Playing the Supporting Role draws on interviews with strippers and strip club management to bring to life the daily routines, personalities, conflicts, and challenges of managing and working in the erotic dance sector. Read the full Q&A with author Tuulia Law, here:
1) Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?
I’ve been involved in a number of community-informed sex work research projects; this book originated in one of the earlier projects I was involved in, which examined the work of third parties – the people who organize, supervise, manage, or coordinate the labour of sex workers across a range of sex industry sectors. As the person most familiar with the erotic dance sector on the research team, I expanded that interview and focus group data with my own interviews of strip club third parties and strippers for my PhD dissertation. I subsequently wrote a few academic pieces from that research, but the interviews were so rich – participants were so open and reflexive, they offered important and grounded insights on the tensions between workers and management, and they were funny! I also wanted to write something that people other than profs and students would read that would showcase this richness to humanize third parties by showing their ordinariness, everyday frustrations, and strategies. The rationale was: when we humanize third parties, we leave behind the creeps and bad guys of popular imagination, and this makes it possible to fully see stripping, and other forms of sex work, as labour.
2) What was the most challenging aspect of this project?
Strip clubs can be quite large organizations with many workers (like a roster of 100 dancers!) and several tiers of management, so even deciding whom to include as a third party initially required careful thought. At some clubs, for example, bartenders might also hire dancers; at other clubs, only managers do this; and sometimes there are peripheral people who are more or less informally involved in strippers’ labour. Making sense of these diverse social actors was a challenge – especially the drivers, one of whom (even strippers who participated in one of the focus groups thought) sounded in some ways like the stereotypical pimp. Unpacking these various relationships, while remaining true to the labour framework that underlies the book, but also parsing the power relations and internal(ized) racism and gendered and classed tropes that informed interview participants’ perceptions of various third parties felt like a heavy responsibility. It was similarly challenging to strike a respectful balance between strippers’ and third parties’ competing interests and sometimes conflicting accounts. It became a question of: How can I talk about what is happening in and adjacent to the club, including some quite problematic practices, arrangements, and assumptions, without making third parties into villains or strippers into victims?
3) Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?
To answer Howard Becker’s timeless question – “Whose side are you on?” – I’ve always been on the side of the worker in my research and activism. Having talked extensively with sex workers in various sectors and contexts coming into this project – my first foray into research about management – I soon realized I had assumed that they had already told me much of what there was to know about third parties. So I was surprised to find that managers, bouncers, and bartenders had so many other duties that have little to do with strippers, but that contribute in important ways to the production of the party atmosphere of the club that makes it possible for dancers to earn money. In the book, I explain this using the metaphor of two parallel structures: the club, a business financed by alcohol sales that employs third parties and other supporting actors like waitstaff, and the dancers, who earn money by selling lap dances directly to customers. This profoundly shapes how and when strippers and third parties interact and don’t – and in turn how they perceive each other and their effectiveness as workers. Interestingly, because each is putting on a show of their respective and very gendered roles, both third parties and strippers can forget that the other is and does more, which can foment frustration and irresponsible or inappropriate workplace behaviour.
4) What was your experience working with the editor/editors of this book?
I worked with Jodi Lewchuk at UTP and really appreciated how she helped me to make the book into something new, and more than a rehashed and expanded dissertation. The reviewers were really well chosen and Jodi worked with me to incorporate their comments in a way that responded to their concerns and improved the book but also stayed true to what I wanted to say and do.
5) What do you hope readers will take away from reading Playing the Supporting Role?
In writing about strip club third parties, I wanted to seize the opportunity that erotic dance presents as a “gateway” to understanding sex industry work. So in addition to presenting the perspective of erotic dance sector third parties, whose voices are seldom featured in academic studies, it’s a tool to educate the un-initiated – postsecondary students new to the area or anyone whose curiosity has been piqued by popular media – about the kinds of issues sex industry workers face as they articulate them. It’s also a book for someone working at a strip club, who might be building up to telling family or friends about it, to gift or read for strategies to normalize their work.
More than just describing their occupational tasks, the book showcases third parties’ career trajectories and idiosyncrasies, so the reader is able to see more of who these folks are. In addition to the whole book mobilizing a labour framing and terminology germane to other kinds of businesses, Chapter 2 sketches the particular employment relationship at strip clubs, in which dancers are independent contractors who are in some important ways subject to club owners’ and managers’ rules and whims but otherwise mostly govern themselves. At the same time, strip club third parties can get away with discriminatory staffing practices that pivot on a Euro-centric feminine beauty ideal because the regulation of strip clubs revolves around limiting clubs and the extent of sexual contact they offer, rather than attending to equity and occupational health and safety concerns. The other chapters explore how this context informs third parties’ practices and relationships.
In short, I hope people take away from this book that stripping is not especially exploitative but rather shares in the exploitativeness of labour under capitalism; that, like managers in mainstream labour market sectors, third parties in the erotic dance sector can be supportive or apathetic or problematic; and that the issues workers face in this sector are labour problems that require labour-oriented solutions.
Learn more about Playing the Supporting Role here.