As a person who trades on being (somewhat) sexy, I have always felt like an outsider when it comes to feminist discussion as often women of my career persuasion (stripper/model) are not included. We are ‘part of the problem’, something I have always found odd as we are pretty much on the front line, taking the hits when it comes to sexual harassment, abuse and casual sexism.
Anyone who trades in sexy is sometimes seen by some mainstream feminists to be letting the side down or caving in to the patriarchy. The opinion shared on both sides - by both the right and left-wing - of, “well, what do you expect?” leaves women who choose this line of work with little to no support. This cry of “she deserved it” and the outdated idea that there are ‘good women’ who command respect and ‘bad girls’ who don’t - rather than just ‘women’ as a sisterhood who should all command love and respect regardless - is the kind of attitude that has let sexual harassment and abuse prevail.
In truth, abuse exists no matter who you are or what you do, as we are all learning via the #MeToo movement.
Overall I have enjoyed my journey and the opportunities sexy has afforded me - so this isn’t an entirely cautionary tale, just a warning, that like any career there are pitfalls that aren’t always immediately apparent. You have to have your head screwed on, and even then that’s no guarantee that you won’t have horrible experiences - sadly something that is true even for real world jobs, where HR is there to protect the corporation and prohibitive tribunal fees mean if your boss touches you, you can’t do anything about it. Trust me, I’ve been there too. It made me feel more powerless than strutting my stuff around a pole ever could.
When I started out it was a different time. I was a deeply unsexy 19-year-old when I got my first job in a Soho strip club down the neon alley that used to be behind Ann Summers (now a neutered massage parlour), nervously shiver dancing to Kylie Minogue in front of polyester-shirted men like a showgirl Ian Curtis. I am part of the generation who grew up aspiring towards GIRL POWER with the Spice Girls, chain strip clubs, ‘Ladettes’, Christina Aguilera’s ‘Dirrty’ and Paris Hilton literally forced down our throats as a mainstream model on how to be female. I mean, it may be retro and vogue right now but things really were different back then, all the way back in 2001/2002. Careers were launched off of sex tapes. Celebrities looked like strippers, belts were worn as bras and sexual harassment was a punchline. As young women we had been taught not to see the abuse, to laugh it off, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there lurking underneath the glamorous facade of a grotty Terry Richardson cover shoot. It was always there, waiting, like his exposed penis.
Reading the FT expose about the Presidents Club, I was disgusted but not surprised. As a budding promotional model in the mid 00’s, I had worked a few jobs like that, only in those days it wasn’t frowned upon or weird, it was normal. As a grid girl or a Playboy Bunny, our main function was to look good so that we could be leered at and pawed over. I suppose it was seen by those that ran the promo agencies as a fair trade off to get us to wherever it was we were going. Not that career progression stopped the cringes and shudders or made the harassment any less disgusting.
You see, promo models are very low on the career model ladder and therefore have limited agency. Yes, you choose that career path, but the goings on within parties like the Presidents Club are not exactly common knowledge before you set foot on that particular yellow brick road - hence the NDAs. You will be sent on a few legitimate jobs beforehand (that’s how the agencies snare you in) then when the bad jobs are sprung upon you they are sold to you by your agent as an exciting opportunity, not the house of horrors that they really are. Agencies use these events as a trial by fire to see what kind of girl you are. Those who behaved and found the harassment easier to stomach than others, or were just better at hiding their discomfort, were given more work of that ilk and fast tracked into life as a high class escort. Those that weren’t were given less work and sometimes taken off the books or blacklisted if they complained. Luckily I found a decent commercial agency before I was forced to make a choice between those two fantastic avenues of opportunity.
The whole story just reminded me of a bad night at Spearmint Rhino, not the kind of behaviour you would expect from some of our country’s biggest names in politics, showbiz and business. The women who join the Artista agency I’m sure are sold by the website’s glittering and glamorous pictures of Breitling parties and mingling with David Beckham, not the reality of being shunted en masse in heels and a mini skirt through the tradesman’s entrance of a posh Mayfair hotel to fulfil some private society’s ridiculous sense of entitlement. The thing that hit me the hardest about the FT article was the toilet monitoring. They weren’t even allowed private time to collect themselves or cry. Even strippers get that. In fact strippers get a lot more privileges than the women at the Presidents Club - touching is not allowed so they are actually protected by security for a start, and they have the power to tell people to go away. However, having worked in Spearmint Rhino I know first hand that those guys - the kind of men you see at Presidents Club parties - are often the worst offenders behaviour-wise, second only to guys in bands.
Male entitlement plus lots of money and power really is a toxic combination. These are men who think that the rules don’t apply to them. That’s what this is all about really isn’t it? Not sex but power. The idea that everyone has a price, that complicity and silence can be bought or NDA’d away is a side effect of capitalism and you will find it in every career path. “But they can just walk away!” you hear the people who have never had to make that decision say, but when it’s your career, reputation and livelihood at stake it is not that easy.
Whether using promo work to foot their extortionate university fees or as a step up in a fiercely competitive industry, or even just to pay their rent or feed their families, situations like the Presidents Club are the silent prices women pay, every day, just to get a tiny step ahead.
So if you are still struggling to comprehend the trials women face, I want you to imagine, if you will, a giant adventure activity course, one where to climb any of the highest points you have to negotiate around various Harvey Weinsteins. How busy it is depends on how lucky you are. How you negotiate the course is up to you, whether you fall at the first hurdle or use comedy, silence or sex to diffuse threatening or uncomfortable situations (i.e. diffuse violence) THIS is what it is like to be a woman. Any woman, in any career. Not just Hollywood or modelling. At every hurdle you are judged for your choices, yet your only choice is HOW you negotiate (and there is never an easy choice) not whether you take part in the course in the first place. The course has always been there, from birth, even though we all know it shouldn’t be.
Do you think men have to tackle the same hurdles? Not to say that men don’t experience sexual harassment (they do) but their playing field is really very different. I am not trying to negate their experiences. Lad culture affected them too - just look at the suicide rates.
I think, like everyone posting #MeToo, I am still trying to form an opinion on the Pandora’s Box it has opened, on what it means for the sexes and gender norms and how we all interact so that everybody is happy and we all have some degree of safety and equity. I think space should still exist for ‘sexy’, I really do, if that is what a woman wants, enjoys and chooses, but it needs to be far more transparent and empowering for everyone involved, not just the ones with the power and the money. Which is easier said than done and involves more unions and regulation, especially of agencies like Artista.
What is brilliant about #MeToo is the conversations we are all having right now about acceptable behaviour and what constitutes harassment, abuse and consent. This is not an easy road and there will be many casualties but the more that we can all build up a respectful ongoing dialogue between the sexes and between people of differing backgrounds and opinions, the less future generations will have to face the same problems. I think eventually, forgiveness and societal rehabilitation will be a part of that but right now women deserve to be angry. After years of silence, we have earned it.