The H-Word: Essence, Revealed

Melissa Petro
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black and white photo of Essence, a black woman, smiling and leaning against a wallThe first time I met Essence Revealed was two years ago at the Sex Workers Cabaret, an annual event in New York City where sex workers take the stage to tell their diverse stories through performance, narrative, puppetry, burlesque, comedy and more. Essence is a dual degreed, former lap dance engineer from the upscale gentlemen’s club scene. Her performance that night reminded me of the girls I used to work with at Flashdancers, women who took their business seriously and were so skilled no one would dare consider them anything less than performers. Dancing in a red velvet floor-length gown to Michael Jackson’s Princess Diana, Essence elevated striptease to an art. I was as enamored as a customer. Not unlike a customer, I wanted to meet the woman behind Essence.

Bitch: Tell me about yourself. What’s your experience in the sex industry? How did you get started? I know you’ve worked as an exotic dancer/lap dancer. Any other forms of sex work? Are you currently working in the industry?

Essence: I grew up in Boston. I went to a pretty nerdy high school. We had to be let out 20 min earlier than the school across the street so we wouldn’t get beat up. I’m the first person in my family born in the US of A.  I came to New York for college and stayed. My parents are from Barbados & Guyana. They’ve recently retired back there. I wanna be like them when I grow up. A) They’ve been together for almost 40 years and still like each other and B) They worked their plan together. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a power team.

My experience in the sex industry is as a stripper. I met a Pro Domme while dancing and she trained me in how to be a Domme. I never did it professionally though. I “quit” dancing once and sold all of my outfits… I had to re-buy everything when I went back. (I never did that again.) I currently perform Burlesque but if I wanted to, I’d not be opposed to pulling out the outfits.

I started because it was the only job I could come up with that allowed me to have flexible days and earn decent money. I graduated with a Master’s in Ed Theatre and a BFA in acting. Auditions happen 9-5. Temp agencies were tired of me coming up with excuses for not getting back in time from lunch hour, etc. At one point I was working five jobs and just covering expenses. One of the five was being a teaching artist in Brooklyn Public Schools three times a week (I still had this job for a while after I started dancing too).  I walked into a strip club trying to get a bartender job and got offered a job as a stripper without having to audition.

Stripping was the easiest hard thing. I say hard because it is a job and like any job it comes with challenges. The same way people have to put on their “corporate face” in the office, I’d have to put on my “stripper face” once in the club.  I’d also have to get my saleswoman hat on. What I mean by that is I’d have to get in the mind set of letting all the “no”s (No. Come back later. I’m waiting for the blonde. etc.) roll off my back.  I worked in the borough clubs, then decided that if I was going to do this I needed to work where the biggest earning potential was. I started trying to get hired in the upscale clubs in Manhattan. That’s where I realized that racism was an issue even in sex work. There would only be a handful of “exotics” hired while there were more blondes than could meet the eye. I’d call to get audition info, then not be allowed to even audition once I got to the club. I once got turned down by eight clubs in one night. One of my customers from my club in Brooklyn knew a manager of one of the clubs that had turned me down.  Magically when I went in with him I was hired on the spot & told how beautiful I was. 

I think everyone working has their own set of things to deal with so this was mine.  Once I got over the fact that people would say ignorant things to me, I was fine. There were more than enough men who were attracted to black women that came into the upscale clubs when I was working and I was usually only about three of us.

What was really difficult was the isolation of living a double life. I didn’t let many people from “the real world” know what I was up to. It is really quite stressful to live this way. However, I was not strong enough to deal with the stigma and judgment that would come. Now I don’t care.  I have no issue with me. If someone else has an issue with me that’s their work, not mine.

I know you as a performance artist. Tell us about that work. Do you consider your performance art to be sex work or something else? How is it similar/different?

