Bouncing along star-patterned carpeting, a woman in a leopard-print dress stretched so tightly you can hear it straining not to pop off like the lid of a can of prank peanut brittle passes under a chandelier. Opposite a VIP Champagne Room another woman slithers around on a mirrored stage. Music is cranked up so loud it could make your ears bleed, and the stink of cigarette smoke follows you around like Pig Pen`s brown cloud in Peanuts cartoons.
At Cabaret, a strip club in Orlando, FL, 21-year-old University of Central Florida junior "Michelle," who goes by her middle name at work, gets nearly naked for a living. But she says no one can judge her until they have walked a mile in her six-inch plastic heels.
"It`s easy money, and it works well with school," Michelle said. "I don`t have a schedule. I can go in when I want. If I have a test in the morning I don`t have to go in to work.
Michelle`s manager, Ed, 42, said people who spurn jobs like hers get their perceptions from movies and TV.
"It`s not like that," he said. "From a morality standpoint there`s nothing wrong with it. Our girls wear more than some people who go to clubs downtown or the beach."
Besides a customer biting her behind a few months ago, Michelle said her job has positively influenced her whole life, not just her checking account.
"I think I became more conservative after I started dancing," she said. "It`s really weird, but I`m just more conservative now. I don`t go out a lot now. I don`t party."
Her self-esteem has also skyrocketed.
"It`s made me more confident," she said. "I know how to talk better to people. Like, I`m not as shy. I`ll walk up to a stranger, and I can introduce myself because I do it every night at work numerous times. And I don`t feel the need to dress up all the time because I know I can look OK because I`ve done it at work. I can go to school in sweats."
Although she said you will never catch her in a t-shirt that reads, "I`m a stripper, Ask me why," Michelle does belong to the Facebook group "I`m a stripper and damn proud of it." Accordingly, she revealed her new job to her entire family, including her aunts and uncles, immediately after she took it, blurting it out over dinner at Denny`s.
"I`m not gonna hide it," Michelle said. "If I really felt it was that big of a deal to hide then I wouldn`t be doing it."
Michelle`s parents, who raised her Catholic, disapproved. Michelle says she still attends church and, when she dances, she often wears a diamond cross pendant her mom gave her when she turned 21. She even took the moniker Monica, her Confirmation name, the first night she danced.
Religion creeps into UCF senior Shea S`s view on working in adult entertainment in a different way.
"I`m Jewish," he said. "And a funny joke I was told about a Jewish whore is that you have it. You sell it. You still have it. And that`s kind of the way I see it."
A computer programmer, Shea develops and markets two porn Web sites: a Japanese animation fetish site and another he describes as pure, hardcore male-female sex. Both Web sites are affiliated with a content producer who provides Shea with video clips and images. Whenever someone goes on to join the content producer`s Web site through a link on one of Shea`s, Shea gets paid.
Shea`s family learned about his job when his first paycheck arrived at his father`s home in South Florida, where Shea lived before he transferred to UCF from Florida Atlantic University. Shea said he never brought it up before then because he expected his parents wouldn`t bat an eye when they found out. They didn`t.
"Sexuality has never been anything to be ashamed of, and that`s something my parents always taught me," Shea said.
Ashley Lee, the president of the National Organization for Women at UCF, agrees. Women especially need to step up to their sexuality, she said.
"Part of being liberated is being able to choose if you want to be a stripper," Lee explained. "It`s like saying, `I`m not forced to have a baby. I choose to have a baby.` It`s about being able to choose what you want for yourself. It`s about being able to first have the information and the education and the knowledge and then being able to make an informed decision."
Lee said if a girl wants to be in porn, power to her.
"As long as it`s what they want to do and they like doing, then that`s good," Lee said. "My issue with that is sex trafficking, women being forced into prostitution, rape, rape by spouses, rape by dates, rape by boyfriends, by uncles, other girlfriends. So it`s all about consent. If they choose to do it, yes. A plus. Porn`s awesome."
In addition to their families, both Michelle and Shea have let their friends and significant others in on what they do.
"If they can`t accept it or they don`t like it, sorry for them, but that`s something I like and something I do, and I want to be with somebody that understands that and understands it is a business and not just me looking at porn 24/7," Shea said.
To lessen the stigma surrounding their jobs, social psychologist Dr. Randy Fisher said students who work in the adult entertainment industry should take a page from the gay rights movement by coming out of the closet, so to speak.
"Coming out as a gay person is a significant statement that `I`m gay, and I`m not ashamed of it,`" Fisher said. "By the same token, to the extent that people who work in adult entertainment or the sex industry are open about what they do and communicate to the world that they`re not ashamed of it, I think people start to infer that it must be less shameful."
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