While most Cornell students were off exploring Collegetown annex parties from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. at the start of their college experience, Loteria* was learning the ins and outs of working as a stripper. Her first night on the job, she made $1,600 — the equivalent of working roughly 144 hours at a minimum wage job in New York state.
Loteria came to Cornell under the pretense that her tuition costs would be covered entirely by financial aid. But after getting to campus, she realized that a “full-ride” could only get her so far. She found herself in thousands of dollars of debt within her first week at Cornell.
“There were a lot of hidden costs that I didn’t know about as a first-generation college student,” she said when I sat down with her for an interview last week. The steep textbook costs, plane tickets for when dorms “kick us out” and the fine print costs of Cornell like the student health and activity fees led to a realization about attending college: “I just thought the school was, pardon my French, fucked up.”
On top of her rapidly accumulating debt, Loteria had no laptop, hindering her way to academic success. Managing her rigorous course load and playing on a club sports team, there weren’t enough hours in the day for her to make enough money to sustain herself through a minimum wage job. Her mother raises five other children and doesn’t have the means to financially support her. And taking out loan would guarantee her a lifetime of paying back crippling debt.
She was left with few options.
So, within the first few days of her freshman year, Loteria took a job dancing at a local strip club. She feared what her parents and other loved ones would think. But most of all, she feared getting sucked into a lifestyle that few manage to escape.
Thus began a cycle of going to class in the morning, sleeping during the afternoon and working from night until daybreak four times a week. Within a month, she was able to repay all of her debts and got herself a laptop.
“I was very happy to feel financially stable for the first time in my entire life,” she said.
Now two years into the job, she finds stripping to have several other benefits aside from financial relief. She has the freedom to choose her own work schedule, dress codes and routines. Dancing serves as a form of exercise while also making her feel like she’s “flying.”
But most importantly, working in a club has given her a unique outlook on life.
“I have definitely gained a lot of empathy. All of the women who are there are there for a reason. We all really struggle with something, especially financially,” she said. “But we are the only support system we have, and once we realized that, we became like a family. I think if I could do that with them, I could do that with anyone.”
But stripping while being a full-time college student at an Ivy League school comes with significant obstacles. Stripping has taken a toll on Loteria’s mental health and her social interactions.
A student athlete, Loteria had to disrupt her sleep schedule to keep up with her job. On days she strips, she sleeps three hours at night and three hours in the day. “It started messing with my psyche a little bit. I had to start going to therapy because I was so disoriented all the time.”
Her line of work has also socially isolated her from her peers at Cornell. Not only does her schedule prevent her from participating socially, but the stigma attached to stripping also doesn’t help. As a freshman living in Balch, an all women’s dorm, she would often receive complaints about coming home at 4 a.m. or 5 a.m.
“It wasn’t because of what time I was coming home. It was because of what I was doing. It felt like a direct attack.”
As someone who is candid about what she does, she also receives a lot of unwarranted attention. When her social media was open to the public, she received inappropriate messages from students and strangers.
“I started getting DM’s with questions that were nobody’s business. People would ask me if I was a prostitute, which there’s nothing wrong with, but you’re mislabeling me.”
She even once had an awkward encounter with giving a lap dance to a professor.
“Those conflicts of interest … they happen.”
At Cornell, where the median family income of a student is almost $152,000, it may be difficult for some to understand her motivation for entering this line of work. But Loteria didn’t choose this job because of the perceived glamour or even the unconventionality of it. It was a decision she made out of sheer need. For her, it is just a job, nothing more, nothing less.
“As much as I do love my job, I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have to. I wouldn’t do any job if I didn’t have to.”
Loteria hopes to go to law school, and one day work as an entertainment lawyer prosecutor, fighting for sex workers’ rights. Though limited empirical data is available about exotic dancers, most studies conclude that strippers and other women in the sex industry experience disproportionately high rates of sexual assault, substance abuse and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“There’s a lot of sexual assault [in the industry], and a majority of the time we lose the cases. I think we need educated women who have actually been through it and are passionate about fighting against it.”
Leaving my interview with Loteria, I had a newfound understanding of the financial struggles students across this campus face, and a deep sense of respect for her and all of those who work hard everyday to sustain themselves. I wonder if I would have the courage to make the difficult choices she’s made.
*The subject’s name is reflected as her stage name to protect her anonymity.
Amelia Zohore is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. And What About It? runs every other Tuesday this semester.