I started doing Burlesque almost two years ago now. I trained at the Brown Girl’s Burlesque Broad Squad Institute and currently perform with BGB. I guess because I’ve entered the scene at a time when neo-burlesque is very popular, what I do reads as performance art sometimes. I don’t think that most burlesque dancers would consider what they do sex work at all. I purposely attempt to bring sexy into my pieces so I’ll be comfortable putting it in the sex work bag. I consider being a stripper being a sex worker but most strippers would flog me for that. It is really sad that there is this “my sex work is better than your sex work” paradigm. I have also heard the “you’re not a real sex worker because you don’t have to do this” argument. There are class/privilege issues even within sex work. Gasp, we are human. At the end of the day, “the real world” puts us all in the same category so we might as well get over it. Why not work together to foster a change in the world view of who is a sex worker? There is no typical sex worker.  Period. 

Essence wearing red shoes and accessories, posing on a stage

Talk about what unique challenges women of color face in this industry and in general (when it comes to sexuality and beauty). How do you confront and overcome those challenges?

To get hired at an upscale club, women of color have to be 12’s out of 10.  What I mean by 12 is that they have to fit into the mainstream mold of beauty to a certain degree.  I was forced to wear long weave/wigs while simultaneously working with white women who were allowed to work with short hair. I would wear light colored contact lenses. I was a size 2. I’d walk into the club with dreadlocks, glasses and sweats & emerge on the floor with long flowing hair, light eyes and glammed up into a whole different persona. It has actually become really fun for me to be a chameleon. It was just a game of dress up for me. If you are stupid enough to think this makes me beautiful, OK. I’ll put on this costume and take your money. I’ll tell you that my family is Caribbean to make you feel better about being attracted to a “regular black.” If I had a dollar for every time I heard: “I knew you weren’t a regular black girl.”  REALLY!!!??? 

Also, black women have an extra layer of shame added onto the concept of being sexual. The history of the Hottentot Venus and the current Video Vixen images cause many black women to shy away from being sexual for fear of the judgment that comes from within and outside of the community. The mainstream media, churches, conservatives, etc. have made it really shame-filled for all women to express themselves sexually. Women of color have our particulars within the shame. Also it affects us differently. Kim Kardashian “accidentally” releases a sex tape and becomes a mega star. Laurence Fishburne’s daughter chooses to do porn and is TORCHED, never to be heard from again.

Tell me about the lapdancing workshops you run. How did that start? What is your intention behind that?

This shame is what caused me to start doing chair dance classes. My goal is to create safe spaces for women to explore sensuality and sexuality without all the usual judgement. It is so amazing to see women let their hair down, giggle, and play. Once we make it easy for ourselves, as women, to talk about sexuality, it frees us to really articulate what we want and decide how we choose to be in this realm. I know some women who say that they don’t even think of themselves as sexy. Beautiful maybe but sexy? NO!  And by choice I mean your sexuality can be something private or brazen.  Both are valid when chosen by YOU.

Essence in a white button-down shirt behind a podiumYou’re also a writer! Talk about that.

I wrote a solo show about being a stripper by night, actor by day and the journey to self-actualization it led me on. I got the help of writing coach Diana Amsterdam. I never had writing as a goal. However, being a performer now means creating your own projects. Waiting for someone to cast you is not a very empowering space to live in. With the help of Director Mimi McGurl, I also created the Paul Robeson Project. I play Paul Robeson in this lecture demonstration type solo piece. No one would cast me as Paul Robeson, but I can cast myself. I love seeing how shocked people are that the piece is done well. People usually come in very skeptical because of how feminine I am. It is satisfying to see them leave convinced. I will say though that creative writing is not my strong suit. I’d love to be like you when I grow up and write articles.

Well, I’ve read your writing and it’s fantastic. Do you consider your work (the performance art, lap dancing classes, writing etc.) to be political? If so, talk about your intent and how it is received.

I don’t consider it to be political. I have long left my activist days. I choose now to “be the change” I’d like to see. My intent is to build women up to feel confident, great about whatever skin/body we are in as well as feel proud of the sexual parts of our beings.  Stigma is alive and well. Some women who are friends of mine, won’t come to my class because they are so shy/fearful of sexuality being brought into the daylight. I have had strangers say,”Oh, no I’m not into that stripper thing” with a look of poor objectified you.  I know that the women who leave my classes float out on a high. The response I get from women after I perform burlesque or do one of my solo pieces is often that they feel inspired. So, I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing. Those who are meant to connect with me will. Everyone else will be OK as will I.

