an exploration of urban identity in the middle of Texas
“There’s a joke,” Raven told me during our first meeting back in September 2012. “What’s the difference between a cocktail waitress and a stripper? Two weeks.” She laughed loudly and said, “I literally went two weeks, it was my two week mark after my new cocktailing job that I first showed my tits for money. And man, do you make a lot more money than being a waitress.” Raven, age 19, began stripping in Austin, Texas because she couldn’t pay her bills. An aspiring chef and music lover, she moved to Austin because of its reputation as a music and entertainment mecca for open-minded young people. Having visited the city every year while growing up in Dallas, Raven had always thought of Austin as a place she’d like to live one day. Once she arrived, Raven started working in two to three waitressing jobs at a time in some of Austin’s most iconic restaurants. And yet, earning between $5.15 and $10 an hour made it almost impossible to stay afloat financially.
In this booming city, she hopped from apartment to apartment, chasing lower rent, and from job to job, chasing more hours, income, and bearable working conditions. Raven endured back-to-back shifts, unreliable schedules, sexual harassment from bosses and coworkers, and promises of raises and promotions she never saw. Exhausted and desperate, a man she’d been dating suggested she apply for a cocktailing job at a strip club, where tips were much better. Facing an uncertain future with low wages and little autonomy, she applied and was hired on the spot.
Cocktail waitressing boosted Raven’s wages, but not substantially. Her joke unfolded like a prophecy: fourteen days after she began cocktailing, the allure of greater pay fueled Raven to step onstage and strip for the first time. “Once you show your tits to everybody, you’re done… It’s the rule: You can’t be a waitress anymore… Then you’re on the dark side.” Work on the “dark side” came with huge financial gain. She began making $1,000 dancing four days a week. Suddenly Raven was her own boss, setting her own schedule and working when she pleased. Some days, she loves this job; other days, she’s horrified by it. She enjoys stripping for a married couple who tip generously and treat her well, for example, but cringes recalling the demands for oral sex, groping, and rampant drug use in the clubs.
Although dancing gave her enough to live on, Raven is adamant that this work is temporary. She applied for new jobs on the “reputable” side of the service sector weekly. In 2013, Raven was hired as a secretary at a luxury spa: “my first really stable job!” she tells me. She’s thrilled about this new position: “I get my own desk, and my own computer, and my own phone! I am like a real fuckin’ adult!” Her joy is palpable: this job means that she has a concrete, steady alternative to dancing.
In Austin, Raven survives on the perilous edge between low-paid but morally respectable work with little independence, and what some might consider immoral but highly paid work with considerable autonomy. Both are degrading in their own ways.
Raven, like others involved in the sex trade, grapples with both the liberating and oppressive aspects of her work. Sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein suggests that many sex workers see their jobs as both participating in as well as challenging broader structures of class and gender oppression. Bernstein urges us to question “whether engagement in commercial sexual activity always and inevitably constitutes a further injury to those concerned, or whether it might sometimes (or simultaneously) constitute an attempted means of escape from even more profoundly violating social conditions” (2007, 2). Stories like Raven’s give us reason to pause and reconsider the moral divides between different body trades like stripping and prostitution—for people who have little but bodily capital to sell—and other working-class jobs. Given the economic options available to a young woman like Raven, what makes one job more or less morally troubling than another? How do we understand ethical issues like coercion and consent for a dancer, or for a waitress? These are questions with no clear answers.
Despite her best efforts, Raven occasionally returns to dancing because she needs the money. One night stripping can mean the difference between making rent or being evicted, or being able to afford gas to drive to her secretary job. Raven recently tells me with pride that she hasn’t returned to dance in the past several months because her current job is full-time and, for now, stable.
I met Raven over a beer three years ago because I wanted to interview a sex worker for a collaborative project on the lived experience of growing income inequality in Austin, Texas – the place I’ve called home since 2010. Austin currently has the highest level of economic segregation of any large metro city in the country. Raven’s life story is now one chapter in a book I recently co-authored called Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City (published by University of Texas Press). I am in my final year of a PhD program in sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, and I took a class with Professor Javier Auyero called Poverty and Marginality in the Americas in fall 2012. My classmates and I experienced mounting frustration at the ways in which some authors represented those living at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder – at times, the books we read collapsed diverse and complex categories of people (e.g. the urban poor) to one or two portrayals (e.g. the welfare recipient, the drug addict, the homeless person). After four months of vibrant, intense class discussion, Javier suggested on the last class day that we might undertake a collective project that leverages our sociological training to uncover the lived experience of socially and politically produced suffering in our own city.
Austin is a fascinating case study: America’s popular imagination portrays the city as a hub for young music- and art-loving hipsters, a rapidly growing technopolis poised to be the next Silicon Valley – a “playground for the beautiful.” Yet Austin is also highly unequal, with alarming socioeconomic inequality and rampant class, race, and ethnic segregation. Analogous to many other American cities, wealth and penury boom alongside one another in Austin. Luxury high-rises crop up seemingly overnight across the skyline while poor residents are forced to the urban margins, where housing, schools, hospitals, and other public services are sorely lacking or inferior. My collaborators and I knew we wanted to speak to the many ways that inequality and social exclusion are lived and experienced in the U.S., and to do so in a format and a style that we hadn’t seen before. At the same time, we sought to avoid diminishing or flattening the complexities of everyday life at society’s margins by getting to know our respondents extremely well over the course of several years using ethnographic observation and life history interviewing.
Our book features the life stories of Raven and 10 other individuals here in Austin — house cleaners, hotel staff, waitresses, office machine repairers, cab drivers, dishwashers, musicians, and roofers, among them. We sought to problematize the image of Austin as solely a hip, cool, creative city by uncovering and documenting the lives of those who live on the city’s margins yet whose undervalued, underpaid labor allows our city to survive and thrive.
Caitlyn Collins received her PhD in Sociology from the University of Texas at Austin in spring 2016. She studies gender inequality in the workplace and family life using cross-national, qualitative methods. Her dissertation is an interview study of 135 middle-income working mothers in Germany, Sweden, Italy, and the United States. She will join the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis as Assistant Professor of Sociology in fall 2016. The essay above is an excerpt from her chapter in Invisible in Austin: Life and Labor in an American City (University of Texas Press, 2015). Portions of this essay have appeared in Metropolitiques, The Austin American-Statesman, and Invisible in Austin.