Can stripping be a feminist act? Or is stripping inherently degrading sex work that objectifies the women who choose it as a profession? Catlyn Ladd worked as an exotic dancer for five years, using the money she made to earn a doctorate; she now teaches women’s studies and religious studies at Front Range Community College. In her first book, Strip: The Making of a Feminist, Ladd brings her academic eye to bear on a controversial topic that is often overlooked and ignored.
Here’s "Fetish," chapter 6 of Catlyn Ladd’s Strip: The Making of a Feminist, reprinted with permission of Changemakers Books.
I have pretty feet. They are thin and highly arched with long toes and even nails. The tendons ripple under the skin and the stripper shoes I wear make the vessels pulse. Unlike many of the girls, I mostly do not wear platforms. I prefer stilettos with five-inch heels that reveal the top of my foot. I have the metal heels and bought the same pair in white. I have patent heels with an ankle strap, heels made of Lucite, and heels in red leather.
Sometimes I wear boots as well. I own boots crisscrossed with silver buckles that come up over my ankles, knee-high go-go boots, and thigh-high vinyl boots with silver studs. Footwear is important because it’s often the only thing on my body other than underwear. Strippers spend a lot on thongs and shoes.
The man is in his sixties, nicely dressed in tan pants and a striped dress shirt. He places a dollar on the stage and I squat before him, opening my knees provocatively. It is the first song of the set and I wear pleather pants that zip apart at the crotch, a tantalizing strip of silver teeth running between my legs. On top I wear a complicated vest of straps, a wide band across my breasts. I have paired the ensemble with the metal heels. His eyes never leave my feet.
The dollar secured in the elastic of my G-string, I move on to the next customer. It is early in the night but already six or seven men crowd my stage and the dollars pile up.
The older gentleman places a five on the stage. In reward for this generosity I stand with my back to him and slowly unzip the pants, revealing a neon green G-string that catches the black lights in an electric glow. He glances up appreciatively and then his gaze returns to my feet.
I spin to sit with my ankles crossed and slowly extend my legs toward him. The pants, now detached in the middle, sag toward my knees and I push them down so that the cuffs cover my feet. He reaches out and pulls the garment off, caressing my ankle lightly as it is revealed.
This is technically a breach of etiquette. Customers are never allowed to touch us, though we can touch them as we wish. But I let it slide, putting one foot on either of his shoulders. Of course, this puts my glowing crotch directly in front of him but he turns his head to keep my foot in sight. He puts down another five-dollar bill.
Over the course of two songs, he’s given me thirty dollars. With other tips I make almost fifty dollars in less than ten minutes.
After my set I stop by his chair to thank him. Destiny is on stage, wearing silver heels with a three-inch clear platform. He looks away from her and his eyes travel down my body.
“I’m Star,” I say, holding my hand out to him.
His eyes travel back up to my face. “Gary. Very pleased to meet you.”
“Let me know if you want to have a drink with me later.”
He glances dismissively at Destiny. “How about now?”
I lead him to a table against the wall, conveniently located next to the private dance area. I catch the eye of a waitress and she makes her way over.
Some clubs pay dancers on the number of drinks they can sell, and the girls collect drink straws that they cash out at the end of the night. Some clubs dilute dancer drinks to keep their girls from getting too drunk. This club doesn’t engage in either practice. Our drinks are served full strength and it’s easy to have too many. So we have developed a system whereby the dancers signal to a waitress to bring them an alcohol-free drink while seeming to order one with booze.
“I’ll have a Kim’s Special,” I tell her.
“What’s that?” Gary asks.
“It’s created by the bartender,” I reply. “Very fruity. Tropical.”
“What kind of alcohol?”
If a customer orders one it actually does come with vodka.
“I’ll have a gin and tonic,” he tells the waitress.
I place my feet casually into his line of sight, crossing my ankles. “So, Gary. What brings you in tonight?”
“I’m in town for a conference,” he replies. “It’s a once-a-year type of thing. I didn’t see you here last year.”
“I just moved here a few months ago.”
“You have beautiful feet,” he says.
I arch my foot, pointing the toe. The tendons leap beneath my skin. “Thank you.”
“May I?” He holds out a hand.
“Sure.” I put my right foot into his palm. Gently he unclasps the buckle at my ankle and rubs his thumb across the line left by the strap. He does not remove my shoe. His hands are firm and dry and he handles me carefully, almost reverently.
“What size do you wear?”
“Nine,” I tell him, hoping that he won’t think this is too big.