What are your attitudes towards sex work/what you do? How has working in this industry affected your life/who you are as a woman?

My attitude about sex work is that it is a valid job choice when it is truly a choice. People being forced into it or feeling like they have no other option makes me sad and angry. I dream of a world where sex workers can have the same rights and protection of any other human being. The industry has affected my life by giving me the leeway to build another career. It took me two years of trying to build that other income stream. Had it not been for dancing, I would have had to give up. It has made me into an excellent saleswoman. I am confident in knowing that I can have conversations with a person from just about any walk of life. I am confident and at ease in my body, stretch marks, drooping bits and all! I have had so many candid conversations with men that I have a clearer understanding of how they are wired. I have never had an issue attracting a partner. Keeping them had been an issue but I’ve been with my current boyfriend for about four years now. I think he’s a keeper. He is the first man confident enough to understand that me taking my clothes off in performance has nothing to do with me feeling or BEING less than. 

Tell me about your persona “Essence Revealed”—how is she different/similar to the woman you are when you’re not at work?

Essence is a sexy, outgoing uninhibited, fun & lovely creation. She is an aspect of my personality on overdrive. I am usually the down to earth cool chick in jeans, t-shirts, sneakers and maybe a little lip gloss. My friends tell me that I “transform.” I don’t live with my sexy on display 24/7. It is just an aspect of the entire me. There is the nerdy, socially awkward me, there is the big sister/oldest daughter love being around my family me, there is the I wanna be silly and do things like play double dutch on the streets me, and on and on. We are all really so complex.  There just are certain parts (especially like the sexual) that we stifle.

Anything else I may have missed?

It has been a journey for me to feel like I could stand up and say, “Hey, I’m one of the sex workers who chose it on purpose.” I always have options. I will never allow any partner treat me less than because of how my dad treats my mom (sorry no daddy issues to sort out). I’m not on drugs. I didn’t dance to “put myself through school” because I already had a Master’s when I started dancing. My boyfriend is a Southern Gentleman. I am a sexual abuse survivor but unfortunately so are most of the women I know and they never chose to be sex workers. So, get over that label being pinned on women in sex work. Women are sexually abused every three minutes in this country alone. There’d be a whole lot more sex workers in the world if it was as simple as that. I am a proud ecdysiast & performer. I CHOOSE to live my life this way. I would always feel like I had to dig deep and find the trauma that being in sex work has caused me. It sucked like any other job has sucky aspects. God knows if I had stayed in corporate America (I worked as a temp in big investment banks and was always offered permanent positions), I’d have mental issues galore. I don’t want to negate that there are some very hard stories that exist in the sex work industry. There are.  However, that does not represent everyone in the industry.

Want more Essence? Visit her homepage or become a fan on Facebook. She is performing Sun Nov 13th at Sweet Spot NYC @ Santos Party House. Next Chair Dance classes are Nov 18th in a Manhattan dance studio 7:30 - 9:30pm Nov 19th in Brooklyn 12pm - 2pm. Location revealed with confirmed rsvp. $30 in advance via her e-store, $40 cash at the door. Essence is also available for private one on one or group/party classes as well in home or at a dance studio. This past Sunday she closed a run of Women, Sex & Desire: Sometimes You Feel Like a Ho, Sometimes You Don’t at the Joyce SoHo. Watch the trailer here.

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5 Comments Have Been Posted

Very illuminating

I admit to have my own stigma towards strippers. This made me think twice for the first time that I can remember. Thank you.

We're not talking about individuals...

I appreciate Essence's story and her straightforwardness. I even appreciate her points.

But, I think we're missing a crucial part of the story. The debate over sex work is not that there aren't a few women who are there because they chose it. It's about the culture of misogyny and abuse towards women that it perpetuates, specifically as it relates to women who put themselves out there as willingly complicit. It is this story that men buying trafficked women tell themselves. They see it as just this - just a job, a job that woman CHOSE. Even if they didn't. The irony is they believe these women they buy WANT it, even thought it is their "job" to act as though they want it.

