By Annie Temple
(Trigger Warning: stigma, discrimination, slut shaming, bullying, sexual harassment.)
I became an adult entertainer at the age of 23 – almost half my life ago. Since then, I have left and returned to the industry many times. I left for pregnancy, university, a boyfriend. I left so I could put my kids to bed at night. I left to be a Support Worker; a Marketing Manager; a Project Coordinator.
But I always returned … because the adult entertainment industry is good to me. Whenever I’ve been in trouble, it was adult industry people who helped me – usually by giving me jobs. And thanks to those jobs, I have never been desperate. I have never been desperate, but I have been terrified. Terrified to square up in the “real world.” Terrified to say or do the wrong thing. Terrified for good reason! Because once you’ve worked in adult entertainment, the real world is a scary place. It is a place of walls and shame.
Coming from a world of candidness and exposure, culture shock is inevitable. We may live in the same neighbourhoods and shop in the same grocery stores. Our kids go to the same schools and play in the same leagues. But adult entertainers and “civilians” (square folks) live in two completely different worlds. Squaring up is no easy feat, for many reasons. The following are ten culture shock challenges I’ve experienced while attempting to leave the sex industry.
Ten “Culture Shock” Challenges I’ve Faced Squaring Up
1. Terrifying anxiety
When my oldest daughter was a baby, I found that exotic dancing wasn’t ideal for me. I wanted to be home every night to put my baby to bed, but strip clubs are busiest at night. Some are only open in the evenings. So, I made a goal to get a square 9-5 job. I did a bunch of assessments and signed up to get my Public Relations diploma. It was a two year program and I was approved for funding that covered all my expenses except during summer break between the second and third semesters. Instructors gave us leads on jobs in the Public Relations industry for rookies…er, I mean students…over the summer.
I applied for these square jobs and hoped for a 9-5 position that would pay enough for me to make ends meet over the summer. In the meantime, I booked a few weeks of stripping. The rent wouldn’t pay itself, after all. My first week back dancing, I got called for an interview. The office address they gave me was in Richmond. This was perfect, as I was working nearby at the Fraser Arms in Marpole. The DJ and other dancers cooperated with me enthusiastically to change the schedule, so I could go to the interview between shows.
But as my day progressed, I developed more and more anxiety. Every face in the audience was the face of the man who might interview me. Was he sitting right here in the club? Had he seen me on stage? Would that help or hinder my chances of getting a job? Would I even want a job from a man who’d seen me dance? How might he use it against me? I worried I had too much makeup on.
The interviewee before me, a girl from my class, had been late. So my interview was pushed back. I worried I wouldn’t make it back in time for my next show. (They fine us for that.) By the time I got into the interview, I was a hot mess. Needless to say, I didn’t get that job. They hired the girl who was late for her interview instead. The worst part is that I’d worried for nothing. The interviewer was not a customer from the audience. It was a woman who probably thought I was wearing too much makeup. Oh well. Her loss.
2. Holes in my resume
I’m lucky because I worked in square jobs for years before I became a stripper. I’d been a waitress, sandwich artist, newspaper folder, drive thru cashier, fast food counter person, leather jacket saleswoman, laser tag manager, among other things. Many dancers I’ve known didn’t work in any other jobs before dancing. That definitely adds to culture shock when trying to square up. Still, there were long gaps in my resume every time I decided to go straight. And each time I was faced with a decision – to include my exotic dance background on my resume or fudge my timeline a little.
When I graduated with my Public Relations diploma, I became a “Consultant” in all my resume gaps. I included many of my assignments from school in my portfolio which enabled me to list The Kidney Foundation and other reputable organizations as clients. Instructors from my courses hired me for small contracts to write press releases, articles, and pitch media outlets on stories. I began using my training to advocate for sex industry workers rights.
