Sheila McClear started stripping because she needed the money. She kept doing it for more complex reasons. Her first book, The Last of the Live Nude Girls, chronicles her years working for the peepshows in Times Square and her story of loneliness and growing up. Aimee DeLong, a former dancer herself, caught up with McClear last week.
Rumpus: Do people assume that you must have had a terrible childhood to work in the sex industry?
Sheila McClear: The question I got was, “What happened to you?” My childhood was totally fine and normal and small town. My only complaint about my parents is that they were stricter than other parents. Being from a small town makes you want to escape it. I think it’s almost sexist to assume that you’re either damaged because you did it or must be damaged to get into it. So, either way you lose.
Rumpus: I was surprised by the lack of graphic detail in the memoir. I know it hits people differently. I’m curious about how you experienced what you saw on the other side of the glass.
McClear: First of all the graphic stuff, I tried to allude to, but I felt it would be taking the easy way out. I also felt it would be too much shock value, or that anyone who read it would just come away with, this crazy thing happened or this crazy thing happened. I also thought it was a little bit smug like, oh all these perverts did all these weird things. Well, I was getting paid be there and watch them do weird things, you know? I think of the peep show as a setting, but it’s also a book about loneliness and a certain coming of age. But, yeah at first I really found it gross, and I was really upset by it, and then soon it just became like working at a hospital.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel like a sexual psychologist?
McClear: You know, to this day, I can talk to somebody, and I’ll have these weird flashes of insight like, oh they’re a little bit submissive, or oh they’re probably into feet, or oh he has issues with his mom, and that’s probably why. I can read this stuff in all these people, and I’m pretty sure I’m right.
Rumpus: Yeah, it’s weird how you get almost an animalistic sense of people after working in the sex industry. What are your thoughts on the industry from a feminist point of view?
McClear: I just totally want to defend someone’s right to do that sort of work whether it’s a peep show or prostitution. I mean, I don’t want to be a prostitute. I would just defend it, because I’ve had a lot of jobs, and many of them were more demoralizing than the peep show.
Rumpus: What coping mechanisms did you develop to be comfortable in that environment?
McClear: I think part of it was the compartmentalization that I think all strippers do. I called it turning off my mind or switching a light switch on and off, and just shutting down, not in a healthy Zen way. And, then partially out of boredom and out of dealing with the BS at work, I drank beer. I think another coping mechanism was the camaraderie with the girls, especially the ones that I was closest to, but even the ones that I wasn’t. Even if you didn’t like each other on normal terms you could all relate to this.
Rumpus: You touch upon feeling guilty for what you were doing. What exactly were you feeling guilty about?
McClear: I guess it wasn’t that I was taking off my clothes, but the fact that I could see the guys on the other side…it made it feel too participatory which is why I would just not pay attention. Sometimes I would just look at my own reflection.
Rumpus: How would you compare the world of peep shows to the world of strip clubs?
McClear: Strip clubs are so much more social. On one hand I like the performance aspect of strip clubs, but what I couldn’t deal with was talking to people and making them think I liked them. I always had to act dumb, because acting smart was a huge problem. And, also I don’t like touching people.
Rumpus: Do you think that working at a peep show or a strip club can affect serious relationships? Were you in a serious relationship at the time?
McClear: I never was. It always starts out like everyone wants to think they’re cool…like, “Yeah it’s cool…you gotta do what you gotta do, I respect that.” And, over time it would always change, like “Why do you work there? Do you have to go to work today? No seriously, why don’t you quit?” The percentage of guys who can deal with that is very small. I totally believe that they’re out there. I know that they’re there, but it’s a small percentage.
Rumpus: Do you feel that you caused yourself psychological trauma by working in the sex industry? Do you think it’s possible for people to work in the industry without it affecting them negatively?
McClear: I don’t feel that I caused myself psychological trauma. Any trauma I have I probably would have had anyway. I do think it’s totally possible not to have it. In a way I knew it was going to be this really extreme experience, and I put myself through it almost on purpose, like a crucible, or a test or to see what I could get out of it, but I don’t think it caused me trauma just because it drove me nuts.
Rumpus: Did you feel an existential drive about it?
McClear: Yeah, I did. Because coming from a small town, I wanted to be more worldly and more comfortable with myself. I’ve seen people more traumatized from working eighty hours a week at a law firm. I reject the idea that sex work or stripping is more traumatizing than any other type of work, especially work that is extreme.
Rumpus: Did you know that you wanted to write your story as a memoir as opposed to fiction from the beginning?
McClear: I’m a reporter, but any writing I do from here on out I want to be fiction. I felt that this story, because it was so personal, had to be told as non-fiction. I didn’t really understand, or even have the chops to do it as fiction. But, I also felt that I wanted it to be non-fiction, because I wanted to pay tribute to these disappearing places and the girls. I felt like all of us needed to be recognized.
