How I Survived the Sex Industry

I still have nightmares about being unable to find my second hot pink fishnet thigh-high in time to put it on before they called my stage name, “Jealousy”. I have forever-vivid memories of the smell of all of our cheap perfumes combined with stale cigar & cigarette smoke as we counted our cash at 3am. The terror of literally having to audition dancing in nothing but a G-string in an establishment I had barely even Googled is a reoccurring dream topic that haunts me often. Being followed home by uninvited people, drinking drugged drinks and having no memories of what happened to me, girls being found dead in dumpsters, there are still so many nightmares. And I’ve been retired for nearly 10 years.

Not all my memories of working in the sex industry are terrible. Some memories are rather glamorous in retrospect, like free trips to Vegas and Key West, attention from professional athletes and other celebrities who would visit my workplaces, being featured in music videos or promotional modeling in skimpy outfits at the Indy 500 race. I can picture the countless pairs of mink faux eyelashes and my French-pedicured toenails glowing in the black lights, and “sugar-daddies” who would come to the club regularly to shower me with lavish gifts. I embodied glamour back then, I was in my physical prime and I was dripping in my femininity in a vintage Playboy roleplaying kind of way.

I had a lot of fun with my stage performances. I was constantly changing into another costume and character. Some really solid and true friendships were cultivated.  I have since even made wedding dresses for some of my old colleagues.  Some friends from that time in my life still glitter in my mind like my favorite pairs of platform heels in a heap in my locker in the dressing room while other friendships fell apart for one of many reasons. Some of those women are now college graduates leading successful lives paying taxes and contributing to society, while in contrast, some ended up much worse off than when they first entered a strip-club, some are even dead, and I don’t mean they died peacefully from natural causes like old age. I’m only now in my mid-30’s.  Most of the women I worked with were in their 20’s.  Here’s a fun fact: every club I danced in took a polaroid photo of each girl upon hire and wrote stage name on the bottom and then the photo thumb-tacked to a series of cork boards.

(I’ve included an actual example polaroid I was able to locate of me from way back when) 


Why the polaroids, you ask? Well, it was because it was/is likely she will end up dead or missing and this may be her last and most recent photo, clearly something police would need. Scary, huh? Some of my clients were respectful and seemingly harmless while I can remember very sharply a time when a very entitled man nearly bit my nipple completely off during a “dollar dance”. Another time, I was tricked and followed and nearly killed. Now that I think about it, there were all too many times I was lucky to survive. Despite any distorted fond memories, when I remember how worthless I felt standing there naked and asking for a dollar and the situations I found myself in because of it, I always conclude I’m so lucky to have survived any of it.

What was it like to be an exotic dancer, or stripper, or whatever least offensive label you prefer to call it? I retired at age 27, if that tells you anything. You may be wondering who retires in her 20s? A woman whose soul is on the very brink of a black hole death spiral- she is who retires at 20-something. In the strip club/dancing industry, I had seen women working on the day-shift at age 50-something! I vowed that was not going to be me. Many women were single parents who had to work through pregnancies and breastfeeding. Some women left the club after their shift and would meet their clients at motels and have sex for extra money. Some women developed addictions. Every one of us had very real reasons for how we found ourselves working in the sex industry.

Nobody that I have ever met grew up with goals of working in the sex industry. I started dancing under very complex and grim circumstances. “How the hell did you get here?”, I was asked all too often by the (usually) men paying for my company.  “One song at a time…” was not my answer, although that would have been a light-hearted sarcastic answer to give with a wink and a request for another martini.  

It was a long series of circumstances and bad decision-making skills that led me to exotic dancing for 6 years. I feel like some parts of the answer are cliché and borderline normalized, like my dad wasn’t there much growing up, that rejection led to my having a hard time believing I was of any value. I liked the attention. Other parts of the story are less common; for example, I was raised in a very strict, oppressive cult. I wanted to rebel and confront my repressed (bi)sexuality.  My father had a secret second family. In my opinion, it was my repeated masochistic destructive decision to date bad boys, once I had my freedom, that would be the most to blame for how I got there. (Thanks for the daddy-issues, Dad.)

