What happens to strippers as they age?
From one vantage point, stripping and the adult entertainment industry at large may offer more opportunity for "older" women than even mainstream Hollywood. "Mature" women actually benefit from certain audience tastes, those in the stripping business attest, and there's a proven audience for that niche. Plus, the main requirement for maintaining success in the business is specific yet simple: being sexy.
But a closer look at the stripping world reveals it to be a meritocracy of sex appeal that's measured by society's typical measuring stick of youthful beauty. There are indeed women who maintain stripping careers longer than some Hollywood stars do in their biz; but it's largely due to their ability to fit the challenging standards all women are held to.
More room for older women than you'd expect: When it comes to adult entertainment, including stripping, there is reportedly a market for older women — in this case, women around 30 and up, although it is hard to find data on stripper demographics. "There is no question that women in their 30s and 40s are more celebrated and appreciated in adult entertainment," Steven Hirsch, owner and co-founder of adult empire Vivid Entertainment, told Mic.
That fact seems evident in porn, where viewers can search among the seemingly endless varieties for categories like "MILF" and "Mom" porn. In fact, "MILF" was the third most popular search term on Pornhub according to its research site Pornhub Insights. (However, there's no guarantee the videos starred women of any age range in particular).
Hirsch also claims viewers don't discriminate as much as we might assume when it comes to porn. "Guys simply like all sorts of women, and we can see the statistics readily on movie selection through VividTV that ages, shapes and sizes are no barriers to fans," he said.
When it comes to stripping, Hirsch recognized that fact when he recently expanded the Vivid brand to include an upscale chain of gentlemen's clubs with locations in New York, Los Angeles and Houston, hiring women of various ages. Indeed, a 2012 University of Nevada report on Las Vegas' sex industry found that while the average age of a Vegas erotic dancer was 24, "the largest growth sector includes dancers over 55 with several 65+ aged performers."
Does "maturity" have a certain allure? Thomas Campbell, manager at Vivid Cabaret NYC, says without hesitation that older women are not only 100% welcome but particularly appreciated: "I've not only noticed a trend of dancers that are 30 years and older being more accepted, and living a healthy inspirational lifestyle ... with these ladies being so in tune with their health comes a much more youthful and attractive appearance."
Beyond looks, some exotic dancers say they use the wisdom they've gained with age to their advantage. "I've actually found older strippers usually more mentally sound," New Orleans-based dancer Marissa, a feisty redhead, told Mic.
"I started late by stripper standards. Starting at 26 was better than 18 because I was more wary of drugs and the possibility of being recruited by a pimp wasn't as likely," no small thing in an industry unfortunately rife with manipulation and exploitation.
Plus, Marissa noted, "Older dancers have a niche market of middle-aged men who come in alone and appreciate maturity."
The "maturity" argument may reflect the long-held conventional wisdom about female sexual peaks. Sex researcher Alfred Kinsey's landmark study of over 5,000 women identified a sexual "peak" for females in the early to mid-30s. Although the scientific concept of peaks been critically re-examined in recent years, many women in their 30s and beyond say they feel a boost in self-confidence, sexually and otherwise, the older they get — which could theoretically contribute to their appeal.
In reality, stripping is an unforgiving meritocracy of sex appeal: While older women may be more confident, they still need something else to succeed in adult entertainment: looks. The adult industry has room for older women as long as they maintain sex appeal, and that still requires them to fall within society's confines of "sexy," which skew younger.
"I don't think there's a problem with being older as long as you look good. If you don't look good naked, you shouldn't be dancing," said Kelsey Nicole Brooks, who started her stripping career at age 18. Seven years later, she's gearing up for her retirement.
"My deadline is 28. I feel like if I don't quit then, I won't quit at all," she said. She still regularly competes in fitness competitions, which has her diligent about exercise and diet, and her plan for retirement is to pursue a career as an aerialist.
Marissa has stayed in the game because she enjoys the flexibility of her dancing lifestyle and the fact that it allows her to focus on her true passion, writing. Her Diablo Cody-esque blog provides a glimpse inside her life and experience in the industry, which isn't all glamour and glitz. That said, she's well aware of society's age pressures.
"My current absolute deadline is age 35, but that's being generous. I'm 31 and hope to be in a normal career and married within the next one and a half to two years," Marissa said.
The reality of the business' beauty standards came to the fore when 44-year-old Kim Ouwroulis and 45-year-old Barbara Sanderson filed lawsuits in 2008 against their strip club employer in Canada after allegedly being fired for being too old. Despite what club owners like Hirsch and Campbell may say, the majority of strippers still appear to be younger, with various reports citing an average age of 24.
But there are older women who make it work: The irony is that the elusive definition of "sex appeal," which makes stripper age discrimination cases hard to litigate, can sometimes benefit the women who actively want to stay in the industry. Women who maintain their youthfulness and stamina — essentially stay "sexy" enough to keep doing the job — can find themselves with careers.
Gina DePalma has turned adult entertainment industry into a long-term profession, having started her career as an ecdysiast at the age of 13 in Texas with the help of a fake ID.
Now in her late 40s, retired from dancing and living in New York City, DePalma continues to makes her living off her sensual skill set. She works as a dominatrix and has her own series of XXX DVDs that she promotes on her website. She can always fall back on the fact that she's a licensed esthetician, but she's perfectly happy working in the adult industry.
"If I can look myself in the mirror and live with myself, then why do you care?" she told Mic about those who may point fingers or judge. Miss DePalma is confident in adult entertainment and doesn't plan on stopping. "If they're still paying, I'm still doing it."