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Posted on: September 19th, 2013 No Comments

Dangerous curves: on African strippers in Athens

Zaher Alajlani
Zaher Alajlani

In the limelight in kinky joints, they dance; they laugh; they touch; they seduce; they please; and they make money for themselves and much more of that for the machine. Some of them object to being called sex workers; they prefer to be called dancers. However, in the end, what they do boils down to sexual services. When I first started this field research, I vowed to maintain utmost objectivity and reserve any judgment, but the farther I drifted, the more confused I turned out to be. The lines between objectivity and subjectivity, dancing and prostituting, patting and harassing, and harmless fun and home wrecking seemed to completely blur before my eyes. The notion that prostitution is considered a victimless crime—touched upon by Abercrombie, Hill, and Turner in the 2006 5th edition of their book The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology—became ever perplexing to me. By the end of the research, I someway lost the sense of who the biggest victim was: the man who paid women to drink with him, a woman who had to strip and dance naked for a living, or a man who spent the whole night trying to make some sense out of the whole situation.

When I was first offered the practicum at Alyunanaia, my first thought was to revive a non–intrusive observation I did a bit less than a year ago on Athenian street prostitution and turn it into a field research backed with proper interviews and questionnaires. Nonetheless, I was strictly advised by my inside source not to do so for security reasons. Therefore, the aim of this field report was developed into looking at various aspects of the issue of racism and racial relations in several Athenian strip clubs by utilizing several research methods, mainly interviews and observations.

A Hopeful Sojourner: My Inside Source

I met Blessing (pseudo name), a former sex worker and a stripper, after a Sunday Mass at a church she regularly attends. One of the church’s clergymen—an energetic public speaker who was able to keep the congregation drawn to him throughout the two-hour Mass I attended—was kind enough to introduce us to each other, so that she would help me with my endeavor to comprehend the racial dynamics of her previous workplace.

Blessing is from a big African family of eleven. Like many of her hometown peers who endured abject poverty, she grew up hearing stories about how good life in Europe was. Finally, her dream materialized when she was in her early twenties; she came to Athens on a tourist visa that she overstayed till she legalized her residency status later on. I was shocked to know that her visa did cost her a sizable sum of 40 thousand EUR that she spent four years paying off.

Burdened by this huge debt, Blessing was desperate to find a job the minute she stepped foot in Greece. As she told me, she was very afraid that if she didn’t pay back the money on time “someone [(of those who got her the visa]) is gonna hurt [her] family.” Hence, she had no other choice but to work in the sex industry. She got her first job as a stripper at a club in a quiet town that is approximately three hours away from Athens. There, as she told me, she faced a fair share of racism and harassment. She was sometimes singled out by some customers because of her color. She even got physically harassed by a drunken teenager who thought that it was funny to call her a “slave” in front of everyone. The incident, regrettably, went unpunished.

To make ends meet, besides performing at the club, Blessing slept with customers procured, or at least approved, by her bosses. Although she needed the money really bad, Blessing did not sleep with just whomever. She agreed to bed only those whom she “kinda” liked. But, in our second session, her previous statement appeared to me as self-compensation in disguise, for when I inquired about the number of customers she slept with prior to quitting the business, she answered: “more than I can remember.”

Dangerous Encounters

Blessing gained more experience and insight on the business, as she, throughout her nine-year career, worked for as many as ten strip clubs. Her experience left her convinced that even the police, who are supposed to treat everyone equally, “view all black [women] as prostitute[s].” For instance, once, after quitting stripping, she had to go to the police station to deliver a passport to friend of hers who had been detained because she did not have an identity document on her when stopped by the police. When Blessing arrived with her friend’s passport, one of the policemen asked her in English about what she did for a living. Before she got the chance to answer, another policeman replied in Greek: “she is black; she works on the street[s].” When she protested the man’s answer, he firmly told her: “you are black; that is your job.” Such an incident does reflect the haunting racial tension in a once-hospitable country that, according to Amnesty, witnessed “a dramatic rise in the number of racially motivated attacks throughout 2012,” as Russia Today reports.

Away from the common scrutiny of law enforcement, even when the lights are dimmer and people are intoxicated into friendliness, even glamorous places of pleasure can somehow be hostile to a black folk. Blessing informed me that most black strippers are disempowered by three basic practices that are common in her ex workplace. First, no strip club would usually hire more than three black strippers. Most of them hire one or two. Second, customers generally treat white strippers noticeably better than they do treat black strippers, because customers usually desire the former more, an assertion that can explain Blessing’s first claim. Third, usually, white strippers—mostly eastern European—by virtue of their color and language, stick together and spend most of their unaccompanied time in the club in groups. On the other hand, black strippers, spend most of their time alone, as they mostly find no other fellow black stripper to spend time with when unescorted. Expectedly, this makes them feel lonely and vulnerable. When visiting several strip clubs in Athens, many of the aforementioned claims were verifiable through interviews, casual talks, and observations.

