Contrary to dominant conceptions of female sex workers, the black and Latina exotic dancers who inform Siobhan Brooks’ analyses in Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry exercise agency over their personal and workplace lives in ways reminiscent of the Brazilian travestis Don Kulick interviewed. Employees at Conquest for instance, are excruciatingly aware of the exchange of cultural capital that undergirds performer-customer relations and frequently utilize the social dynamics to further their personal aspirations. Monique, a black dancer and a student at the Fashion Institute of Technology, takes care to approach customers who “do portfolios for free [even though they] also want sex in exchange for their help” (Brooks, 40). Melissa, a Puerto Rican coat checker, similarly hopes that this job experience in customer service will supplement her studies in hotel management (39). These women who choose to work at Conquest hold an acute consciousness of their subjectivity and their potential to gain from the situation. They are willing participants in the conversion of their erotic assets into cultural capital—and usually remain astute throughout the process. One particular dancer who is completing her master’s degree accepts the help of an older Jewish man in paying her rent and with her English pronunciation, all the while recognizing “the power he exercises” and “the importance of never having sex with the customers as a way to ensure that she is getting what she needs from the relationship” (46-47).
In the context of the black lesbian club Girlielicious in Oakland, taking control of personal agency manifests in different ways for both dancers and the women who frequent the venue. The physical space itself has transformed into an essential place “for poor/working-class queer Blacks to be out and meet each other, unlike in their everyday lives, where many of them are closeted for fear of violence and/or of being ostracized within the larger community in which they live” (53). The line between stripper and customer in this case becomes increasingly blurry, as all of the queer women—regardless of their specific roles or positions—value the spatial significance of the club for comparable reasons. For experienced lesbian stripper Spice, dancing at Girlielicious is preferable to working in straight clubs: “I like dancing for women because the space allows for more creativity and theatrical performances and costumes. I also design clothes, and want to start my own clothing line, so I like designing my own costumes” (58). The relative autonomy and comfort that queer black dancers find at a venue like Girlielicious is what sets such clubs apart and grants the women an additional form of gratification.
It is undoubtedly important to acknowledge that significant barriers tied to racialized ideals of beauty compound factors like class and citizenship to complicate the sex industry for queer/poor/women of color. But Brooks’ research dispels the myths of victimhood for female sex workers and highlights the extraordinary agency these dancers wield and their resourcefulness in negotiating systemic discrimination. Mainstream white feminism has often argued that “women cannot assert agency within sexual economies [and] are victimized and/or controlled by heterosexual male desire that is not in the best interest of women” (5). Such an understanding, sadly, is informed by a simplistic and categorical conception of a blanket divide between male customers and female strippers when the racial, economic, and social reality possesses so many more nuances. Female dancers are generally aware of the ways in which they stand to gain or lose from and their unique position in the exchange of erotic and cultural capital.