My website, The Naked Truth, was already well established. But now the media was contacting me regularly for interviews. Once again, the adult entertainment industry saved me. It gave me skills and experience beyond what I could have gotten as a rookie in a square job. I was inundated with media requests and dealt with a media crisis when the Breast Cancer Society of Canada refused a donation from our stripathon fundraiser. Letters to the editors of several newspapers gushed in supporting us.
I handled the crisis so well, we had many other charities who had refused our donation in the past scrambling to differentiate themselves from the BCSC. I was becoming a pro. However, when I applied for a job at a non-profit organization that serves foster children, I decided to keep my sex industry experience on the down low. With a little bit of imagination, I was able to make my work history look very impressive. All the gaps were filled with “Media Consultant” work. I was good to go. If only the Executive Director who interviewed me wasn’t so cunning.
She asked very good questions testing my knowledge and abilities. But she didn’t want general answers. She wanted true life examples. Well, my heart started racing as I realized I was cornered. I had to come up with a lie fast or admit my sex work experience. I took a deep breath and spilled the beans…
“I used to be an exotic dancer which led to doing advocacy for sex industry workers…”
All my best examples came from my advocacy work for which I had never been paid a cent. At the end of the interview, she told me she’d call in a few days and let me know if I was hired. I walked out having no idea what she thought of me. But a few days later…she hired me. Peeler power for the win!
3. Getting caught
I wasn’t trying to hide my sex industry work experience. I’d appeared on a talk show using my stage name, but my face was clear as day. I was me. Everything was going great at my internship at a local university. After getting my diploma, I was hired for a six month contract. All of my new co-workers assured me that I’d get hired on permanently. “They always hire the people they like,” I was told.
But everything changed when a woman from administration saw a re-run of the talk show I appeared on. She spread the news to all the university staff. Then she waited two days before she approached me, which I can only imagine was on the advice of a compassionate coworker. I barely knew her. We said hi as we passed each other’s desks, but that’s about it. “Did you used to be a stripper?” she asked innocently.
My heart jumped but I had no shame. “Yes,” I replied, wondering how this would play out.
“I saw you last night on the Fanny Kiefer Show,” she said. I didn’t know how to respond, so I smiled and nodded while she exclaimed how she thought it was me but my stage name had confused her. When she left my desk, I went outside for air. Tears prickled my eyes. I knew this was not good. My ho senses were tingling. Sure enough, the temperature at work dropped considerably. People who previously smiled and chatted with me became cold and wouldn’t look me in the eye. They walked right past me, pretending not to see me. No more lunch invitations. I was an outcast. There were no more assurances that I would be hired on permanently. Now people said things like, “Well, I know they’re scaling back due to budget concerns.”
My boss, who knew I was a former stripper and that I’d appeared on the talk show because I’d had to book time off work to do it, had no idea that I’d become the butt of everyone’s joke until one day the joke became malicious. I’d worked from home for a few days due to sickness and had just returned that morning. I was working on an article at my cubicle when my boss approached my desk. He was about to tell me something when he noticed my name plate. It was a plastic, re-usable name plate. My boss had simply printed my name and position onto a piece of paper and slid it into the slot. But while I was away, someone had tampered with it. It no longer said “Media and Public Relations.” It now said: Media and Pubic Relations.
My boss was flustered. He said someone must have changed it as a joke. But no one ever came forward laughing about the name plate joke. No one said sorry. No one ever mentioned it to me. I was caught, my past exposed. Someone decided that my experience as a stripper made me deserving of ridicule. I don’t know why it hurt so much. Why should I care? I know I’m a kind and caring person with a lot to offer any company I work for. And yet, I was broken up about it.
In retrospect, I’m glad they didn’t hire me after my contract ended. Those people were assholes and the job itself was extremely boring. But my boss was awesome. He couldn’t hire me permanently so he sent me contract work whenever possible. That was the beginning of my paid consulting career. And he was a great work reference for my future endeavors. I still have that name plate to remind me that no matter how “normal” adult entertainment culture is to me, I’m still an outcast in the real world.
