Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
After years of dead-end jobs and without prospects, our guest blogger turned to exotic dancing. She asked us not to use her real name, so we are calling her Anne. She earns more money than ever before and has found a financial stability and career independence she had never known. But, after three years, as her self-imposed deadline to quit dancing nears, she is struggling with what comes next.
I grew up in a small, rural community in western North Carolina, with a working-class background. During college, and after graduating in 2004 with a Bachelor’s degree in literature, I worked a variety of human services jobs, including work in a locked unit for violent juveniles with behavioral and mental diagnosis.
The work was very hard and staff were frequently assaulted. I saw one co-worker hospitalized when a client managed to sneak a bottle back into the facility after being allowed to visit with her mother. She broke it over my co-worker’s head. Pay was $8.75 an hour.
About six months after graduation, I moved to a job working in the community with families who were in danger of being separated by the courts and the Department of Social Services. This was also a very demanding job — staff was on call 24/7, with no paid vacations, no holidays, and no benefits. The $11 an hour I made there felt like a fortune to me, considering what I made working in the locked unit.
Ultimately, I worked a string of dead-end jobs throughout my twenties, despite trying desperately for several years to find better opportunities. I managed to score a lot of interviews, but was frequently told during the interviews that I was “overqualified” because I had a Bachelor’s degree.
The area of the country where I grew up and lived after graduating from college — Asheville, North Carolina — was gradually evolving into a very desirable place for wealthy people to retire. I started to notice rent increasing, while the wages that most local people were able to earn were stagnant at best. I suspect this was occurring throughout the country. At the beginning of 2006, I realized I could no longer afford to stay in the tiny but comfortable apartment I rented outside of town. I moved into a house with roommates in a very poor area of the city across from a housing project. People regularly attempted to break into the house and there was gunfire at night. Sometimes strangers would knock on the front door, as late as 10 pm or 11 pm, and offer to sell you their watch because they were seeking drug money.
I moved to New England in late 2008 because I felt disenchanted with my hometown. It had become unaffordable for local people and I gave up on finding better job opportunities there without a graduate degree. Disillusioned with the idea of the mainstream work world as a way to better myself, I decided to pursue work as an exotic dancer in the adult entertainment industry. I knew several young women in college who did well for themselves as dancers; they used the money to better themselves in many ways.
Being far away from my family and anyone that I might possibly “shame” with my career choice, I opted to strip, but put a time limit on my new career. Within the first three months, I caught up on my car payments and saved $2,000 to get an apartment by myself, plus a few items of cheap furniture.
That money was more than I had ever held in my hand at one time, despite working full-time jobs since I was 17. I have now been dancing for a little over three years. I managed to achieve some level of stability. With dancing, I serve as my own boss and control my own money and schedule. I can work as much as I want, any given week. There is always somewhere else I can go to get more hours if my car breaks down or the clubs are slow. Instead of answering to a bureaucrat or corporate manager in a suit who didn’t know my name, I answer only to myself. I do my job. I make my money. I go home.
In 2011, I went to speak with a college class at UMass Amherst about my experience as a young, college-educated woman opting out of mainstream work to earn a living wage in an occupation considered unacceptable by many people. Some of the students were offended; some were impressed. Some used stereotypes of adult entertainment workers to rationalize their views of that industry. Most of them were absolutely fascinated, and full of questions.
Last month, I completed a course that earned me a certificate in personal training. At this time, with one more year left on my “dancing deadline,” I am beginning to pursue entry-level jobs at gyms with hopes of building a long-term career in the fitness industry and re-entering the mainstream. I feel an intense desire to help people live better lives, coupled with my own personal passion for physical fitness.
If I think too hard about my twenties, I find myself bogged down. I recall all the emails, the resumes and cover letters that I sent out, the interviews, and the rejections. I am trying not to let the negativity of my past job-hunting experiences influence my attitude as I seek to re-enter the 9-to-5 work world. My plan is to just take it day by day, be confident in my skills and abilities, and believe that eventually it will happen for me.