Whenever people ask me why I decided to become a stripper, I usually laugh and say I’m finally cashing in on the objectification I’ve experienced since age 12 at the hands of men everywhere. Beyond that, whenever I discuss my job, I also like to bring up the other things that impact my (in)ability to exist with dignity as a sex worker nowadays: Canadian society’s white supremacist standards of beauty, gender performance and roles, the actual occupation of land upon which strip clubs are located, and so much more. These concepts and realities make me constantly reassess why I choose to be a stripper, and whether it contributes to my larger goal of supporting liberation efforts for all Indigenous Two-Spirit/LGBTQIA people.
In a practical sense, the job of stripping itself works well with my exhibitionist tendencies, and my ADHD that only lets me focus for a maximum of an hour at a time (perfect for squeezing in a couple of private dances). It lets me indulge in my love of dramatic makeup and outfits, and my passion for music, dance, performance and storytelling. But ultimately, I see stripping as one of the many ways I exercise body sovereignty (others include that night when I was 17 years old and made out in the back of a car with a female soccer teammate. That was great). I was an “early bloomer” and suffered hypersexualization from men who are pretty much like the customers I see at work. The difference is I’m now getting paid for being catcalled and objectified, and I can then use that money on the very things those men complain about in CBC Indigenous article comment sections: land defense efforts, anti-cultural appropriation campaigns, grassroots outreach programs, my law degree that will help me eventually support other Indigenous people in suing Canada for its human rights violations against nations everywhere. And maybe, just maybe, eventually purchasing a Christi Belcourt original painting. A Metis can dream, right?
Because of my ridiculous amounts of anxiety around career success, self-actualization and safety planning, I did years of research before becoming a stripper: I knew that along with the opportunity to make more money than I used to as a childcare worker/ tourism worker/ research assistant/ grassroots organizer, there would be a huge amount of stigma that could label me in highly negative and stereotypical ways (dirty, immoral, thieving, etc). I had to be sure that I’d be somewhat prepared for the backlash I’d inevitably experience from some fellow community members too. I’m aware people usually assume that any Indigenous woman doing sex work is likely doing so against their own will. I won’t deny that many of our women, femmes and girls are forced into the systematic cracks of society and exploitative situations that use sex work as the vehicle for said exploitation. I also believe that there needs to be representation and room for those of us who choose this work over other options because it’s valid work in and of itself, and it links back to us reclaiming agency over our bodies in a society that expects us to experience hypersexuality for everyone’s material benefit but our own.
Therefore, finding research from other Indigenous sex workers was important for me to feel equipped on my path; Naomi Sayers’ work in particular was pivotal for me in feeling seen, without judgement, as a whole person with valid aspirations for survival in this capitalist society. I just choose to survive via stripping.
Sayers, an Indigenous lawyer, scholar and sex workers’ rights activist, has written about the legal history of the criminalization of Indigenous women based on racist and hyper-sexualizing stereotypes set in place by Canadian legislation. The laws in question were an act of genocide used to stereotype and stigmatize Indigenous women, Two Spirit people and children who were viewed as not acting like “good and obedient” white girls and women. These laws, I would argue, still exist through policies like the Indian Act, the Prevention of and Remedies for Human Trafficking act and the Criminal Code of Canada.
What strikes me the most about Sayer’s writings is how she explains the criminalization,of Indigenous sexualities and bodies, and how it leads to high rates of trafficking and exploitaton. For centuries and to this day, our women, femmes and Two Spirit people have faced imprisonment in jails, isolation on reserves and disappearances at the hands of white men in power because Canada creates and upholds laws that degrade and deny our humanity. And this reality is constantly at the forefront of my mind as I work in an environment where violence on my Metis body is not only considered inevitable but warranted, all because I chose a stigmatized profession like stripping. I can’t help but always be wary of my safety after I reveal to a (often straight, white and male) customer that I’m not actually white or straight. However, I acknowledge my privileges here, too: I know I benefit from colorism, white-coded privilege, and being able-bodied. I know that because of white supremacist beauty standards, I can do less and get paid more than my racialized coworkers, so I act accordingly by tipping them when they’re on stage, donating directly to their personal fundraising campaigns, and basically anything possible to help support them whenever necessary. That’s what solidarity is all about, right?
Stripping as a Metis femme has also heightened my awareness of how necessary and live-saving it is to have solidarity with fellow Two-Spirit people who are experienced in sex work, and those who are supportive of our kind of work. It’s that solidarity that keeps me afloat when Ashley Judd or whichever other white celebrity is speaking over, talking down or playing savior to sex workers. It’s this solidarity that makes me feel zero guilt when one of my customers’ wives flies off the handle because he spent $100 dollars to see my, ahem, “big bouncing blueberries”. I just chalk it up to karmic anti-colonial reparations and keep shaking what my mamma gave me.
Because these are the same women in workplace break rooms and or lecture halls who praise us for being “so articulate,” and “not like those other Indigenous women/femmes,” etc. They drive their kids to sports practices in hybrid BMW SUVs, purchase locally made “Indigenous-inspired” products and try (emphasis on TRY) to bake bannock for their son Braxton’s Canada 150 school project. They donate to exit-based programs for women, most often whom are Indigenous, engaging in sex work so that they get a tax write-off at the end of the year and can rest easier for “helping to end [our] exploitation.” And yet, they also support political parties with platforms that promise the decimation of our traditional territories in exchange for economic profit, in turn reinforcing the very issues these white women think their annual donations can cure. Truly shocking.
When I get ready to go on stage, or talk to fellow QBIPOC-friends who have done or do sex work, I think of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Riveras’ work to create “Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries” in New York, the Sunshine House’s programming in Treaty One and Maggie’s Toronto in the Dish with One Spoon territory, and social media accounts like @sexisceremony and the Wiike Collective, to name a few. I wear my @rezinbabe earrings with pride, and plan out costumes made by and purchased from Indigenous designers. I curate playlists that speak out on Indigenous struggles and basically subliminally message them to customers who otherwise would never listen to our truths. In my mind’s eye, I see a reality in which exists an explicitly Black, Indigenous and Person Of Colour (BIPOC) owned club where everyone is truly welcome and able to explore their sexuality via accessing and providing sex work in the ways that feel safest and most uplifting to their spirits. For now, I try my hardest to bring facets of anti-colonialism into reality, one dance at a time.
And finally: up until recently, I’ve struggled to know how to remind myself and others exactly how decolonization and decriminalized sex work are linked. But in my opinion, full sexual liberation for Indigenous people happens through supporting sex workers, and collectively interacting with each other in ways that disrupt white supremacist and shaming beliefs towards sex work and sex overall. To keep our circles healthy, loving and here for the future generations, Indigenous sex workers deserve to be uplifted at every opportunity; 8 inch heels alone aren’t going to cut it if we’re going to achieve the decolonial reality of our dreams.
– Jacq Pelland
Jacq Pelland is a Two Spirit Metis stripper, artist and community worker in Treaty One. She strives to meaningfully contribute to movements that help all fellow Indigenous people achieve sovereignty over their lands, bodies and spirits. She can be found via instagram at @ssuccubitchh and @wiikecollective
// photography by Alanna Yuen; Editing by Jacq Pellard