4. I don’t take any shit
How do people get on in life without telling assholes off?! I really struggle with this. In the adult entertainment industry, I can tell anyone off that I want anytime. My co-workers, my agents, even my customers. If they cross the line, I can stand up for myself without being fired. Telling my agents off might result in a few weeks without work, but generally it’s a good thing because it shows them I’m not their bitch. Fast forward to civilian life and here I must bite my tongue.
It’s unprofessional to tell a colleague off no matter how ignorant she is and I’ll lose my job for standing up to a boss or customer. In the real world, it takes so much effort for me to NOT stand up for myself, that I will usually end up in tears. It’s gotta come out one way or another. I became so used to having the freedom to defend myself in the workplace that swallowing my retort in the square world is painful. I’ve taken to studying how my civilian coworkers do it. Some of them cry, like me. Some of them say they just let it bounce off them. But when I try that, it bounces off me and wants to punch the rude prick in the face.
I’m doing my best and I think I’m getting the swing of it, but I have to say this is one of those culture shock issues that I struggle with deeply. It’s also the reason I’ve changed jobs a lot. If someone is treating me in a way that I am barely stifling a reaction, it’s time for a new job. I don’t want to burn any bridges, after all. And I know it’s just a matter of time before I say what I really think. *shrugs*
5. Ostracizing my children
What happens when you cross a stripper and a mother? You get an ostracized child! It’s not right, but it’s true that adult entertainers are stereotyped as bad parents. When moms at my daughter’s school learned that I was a stripper, those playdates suddenly dried up. There were a few last minute cancellations, then no more playdates. We moved and were given another chance at a new school. So, I taught my children about stigma and stereotyping. I told them they could talk about the stripper pole in the house or about my experience in the adult entertainment industry if they wanted – but there might be consequences if they do.
“Your friends might tell their parents; and then their parents might say you can’t be friends.”
My kids have thus far been very mature about the whole thing. They, like me, think the close-mindedness of most civilians is laughable and ignorant. For the most part, my children don’t mention the sex industry to their friends. But there have been instances where someone is trash-talking strippers that my kids felt obliged to defend the industry.
My kids know I am a loving, responsible mother. I am present. I am health conscious. I listen to them and I teach them life skills. I am the most important person in the world to them. Other people’s misguided beliefs don’t change how my children see me. There will always be a few who cannot get beyond the idea that I am a pervert and low-life. But most people accept me and my children. The ones that don’t…well, they aren’t the kind of people we want in our lives anyhow.
6. Potty Mouth
Whoops, I dropped the F bomb. Whoops, I did it again. Uh oh, I said cock instead of penis. Doh, I shouldn’t be talking about penises. Shit, I shouldn’t have joked about that guy’s bulge. That bum sex joke was probably not appropriate either. Shit, I need to stop saying shit!
Surprisingly, I find that most of the civilians I meet feel just as suffocated by real world expectations and the unspoken rules of the moral majority as I do. Most civilians would love to be able to talk freely without censure. They’d like to be their true selves without apology. They’d be thrilled to tell people off when it is deserved and hold nothing back when discussing a topic they are passionate about. But they do hold back because being frank and forthright is not socially acceptable in the real world.
Certain topics are an absolute no-no. No sex talk. No bodily fluids talk. No talking about your wage. No religion, politics, or activism talk. Sex jokes can land you in deep trouble. Tip-toe around all that shit if you want to be safe. As a person coming from an open, honest culture like the sex industry – I have a very hard time behaving in a socially acceptable manner. It is a constant effort to stop myself before I speak.
Adult entertainment is one of those mind-blowing cultures that has the power to erase all previously held beliefs. That’s why sex industry workers are usually critical thinkers. We’ve learned that not everything we’re told is true. Like the stereotype of the weak, degraded sex worker, for instance…say what?! Almost every sex worker I know is a strong, empowered, determined entrepreneur.
Or the stereotype that all sex workers are drug addicts…WRONG AGAIN. But if someone were to tell me a stereotype that all sex workers have potty mouths…
…well, I can’t really argue with that. In our culture, the F word is a most common adjective.
