Excluding Sex Work from Sexual Empowerment: A Stripper’s Take On Netflix’s “Strip Down, Rise Up”

By Alyssa Aparicio

The erotic doesn’t necessarily = profane

Sacred doesn’t necessarily =  that which has been decided by the white, colonial, capitalist, heteronormative gaze

Profane doesn’t necessarily= lower class, of the BIPOC community, sex work or sex work originated, gender nonconforming, pornographic

Pornographic doesn’t necessarily = empowered OR disempowered

Empowerment doesn’t necessarily exclude sex workers

Allow me to make these concepts a bit more tangible through a recent experience I’ve had.

A couple of months back, I received a Facebook notification that stopped me in my scroll. The trailer for Strip Down, Rise Up, a Netflix documentary I participated in nearly 3 years ago had just been released. Watching while holding my breath, I caught glimpses of myself- once, twice, three times. I felt my stomach clench as I flashed back to the classroom where we gathered to learn a modality called S Factor over the course of several months. Memories of discomfort and uncertainty flooded back to me as I braced myself for the full film.

My angst grew the more I thought about it- revisiting all the reasons the experience never sat right with me. Reliving a feeling of inward gaslighting.

At the time of filming, I was beginning a now decade long journey of empowerment. Personally, as a woman, artist, performer and anthropologist. I was working as a professional stripper while simultaneously building the foundation for becoming the Pussy Empowerment Coach I am today.

The opportunity to learn from a teacher with a nationwide reputation in the realm of empowering feminine sensuality, drew me towards applying to be a part of the class that was being filmed for this project.

But once filming began in the classroom, I quickly felt out of place. Met with yoga pants and minimalist decor juxtaposed with poles and red lights, the environment felt like visiting a living room that looks too contrived to be lived in- a showroom model of an experience I was quite intimate with, yet felt so estranged from, in this context.

Watching the full film a few weeks later, my uncertainty quickly escalated to fury as the fragments began to form a very clear picture. The suspicions I had felt all those Sundays were becoming crystal clear.

The quote from this movie that best turned the red flags into a raging fire was this statement by pole performer Amy Bond: “I wanna create a world where, you say that you pole dance and  the first question people ask you isn’t, ‘oh, are you a stripper’?

My feeling of being out of place relates back to the distinction summarized by this statement, underlined by S Factor and echoed throughout this documentary- a line between pole dancing as art, fitness, or for healing that is considered “good”, while pole dancing related to stripping is considered “bad”.

I felt this line play out in class via a thick undercurrent punctuated by revealing moments such as when I was told the sheer material of my actual stripper wear was not allowed in class. 

Even though Sheila drew on her experience playing a stripper in a movie, the role that inspired her to open this nationwide franchise nearly 2 decades ago, I was becoming acutely aware of the implications that actual sex work was shamed in this environment. 

How could an entire documentary and modality be so wildly shaming and erasing of the work and women responsible for the origins of pole dance, yet capitalize upon it so shamelessly? 

The same way that the elite upper class has determined and commodified what is considered high-brow vs. what is low-brow for centuries. In America circa 2021, Sheila Kelly teaches that it’s okay to strip recreationally as long as you don’t do it professionally or dress like a woman who does actual sex work.

This teacher’s lack of any experience being a professional stripper and lack of commitment to educating her students in a wholistic  way, has resulted in an approach filtered through the lens of the white gaze. History, origins, and/or how to be an ally to actual strippers were never addressed and elitist beliefs were continually perpetuated.

Pole instructors and classes like these are neither the first nor the last to appropriate in broad daylight without feeling any need to be accountable. What’s at play beneath the surface, however, certainly transcends industry.

Most immediately let’s admit that when it comes to feminine sexuality and the body, the lens of the white gaze continues to sustain colonizing ideologies that rely heavily on puritanical and patriarchal belief systems. These approaches have created a foundation upon the notion of a morality that makes the parallel between good vs bad the equivalent of sacred vs profane, upper class vs. lower class, white vs BIPOC, high-brow vs low-brow.

Being a shamelessly sexual Hispanic woman from the Bronx with 13 years of Catholic school and the subsequent journey to liberate my body and sexuality, has well prepared me to call bullshit on this dichotomy. If we can agree that Catholicism as we know it has always been used as a tool for control and the justification of oppressing indigenous cultures, women, gender nonconforming communities and more around the world, we can see how the concept of sinner vs saint was created and why, as a result, good vs. bad itself must be heavily examined.