He doesn’t appear to react at all. “Will you give me a private dance?” he asks. “I’d like you to go barefoot.”
“Of course.” The possibility of taking off my shoes is actually delightful. My feet are used to heels but it still feels good to take them off.
Our drinks arrive and he takes a small sip.
“Shall we adjourn?” I ask, standing. We carry our drinks to the private dance area.
The private area consists of low, square stages about four by four. The customers sit in cushy armchairs. Each stage — there are four — is partitioned off by fake potted trees, creating small oases of privacy. Sometimes we drag up another chair for couples.
I set my drink on the corner of the stage and unbuckle the straps of my shoes, taking my time, making it part of the strip. Gary’s eyes never leave my feet.
I pull off my outfit slowly until I stand nude except for the tiny G-string I wear. He doesn’t even glance at the rest of my body.
“It’s twenty dollars a song,” I tell him.
He lays four twenties on the edge of the stage.
It’s a little disconcerting to dance naked for someone who is so focused on one body part. I’m used to having men stare; in fact, part of the point of clubs like this is allowing people to really look. Our society is puritanical with regards to sex, which is probably why we’re so obsessed with it. Having the freedom to really look, see one another’s bodies, can be profoundly liberating.
The other side of looking is being looked at. This is different than being seen: my friends and parents and lovers see me, who I am. My customers have my permission to look at me but sometimes they see me and sometimes they do not. Mostly, this is the service I sell: the freedom to look at my body, my breasts, my ass, my crotch, my skin, my hair.
And now my feet.
At the end of the four songs, Gary says, “If I bring you shoes, will you wear them?”
“Of course!” I say. “I love shoes.”
“Don’t all women love shoes?” he laughs.
I laugh as well.
“I’ll be back in a bit.”
“See you soon, then!”
I wonder where he plans to get shoes in my size at nine o’clock at night. There is an adult store in town but I’m not sure of the hours. Part of me wonders if I will see him again at all.
He’s back an hour later with a box under his arm. I’m sitting chatting with a regular when he walks in. I catch his eye and he smiles. I smile back.
The shoes are brutal. They’re my size but the heels are a full six inches with no platform. There is a bit of a cushion under the ball of my foot but my arch is held painfully bowed. They’re also ugly: white snakeskin with a bit of silver detailing around the scales.
“Let me go change,” I say. I’m wearing black and red and the shoes clash. “I have just the thing.”
The shoes are better with a silver cat suit. It’s one of my favorite outfits. There are skintight pants with a small bell at the ankle and a top with crisscrossed laces up the back. It makes me look as though I have been dipped in liquid metal.
As I slip the shoes back on after changing, I notice that they’re lightly worn. These shoes are used. They have been on other feet. I don’t think he bought them at all. I think he already had them. Which begs the question: Does he travel with women’s shoes in every size, passing them out as gifts to the pretty feet he meets?
Gary doesn’t even really see the outfit. He’s totally fixated on my feet. My feet, which are already aching.
“May I buy you off the list?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say without hesitation. “Let me go tell the DJ.”
It’s relatively rare to have a customer buy a dancer off the list. The rate is twenty dollars a song and the customer gets us all to himself. We can do private dances or he can just sit with us.
The DJ raises his eyebrows at me as he crosses my name off. “Have fun,” he says.
I smack him on the shoulder. “You’re just thinking about the big tip-out you’ll get.”
He smacks me back. “Nope. Just about you in that silver outfit.”
I roll my eyes. “Whatever.”
“‘Whatever,’” he mimics me. “You sound like a valley girl.”
Luckily, Gary doesn’t really expect me to stand in the ridiculous shoes he’s brought. I spend most of the rest of the night lying on my back with my feet in his lap or on the arm of his chair.
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I make twelve hundred dollars that weekend. Then I don’t see Gary for a year. I stash the shoes in the back of my locker and consider tossing them a couple of times. But I don’t. A year later, the following summer, Alexandria bursts into the dressing room as I’m getting ready. “Star!” she exclaims. “Remember that foot guy?”
“Yes,” I answer hesitantly.
“I think he’s out there.”
I can barely remember what he looks like. I approach without letting my hesitation show. But it’s him. He returns every June for the years I work at this club. And I always have the shoes waiting.
Strip: The Making of a Feminist was published this week by Changemakers Books. Catlyn Ladd will read from and sign the book at 7 p.m. Friday, August 3, at the Tattered Cover in LoDo; learn more about the author at catlynladd.com.