7. Sexual Harassment
There are two scenarios for this particular culture shock challenge. The one where I am sexually harassed and the one where I am accused of sexual harassment. Both occasions occurred during my time in college studying for my Public Relations Diploma. Many of the courses I took were combined classes of PR students and Journalism students. I made friends with some of the budding journalists, including one woman who asked if she could write an article about my PR efforts for sex worker rights for the college paper. Around this time, I was still hiding my real name in the media. I went by my stage name, Annie Temple, for this and many other interviews I participated in.
A few weeks before the interview came out in the college paper, I met the head of Marketing for the college at an event I attended through my internship. My boss introduced me as a student in the PR program. The Marketing dude from my college was very polite but dismissive. I shrugged my shoulders and went on with my life. The schmuck didn’t remember my real name, but he remembered my face. When he picked up the college newspaper a couple weeks later to see my smiling face inside the front page, he recognized me. He emailed me. I got excited. I didn’t want my diploma to lead nowhere – or straight back to dancing, for that matter.
The point of going to school was to find a 9-5 job so I could put my kids to bed at night. I painstakingly fixed up my resume. The jerkass kept the ruse up a little longer with some emails going back and forth. Finally, I suspected he was yanking my chain. Sure enough, when I confronted him there was no position available. I guess he thought he could get off on some email exchanges by using his position and power to lure me in. I guess he thought I was an easy target because I was a stripper. I guess he was right.
My complaint to the college wasn’t taken seriously at all. They told me the emails seemed harmless and innocent. They didn’t consider his behaviour inappropriate. I didn’t pursue it, even though I wasn’t the first or only woman he’d sexually harassed at the school. I learned of at least two others. The guy was a douchebag but I didn’t have the energy to be skewered as a sexual deviant in a hopeless fight with the college.
The sexual harassment challenge also works in the opposite direction. Only, in my case, it really was harmless and innocent. In my culture it’s okay to tell a women that her boobs look fabulous in her low-cut shirt. In the real world, at college, I found out the hard way that’s a no-no. I can’t describe the shame and humiliation I felt when I was pulled into an instructor’s office and told my comment was sexually inappropriate.
I considered myself a feminist. How could I be a sexual harasser of women too? This experience is an extreme example of the culture shock I have experienced leaving the adult entertainment industry. Boobs are a favourite topic in my culture. In the real world, boobs are totally off limits. Lesson learned!
8. Low Pay
The biggest reason we find it difficult to leave the adult entertainment industry and also the biggest reason we often go back is because of the money. It’s not just better pay than most square jobs. It’s also more money in less hours. More flexibility. We can take time off when we want. We can take working vacations almost anywhere in the world. If I need money today, I can pick up work tonight. If I need money this week, I can pick up work tomorrow.
I remember that summer between semesters when I got turned down for the square job in Public Relations, I decided to try waitressing for the summer. That lasted less than a week. The hourly pay was minimum wage. The tips were negligible. I had to pour ketchup from one bottle into another every shift. That job sucked the life out of me. I felt like I had sold my soul. I was the Slop Slut. At least, that’s how I felt. It was degrading. The other staff weren’t very friendly. I didn’t like taking orders. I certainly didn’t like slopping ketchup into bottles.
After adding up numbers for the few shifts I’d worked, I realized I wouldn’t be able to afford rent and groceries. Needless to say, I quit and went back to dancing. And I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was home.
9. Expert “Flirt”
I make eye contact when I talk to people. I know exactly when to break out my secret weapon: a big, broad, twinkling smile. I laugh at the right moments. Talk conspiratorially. I make people feel like they are interesting and funny – and they usually are. People shine most when they are focused on in a caring and interested way. I am an expert at making people shine.
In the sex industry, all customers are equal. It doesn’t matter who is better looking or what kind of job they do. If they are respectful and financially attentive, they get our respect and attention. Habits are hard to break. In the real world, we (adult entertainers) don’t cease being masterful conversationalists. We don’t cease treating people equally regardless of their quirks and eccentricities.
