An ‘Accidental Academic’ Strips Stereotypes

I’m interested in dance, sexuality and feminism–and exotic dancers sat at the nexus of that.

Feminist sociologist Dr. Bernadette Barton didn’t grow up planning to become a professor. Like many women, she found her path by interaction of choice and chance.

 At every step she has kept one foot in the “real” world. She saw the exotic dancers she interviewed for her doctoral research as complex individuals, not stereotypes or data points. Her resulting book—Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press 2006)—is engaging and accessible. Readers don’t need an advanced degree to enjoy and learn from it.

Life choices, happenstance and the second wave of feminism combined to bring her to Morehead State University KY, where she’s an assistant professor of sociology and Women’s Studies specializing in sexuality, gender and popular culture. Her tenure bid is through the department, provost and president, and she expects the Board of Regents to act on it in March.

“I am the feminist daughter of women who have come before me,” she told WIHE editor Mary Dee Wenniger when they met by chance in Key West in January. Barton had read the newsletter regularly online, but never subscribed.

Like the women she’d interviewed, Barton is a survivor.

From dance to dissertation

She was a Catholic schoolgirl in Massachusetts and the oldest of three children when her father walked out, leaving her mother without money to pursue dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Instead she left school and got a social work job through the back door to support her family. She gradually accumulated enough credits for a degree and is now director of social services for a nursing home. She influenced her children with her constant search for social justice.

Young Bernadette was a ballerina who aspired to professional dance. An injury during high school put an end to that dream. She described herself as a B student who played a lot while majoring in English lit at Oberlin College OH. That’s where she first encountered Women’s Studies and the second wave of feminism.

“I became a second wave sort of convert. I gobbled it up,” she said. After graduation in 1988 she taught English as a second language in Japan and continued to read all of the second wave stuff she could lay hands on.

Restless and ready for change, she did a semester in Women’s Studies at San Francisco State University and then moved to Kentucky, where her then-husband had family. While he started law school at the University of Kentucky, she studied sociology—and loved it.

“I told myself the whole way that I could quit at any time,” she said. She applied to Kentucky’s PhD program in late July 1992; two weeks later she secured admission and funding. She did a master’s thesis on Star Trek and a certificate in Women’s Studies. It was when working on her dissertation on exotic dancers that all the pieces finally coalesced.

Naked for money

“I’m interested in dance, sexuality and feminism—and exotic dancers sat at the nexus of that,” Barton said. The first time she visited a strip club one patron asked if she was the next dancer. Feeling vulnerable, she realized she could have been—she was young, attractive and had studied dance most of her life.

Her next strip club visit was as a grad student attending an academic conference in Las Vegas. That time she was struck by the dancers’ listless expressions and lack of grace. What kind of woman dances naked for money, and why? How does it change their lives?

Her comfort level increased as she met with more than 100 exotic dancers and held qualitative interviews with 36 of them, especially in San Francisco and Hawaii. Though she offered the women $40 per interview, still many stood her up. Was it fear? Shame? Without asking the women who didn’t show up, there was no way to know.

That’s a guiding theme of her work: Don’t label sex workers victims or vamps but instead listen to their personal stories. “They want to be treated as regular people,” she said. The men who pay them don’t care what they think or feel, just how they look. Neither do theorists who assume without asking.

She found them to be smart, funny and very supportive of each other. Working in the sex industry brought solidarity within the sisterhood and disdain for men.

Why do women dance naked? Money, money, money. Sex-related work is the one field that pays women better than men. Young women without credentials earn far more in 20 hours as strippers than in 40 hours at a conventional job.

About a third were working their way through college, a higher rate than among strippers overall because Barton’s sample was self-selected. As tuition costs escalate and student aid dwindles, stripping is a rare, practical way to get by. They’ve found other satisfactions. Many enjoy the praise and attention. They have considerable autonomy to decide when and whether to dance; one told her dancers get tipped and treated better than waitresses and have more opportunities to sit down. Some get a thrill out of the elements of risk.

On the other hand, stripping takes a toll on the women’s health, relationships and self-esteem. Smoky, noisy clubs encourage alcohol and illegal drugs. Dancers hesitate to talk about work outside the club because of the stigma. Men assume they are prostitutes. It’s hard to find housing or stable friendships.

Happily for readers, her dissertation advisor Dr. Susan Bordo was committed to clear writing. Barton’s dissertation became a crossover book attracting scholars as well as the average educated reader. The first printing sold out, with a reprint to follow.

Dancing forward

In May 2000 Barton received a PhD in sociology from the University of Kentucky. Jobs weren’t easy to come by. She applied for a visiting position at Eastern Kentucky University and didn’t get it. The interview went well enough that when someone at Morehead called someone from Eastern for a last-minute recommendation, her name came up. But two weeks before the beginning of classes she got a call from Morehead State University in eastern Kentucky, asking if she was available to teach. “I was in the right place at the right time,” she said.

After two years there as visiting faculty, Barton was able to parlay a job offer from Boise State University ID into a tenure track position in Morehead’s sociology department.

She also teaches Women’s Studies, which is a program at Morehead. “Nothing was given to me,” she said. She’s not afraid to ask for what she needs and doesn’t take it personally if the answer is no. She went to the chair and dean about her low salary and got a $4,000 increase.

“Morehead has been very supportive of me. They respect the fact that I do good research,” she said. The university’s Institute for Regional Analysis and Public Policy has helped fund her research. In a mainly teaching school, her dean and chairs value her research and consider her an institutional success story. They’ve reduced her teaching load this year to make time for her next round of research, this time on sexual orientation and religion.

Lesbians in the Bible belt

Her new research project is Talking Back: Lesbian and Gay Voices from the Bible Belt. Her qualitative interviews ad-dress coming out, homophobia and the impact of religious fundamentalism.

“Like most gay people, I feel frustrated, angry and oppressed by the intersecting forces of politics and religion,” Barton said. She hears a lot of hateful, misguided condemnation.

Like strippers, lesbians and gays are the subject of stereotypes and generalizations. “We are talked about but not talked to.” Hardly anyone takes the trouble to ask: What do you think about this? How does this affect your life?

So far she’s interviewed 12 people; she wants 35 to 50 in all. Finding them is easier than finding exotic dancers was. She’s active in the Kentucky Fairness Alliance, an LGBT group that lobbies and does work at the grassroots. She can expand her circle through friends of friends. She’s also doing a quantitative survey with a male senior colleague, using a convenience sample drawn from fairs and statewide gatherings.

This research should take about three years to complete. Then what? The question doesn’t worry her. She can do any job she might want to. She loves being a feminist and making a living at it, which she says embraces the ideals of feminism.

“I’m what the second wave of the women’s movement created,” she said. She doesn’t have or want kids. The accidental academic is shaping her scholarly course with intention and promise. “Part of my journey is finding out what my path will be.”

Contact her at or 606. 783.2710

Learn more about Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers (NYU Press, 2006) at

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