Rumpus: There’s a bit of a historical gist to the book. How would you summarize that?
McClear: It’s this odd industry that flourished for thirty years until free porn starting coming out and laws started changing. I think it was this really interesting intersection of public urban spaces and sexuality.
Rumpus: It’s almost like simulacra really. She’s a fantasy, but it’s still a real girl, and then you take it a step further by putting her behind glass. It’s almost more enticing if you put her behind glass. It’s like you’re watching a film of someone, but it’s a real person.
Rumpus: Tell me a little bit about Gawker, and about your freelance career since you quit the peep show. Do you think that people knowing about your history as a Live Nude Girl has or would ever interfere with your career as a journalist?
McClear: It probably hasn’t affected it very much because media is essentially a creative field. And, the section of media I work in which is gossip…Gawker was technically a gossip blog. The New York Post is a tabloid, which has a certain gossipy, sex sensibility.
Rumpus: Apart from just writing your story, is there part of you that would like to de-stigmatize this line of work as often a necessary means to an end for a lot of girls?
McClear: Yeah, absolutely. I had my own preconceived notions about strippers before I was one. Then I learned that strippers are just regular girls, who for whatever reason have been able to overcome society’s problem with that industry and do it anyway. Part of me thinks that stigmatization works to fuel the industry. It’s weird. I would like people to be less judgmental, but if everyone wasn’t seeing what the big deal about getting naked was then nobody would pay for it.
Rumpus: A thought that I have is that women are being objectified all the time without their consent, but when they decided to get paid for it then it’s offensive somehow. Do you just see your sex appeal as a resource?
McClear: I used to walk down Eighth Avenue to the peep show, as you know, and guys would be hollering at me and saying shit. I was like, I usually get thirty dollars for someone to undress me with their eyes. It almost made me feel like I was getting the money I rightfully deserved.
Rumpus: And, men elevate women BECAUSE of their sex appeal, but yet women are not supposed to use it to make money.
McClear: I agree with you. It’s just another outgrowth of sexism I think. I think Roseanne Barr had this quote, “The thing women have yet to learn is nobody gives you a power. You just take it.” I’m not like one of those fourth-wave feminists who says sex work is always empowering and it’s beating the Man, because it’s so much more complicated than that, and also it lumps all women into one category, but yeah the fact that you’re acknowledging your sexuality, and using it, and making money off it, or maybe not making money, but getting ahead because of it is not ok for women.
Rumpus: It’s as if women are expected to be sexually appealing in this society, but they’re not allowed to get any gain from it, which is ultimately very objectifying.
McClear: It’s the virgin/whore thing. You’re supposed to be very sexual but…
McClear: Untouched…or only for your husband. Something that I’ve found really sexist that I heard girls say at the peep show was a woman was supposed to be whore in the bedroom, but a lady in the kitchen…and that’s basically just sexism.
Rumpus: I assume your family now knows about your time working in peep shows and strip clubs. Do you ever discuss it with them?
McClear: They know, but I don’t really discuss it with them because they’re not big fans of it. And they don’t have to be.
Rumpus: Did you feel that when they found out it affected your relationship with them?
McClear: I think for awhile they were angry, and then they just sorta got over it, and realized I was still the same person. I think maybe why this scares parents is, because oh this is a totally different person than we thought she was.
Rumpus: I personally found that the environment was so sexually cerebral that if one could figure out what visual archetype to embody one’s ability to market herself increased immensely. Did you develop your own archetype?
McClear: Yeah, my archetype which was sort of real as the girl next door, which is sort of what I am, but it was like taking it to an extreme. Because of my personality if I wanted to wear all black, and be slinky, and wear red lipstick, and be sultry it wasn’t going to work because of my energy. But, if I had the blond wig and some stupid pink bra and panty set which I didn’t like wearing that worked, because that allowed them to see me the way they wanted. And, so you exaggerate, and put it through that porn-lens.
Rumpus: What about the amount of psychological energy you have to put in?
McClear: Right, you’re paying in these other ways…with your psychological energy, or your physical upkeep, or the stigmatization or the lying in your personal life. Everyone there sort of had the same working class mentality. You’re tied to rent and bills just like anybody else except you’re stigmatized, and no one wants to go out with you, and you lie to everyone.
Rumpus: At the end of the day when you think back on your time at the Playpen and Gotham City can you still relate to the person you were then?
McClear: Totally. I’m not as scared, shy and insecure as I was back then, but it was just a turning point in my life where I had no idea what was going to happen, or what I was doing, and I’ll probably have another one of those, like a mid-life crisis. It just manifested itself with me working at a peep show.
Read the Rumpus Review of The Last of the Live Nude Girls.