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Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Private Lives of Strippers

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For his new photo book, “Gentlemen’s Club,” Chris Buck spent six years interviewing and taking portraits of strippers and their romantic partners.

“Partners of dancers are in this inherently complicated space of dating someone who’s intimate with others for their work,” he said. In that sense, the project is a study not only of labor, but also of relationships and fidelity.

One question drove many of the interviews: How do you feel about your partner’s work?

“You shouldn’t be doing that. Wash dishes. Be a nurse. You’re a good girl. Take care of people,” Vincent from Jersey City, who is featured on the book’s cover, says in the book. (Mr. Buck included only first names.) Vincent adds that he doesn’t like his wife’s work, but it “pays the rent.”

Aaron, who is the main caregiver for two daughters, tells Mr. Buck he has struggled with his wife’s career. However, he says, “I get to spend all of my time with my girls, and it’s funded by her dancing.”

Others fully embrace the work. “I know that I’m the one that gets to go home with her at night,” says Haylie, a veterinary technician who lives in Baltimore. Besides working as a stripper, Haylie’s partner is a dominatrix, sex therapist and advice columnist.

For many, Mr. Buck, 56, was the first person to pose the question. “A number of times, the partner would say, ‘My wife or girlfriend encouraged me to talk to you because they know I have no one else to talk to about this,’” Mr. Buck said. “It was framed as kind of therapeutic.”

Petr Sorfa, 52, lives in Portland, Ore., with his wife, Berlin, 39, who is open about her marital status with clients. Sometimes Mr. Sorfa visits her at the club.

“If someone finds out you’re a stripper husband, they’re like, ‘wow’ or ‘how?’ They’re just interested in my wife,” Mr. Sorfa said in a phone interview for this article. “Even close friends wouldn’t ask me anything about it. Our parents know, and they haven’t said anything or asked anything.”

For the Sorfas, participating in Mr. Buck’s project was a chance to add another dimension to media portrayals of strippers and their families. “They don’t expect a normal person to be a husband of a stripper,” Mr. Sorfa said.

Ms. Sorfa said that there isn’t much “honest coverage” about the lives of people like her. “I think there’s a reason for that,” she said. “It kills the fantasy when you’re a whole person. It’s harder to fetishize someone when they’re whole and they’re like you.”

Talonn Medley, 31, said that speaking for the book was an opportunity to “get rid of the stigma that strippers have no morals, come from a broken home, are cheap and dirty,” he said in a phone interview. He and his ex-wife met while both were working as dancers in nearby clubs in Portland, Ore. Now he lives in Springfield, Mo., with his husband and a son from his previous marriage, and is enrolled in a pre-med program; he has stopped stripping.

“The more I speak about what my life actually was like, the more I can change people’s mind-sets,” he said.

Mr. Medley knows what it is like to be both the dancer and the partner. “You have to have these emotional relationships with dozens of people every night,” he said. “Somebody has to be strong and know themselves emotionally. Otherwise jealousy will get in the way.”

Lily Burana, an author, journalist and a former stripper, wrote the foreword to the book. Ms. Burana said she tends to be skeptical of artists who want to do a “drive-by” of the lives of strippers, but Mr. Buck seemed different. “His email was perfectly professional,” she said. One “trigger” that gets people dismissed by strippers or sex workers is, Ms. Burana said, “‘I think you humanize the work.’ We were humans before you got here.”

Ms. Burana has written extensively about being a stripper, and was a lead plaintiff in a major labor rights lawsuit against a strip club in the 1990s. She believes that public attitudes have shifted considerably since then.

“There’s an increase in respect, increase in care taken with the material. There’s an understanding that we’re hard-working and also very vulnerable to stigma and punitive misogyny and homophobia,” she said. “When I saw the book, I really felt like things are changing for the better.”

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