“Stripping is as much a part of who I am as my Ph.D.”

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craig-seymour$pread‘s Will Rockwell takes a stroll with Craig Seymour in New York’s Lower East Side to get the dish on the debut of Seymour’s recently released memoir, All I Could Bare: My Life in the Strip Clubs of Gay Washington, D.C. Seymour set out to document the gay stripper scene of America’s capital in the nineties and recount his life as a stripper boy, “if not for sale, then at least for controlled-access rental.” This interview traces Seymour’s life and workaday skills from nudie bars like Secrets, Wet, and La Cage to reporting for The Washington Post and tackling an editorship at VIBE Magazine. In the midst of his nineties nostalgia, Seymour finds the time to comment on the mounting “Pink Scare” in the States, as well as D.C.’s $400 million development of the District’s Southeast quarter which stamped out Seymour’s former workplaces.

Rumpus: Did you research other stripper memoirs in preparation for All I Could Bare?

Seymour: I avoided reading too much to keep it original but I had read some stripper memoirs like Lily Burana’s Strip City and Elizabeth Eaves’s Bare. I don’t know of any other male stripper memoirs. It was really important for me to get a major publishing company to put out a book by a guy stripper. It’s so easy to dismiss experiences of strippers or sex workers in general, and people made a lot of jokes while I’ve been promoting the book. But when something is published it’s a validation of a certain experience, so the historical record of the D.C. scene is now valid in a way it wasn’t before I sat down at Starbucks and wrote this thing up.

Rumpus: Besides pulling off a blend of memoir and entertainment column, All I Could Bare often reads like a coming-of-age novel. Was the sex trade your rite of passage as a gay-identified man?

Seymour: D.C. clubs were the first places where I felt comfortable expressing my desire for other guys. I think that’s why I find sex establishments welcoming to this day. I was also in a long-term relationship at the time I started working and had only had sex with one person, so when I started stripping I was finally able to relate sexually to all these other people, just by getting jacked off by customers on the bar. I came to terms with myself as a sexual person. Stripping gave me the courage to be who I was.

book-coverRumpus: What kind of questions have reviewers asked about the book?

Seymour: People are just interested in the personal story, why I did it, and generally the racier aspects, but some of the reviews—Publisher’s Weekly and The Bay Area Reporter—have actually misrepresented what my experience was because, you know, they called me an ex-prostitute, and I don’t want to claim something that I wasn’t. The Dallas Voice said the book was both “bawdy and sweetly nostalgic at the same time,” and I appreciate that because it was hard to make a mainstream readership feel nostalgic about a bunch of strip clubs in D.C., especially gay strip clubs. Sometimes I get a letter from somebody who was a former stripper, or someone who used to patronize the clubs in D.C. One guy wrote me and said, “You’ve given me my life back.” And still some people read it as a morality tale in which I emerge from this deep dark world of stripping.

Rumpus: While All I Could Bare is presented as simply the story of your working life, would you say it has an agenda?

Seymour: In writing the book I wanted to make it very clear that I feel prostitution should be decriminalized. But some people might have breezed by those aspects that others took the time to notice. In All I Could Bare, I hope I relate in a conversational way how stripping is a lot like other types of work. I write about how I was attracted to stripping because I didn’t feel comfortable with my body, for instance, but there could be plenty of not-so-good reasons why I chose to go into journalism, too. Maybe someone had a trauma in childhood and it led them to become a nurse, or a lawyer, but because people stigmatize sex work they try to find a traumatic moment in your past and say, “There!”

Rumpus: The one possible “root” you do mention involves you in the backseat of a car as a child off D.C.’s Fourteenth Street, watching a bunch of queens
walking on the strip.

Seymour: I’ve always been fascinated with prostitution. I looked it up in the dictionary as a child, and I remember hearing that Jesus would hang out with prostitutes. I would always focus on the prostitutes. [Laughs]

Rumpus: In discussing the sometimes-intimacy you experienced with clients, you write that, “Money was simply how each story began.”

Seymour: Even for the dancers who were the most hardcore, stone-faced, “I’m just here for the money” dancers, relationships happened, and I think it happens in any kind of sex work, because it’s always an exchange between two people. I mean, I guess it could be more than two people depending on your scene! [Laughs] But it’s still an exchange between people. It’s almost impossible to reduce the relationships purely to money. In All I Could Bare I meant to show some of that complexity in describing my interactions with customers. It’s so easy to dismiss customers as losers, and I think a lot of sex workers do that too, and I do understand psychologically why people do that, but I really wanted to humanize the whole experience. Going back to your question, it’s almost like we don’t have a language to discuss the intimacy that occurs in sex work. When I found out some of my customers had died there was a real sense of loss, but how do I describe who they were to me?