But I’ve come to learn that in the square world, my behaviour is considered flirting. I am indiscriminate with my “flirting.” It does not matter your gender. I am “flirting” with you. I’m not trying to pick you up. I have no ulterior motives. In fact, in my culture (of adult entertainment), we are much more up front if we are trying to pick someone up. We come right out and say “You’re sexy. What are you doing later?”
Not so in the real world. Here, I am considered to be flirting if I feign interest in any way. Being nice can even be considered flirting. You can see how this becomes a problem for those of us coming from the sex industry. In the square world, being forthright and confident makes me an expert flirt. And there is a lot of silent pressure to “tone it down.” But why should I? This is me. I am an outgoing person who enjoys seeing people’s true selves shine through. What is so wrong with that?
As Marianne Williamson famously said:
“There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
The moral of this story is: Be like sex workers. Go ahead, you have my permission. 😉
I am a confident, happy woman who likes to dress nice and look good. I guess that makes me a slut because, in the square world, women often slut-shame me. Maybe it’s something about the way I carry myself. I do have good posture. It could also be my candidness. I don’t generally volunteer the information unless it is relevant to the discussion at hand. But I decided a long time ago that I wouldn’t allow stigma to shame me into a double life. For that reason, I make a point of not hiding my experience in the adult entertainment industry.
And for the most part, this works for me. People accept me and treat me the same as if they did not know. But sometimes…and when it happens, it’s a woman 99% of the time…sometimes, my sex industry work experience makes me the enemy. These women who hate me always call themselves “feminists” despite that they themselves are oppressing women in the name of feminism. They call themselves victims of the patriarchy but they blame me for their victimization. They trash-talk me. They accuse me of diminishing women’s rights and perpetuating rape culture.
They do all of this because they are insecure about their own bodies and they want to make me as ashamed as they are. They are miserable and they want confident, happy, self-secure women to be miserable too. I feel sorry for them because they can’t see their own beauty. They don’t own and wield their power for good. Their lovers suffer for their insecurities. They think we should all hide our bodies like good little girls. This is the dichotomy of “bad girls” vs “good girls.” Guess which one I am.
It happened to me at a square job a few years back. A woman I was in regular communication with because of our respective roles slut-shamed me behind my back. I didn’t find out about it until a couple weeks later. All that time I had been my usual outgoing and friendly self with her. She had been sweet as pie to my face. This woman’s trash-talking about me didn’t threaten my job. But it hurt none-the-less. It reminded me that I was an outcast trying to fit into a rigid, judgmental world. It reminded me that #cultureshock isn’t just something you experience when you immerse yourself in a new culture. It continues to surprise you even when you think you’ve got it all figured out.
People wonder why we usually go back to adult entertainment many times throughout our lives. It is for the money, but it’s also because no one else understands us. We can be ourselves with each other – no worries about our potty mouths or whether our colleagues think we’re hitting on their lovers. Adult entertainers are also great conversationalists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve really connected with someone, only to find out later that they are a current or former sex worker. I’ve learned to trust my ho-dar. It hasn’t been wrong yet.
These are my people. We share a wickedly, awesome culture. And the square world better watch out…because we’re infiltrating. But seriously, I know where I belong. The culture that lives in my heart is the sex industry culture, because despite our fake names, it is here that I have found the most authentic people. No matter how much time I spend pretending to be a civilian in the real world, I will always be a whore in my heart.
And proud of it. I’ve been back in the biz doing massages now for almost year and it’s wonderful to be home again. xoxo
About the Author
TNT Annie Temple has been a sex worker and activist since 1997, but she’s been a rebel all her life. In 2000, she founded The Naked Truth to support other entertainers by reducing isolation, educating about health and safety, sharing information about gigs, challenging stereotypes, teaching etiquette to customers, and organizing in-person events for charity and to promote ethical businesses in the industry.