Caitlin was 19 when she started stripping. Originally from Melbourne, she left her retail job to study graphic design and needed a way to cover uni and living expenses. “I’ve been creative all of my life,” she explained via email. “Stripping was something that I’d always had an interest in, so that’s what I did.”
On stage, Caitlin says that strippers are good at feigning perfection, but backstage they’re just regular people. “The dressing rooms and the main floor are like two completely different realities, it’s quite amusing,” Caitlin said. “If you’ve ever been a stripper you’d know what goes on behind the scenes. Girls are fingering their assholes clean with baby wipes and getting their friends to check their vaginas for tampon strings.”
As Caitlin took note of the people she met and conversations she witnessed, she began illustrating these experiences and encounters in the club. “I felt like I needed an artistic outlet to express myself as a dancer,” she said. She created the Instagram account @exotic.cancer, where she documents the reality of being a stripper most civilians never see, and in many cases, wouldn’t want to.
As a dancer, looking shiny, hairless, and hot in nothing but a thong and a pair of lucite heels is just part of the job, but Caitlin depicts dancers as though no one’s watching. Her pieces highlight the disconnect between the masks and various personas strippers wear in front of customers, who they are when they can finally be themselves, and the dressing room camaraderie that brings them together. They're depictions of strippers’ bodies as completely separate from male fantasy. In her art they’re deeply flawed and viscerally human. Collapsing breast implants, stubble, clown-like makeup, and underwear stained with a variety of bodily secretions appear in many of her pieces as a parody of heteronormative femininity. They’re undeniable evidence that sex workers are people, not playthings. They’re people who demand to be seen, but on their terms.
The women in these illustrations aren’t effortlessly beautiful. In fact, many aren’t beautiful at all. The exhausting work of maintaining the illusion of being hairlessness and perpetually available is visible in the dancers’ toes shoved into too-tight heels and melting makeup. Many of these figures and comic scenes are hilariously ugly or just flat-out gross, particularly those depicting men.
Caitlin calls them “shit men say” comics, and says they’re all based on real conversations with customers. “Most of the customers tend to be quite typical and predictable, which makes these posts so relatable,” Caitlin said. “There’s a lot of the same things that so many guys say, such as ‘what’s your real name’ or ‘when can I take you out to dinner?’ Strippers hear this all the time, worldwide.” Many wrongfully assume that all strippers must be single or incapable of romantic commitment because, in her customers’ words, “who would want to date one?”
Still, many of the conversations with men Caitlin illustrates point a much more unsettling truth about some men who frequent strip clubs. Their faces take on a grotesque, almost monstrous quality as they try to talk their way out of paying for a dance, or feel entitled to “extra” services. Customers like these are certainly annoying, but they can also be dangerous to women who work in strip clubs and other adult industries. Caitlin’s work shows the true ugliness behind men who treat sex workers like objects or feel entitled to their time, while reclaiming that ugliness as a source of power.
“I enjoy highlighting the not so glamorous side of stripping because it’s a nice little reminder that we are all the same, we are all human,” Caitlin said. “There’s a lot of negative stigma attached to being a sex worker, and because the industry is somewhat a mystery to civilians, I can understand that they might have some beliefs about sex workers that are not necessarily true, because all they can can compare it to is what they’ve learned from the news, media, and movies, which generally portrays sex workers in a negative way.”
Throughout Caitlin’s work, sex workers aren’t disposable or unlovable, and they don’t end up dead as part of a half-baked film script. “I hope that through my art I can show people that sex work is just a job,” she said. “I think people need to realise that their opinions are based off inaccurate representations and therefore they should be open to learning the truths of sex work, from actual sex workers.” There’s no mystery to the dancers she illustrates. They’re living, breathing, bleeding women who show up to work to do a job, make their money, and leave, and they don’t need saving.
Words by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria. Follow her on Twitter
Exotic.cancer merch and original artwork is available here
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.