Glamorous Encounters

In order to verify the claims put forward by Blessing, I have visited four different known strip clubs in Athens. Three of these clubs did indeed provide me with an insight on the subject matter of this field report. The first place I visited was something between a bar and a brothel. Upon entering, one could see the escort girls sitting at the bar eyeing newcomers. The girls offer either their company at the table or sexual services in special rooms on the second floor of the bar. There was only one black girl sitting by herself at the bar next to a couple of white girls conversing together two chairs away from her. No contact between the black girl and her white counterparts was observed. During my conversation with the girl, she seemed to be very secretive about her country of origin. Despite the fact that her accent clearly indicated the part of Africa she is from, she insisted that she is from Latin America.  No matter how hard I tried to steer the conversation away from the casual business and pricing talk, the girl kept a firm attitude not to involve herself in any kind of talks irrelevant to business. When the drink I offered her finished and her time was up, she politely bade us farewell and headed back to the bar only to sit alone again. On the other hand, the white girl—who sat with us along with the aforementioned black escort—immediately, when her time was up, headed back directly to her friend only to continue chatting and laughing. The two ladies (the black and the white escorts) did not have any kind of contact during their stay with us at the table. We stayed there for more than thirty minutes after the girls departed, and yet we couldn’t observe any interaction or contact between the black escort girl, on the one hand, and the other white ones, on the other. This, though might be a bit superficial, seems to confirm Blessing’s claim that in the workplace, black stripper are always outnumbered and alienated.

The second place we visited did not have any black strippers at all, in spite of the fact that it had a huge number of white workers. One of the white girls who escorted us was from an eastern European country. She struck me as intelligent and well-spoken; later, I learned that she had a degree in law from a well-known state university in her home country. Her pretty face with all of its friendly features changed when I asked her if they had any black girls around. She, in a very cold manner, told me that they did not. The minute I told her that I think that black girls were beautiful, she appeared to lose interest in me. She made it clear that she did not only find black girls undesirable, but also she found it bizarre that someone thought they were desirable. Throughout the ninety minutes we spent there, we could not spot any black girl.

The last place we visited was quite bigger than any of the ones we had previously stepped foot in. They had an enormous amount of white girls and only one black girl. Prior to my conversation with the latter, I could observe that she did not have any contact with the white girls. She was standing in the corner by herself till a customer offered her a drink, an invitation that she overstayed by the standards of her workplace. A small drink with one of the white girls lasts for a maximum of twenty minutes. She stayed with the customer for more than thirty five minutes for one drink. As soon as I could, I invited her to our table for a short interview. She informed me that there are no black girls around but her, and that she had no friends at all, but also she did not have any enemies. In contrast to the white stripper I had talked to earlier in the other club, she told me that she cannot wait to quit her job after saving the amount of money she needed. As we were talking, I noticed that only white girls performed solo dances on the central stage. When I asked her if she had ever performed solo, she said that she did but only for a brief amount of time, adding that it is not really usual for black girls to perform solo. She further informed me about her plan to get products from a northern American country and sell them in her home country in Africa. Above all, she was very open about her life, contrary to the African girl I had spoken to earlier and even to my inside contact who made me work hard to earn her trust. After conversing with me for more than forty five minutes, she left to continue doing business. The only observable social interaction she had was with the marginalized workers at the club, such as the cleaning staff and the lady who was in charge of the rest rooms.

Words into Places

After paying a visit to several strip clubs in Athens and through observation, interviews, and casual talks, the three aspects of disempowerment of black workers illustrated by Blessing, my inside source, could be substantiated. First, the fact that black strippers are outnumbered to the degree of disempowerment is observable in their apparent social alienation. Two out of the four places inspected over the course of this field research did not have any black strippers at all. The other two had only one black girl each. As observed, as a result, these girls spend most of their time lonely and unaccompanied, unless called upon by a customer. Second, the claim that customers prefer white girls can be traceable in the fact that the central stages of all of the visited clubs are exclusively white spaces where only white girls perform solo. Third, the product of these socio-racial dynamics is a by-default, auto-forced social reality in which performers in strip joints are kept segregated into racial groups: the white girls, on the one hand, and the alienated African stripper—rarely strippers—on the other.

A critique of this field research can be drawn from the fact that this investigation in some way does not provide a wide range of testimonies and case studies to back up the main premises of the core argument. However, given the nature of the topic and the restrictions imposed by the environment (the scarcity of black workers in Athenian gentlemen’s clubs and the dangers stemming from directly talking to street prostitutes), one cannot adequately probe into such a question, unless a lot of financial resources and inside connections are available. In the light of all of that, this field research remains a humble attempt to engage the question of racial relations among strippers working in Athens.

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