Sad Tricycle

Stripping Down the Layers: The Psychology of Childhood Sexual Abuse and Exotic Dancing

By Shelby Janssen

Charity Olson is a pretty girl.  The 24-year-old is also smart, funny and hard working.  Olson spends her days serving greasy hamburgers and shooting the breeze with the guys down at the Bison Breath Saloon in Ault, Colo., but she’s ready for her life to really begin.

Most girls Olson’s age feel like they’re just getting started.  She knows she’s different from most.

“I always thought I would be married with kids by now,” Olson said, flicking a cigarette in a dusty tray.  “What do you know when you’re a kid, though, you know?  Things never turn out like you think they will.”

Olson never went to veterinary school like she thought she would.  She hasn’t worn a white dress at an altar or grown round with pregnancy like she thought she would either.  Olson was an exotic dancer when she thought she would be a student.

“Stripping was great money, and what I needed was money,” Olson said.

Olson never graduated from Fort Collins High School.  By the time she was 16, she was experimenting with meth instead of going to class.  Her mother didn’t care and her father was long gone.

“I drank every day, I smoked pot every day.  Once I saw my friends doing meth every day, though, I couldn’t handle it anymore.”

Olson moved out of her mother’s home when she was 17 and began working anywhere she could to pay for her own place. 

“It was hard,” Olson said.  “I just couldn’t make enough doing things like washing dishes.  I knew this girl who worked at the Hunt Club and all of the sudden I was stripping.”

Like Olson, many women cite financial needs as their motivation to become exotic dancers.  However, psychological research has found that some women are more likely to enter into the business due to certain incidents in their past, such as sexual abuse.  Olson is one example of this theory.

Exotic dancing was easy for Olson.  She didn’t know any of the men who came to watch her and she didn’t have to think about much when she was tiptoeing around the pole.

“Stuff like that has never bothered me,” said Olson, as she tugs at the stiff collar of her work shirt.  “I’m sure my past experiences have something to do with that.”

Although Olson never knew her father, she remembers the men who always seemed to be around her mother’s house.

“She always had some guy there.  Some of them were cool, but there were a few that I would probably lose it on if I ever saw them again,” Olson said.

Olson was sexually abused by several of the men her mother brought into her home.  It is this trauma, Olson says, that has contributed to many problems she has experienced in her adulthood, including her attitudes toward drugs, stripping and sexuality as a whole.

“I stopped caring about myself,” said Olson.  “All the stuff I was doing didn’t seem like a big deal to me because I didn’t have love for myself anymore.”

A Link Surfaces

The effects of childhood sexual abuse can last far beyond the period of abuse, according to studies by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Behaviors such as hostility, sexual promiscuity, and drug abuse have been documented as likely results of sexual abuse in childhood.

“Many survivors of child sexual abuse experience symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, such as nightmares and flashbacks,” said Kathryn Woods, assistant director at the Colorado State University’s Office of Women’s Programs and Studies.  “Using drugs and alcohol can be one way to dull the pain caused by the aftermath of sexual abuse and is a coping skill used by some survivors.”

In another study performed by the Sexual Abuse Recovery Program, a service designed to provide nationwide, 24-hour support to victims of sexual abuse located in Southern Wisconsin, specialists in the fields of alcohol and drug addiction estimated that up to 90 percent of the patients they encounter have known histories of some form of sexual abuse.

According to University of Pennsylvania psychologist Mary Anne Layden, in a statement published by the obscenity crime organization Morality in Media, between 60 and 80 percent of nude dancers were raped or sexually abused as children.

“Statistics show that high percentages of women in the pornography and exotic dancing industries have been sexually abused,” said Woods.  

Another study by the American Sociological Association, published in its Journal of Health and Social Behavior, found that 35 percent of strippers have Multiple Personality Disorder, 60 percent had major depressive episodes and 55 percent have Borderline Personality Disorder.

