A Life’s Work: The Stripper’s Advocate

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Jo Weldon was a stripper for fifteen years; she’s been a stripper advocate ever since. She’s paid her own way to academic
conferences all over the world, including the Beijing Plus Five Conference
at the United Nations, where she lobbied for universal adoption of the term “sex work” and
the distinction between forced and voluntary prostitution. These days, Weldon,
41, is one of the lights of the burlesque revival (she performs as
Jo Boobs) and a sexy librarian of kink, teaching striptease
classes and mentoring young sex workers via her website
As for
the “Gotta
Have a Gimmick” girls from Gypsy, only still totally hot, holding
a business degree from Georgia State. — Ada Calhoun


You’ve said you always wanted to be a stripper. How did you discover the career path when you were a kid?

When I was a kid, in most movies, the hooker was the one who got killed first. Or who got old and bought Petticoat Junction. I didn’t think it was glamorous, I thought it was thrilling. Turning the daily act of undressing into theater is the most amazing thing ever. There’s nothing more natural than taking off your clothes, but still people will pay to watch you do it.

What is the prevailing attitude toward stripping?

People say things to me about "the stripper mentality" — that strippers wind up in trailer parks, eating cat food, doing drugs, supporting boyfriends. But even if that happens, something else happens afterward.

Politically, how does the argument play out?

A lot of my work as a rights activist isn’t to redefine the position of women
in society but to figure out how you make sex work better and safer for the women
in it. You can’t wish it out of existence. I’m interested in radical feminism,
but I don’t like their solutions for the problems they describe. Andrea Dworkin
has a passion that attracts people — she’s obviously nuts, but we’ve
all felt that way at some point: walking down the street and thinking if one
more guy looks at my tits, I’m going to shoot myself in the head

"I think un-ambivalent responses to sex work are politically motivated."

But some feminists say sex work is empowering.

Right. They say, "We all make our choices." Well, we do. Some people don’t. There’s a huge difference between someone who’s led to believe she’ll be working in the restaurant industry and ends up having to strip, and a woman who knowingly goes out, buys a pager, gets her pictures taken, puts out an ad. That’s why I love Lily Burana’s book Strip City. She made it look good and she made it look bad. I think un-ambivalent responses to sex work are politically motivated.

You’ve stressed that sex work is just a job.

A lot of the feminist debate doesn’t get into that. You
don’t usually seek out sex work for the pleasure, or because you’re forced. You
get into it for the money. I read How to Win Friends and Influence People to help me deal with club managers, because I thought of it as a sales job. What I was selling wasn’t myself. I wanted to sell table dances.

People are wary of viewing money as empowering in and of itself.

Money is loaded with psychological implications. It’s at least as loaded as sex.
You may not have any interest in sex, but you’ve still got to have money. When
people discuss the psychology of prostitution, they almost always leave out the
psychology of money: how you were raised to think about it, what
money’s worth, what’s okay to do for money, whether or not something
matters more or less if you do it for money. There’s some rule that you can’t simultaneously like someone and want their money, which I think is really bizarre. You know what? Any person who has less money than you wants your money. It doesn’t mean they don’t like you.

How do you like to spend your money?

I used to love going to Macy’s in Georgia. Now it’s Sephora. I don’t need anything there. Nothing. But they’re very nice to me. I will buy perfume I’ll never wear because they pet me, talk to me, put things in my hand and dab off my makeup. Sephora is my strip joint! Consumerism is misunderstood. It’s seen as shallow, when it’s actually very intense. It can be very psychological, spiritual.

"Consumerism is seen as shallow, when it’s actually very intense."

Why do you think so many underground cultural
heroines of the last decade — Lisa Carver, Kathleen Hanna — did
sex work at some point in their lives?

The anarchy. It’s as close as you can get. In the ways it isn’t anarchy,
it teaches you a lot about what you need. And all you have to do is show up.
A lot of people object to calling it unskilled labor, but that’s part of its
appeal. It gives you so much free time. When I was a stripper, I worked thirty hours a week. I read all the
time. I had long conversations that went late into the night. I guess it’s what
college was like for a lot of people.

