Sky Hopscotch (@thisisnotskyhopscotch) likes to count her money — like, stacks and stacks of money — on TikTok. "This is what a typical night for me at my job looks like at the club. Crawling around onstage, scooping up ones and fives and tens and twenties. Sometimes even hundreds, if I'm lucky," she says in one of her most viewed videos. "And while that might look degrading to you, it isn't to me."
Sky downloaded TikTok at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and quickly discovered StripTok, an online community dedicated to helping new dancers by answering questions and demystifying an industry that's too often stigmatized and misunderstood. Part of that demystification includes, yes, showing off her earnings, often in response to ignorant comments — including claims that she's "going to hell."
"This money provides my family with everything we need," Sky says in the video, picking up bills by the handful. "I have no student loan debt regarding my biology degrees. I contribute greatly to the economy and I pay my taxes, and the other great thing about this money is" — she lowers her voice and winks — "half of it came from your dad."
Watching dancers count their money and fight off trolls can feel mesmerizing, and it's easy to lose hours doing just that. But while money-counting — and the general allure of the dancers themselves — are what entice viewers into StripTok, it isn't the cheeky videos that keep them there. Instead, it's the supportive, warm community and glimpses into dancers' day-to-day lives.
"I think that when myself and other StripTokers put ourselves out there, it's opening a way for a lot of other sex workers and dancers who might not have normally come out and come forth about being a dancer because of fear of judgement, because of the way society already sees us," Sky tells Refinery29.
TikTok was the most downloaded app of 2020: Over 315 million people joined in the first quarter of the year alone, no doubt due to the onset of the pandemic and millions of people staying at home who needed something to occupy their time. At the same time, strippers were suddenly unable to work at clubs, and many turned to online work. According to research from IBISWorld, revenue within the strip club industry fell by around 17.4% in 2020. Venues are open again now, but the industry still isn't the same: Dancers say they're making significantly less money, and there's a more somber mood at clubs.
But on TikTok, strippers have been able to build a following and monetize their online work — and also reach, help, and support each other. Isabella Davenport (@bella_is_bae347) is another dancer who's made an impact this way. When she travels to dance, people often recognize her and let her know how much her TikToks have helped. "People have told me, 'You have taught me what to accept, what not to accept, that this is okay, this isn't okay,'" she tells Refinery29. "I can really ignore the negativity because people tell me that I've taught them so much."
Like Sky, Isabella started posting videos around the start of the pandemic in spring 2020. For a while, she had wanted to share her personal experiences and story. Isabella entered the industry after having earned a degree — "more often than not, it happens the other way," she says — and her TikTok journey is all about representation. In her videos, she answers questions about stripping, shows off her stage outfits, and slams stereotypes about dancing.
"Did you know..." she writes in one video, "6 out of 10 [strippers] are college graduates, 3 out of 10 are ACTUALLY paying their way through school, 89% of dancers come from religious homes, 91% report being close to their parents, 7 out of 10 dancers report feeling empowered through their line of work, [and] 3 out of 10 are married women." And always, in the comments, she encourages nervous, insecure, and new dancers to feel comfortable with and confident in their work.
Above all, Isabella wants to challenge frequent conceptions of what a dancer acts and looks like. "I know a lot of women who have degrees. They have families. I know wives that do this job. We're moms, and we have so many different things that we need to take care of," she says. "I definitely like to see the fact that we are telling our stories to let people know that, you know, we're not the typical stereotypes that you may hear about, or how we are portrayed in the media."
But it's a difficult balance. StripTok dancers are tasked with both dispelling myths about the industry and making sure they aren't painting an unrealistic portrait of their line of work. In particular, Isabella wishes people used the platform to address the issue of substance abuse within the industry, which often involves young and vulnerable strippers being given substances and then being taken advantage of and put into dangerous situations.
"I'm trying to get into talking about the negatives of the industry, because I definitely feel like online, it is portrayed in a positive light," Isabella says. "A lot of people really don't get into the negative standpoint within the industry. They really talk about the money. And I feel like, in a sense, I'm kind of guilty of that as well — of seeing the money. But we don't really get into the scary side of it all."
Sky also worries that StripTok could give new dancers unrealistic expectations. Before she started posting her own content, she just saw video after video of strippers counting their money. "I was like, 'I don't even see one video on here that's showing, like, 'Oh, hey, I only left with fifty dollars,'" she remembers. "I was like, you can't con an entire young generation of women who are just now 18, 19, 20 years old, who are thinking that they're going to walk into the strip club business and make thousands of dollars in one night. It doesn't really happen that way."
The money count videos, though, are what get views — that's why Taylor (@notaccountant4lifer) posts them. "To get the reach was to normalize it," she tells Refinery29. "Ultimately, why I posted videos of myself counting money was to normalize it and to get the conversation started, to get the dialogue going."
But, as Taylor explains, there's the massive, ongoing issue of TikTok deleting accounts and videos that even talk about stripping. This is why StripTokers often use coded language — #stripper becomes #skripper, and dancers cheekily call themselves "accountants," a nod to a viral TikTok joke that nobody asks you questions about work when you tell them you're an accountant. "We have to use the word 'accountant' in order to make sure we're not deplatformed, because making our accounts is a lot of work," Taylor says. Refinery29 has reached out to TikTok for comment on this.
Taylor also acknowledges that she's in the unique position of appearing on people's For You pages. Along with the censorship of strippers and sex workers, there have been many ongoing claims that TikTok bans or shadowbans people of colour, and in 2019, the company itself admitted to suppressing videos by disabled, queer, and fat creators.
"I have a lot of privilege," Taylor says. "I'm white; I'm actually bisexual, but I look straight; I'm blonde, I'm blue-eyed. I think because I look that way… I popped up on a lot of people's For You pages because of that." Still, shortly after she reached a following of 160,000, Taylor had her account deleted without warning — something that was frustrating, since she was hoping to do "100% online, virtual work."
This kind of censorship is undoubtedly specific to certain industries, but StripTokers want viewers to realize that their job is a job: It isn't always more glamorous, thrilling, or risky than any other. As Sky puts it, "At the end of the day, I think most people like their jobs and don't like their jobs. Stripping is really no different."
Bella just hopes StripTok shows non-dancers that strippers are regular people — and smart, successful regular people, at that. "You probably walk by more sex workers, more strippers than you'd think in your every day," she tells Refinery29. "I'm starting to see that a lot of entertainers are telling people that we are businesswomen, and we actually do have our degrees. And, you know, when we have our heads on, we are focused on something. We can accomplish our goals a lot faster than most people because of how much money we make."
Maybe it's that quality of the videos, the way they reflect so many people taking charge of their destiny, that makes them so compelling. Or maybe, as I told Taylor, the appeal of StripTok — at least to me — is that it just feels so positive. It's clear how much these dancers love what they do, and the sense of community — of women supporting each other, defending each other, encouraging each other — is palpable. "When I first walked into a strip club, that's the exact feeling that I had," Taylor responds. "So it's great that you could see it through your phone."