To bring it back to the concrete, in this documentary, stripper aesthetic is used and celebrated, yet strippers/sex workers are shamed. Sexual expression is supposedly encouraged, but primarily within the confines of this so-called safe space. The sacred, or “good”, in this scenario becomes stripping in a context devoid of its roots, and the profane, or “bad”, becomes actual stripping.

Erasure of these roots of pole dancing encourages erasure of the people who have suffered discrimination, criminalization, or worse as real life strippers.  Given that the sex work industry has roots in the BIPOC population, this narrative creates a divide between white, upper class, capitalist and non-white, lower class, and capitalized upon. This same othering shows up in the problematic usage of the term “exotic dance”, a word that has been used in the community to mean stripper inspired movement (see more via Nadia Sharif’s viral video on this subject).

What is at play here is a clear example of “whorephobia” which is defined as “the hatred of, oppression of, violence towards, and discrimination against sex workers; and by extension, derision or disgust towards activities or attire related to sex work.” (as defined by Social Justice Wiki). The divide between the pole community and sex work that is so clear in this film to anyone who watches with a critical eye, exposes the whorephobia that continues to attract a demographic that is predominantly willing to accept the distinction that keeps them separate from the those who do this work for real. This discrimination towards sex workers is visible within this modality, the pole dance community, and the women empowerment spaces at large.

This film asks us as viewers to take it for granted  that using the tools of stripping for liberation is empowering, but only upon extracting it from its implied dirty roots.

Of course, this division is nothing new. Even amongst the most prolific voices of the feminist movement, such as Audre Lorde, whorephobia is embedded. In her work “The Uses of the Erotic as Power”, an essay even I myself have held up as the pinnacle of erotic empowerment in the past, Lorde pits the erotic against the pornographic. Guess which one is considered “good” and which is considered “bad” in this distinction?

In her article on Vice, “85 Ways to Make Sex Workers’ Lives a Little Easer” femi babylon aka @thotscholar suggests:

“Question people’s negative use of the word “porn” (bad: masculine) in contrast with what’s “erotic” (good: feminine). Even one of my favorite Black feminists, Audre Lorde, wrote:

…we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic, for it represents the suppression of true feeling.

Even if it’s your favorite feminist doing it, separating sex work and porn out from “the erotic” further stigmatizes them.” 

So here we have an exploitation of the sacred vs. the profane dichotomy yet again, this time in the form of the erotic vs. the pornographic. And, thus, sex workers are ostracized in the process, many of whom have wielded the power of their sexuality to thrive in a racist capitalist patriarchy that was designed for them to fail in the first place.

Which leads me to ask what definition of empowerment are we even defaulting to here? Does engaging with existing structures automatically negate the empowerment of individuals interacting within it? If so, why does that make capitalizing on stripping via appropriation and white washing empowering? Furthermore, why is it assumed that sex work is disempowering?

As Samantha Sun recently shared in an interview in my conversation series, Demystifying Stripping, Decolonizing Sexual Empowerment, “most strippers and sex workers don’t give a shit how sexually empowered they are. They want access to their rights and their money… to worker’s rights and justice.”

If that sounds disempowering, its only because of the systemic oppression designed to keep marginalized groups like women, sluts, whores, BIPOC, immigrants, gender nonconforming folks on the outskirts of society. It is NOT because embodying or capitalizing on the erotic is inherently shameful, bad, or profane.

In summary, creating a definition of empowerment that excludes sex workers doesn’t make you enlightened, it makes you a bigot. 

To hear more discussion on this topic, I invite you to tune into my 7 part conversation series: “Demystifying Stripping, Decolonizing Sexual Empowerment” on Pussy Empowered Podcast. 

Alyssa Aparicio is a Pussy Empowerment Coach & Sacred Erotic Creatrix. She is equal parts Bronx bitch and mountain witch. Alyssa is the host of Pussy Empowered Podcast where she breaks down her approach to Pussy Power and interviews paradigm shifting badasses about theirs. 

Follow her work on Social Media and online:

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Demystifying Stripping, Decolonizing Sexual Empowerment Conversation Series

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