This is the time of the night when one dollar bills turn to fives, and fives turn to crisp twenties. Even at 11 p.m. on a calm Tuesday night, when the Alabama backroads of Harvest are predominantly deserted, this is the one parking lot that remains packed every day of the week, usually strewn with everything from clunky pick-up trucks to 2014 Audi A4s.
Static electricity shocks 19-year-old Halee Mundy’s fingertips, sending a familiar chill winding down her bare spine as she wraps her bony arms around the metal pole, whipping her body around seductively. A graying man notices her immediately and ambles over, sliding a $20 bill slowly into her bra strap. He leans in closer, till she can smell the skunk odor of his Busch beer and feel his beard scratch her neck. The bouncer in the corner eyes him, but he still takes his sweet time, like they all do.
She decides to take her time, too, blowing a glossy kiss toward him, even winking as she backs up in the way her co-workers showed her. Slow and sultry, they said.
Behind him, his friends howl and holler, grabbing their money as the spotlight brightens. “This is going to be a good night, gentlemen,” the man said, grinning. This is what all the girls work for, that quick rummaging of sweaty hands digging through leather wallets. This is the cash flow that goes home with them.
Sticky hands continue to exchange bills as ’80s metal bands boom from the speakers. Hours pass in dim, yellow light as Mundy gives men quick lap dances. With her tight, black thong and a purple, bejeweled bra on, she knew she was raking in about half a grand for the night.
At the Wild Cherry Cabaret, there are only a few dancers younger than 21, including now 20-year-old Mundy, who dropped out of Bob Jones High School three years ago. She has been dancing for about two years.
Mundy pushes open the door after the successful night and heads to her car alone. Usually, she is walked out with a friend or someone from management, but not tonight. She’s several steps into the brisk 3 a.m. air when a powerful hand grabs her wrist, forcing her back against the wall.
“Give me your money, girl. How much you make?” Mundy remembers exactly what he said before she started flailing at the huge, hooded man. She decided that if she wanted to keep the money, putting up a fight was her only option. The man laughed as he slammed her into the wall. No one was outside the club to see, and anger showered Mundy. In a sudden burst of adrenaline, she bit down hard and fast on his neck.
With a yelp, she saw a box-cutter in his hand out of the corner of her eye before he sliced open the exposed skin above her elbow. It took only a moment for him to walk away with her purse, which held her ID and over $500. Mundy slumped against the dirty wall with blood dripping down her cut-off shorts.
“There are stories of people, the same situations,” Mundy trailed off. “These kind of things happen to people I know, a lot of people I work with.”
For Mundy, a box-cutter to the shoulder, a trip to the hospital and a threat from a hooded man wasn’t enough to end a job. After going to the hospital for stitches, she vowed that dancing was something she’d never go back to, “no matter how bad it got,” she said. But that wasn’t the case.
After getting pregnant by her boyfriend in high-school when she was 17, Mundy was sent to a nearby reform school for her pregnancy term, but permanently dropped out after a dispute with the staff. She’d already left her home and found temporary places to stay when she experienced a painful miscarriage half a year later. By that point, she was entirely supporting herself, except for the occasional help from her grandma, who also helped out her parents.
My parents got me a car when I was younger, but that’s it. I pay for it now. They can’t afford themselves,” Mundy said. “Even growing up, they weren’t able to buy me many clothes or cool things. I mean, I lived a regular life. I just had to do everything myself. I had to get money in my purse.”
But after an attempt to hold a minimum-wage job for a few months at a bagel shop failed, and the bills continued to pile up without any money for food, Mundy found herself returning to dancing.
“Without any money, I felt like I wasn’t worth anything. I felt hopeless, felt like I was good for nothing, and it just about drove me crazy,” Mundy said. “Look, I can guarantee you that no one in this whole entire world can live off a minimum-wage job.”
Mundy has worked her way through her fair share of minimum-wage jobs, including McDonald’s, working as a cleaning lady at the Westin, an I-Hop waitress and various other positions, but none of the jobs paid enough to support herself, even when she worked full-time.
“You learn it costs money to flush the damn toilet,” Mundy said.
