goods. And if the only equity we can control is cultural, then we use that cultural equity to do the same thing. Luckily, we cultural sharecroppers, many of us, are rather good with the Internet. So we can use it to get our tomatoes to market. That is the future I foresee, a future of "cottage industries," of former sharecroppers becoming net producers, finding legal protection in corporate structures such as the useful and relatively inexpensive LLC structure.

In fact, my whole homeownership thing began not with any sentimental belief in the "American dream" but with a foreboding sense that the left had failed to provide us cultural workers with any tangible protection against the predations of real estate speculation and the flows of borderless capital, and that we therefore needed land and/or capital or we would be pushed out of our city, evicted, made de facto refugees. So we used what meager access to capital we had -- through our middle-class families -- to buy a house. And then we used the equity from that house's rise in value to fund a restructuring of it into a productive facility, basically a school and factory, or a cultural goods distribution venue. We were looking ahead, trying to understand our situation and its dangers. Who was empowered to send us into the forest? Who was the landowner in this situation? What could we produce? And that is where we are at now. We are cultural workers who have incorporated in order to reap the benefit of our cultural productions. We are the new capitalists.

We owe. But we also produce.

We plan to expand this factory. It is very small right now. It only produces a few things. But it can produce more. Of course, having a little factory, or even a big factory, does not make you safe. Governments and armies can always take your factory away. That is what happened to my wife's family in former Czechoslovakia. Soldiers took the factory. That is what happens. But at least while you have a productive capacity you do not live in quaking fear of the landowner's footsteps.

Ours was a rational response to a growing threat. And so is your decision to be a stripper. I suggest that you think of your ventures in these terms. For these are the options the culture and the market have given us.

So in your case, working as a nude dancer makes all the sense in the world. And I think the logical next step is to own the means of production, that is, create a combination strip club and cultural studies foundation, where the neon sign outside says, "XXX Cultural Studies -- the XXX productive force of the XXX 21st century." Tall enough to be seen from the interstate, it would alternately flash, "Naked Girls! Books! Naked Girls! Books!"

And the first study you need to fund, I think, is a careful look at the lap dance itself, specifically how the lap dance is, as I understand it, the very legal definition of not sex, and yet looks far more like sex than sex itself. How is that? I just find that rather peculiar and certainly worth whatever time a grad student could spend on it.

I also have always liked the idea of a library with plenty of bouncers.

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