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The History of Stripping

Dec 5 2022 | Written by Rhea Kumar (She/Her)

Stripping, adult entertainment, exotic dancing. Call it what you will, but these terms are rich with controversy, debate, and decades old dilemmas that pose a real question at the forefront of the profession. Is stripping an act of feminism?  Why is it empowering to some, and not to others? Well, let's start by looking at its origns.

Fertility

The first generation of strippers can be traced to a series of Paleolithic cave paintings in the South of France (no, I’m not making this up). Such paintings date more than 20,000 years ago. But what did these paintings reveal? Stripping cave women? One can only guess. 

Archaeologists have uncovered miniature statues of exotic dancers near the Black Sea regions of Bulgaria and Romania that can be dated back to the Neolithic era. During this era, exotic dancing was used as a mechanism to sexually stimulate the mind and soul. Tied into the practices of ancient ritual, it was linked to sparking the favor of goddesses of fertility and increasing crop fertility. 

Entertainment 

In ancient Greece and Rome, this is when it became crystallized as an art form rather than for the purposes of fertility. Stripping became a form of entertainment, and many of these dances were performed in sacred temples within the empire. Most exotic dancers were chosen based off of their looks and vitality. Notably, Empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian the Great, did a striptease retelling the myth of Lea and the Swan.

For Money (Finally)

Exotic dancing (which doesn’t always mean stripping), became a source of entertainment and commodification. Bellydancers would dance for coins, and they would generate larger crowds which proves the ever growing demand for this form of entertainment, 

Fast forward to 18th century Europe, when gentleman’s clubs, Burlesque clubs, private banquets and other secret sex clubs transformed the political economy of stripping. This was essentially the era that would catalyze the market for stripping/exotic dancing as we know it today.

Enhancing its art form, dancers would popularize the use of fans to hide their face, or reveal only their eyes. This was to enhance the mystique of the dancer. 

 

Dance moves like the can-can were created to allow for dancers to lift their legs in unison to reveal their panties (or lack thereof) during performances. The dance originated in France and quickly swept overseas to the United States. 

Enter: The Pole 

I know, I know, you’ve been wondering where the good ole pole derived from and why it is now an integral prop to our modern day conception of stripping. 

The use of poles in routines originated in the early 1920s at the circus. Dancers would make use of the tent pole (because, why not? It's sheer innovation!). They’d swirl and twirl down it, climb up it, and of course, do just about anything to bring in money, cheer and men to the circus. 

And with every budding industry comes a slew of rejection and condemnation from religious groups, government bodies and lawmakers. But the truth is that sex sells! It’s a large portion of revenue for some states like Las Vegas and so the naysayers, especially in government, began to quiet down.

For example, lap dancing, (which originated from none other than Montreal Canada), eventually became legalized in the United States in 1999. 

Means to an End?

Per usual, my interest in strippers and the art of exotic dancing stems from my interest in how pop culture and reality intersect. Are Hollywood depictions really true? Have they damaged or helped the way that we perceive stripping? Two blockbuster movies about stripping come to mind. 

Based on a true story, 2019’s Hustlers starring Jennifer Lopez depicts stripping as an opportunity to gain financial independence and overall capital. Lopez’s character, Ramona, appears empowered by it all though, and she doesn’t exhibit much naivety about her decision to be a stripper. But the other characters appear to have no other choice of obtaining fast money. 

In 1996’s Striptease starring Demi Moore, her character, Erin, is fighting a legal case to gain custody of her daughter and needs quick money, so she becomes a stripper. 

Both of these movies project the crux of the argument that many claim is the reason why stripping isn’t a desired job. It’s a means to an end, and it’s often because women are cornered into it. But here’s a real life example that tramples the Hollywood depiction. 

Meredith Kirby is a sex-industry worker who has used her Medium blog to dismantle the profession down to its bare bones: a business transaction. Kirby shares her top business tips with readers including: how to scout clubs for the best possible job, learning to face rejection, learning one’s craft. Kirby detailed that when she decided to become a stripper, she took pole dancing classes, and watched other strippers dance to learn how she’d approach it. 

She also says that learning to talk to customers is essential and credits her success to some previous jobs she had in the past that required good customer service skills such as in the restaurant industry and a retirement home. 

She doesn’t discredit the fact that it’s a strenuous job that requires thick skin and a positive outlook about oneself. 

The ‘stripper’ mystique is also flipped on its head through Kirby’s account. She says it’s like any other freelance job. Some social media strippers are accused of glorifying the profession, purporting it to be an ‘easy’ way of obtaining ‘thousands of dollars’ in one night. Kirby says, “Not every article you write will be read by thousands of people, not every line of code you type will turn into a brilliant app, the shrimp won’t be a hit at every event you cater, and not everyone wants to listen to your mixtape,” and she says the same principles apply to stripping. 

But if we’ve learned anything: sex is complicated. Stripping conjures feelings of desire and stimulates feelings that many can’t articulate. It comes to no surprise that we can’t come to a universal consensus on its status in this particular wave of feminism, and whether it passes as empowerment. 

Here are some arguments to support the claim that stripping is increasing the objectification of women: 

  • It is a looks based profession, and the burden is primarily placed on women to appease their looks for men. 
  • Women are forced to perform in certain ways that please men, which objectifies their freedoms and limits it into a narrow gaze, once again- for men. 

But let me play the devil’s advocate for a minute and suggest that some women enjoy pursuing this act, and they understand that it’s a feature of a job that relies on physical appearances-similar to acting. 

Sheila Hageman, a mother of three and former stripper, argues that she will not look back at her past life with regret. 

She acknowledges the nuance in today’s definition of feminism. The nuance: there is no definition. Feminism’s only pre-requisite appears to be that whatever act of feminism you choose, it should allow a woman to be an agent of her own agent of change.