My clients surely didn’t want to hear about the countless men I would let abuse and objectify me, that wouldn’t be sexy in the slightest.  Revealing that part of my story would absolutely not contribute in any part to the magical fantasy I would get so good at creating, that makes them open up their wallets and tip me for being smart, funny, beautiful, blablabla- insert qualities I never believed I ever had in real life, those words described my masked alter-ego hiding in the dark at best. This is where I would usually giggle, act either really dingy or really oblivious, or pretend to need to pee to distract from the subject and wiggle out of any real conversation.

I can see the outline of how I went from a childhood ballerina to exotic dancer to having survived and retired from the sex industry nearly 10 years ago. I have wrestled with my story for years. What parts of the story are blurred, what memories are still sharp and why? Is my story like so many others or is it unique? I have worried about how to tell people in my personal and professional relationships that I am a retired dancer. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to self-psychoanalyze and justify how I got there and who is to blame for how I got there if anyone but myself.

When was the right time to leave? After at least roughly 2 years of experiencing severe and daily panic attacks just thinking about getting ready for work, I admitted to myself I needed to get out before it consumed me completely. I was in the midst of my most abusive relationship at the time, with a controlling narcissistic alcoholic door-man who would abruptly discontinue his boyish charm as soon as he moved into my house. He then isolated me by force and kept me under his thumb, reframe it as “saving me” and he shamed me and abused me on every level until my sense of self was completely derailed and at a time which is uncertain to me, I broke. He broke me. He did not want other men to get to see me naked. He said he wanted me all for himself.

Foolishly, I thought it was romantic.  I didn’t see the sly manipulation, but that’s how abusers are able to get away with what they do. Little by little. He forced me to get a day-job and I found myself working at a dog kennel cleaning up after dog bathroom breaks and shoveling snow.  Before I knew it, he had me working the dog kennel outside in the blistering cold during the day and the club at night.  I don’t know when I slept or how I kept going. I was so exhausted and nullified. He forced me to hand all of my money over to him and I was always left with nothing, despite working day and night. I wouldn’t figure out until years later that his forcing me to retire from dancing (and modeling) was a ploy to take away my financial independence and to further isolate and control me.

Even exiting the industry was a disaster that nearly claimed my life. I was drinking to the point of blackouts with every shift I was working and sometimes I would drive home. I lived with an extreme alcoholic, so home-life was torturous and full of alcohol. I could not get away from things that were choking my spirit and psyche.  I could not deal with my home life and working/dancing naked to sexually exploit myself for money to pay the bills was somehow an escape. The dressing up and role playing became tiny complex worlds I would create, and juggle as altered secondary realities, just dancing and twirling and drinking while trying to forget my real life.

Most people would never had guessed I felt dead on the inside because I tried not to show it. I found I had to disconnect from the real and authentic me in order to survive the world I had accidently found as my reality. I was starting to become the pretend person I created as my alter-ego.  I later learned I was suffering from undiagnosed CPTSD or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among other disorders as coping mechanisms. I’m thankful that after 6 long years, I was somehow able to get out of the sex industry with my life, and eventually my self-respect. I had no idea it would take almost 8 years before I would be strong enough to leave my abusive relationship. Despite the battle wounds, I survived that too!

I’m so thankful I can own my story now and share some of it with a purpose. “Pain with a purpose” is my current motto.  I want to understand everything I can about my story, so I can give it a purpose and share it in hopes to prevent other women from enduring an experience like mine.

I am now using my story as fuel as a human rights advocate, author and artist. I want to inspire others and help promote a culture of healing and equality. Right now, I am working on a multidisciplinary piece focusing on boudoir photography and positive body image. I have applied to show the collection of images and writing at a local gallery with a positive message to enrich the community by provoking dialogue about relative topics such as body image, self-esteem, cultural beauty standards and how these topics affects our lives.


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Sheila L. Ferguson

Sheila Ferguson is a 30-something year-old Canadian-American Fashion Designer, Photographer, Author and Entrepreneur. Artistic expression- her focus. Ferguson studied in Studio Art and Creative Writing at Indiana University. Her artistic talents have taken her on a multidisciplinary journey that is constantly evolving, but one she has nevertheless named JealousyJane. Her work is frequently published internationally in magazines, galleries, and websites.


  1. Thank you so so much for sharing. What a story, what a world, that we, as society, just turn away from, without any clue of the damage it’s making….. I hope things will get better and better for you in the “after-the-rain-comes-sunshine” sort of way! I am sure your story will make a big difference to many women around the world!

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