Not All that Glitters… A Survivor’s Perspective on the Movie “Hustlers”

Every day, on my drive to work, I pass a movie theatre.  There is a large screen outside boasting the new movies.  On a recent morning, the featured movie was “Hustlers”. “Hustlers” is a film about a young woman struggling to make ends meet during the 2008 recession who ultimately turns to stripping. The film depicts her story as a new dancer befriended by the club’s main earner, “Ramona,” played by Jennifer Lopez.  Together, along with other dancers from the club played by Cardi B, Lizzo, Keke Palmer, and Lili Reinhart, they rob rich men of their money. The movie is based on the true story of Samantha Barbash. Barbash pleaded guilty to conspiracy assault and grand larceny and was sentenced to five years probation. The movie is marketed as a sexy, glamorous movie about strong women who “stick it to the man”. 

 As pictures of these box office beauties flashed upon the screen—women who are role models to so many young girls—I couldn’t help but feel a mix of emotions and reflect upon my own story--a painful story that too involved a strip club.

 I grew up in a middle class, primarily white, neighborhood. I was one of the only kids of color in my high school.  Looking different from the majority of girls in my class lessened my self-esteem.  My ethnic features disgusted me, and I resorted to pouring bleach and hydrogen peroxide over my head in an attempt to lighten my dark tresses. I cut my skin and restricted my food to help regulate the hate I felt for myself. 

 When I was 16 years old, I met a man named Chris*.  He was handsome, charismatic, but more importantly looked like me and made me feel like I belonged.  He told me about a party that he was having with some friends and asked if I wanted to come.  I jumped at the chance to be included in something.  What I thought was an innocent party, was nothing but a ruse to introduce me to the man who would become my exploiter, Jose*. 

I began spending my free time between work and school with these new friends.  It did not take long for me to realize that these men were engaging in gang-related activities—and I was an accomplice by association. Things quickly went from bad to worse, and before I knew it, I was in Rhode Island working in a strip club. I remember the feeling of being on stage for the first time.  Knowing that he was watching me, expecting me to make money for us.  As I watched the dollar bills float in the air and eventually land on my skin, I felt what I thought was validation--the temporary feeling of finally being good enough.

Soon after, Jose began to set me up in hotels for private parties.  I was told my first party would be small and that he would be there the whole time. I walked into the hotel room and instantly felt the panic set in.  The men in that room were all of the men that I thought were my friends these past few months. I was forced to have sex with all of them. While the physical injuries I sustained came and went, the emotional scars have stayed with me. For many years my life was filled with violence, addiction, and isolation. My journey back to myself was not easy and I could not have done it alone. 

My story is one of many stories of survivors of the commercial sex industry—as is Samantha Barbash’s.  As I reflect on my time stripping 25 years ago, I recall it as a shameful secret I held close.  However, today for many young people it is almost revered—they see it as sexy and a way to feel empowered or in control.  That too is a ruse.  There is nothing glamorous or empowering about the life I was in.  Like me, the young people we serve at My Life My Choice have been commercially sexually exploited and are victims of egregious crimes.  Like me, the girls we work with have been preyed upon by perpetrators feeding off of their vulnerabilities.  While the perception may be that stripping is harmless and the women who do it are there by choice, it comes at a price and often opens doors to places you never wanted to go. 

If you choose to see “Hustlers”, please know that it is a Hollywood version of one woman’s story. If you choose to see “Hustlers”, please also see the bigger picture in which reality is the star and not all that glitters is gold.

 Written by a member of the My Life My Choice Survivor Empowerment Team

*Names have been changed

ASHLEY BERMUDEZ