For me, it was a rebellion thing. It’s rebellious
to take off your shirt when it’s not an invitation — it’s
aggressive. Not in the same way a man exposes himself; it’s got a totally different
connotation. I could wiggle my naked parts at them and they knew they
couldn’t touch me. You could say
that sounds degrading. Maybe, but it’s also empowering to know that if he touched me after I said no, his
ass was grass. The bouncers would beat shit out of him. No matter what I implied,
if I didn’t state it, he couldn’t do it. I don’t know any other environment
where that’s true.

Has stripping changed much since you started in 1980?

A lot of people find this hard to believe, but when I was in the business there was no contact with anyone, on or off the table. If a guy touched your hair, he got thrown out. I liked that. It’s not popular in the prostitute-rights movement to like that, but I did. I liked having the boundaries set for me, so within those boundaries I could do whatever I wanted.

More women want to strip these days. Does that affect competition between dancers?

The fact that so many women are doing it is good because it gets rid of some, certainly not all, of the stigma. But it’s bad because managers have started charging huge tip-outs. I didn’t pay those. Girls today find that hard to believe. When I was headlining, they paid me.

How has the internet changed things?

I have issues with the ability of the clientele to critique. I hate it. There
are message boards where men theoretically warn each other about what clubs
or girls are rip-offs, but really they’re using it to validate their preferences
and to invalidate other people’s. I’ve worked in bars for years,
heard it all, but it still makes me sick. I don’t want to be in somebody’s blog.
Part of what I liked about stripping was the anonymity.

What would you most like to see, activism-wise?

I would like young activists to
believe they can critique the industry and still support it. I’ve tried to
teach dancers to negotiate with management so they don’t have to pay tip-outs,
or deal with tax problems. Labor doesn’t have big money
to hire lawyers, and they don’t have the time. Half the time, they’re transient.
They don’t want to be in a union or have their employment be a matter of record.

There is now one unionized strip club — the Lusty Lady in San
Francisco. How’s that working?

A lot of people there love it. A lot don’t like it. I can’t really speak for it. It’s been a success in some ways, a failure in others. I was never so into unionizing as I was interested in having dancers know they have the right to object to something.

Is an organization — like AIM in the porn industry — the

There are some good ones. The San Francisco Exotic Dancers Alliance
is great. I like that poster, “United We Stand, Divided We Bend Over.” I would
like to make sure dancers have access to information on health insurance, paying
taxes. Information that’s not judgmental, that doesn’t say they’re stupid because
they don’t know this. Most adults don’t know this.

But most adults believe strippers make a lot more money than they do.

They don’t make as much money as people think. Say a nineteen-year-old dancer makes $60,000 a year. For a nineteen-year-old, that’s a butt-load of money, but it’s not enough to retire! They could save up and buy a house, but say they’ve never had a lot of money and suddenly they can travel, buy these clothes, buy that makeup. They’re no more immune to consumerism than anyone else. Why would they be any smarter than millions of adults who are declaring bankruptcy every day?

Do you think the burlesque revival is easing the stigma?

The funny thing is burlesque doesn’t have much to do with stripping!
People who go to Scores might be horrified by burlesque,
and burlesque lovers might be horrified at Scores. Someone like
me has an interest in both. Burlesque is more like being in an unsigned band,
or being a drag queen — women in female drag. Actually, stripping
is drag, too, but you’re not choosing the drag as much as you’re evaluating different
kinds of drag for the best financial advantage.

Is there money in burlesque?

I haven’t tried to make money at it. Most performers are successful in other things and break even on this. We get all this media attention, but we’re just like a bunch of Shiners putting on a show. Since it’s not about money, they can put anybody up there. In my burlesque class, I teach women how to feel desirable. I show them the Christopher Walken strip scene in Pennies from Heaven. To show them it’s not about the body, but the attitude, the swagger. Everyone can feel like that.

Some people are trying to capitalize on it, like Show Nightclub in Times Square.

Well, it’s been ten years, so maybe it is turning into that. Especially with
the books coming out: Michelle Baldwin’s feminist gender theory thing and Dita
von Teese’s, which I assume will be very glamorous since she’s
more style icon than stripper. Maybe then a bunch of young girls will start doing
it for money. But there will still be me and my friends, laughing in the back
room, twirling tassels to amuse each other.