At age 19, Catlyn Ladd had just returned to the United States after studying at the University of Oxford. She wasn’t interested in living in a dorm on a college campus, but couldn’t afford her own place on the bare-bones salary of her work-study gig.
“I also did not have time for a regular job, and minimum wage was not much better than the work-study money,” she writes in “Strip: The Making of a Feminist,” which was published June 29 by Changemakers Books. “I needed a job that paid a lot and had flexible hours.”
That job was stripping.
“I once made $1,000 in 10 minutes,” she told The Denver Post in advance of her Oct. 11 reading and signing at Boulder Book Store. “That was great on a purely monetary level, but the whole experience was kind of fun.”
Ladd, a Ph.D. professor of philosophy, religion, and women and gender studies at Front Range Community College, not only had fun, she also gained valuable and culturally unique insights about sexual power dynamics working as a dancer in gentleman’s clubs. She also met her husband of 19 years there.
“He was a client,” Ladd, 42, said. “He came in with a group of friends who were doing that whole young-dude thing, where they go to a strip club for the first time out of boredom on a Friday night. … It creates an interesting situation when people say, ‘How did ya’ll meet?’ ”
Ladd, who cops to having “no problem with modesty,” only quit dancing after she graduated with her master’s degree. But the experience has provided years of material for teaching and writing, and contributed to the understanding of a field that’s rarely afforded any kind of nuanced attention in either academia or popular culture.
We caught up with Ladd in advance of her Boulder Book Store event.
Q: Can you walk us through how this started, and a bit of background on you?
A: I was born in Phoenix, got my undergraduate degree in Arkansas, and then my master’s from the University of Colorado in Boulder. I first came to Colorado in 1997 and was stripping in the late ’90s and early 2000s.
Q: In the book you write: “A friend had been working at a local club and I knew she made a lot of money while keeping up with her classes.” Did you find that’s how a lot of dancers got into it?
A: Looking at the stereotype of the stripper just from media representation –TV, movies, even books — what you typically see is the economically disenfranchised, lower-class women who have not gone to college, don’t have a lot of opportunity and are often moms. So, yes, I experienced a significant number of women who would fall into that category. The clubs where I worked were half that demographic, and the other half were women like me who were putting themselves through college.
Q: How did other stereotypes hold up in the reality of that environment?
A: Another one is drug abuse, and that’s absolutely out there. But most of what I experienced firsthand was recreational drug use, and the clubs where I worked called themselves clean clubs, so if someone got too wrecked that was a fireable offense. People kept that pretty tightly under wraps. There was very little prostitution. I did see a little bit of it, but at these clean clubs if a woman was turning tricks she could be fired. It was very behind-the-scenes. Even if you have 50 employees, everybody knows everybody’s business. After awhile, the person engaging in that behavior would be railroaded out of the club. Strippers are not above passing judgment: “That’s a dirty girl and she’s not like us.”
Q: What came easy to you about stripping, and what felt like work?
A: I loved the physicality of it. The mechanics. I loved the athleticism. I’m a little bit of an exhibitionist, and I think good teachers are, actually. There were times when the club was packed and everybody’s making money and having a good time, and you’re on stage and the masses of people are surrounding you — all of whom are happy and excited to see you. It gives you this amazing charge.
Q: I can honestly say I’ve never heard teaching compared to stripping before.
A: I would argue that neither is afforded the same vocabulary as performers are. I get that same charge when everything clicks in the classroom and the students are getting it and passionate about the material, and I’m facilitating their learning and understanding. That’s pretty much equally awesome.
Q: Have you ever taken one of your classes to a strip club?
A: It has honestly, and perhaps oddly, never crossed my mind. But I was just talking to one of my colleagues who teaches women’s studies who took a sexuality class to a strip club. It was their field trip!
Q: From a learning perspective, the book’s subtitle (“The Making of a Feminist”) hints at how you’re trying to move the conversation forward from the basic poles (no pun intended) of this being either exploitative or empowering.
A: I really want to contribute to tearing down the single narrative around strippers and start opening up the conversation by recognizing that women’s experiences are nuanced. I tackle that by addressing this sort of feminist binary usually used with sex work — that it’s either completely oppressive or liberating — and attack it from various angles, because it depends on skin color, who you are, what kind of clubs you work in.
Q: It’s reasonable to think all strippers have experienced moments where their jobs are both liberating and oppressive.
A: Right, and a less explicit goal with the book is to help people recognize that women can be fully, intellectually engaged in vocations that sexualize them. They know exactly what they’re doing, and it can be a turn-on. I mean, it’s not the ultimate goal of the book, but stripping can also help them heal from various types of abuse. I talk a little bit about how working in this field for five years allowed me to heal from pretty intense bullying and targeted abuse I experienced as a girl. It helped me reform my body image and become more confident about who I am.
Q: What surprised you?
A: The revelations that clientele would share with me. It was very clear that in some circumstances I was serving as the anonymous stranger you can tell all your secrets to. You’re on the receiving end of a lot of fantasies they’re ashamed to tell their partner about. But I also saw a lot of vulnerability from men who were very clearly holding themselves to masculine ideals in ordinary life, and needed to reveal their emotions and fears to somebody.
Q: What do you hope people get from this book?
A: I hope what people get from this book is that women’s experience — no matter what it is they’re doing — are complex and multifaceted and worth paying attention to. And don’t judge strippers, unless you really know what you’re talking about.
If you go
“Strip: The Making of a Feminist.” Book reading and signing with author Catlyn Ladd. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, at Boulder Bookstore, 1107 Pearl St. Free. 303-447-2074 or boulderbookstore.net