Mundy was forced to move into a cheaper apartment with some friends where she currently splits rent, paying $200 a month, with at least $100 a week on gas, driving to her job. Her monthly living expenses cost her about $1,000 to $1,500, depending on how many friends and family she has to help out.
The first night back on the job, Mundy knew exactly what she was in for. Even though dancing can secure Mundy’s cost of living in simply a few “ long” nights, as she put it, the risks of the job still exist. From the danger of violent and jealous co-workers to the “drunk perverts” who ask her to leave the club, stripping has its downside. She said she is constantly hounded for sex in exchange for money, which isn’t legal, and the drugs that circulate the building bring back urges from a former addiction. She also fears that her dad or one of his friends will come in and see her dancing.
“My legs are bruised up. I’m always fucking tired, and the pole will have you bent up. If you try to stay awake on the drugs, even then, it’s still hard. The whole place is trying to offer you something though,” Mundy said. “You have to be careful.”
But when the choice is between food on the table or a drunk man groping her, she said the answer is obvious.
“I pay for everything. I have no help from my momma. The majority of the strippers either strip for college or because they have kids or because they’re drug addicts. Or in my case, I’m on my own. I have a lot of expenses that can’t be paid from a minimum-wage job. Like, it’s impossible for me to live normal working at somewhere like Brewbakers [the bagel shop],” Mundy said. “I could have a place and pay for my car, but then I would struggle to eat.”
Everyone knows that being a “stripper,” or the preferred term, “dancer,” has serious risks, both physically and sexually, but Mundy is part of the group of both men and women who decide the money outweighs the risks. These days, the “gentlemen bars” lurking along highways and backroads in the South provide an incredible source of revenue for the owners, along with hundreds of dollars for the employed women or men to take home nightly. Mundy said that even though she feels safe on the inside of the club, the outside is a totally different story, even with her background growing up.
“Growing up in my life, I’ve been through and seen a lot. My people are crazy, like my whole dad’s side is dead from fights. My momma’s ass has been beaten right in front of me. I’ve seen my dad beat someone’s ass, too. I’ve had people coming into my house pointing guns, wanting money,” Mundy said. Mundy said that even though she first accepted the drinks men bought her, she now stays sober.
Jessica Grooms, 19, a friend who started dancing on-and-off alongside Mundy two years ago, said that after having a baby, she had little other choice. Working at McDonalds didn’t provide enough money to support her baby, and since she could only work nights, stripping was the best option.
“I never judged anyone, but I always knew I’d never be the one up there dancing,” Grooms said, shaking her head. “But shit, man, there are dancers that are actually cool, that aren’t even very promiscuous. I dressed like a complete guy outside, really. People that judge us have never been on the other side. It’s just a job that you do for an amazing amount of cash.”
Grooms explained that of the few clubs she’s worked at, they were each made up of about 20 percent younger girls that were her age, with the rest made up of women 10-to-20 years older. She said that the “real money” was giving dances to people in the back, and although dancing onstage was fun at first, this part quickly became a chore. None of her coworkers liked that part.
“Most of them are in the same boat I was in, just earning money to get by. The older ones worked at Dollar General or something on the side, but I didn’t talk to most of them about their future because, well, they didn’t really seem to have one,” Grooms said.
Grooms’ goal is to get back custody of her little girl, who is a little over two years old. Right now, her mom has custody, and she pays for all her living expenses and health insurance. Grooms pays monthly child support, without any help from the father, and gets to visit at specified times. In a couple of weeks, she is leaving to attend trade school for the next two years. The court is letting her stop her child support payment during her schooling, with the promise that she’ll pay it back after she gets a stable job, a place to stay and custody of her child again.
“I had to prove to my mom that I’m doing everything that I can. We fight, sure, but right now she’s the person that I trust the most, and she has the money to supply my baby with everything. I’m really excited she’s being taken care of,” Grooms said.
Grooms feels safe inside the club, but “wishes there was a separate parking lot for the girls,” because the chance of someone following them, like what happened to Mundy, would be decreased. Although the bouncers try to be strict about kicking people out, Grooms said people with a strong personality like Mundy often get in trouble for reacting to the men, even when the bouncers were too slow, and “the damage was already done.” She’s witnessed guys “slinging their junk” at Mundy, along with other illegal touching that Mundy ended with slaps.