Rumpus: In some passages, you highlight the racism you experienced among your client base once they were made aware that you were African-American. Was there a noticeable difference in tips? How were differences in skin color visibly dealt with, or not dealt with, by your co-workers and management?

buttSeymour: It was hard to tell if people didn’t tip because of my race, of course, but there was one time a customer told me he liked me better when he thought I was Latino. I had friends who danced and had maybe a darker shade of skin than me—one friend was performing and this white drag queen pulled her purse closer to her when he walked by on the bar. I never felt it from management, but, I don’t know, maybe managers did hire less dancers of color. The thing is that racism is systematic, so of course it sometimes manifested itself within the clubs. But I have certainly experienced racism outside of the clubs as well. But within the context of the clubs, and perhaps the sex business as a whole, the issue of race becomes very complicated because you can’t force someone to pay for something—or someone—that they don’t want, whether their desire—or lack thereof—is motivated by racism or not.

Rumpus: But you can affect racist hiring practices, right?

Seymour: Yes, but it’s not just management, racism manifests in a lot of different ways. Sometimes there’s internalized racism. I’ve heard some African-American dancers say they don’t like dancing for African-American audiences because they don’t tip as well as the white guys. But at the same time I know a lot of dancers who like to only strip for older guys because they tip better than younger ones. So, rarely are these situations just about race. In this case, it’s a combination of race and economics.

Rumpus: How was the sex sector perceived by your co-workers in general? What did they think of their own jobs?

Seymour: In my experience, most guys didn’t like to talk about it. I think a lot of sex workers learn to compartmentalize that part of life. And in this case it was also complicated by the fact that a great percentage of the guys led straight lives outside of the club. It was something they did, not something they wanted to talk about.

Rumpus: Not something they identified with or as?

Seymour: Exactly. Most dancers didn’t own being a “stripper,” certainly not a “sex worker,” as an identity. Dancing was seen as temporary even if they’d been five years in a club. [Laughs] For me, I was always a “sex worker.” I always felt there was a continuum between what I was doing and other types of sex work, like prostitution.

Rumpus: The D.C. loophole that allowed for nude dancing closed pretty quickly when the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board started issuing citations, and management instituted a new policy at Wet: “Not to be touched, fondled, fingered, or stroked.” How did this affect the dancers?

seymour2Seymour: My dick got very lonely. [Laughs] I thought to myself, “What are we supposed to do—dance?” I mean, really, though, I think it’s crazy the way we police sexual activity among consenting adults whether money is exchanged or not—I see a continuum between sex work establishments and sex clubs. I just re-read a piece by E.M. Forster, where he was writing about anti-gay laws in nineteenth-century Britain, and he said that it wasn’t that people felt that strongly against homosexuality, but that they didn’t want to think about it. And I’d say sex work today is very similar. I don’t think people sit around and worry whether or not you’re going to work a guy in a bar. But to change laws on sex work people have to think about it. And that’s when all the moralism and everything else starts to kick in. Since the clubs were demolished and the laws have been changed, D.C. gay male stripping has changed too. I hate seeing guys dancing in G-strings. People might think it was raunchier when people were allowed to touch, but to me there was something more intimate and personal about dancing nude and being touched. I liked the touching.

Rumpus: Have you heard of the recent “Pink Scare” raids, busts and closings in New York City? What do you make of the anti-sex “scare” some sex workers have declared here in New York? Is the situation similar to the D.C. closings?

Seymour: It’s clearly what’s happening. All across the country there’s been this real movement to close public sex venues, strip clubs, escort agencies and, in fact, the harshest effects come less through police persecution than real estate. If you talk about the loss of New York sexual establishments it was all done through zoning regulations. Even if you turn to D.C.’s gay clubs, it was a question of wanting the space for the Nationals stadium, and zoning regulations made it nearly impossible to find places for the clubs to reopen. I read an article recently in The Village Voice about how younger people aren’t as interested in sex establishments because of Internet sex culture, like Craigslist.com. I think if there were more interest in public venues, the raids wouldn’t have the same effect. The unfortunate part about is it’s all happening in real time and these are our lives. It’s taking a human toll now.

Rumpus: In your memoir you connect skills you learned at the Follies and your later literary career at VIBE Magazine and The Washington Post, as well as your professorship. Could you speak more to this?

Seymour: Part of being a journalist is relating to people, and my skills got sharper after years of stripping. It would have been easy for me to wipe the stripping from my history but the truth is that stripping in D.C. is central to the person I have become. I felt that it was my obligation to say that. I wrote the book because I thought I had something to say about sex work, and I wanted to use the platform I have as a professor and a journalist. The fact is that you cannot applaud any of the more socially acceptable accomplishments and put down my stripping experience. You can’t take my accomplishments à la carte. Stripping is as much a part of who I am as my Ph.D. or an article I wrote for The Washington Post. In fact, it’s probably more of a part.

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This is a Rumpus Reprint and was originally published in $pread Magazine.