It was its alternative and progressive scene that made me move to Berlin almost ten years ago. I could be who I wanted, without fear of judgement: a feeling I had never experienced growing up in the outskirts of Paris, the world capital of fashion. I knew the city of Berlin held many opportunities that were to help me grow in different ways, and ironically, maybe, the person that would help me the most into becoming the self-confident person that I am today just so happened to live right across my doorstep: Vivi Sugar.
The first time we met, I remember noticing her colourful outfit, and the joy that exuded out of her. When she told me she was a stripper, I was startled. I tried to hide my confusion: Not only was she the first sex worker I had ever met, but she seemed way too happy and confident to be one, too “normal.” She did not fit the image of sex workers spread by the media: She was not forced into that job by a third party, she was not in dire need of money, she had graduated… Surely some tragic life event must have brought her into that profession?
Sex Work is Work.
The first thing Vivi has ever taught me is that being a sex worker is not synonymous with being a victim. She was brought into this profession through dancing: and if, as a woman, she was to be sexualised anyway – then why not use it to her advantage? She was using her body, a body patriarchy had so often told her to be ashamed of, to make money off of – you would have guessed it – patriarchy. Stripping had allowed her to reclaim control over and be comfortable in both her body and her sexuality. And just like any other job, working as a stripper has its advantages and its disadvantages, its good days and its bad days. Being a stripper does not say much more about a person than their profession. If anything, issues concerning strip clubs lie in the hands of owners who can too easily exploit their employees without tangible fear of legislative retribution. It is not sex work as such that is dangerous, but precarious working conditions, constant stigmatisation, and lack of rights. But don’t take it from me: listen to what sex workers themselves have to say.
My Body, My Rules.
Vivi was also the first ‘feminine’ (according to society standards) person I had ever seen growing her body hair, and so were her two flatmates and fellow sex workers. I would soon come to learn that body hair was not uncommon amongst sex workers in general. Not only was Vivi reclaiming her body, not shaving was also quite a literal act of self-love: back then, I had no idea that body hair had protective properties. And as a grown independent adult woman, she also wanted to present as such, and not infantilise her appearance. As somebody who had always felt insecure at the tiniest stubble of hair on her body, I was shocked to learn that you could simultaneously be feminine, hairy, and sexy. Up until then, I had never questioned my daily shaving habits. This is what women did. Growing up, I had come to hate my natural body. I thought a woman had to be smooth all over, and as a hairy woman I had no choice but to shave every day if I wanted to be loved and love myself. Vivi and her flatmates taught me otherwise: Body hair has no gender, body hair protects you, and body hair can be hella sexy.
Vivi and her flatmates were also the first people I have ever met to be comfortable with nudity. Seeing that they were getting paid to undress in public, it was not so much that I was surprised about them walking around their apartment bare breasted as if it were the most natural thing in the world. But there was something beautiful in being reminded that it is indeed the most natural thing in the world. Raised as a cis woman, my body had been riddled with shame and taboo. I had learned that my body in its most natural form was a sexual object, and as such I should hide it as much as possible. Yet there I was, surrounded by three people who looked like me, not ashamed of their breasts, not ashamed of their sex. And the most incredible thing? There was nothing sexual about it. They were just being.
While I have tried on several occasions (this article counting as one more) to tell her how grateful I am to have her in my life, I don’t think I will ever be able to express how much. Before I met Vivi, I was crippled with insecurities about my body and my worth. She has not only completely changed my views about sex work and sex workers, but about myself. Thanks to Vivi, I have redefined what femininity means to me and discovered I can choose how to express it. Thanks to Vivi, I have grown confident in and proud of my body. Thanks to Vivi, I have reclaimed my body as mine, and mine only.
• Listen to Vivi Sugar’s Stripper Story on CHEEX.
• Learn about the Berlin Stripper Collective and follow them on Instagram
• “Sex workers speak out against German Prostitution Law” – Deutsche Welle
• “Nicht alle Prostituierten sind Opfer – Deshalb sorgt der „Hurenpass“ für Unmut” – Refinery29