Children As Adults

For a victim of sexual abuse, exotic dancing allows the effects of their past experiences to work in their favor. 

“The physical and visual invasion of children’s bodies damages them psychologically and gives them an unhealthy view of sexuality,” Layden further explains in her article for Morality in Media, “If pornography made us healthy, we would be healthy by now.” Women who are victims of childhood sexual abuse may attempt to reenact their childhood trauma by working as strippers, nude models and prostitutes. 

“It is not easy to walk your life path while struggling with this issue,” Woods said.  “It’s important to remember how much strength it takes to tackle the healing process.”

Customers in an exotic dance club can take on the role of the past perpetrator, recreating the familiar feeling of their episodes of sexual abuse.  However, psychologists find that the feeling is not necessarily negative.  “These women work in the sex industry because it feels like home,” said Dr. Layden in her article.

A Perfect Fit?

Although the industry of exotic dancing is based on pleasure, the enjoyment is often one-sided. 

“I felt like a piece of meat,” said Olson, remembering her time at the Fort Collins strip club, The Hunt Club.  “I was familiar with feeling this way, so at first, it was fine.  After a while it just wears on you.”

The psychological damage that often drives women to become exotic dancers is only intensified by their experiences in the profession. 

“Abusers take away survivors’ chances to initiate their first sexual experiences in a healthy, loving way,” said Woods, who has been working closely with victims of childhood sexual assault for three years.  “They often impart some very unhealthy messages about sex and what it means in the process.”

According to a 2001 study done by the University of Pennsylvania, women who work in the sex industry have only a 25 percent chance of making a marriage that will last as long as three years. 

“It’s hard for me to form relationships with people,” Olson said.  “Stripping only made this worse, it made me feel that everyone just wanted to use me.” 

In it for the Cash

Because money comes fast and frequent in exotic dancing, many women start stripping for purely financial purposes.

“Everyone thinks you have to be pretty messed up to strip,” said Jessica Weiz, 23, a dancer at the Hunt Club and a Front Range Community College student.  “I just do it to pay the bills.”

In a study conducted by Oregon Law, a legal firm that defended an exotic dancer in a hostile work environment case, it was found that exotic dance clubs are part of an “expanding 3-billion-a–year industry that in 1995 drew 10 million customers to about 2,200 clubs around the country.”  A dancer bringing in around $200 each shift will make upwards of $40,000 annually.

Weiz stressed that she had a totally normal childhood and her choice to strip had nothing to do with emotional damage.  Although studies indicate a strong correlation between childhood abuse and exotic dancing, some women simply need the money.

“I know I could clean houses or wait tables, but you can’t beat the pay,” Weiz said. 

With such an appealing income bracket attached to exotic dancing, it can seem an attractive prospect for many.  Olson does not deny that the pay was more than enough to cover her bills.  However, she said that dancing cost her more than it gave her.

“I had plenty of money,” Olson said.  “But it felt like I wasn’t moving forward from where I had been.  I was still a little girl getting used by men.”

10 Responses to “Strip it Down”

  1. 1 Joanne Meegan
    December 28, 2010 at 5:07 pm

    “Customers in an exotic dance club can take on the role of the past perpetrator, recreating the familiar feeling of their episodes of sexual abuse”

    This is so obvious when one thinks about it – what little girl dreams of being a stripper someday? I have been involved for several years now with some nonprofits that help women transition out of the sex industry. Charity’s story, while heartbreaking, is not unique to the industry; from what I can tell, it’s the norm. In your area, Street’s Hope is an organization that helps women leave:

    Thank you so much for this article!
    Joanne Meegan, RN

  2. 2 Lucy S.
    January 11, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Thank you! There is so little information available on the damages of exotic dancing. I remember googling what to wear and how to make money when I started and had only wished I had stumbled upon something warning me of its long term emotional consequences.

