Strip Clubs and the Sociology of Racism

Strip clubs and sex work in general have long been studied by feminist scholars. There are two debates in feminism about sex work: radical feminists believe all sex work is exploitation within a patriarchal society. Radical feminists claim sex work exploits all women. Contemporary feminists believe sexual agency does exist. They emphasize empowerment and sexual agency within sexual economies, claiming women can take control in the sex industry. Feminists who argue for a more complicated position suggest focusing on sex workers right transnationally by analyzing both oppression and empowerment for women.

Sociologist Siobhan Brooks studied racial stratification1 in strip clubs in her 2010 Sexuality Research and Social Policy article:

These debates largely overlook structural racism within the sex industry that makes it difficult for women of color to maximize the benefit of the empowering aspects of sex work sex radical feminists underscore and produces problems not addressed by radical feminists, because sex work in and of itself is often not viewed as a problem by women of color but rather lack of decent shifts, safety, and better monetary gain.

She set out to answer the following research questions:

  • How are Black and Latina women stratified in the exotic dance industry?
  • What are the consequences of this stratification for dances of color?
  • How do dancers of color manage racism?

Earlier research suggests colonial beauty standards affect the sex industry, leading to better treatment and more money for lighter-skinned women. Furthermore, racial hierarchies in specific geographic locations play a role such that people identify Black strip clubs as lower quality than predominantly White clubs.

Taking Black Feminist Thought to the Strip Club

Brooks builds her argument on Patricia Hill Collins’s concept of controlling images. According to Collins, Black women face four: the mammy, the matriarch, the welfare mother and the Jezebel. Jezebel emerged during slavery. Collins argues mass media helps spread these racial ideologies. Black women are defined as sexually aggressive and more sexually available.

Brooks uses ethnography, fieldwork, and participant-observation for the study by interviewing 12 Black and Latina women aged 19 to 45 from NYC and Oakland.According to Brooks, dancers express having to manage racism as men offer money to White women over women of color, leading them to earn less. Some conceal their racial identity or engage in racial passing. Mixed women express being able to perform multiple ethnicities for customers. Darker women have to perform extra emotional labor.

Controlling Images in the Strip Club

Black dancers deal with the controlling image of gold diggers which suggests there is a low exchange value for Black womens bodies and thus the working class Black women is taking advantage. Customers also attempt to bargain Black women dancers down or request they perform illegal acts to make money.

Colorism plays a role in the experiences of Black women as well. Dark-skinned Black women are encouraged not to work in certain spaces because they are devalued in the club. Managers at certain clubs did not provide adequate security. The reputation of the club negatively affected the dancers. Non-Black Latinas described being exotificed by White men. Black women experienced harassment in Black all-male establishments. Institutional effect of racism then is the safety of the setting and desirability of shifts. Black dancers were scheduled more on the night shift than in the afternoon when white businessmen visited.

Brooks concluded that racial stratification exists in strip clubs due to the hypersexualization of Black women. Dancers of color had to do racial passing or perform emotional labor to appear non threatening. 

Black women’s erotic labor is devalued in both Black and White clubs. Black women are plagued by the image of gold digger which thus deems than as unworthy of their prices. The hypersexualization of Black and Latina women also affects them in the legal system. What affects exotic dancers then is low wages and sexual harassment. Brooks suggested policy makers should thus work with the dancers to find better solutions.

  1. According to “Racial stratification is the systematic social classification of people based on race. Such classifications are often intentionally exclusive or limiting in nature and lead to imbalances in opportunity and advantages.”