“I remember I got suspended for a week, because no matter what the guy does, you’re not supposed to touch or hurt him. No matter what. One guy tried to put my boobs in his mouth, but I told him no. I kept saying it, over and over. Then he did anyways, and I had a pen. The cap was popped off, like an Exacto cutter, so I stabbed him,” Mundy said, getting quiet. “He was touching me. It was instinct.”
Mundy said it makes her feel “in-between degraded and confident” when she dances, because often problems between her and her boyfriend arise. She has to fight the feeling that she shouldn’t be stripping, but on the other hand, she’s able to use the money to pay her bills and even help out her 14-year-old sister, who still lives with her grandma and parents. With her dad working in construction for a flooring business, and her mom working customer service for a caller-ID program, she knows her little sister needs the money.
“I’ll move on eventually. I’m not going to do this for rest of my life, but right now, I’m young and I can,” Mundy said. “I can easily make a grand in one week. I’m definitely not going to work anywhere else until I have a profession.”
Mundy soon plans to take a free, week-long course that prepares people for the GED. That way, she can hopefully pass and start a path toward a career. In the meantime, she said she’s going to be even more cautious until safety around the club “is seen as a problem,” which she’s expressed to the management. But both Mundy and Grooms have little faith that their bosses or the city will deal with the problem any time soon, especially with ongoing disapproval from politicians.
“Katie,” who wanted her name to appear as a pseudonym for safety purposes, is a 22-year-old junior studying computer science in Birmingham, counters that “the [stripper] stereotype is bullshit perpetuated by hegemonic slut-shaming.”
“I think there’s a saying that sums it up. When a man leaves a strip club, he leaves sweaty, broke and unsatisfied, but when a stripper leaves a strip club, she goes home pretty, rich and happy,” Katie said.
Stripping is the way girls like Mundy, Katie and Grooms found to break the poverty cycle of minimum-wage jobs, despite the “ignorant, negative connotations,” as Wilson said, that circulate about women who choose to strip.
“If you want money fast, and you’re a pretty girl, yes, it’s a rational decision to become a stripper,” Katie, a former stripper of Birmingham’s Furnace for two years, said. “If you cling to irrational stigmas of strippers, and you’re happy working fast food, that’s your deal.”
Working at the Furnace, an upscale, “strict” strip club, enabled Katie to easily make enough money to pay her way through college for all four years, in addition to being able to pay all her bills and groceries without the help of her parents, except for her phone bill, which they pay. Katie eventually quit stripping because of the amount of money she was able to save, and she currently has a job as a lab assistant at a software engineering and prototyping lab. She plans to graduate in two years and become a software developer.
“The women who are successful there are very intelligent,” Katie said. “But a lot of women are like me. Go in, make bank, check out.”
With Alabama’s minimum-wage at $7.25, people are able to make about $290 working a 40-hour week, which means they make about $1,160 a month, not excluding taxes. For younger people facing a college or court payment, a newborn baby or even just the task of paying their own bills, the amount of after-hours required to get by barely pay enough money, especially enough to live comfortably. The long hours and insufficient pay of minimum-wage jobs leave little time, energy or money for people to break the poverty cycle and pursue a better education.
Katie said she sees nothing wrong with stripping, and learned to seriously value herself and her time during the job. She said she’s “never been more confident in her life.” The Furnace has an extremely strict policy on no touching, and unlike Mundy and Grooms, she never personally witnessed any sort of sexual assault in the club.
Katie explained she never considered herself impoverished while working minimum-wage jobs and paying her way at the beginning of college. But with a minimum monthly expense of $2,000 for her rent, car payment, car insurance, health insurance, groceries, gas, Internet and other utilities, it wasn’t easy working for a restaurant and being forced to live off $800 a month. She had to rely heavily on student loans, which she didn’t want.
Katie explains that all of her friends and family are aware she was a stripper, and she isn’t ashamed of it, which they also know. It made the money she needed in a quick amount of time. Grooms, on the other hand, lost her custody battle for her child because of the job.
“I don’t regret it, but dancing for men and fighting for my baby, it pretty much can set anyone off in a depression,” Grooms admitted. “Working at a club wasn’t the best thing to do, but it made me so much more money than any other job I had.”

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