    I worked as an exotic dancer for almost two years I started at age 18. I come from a fairly well off family and really had no financial reasons for working in the sex industry. I have been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder since the age of six. I was sexually assaulted by a group of men at age 15 and never told anyone till years later out of the fear of being marked as used goods. I think I told myself I had dealt with it myself, however at 18 I discovered the world of Stripping. At first it really seemed like I had gained control of my life and reestablished my self-worth, I felt important and powerful. I was making insane money, I always looked good, was dressed well, I was in great shape, and men groveled over me…or that’s all I chose to see out of the situation. The money and attention became absolutely addicting.

    When I started I told myself I would only do stages and never take off my underwear… but cut to my last days as a stripper.. I was freaking out because I had only made 100 dollars that night and I needed more to sustain me because I was having a second breast job in less than a week. By this time the amount of money I walked out with was a direct reflection on how pretty and charming I was and (100 dollars= failure). I found myself at the end of the night going back to a strangers hotel to have sex for money.. I vaguely recall negotiating how much each sexual act would cost with the cold composure of a businesswoman. Five days later I woke up from surgery and decided enough was enough, I was chronically depressed, I had lost all my real friends, my body was worn down, I had no long term goals, I hated men, I was never awake during the day, and I had sold my soul for money. I quit cold turkey and have not been back since.

    Only after quitting did I really allow myself to see the reality of the situation. It is so true that by stripping or any sex work you are not only reliving sexual trauma you are inflicting it on yourself which is quite possibly the hardest part to deal with after the fact. Men and the world for that matter become a very dark and evil thing. It’s been almost a year since I quit. I am still dealing with what I subjected myself to during those two years. At the end of the whole experience I felt like twice the victim I was of sexual abuse. I still struggle to trust people in everyday life, I constantly have disturbing flashbacks from lap dances where I was told disturbing things or touched, I find myself emotionally and sexually numb with men, I developed an eating disorder after, and have lots of regret.

    Please let this serve as a warning to young girls debating this career.

    • 3 me
      January 6, 2013 at 6:14 pm

      Would love to ask you for advice, I work away and my gf was on a road to recovery and getting out, now she is falling back into it. I feel desperate to be able to help. When we were able to be together for several months, with no dancing/no ‘dates’/no drugs she was good, but now back into it I can see and feel the change. I want to help, I don’t want to give up on her and what I can see she is worth.

  3. 4 Joanne Meegan
    January 15, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Hi, Lucy: Thank you for sharing your story! I am so sorry for all your bad experiences, before and during your time in the sex industry. There is an amazing group called, “Treasures.” It’s run by a run by a woman, Harmony, who used to be in dancing. You might find some comfort in going to her site and reading about some of the other women’s experiences. Hopefully you will find some things there that will help you heal!

    God bless – Joanne

  4. 5 Caroline T.
    August 12, 2011 at 6:34 pm

    I danced my way through college. I also homeschooled my children and published short stories during that time. We had a comfortable life. I suffer no lasting effects as a result, however, I had kept complete control over my life and set boundaries. I worked in the industry for a long time and while there are women with issues, I and many others would not fall into that category. It takes a strong and self aware woman with goals to work in that type of atmosphere. And my last point is that the atmosphere in clubs can vary wildly; some are strict and low tolerance for bad behaviors and others are a free for all.

  5. 6 Jason Janssen
    March 20, 2012 at 7:56 am

    I’m majoring in the field or Psychology and I have some questions. Will you answer them for me?

  6. December 22, 2012 at 12:31 am

    Might you have additional blogposts like this particular 1 called, Strip it Down The Sex Industry?

    I just want to read through even alot more regarding it.
    Thanks for your time.

  7. January 9, 2013 at 5:45 am

    Everything is very open with a really clear clarification of the
    issues. It was truly informative. Your website is
    useful. Many thanks for sharing!

  8. June 7, 2016 at 5:50 am

    I thought this was also good information

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