I appreciate Essence trying to eliminate the hierarchy of sex work; although, I also find it a bit telling that this elimination comes from someone who is working on the posher side of "sex work," and not the brutally exploitative side.

I can see and appreciate Essence's decision to dance, and I can even appreciate her art. What I do not appreciate is the separation of that activity from a culture which continues to treat women's bodies as commodities to be bought and sold, or as objects of desire to which men hold an entitlement. This type of work, regardless of choice, continues to perpetuate this system. If women are willing to make the choice to objectify themselves and their bodies for easy money or for the satisfaction or ego boost of men willing to pay, we continue to support the trafficking of women who are NOT making this choice. I hope that she can at least see that this is the issue, and not that she is outside of the norm.

"The debate over sex work is

"The debate over sex work is not that there aren't a few women who are there because they chose it. It's about the culture of misogyny and abuse towards women that it perpetuates, specifically as it relates to women who put themselves out there as willingly complicit."

1. Actually, there is an alarming contingent of feminists who still believe that all women engaging in sex work are compelled to do so, and that consensual sex workers make up an insignificant minority. Essence speaks eloquently to her reality of constantly butting up against this false belief.

2. Putting aside the argument of whether sex work perpetuates institutional sexism any more (or, possibly, less) than any other capitalist industry, blaming consensual sex workers for being "willingly complicit" with the culture of misogyny and abuse towards women denies the socioeconomic realities within which most women choose this line of work. You wouldn't blame a wage laborer for class inequity or a migrant day laborer for First World dominance or the exploitation of immigrant populations, and yet somehow the objectification of women becomes Essence's fault. Many sex workers would be offended to hear their work described as "easy money" or their motivation reduced to "the satisfaction or ego boost of men willing to pay." Sex workers are people making a living in an economy where it is increasingly difficult to do so, including (but not limited to) parents feeding their families, students putting themselves through school and artists making a living wage while they pursue their craft. The stereotype that sex workers are all greedy, materialistic and entirely self-interested is categorically untrue, incredibly damaging and, in my view, pretty darn anti-woman. You go on to blame consensual sex workers for the actions and distorted thinking of men who buy victims of trafficking. This is like blaming women who consent to sex for men's justifications of rape. Again, not very feminist.

To me, Essence's story illustrates how someone can find empowerment and a healthy sense of self within our sexist reality and in spite of oppressive institutions and pervasive sources delegitimization- classism, racism, ethnic discrimination and stigma against sex workers to name a few.

Support of a choice IS NOT support of those with no choice

I find it very silly that you can try to equate the choice of some women (whom it makes the world feel better to believe are not the norm) to be in sex work with supporting sex trafficking. I can speak for myself and say i am absolutely against any work that a woman is opposed to and is forced into. Sex work is high on this list. On the bottom of the list is the fact that women are not given the same financial opportunities as men, in say, pro sports. I am for all women having a CHOICE in all they choose to do in life whether for financial gain or not. How can you POSSIBLY equate the two. It's just plain silly and not true.

Secondly, I am so tired of hearing about what EASY money sex work is. It is at the end of the day work like anything else. It is for sure physiologically and mentally taxing. It is also physically exhausting to spend hours in heels dancing and walking endlessly through a club trying to sell. It is sales and anyone who has done any type of sales knows it's challenges. Add to those challenges that the product is so closely linked to yourself, your person and the difficulty levels significantly rises. There is no ego boost in being in a field where all night you have to sift through the people who actually are interested in your product. Because sex workers are so looked down upon as inhuman, customers feel like they can hurl any words or comments towards you no matter how, sexist, racist, ignorant or hurtful.

So thanks for attempting to tell me what I am thinking and doing but I can speak for myself and I needed to let you know that your assessment is wrong. So thanks but no thanks. I'll speak for myself. I am pro the choice of women to do as the CHOOSE and against women being forced into work ESPECIALLY sex trafficking.


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