When Liv Osthus was in high school, she wanted to be the best at everything. She was a national merit scholar, a musician, a star athlete. So determined was she in her pursuit of excellence that, after reading a book on sports dieting, Osthus more or less stopped eating. The bouts of anorexia that followed nearly killed Osthus, but her struggle to overcome the disorder helped shape the rest of her life. “This drive for society’s view of success ended up biting me in the ass and that was very instructive. After that, I decided that success has to resonate from within.”
Two decades later, Osthus is a writer, an activist, and a musician. She has survived cancer, published two books, and released four albums. But her true passion, her mainstay profession is rare for Williams alums. For nearly twenty years, Osthus has worked as a stripper.
For many, the fact that a Williams alum would choose to work as a stripper is unfathomable. Society tells us that sex work is bad – that if a run of bad luck forced a college graduate to strip in order to pay the bills, it would be a short-term arrangement – something only discussed in hushed voices. Who would choose sex work? Who would turn down opportunities to write for The New York Times to perform nude at a local bar?
“Sex work is the one thing that intellectuals refuse to talk about. They think about race. They think about class, the economy, the environment. But they don’t want to think about why we unequivocally say that all sex work is bad.”
But to Osthus, stripping is not dirty or degrading – it’s not about sex or even physical beauty. To her, stripping is about performance. “Whenever I go to a strip club, I see art. What [the dancers] present on stage makes me reflect on my life, and that’s what great art does.”
Contrary to what you might expect, Osthus did not grow up frequenting clubs or working as a model. She is a preacher’s daughter from a small town in northern Minnesota. “I was the shyest person ever. I didn’t wear a swimsuit between ages 10 and 20.” When she thought about life after Williams, she was as lost as most people. “I thought maybe I’d like the sciences… I speak German and thought that maybe I’d be a German Literature professor, but it didn’t seem like it had enough.”
Osthus did not become a stripper in spite of her Williams education. In many ways, she became a stripper because of it. “I often say that it’s because of Williams that I became a stripper because I was so frustrated with the climate regarding class partly and at the way my peers looked at sex work… I remember people talking a lot about race, but people weren’t talking about [wealth]. I felt like, ‘I’m from a really small town, my Dad’s a preacher, I’m paying for this myself, and I’m kind of the odd one out here.’”
In reaction to the homogeneity she encountered, Osthus became fascinated in understanding the depths of the human experience beyond the trials of the elite. She became an anthropology major and spent a year studying in Tanzania and Indonesia. “I think my choice to strip and my choice to go to Africa are part of this desire to know what everyday life is like for the 99.9% where there isn’t the same food security or salary comfort… My whole Williams experience was learning how to think about everything from different angles – rather than just the way society tells you to think about things.”
During one of her senior sociology classes, Osthus read about how prostitution was liberating and empowering for many women in East Africa. For them, the ability to make money on their own freed them from a male-dominated economy, allowing them to go back to school or invest in entrepreneurial ventures. “That blew my mind – you could use your body through sex work to achieve independence. It’s not how we look at it in our culture, and it certainly didn’t agree with the women’s studies majors who said that sex work was unequivocally bad.”
During spring break of her senior year, Osthus went to her first strip club. “I had training in acting and dance, and the dancer was mesmorizing. There were couples in the audience, it wasn’t just dudes, it was a dance performance… I found the whole thing fascinating. There’s a sociological thing happening, there’s economics, there’s feminism. It seemed to take all of my interests, including performing, and put it in one career.”
After that trip, Osthus returned to Williams obsessed. She found herself sketching stripper outfits in her notebooks and day dreaming about possible stage names. When she graduated, she moved to Portland, Oregon – the stripping capital of the US.
Despite her desire to strip, Osthus hesitated. Though she’d lived much of her Williams life fighting convention, Osthus was afraid of the perception of stripping.
For six months she waited. “I worked as a temp for the city. My job was: “enter XYZ, 123” over and over for eight hours. Talk about degrading. You’re stuck in a chair with fluorescent lighting, and you have prescribed lunch breaks.”
Finally, when her money was about to run out, she decided to give the stage a try. “When you make $40 in one song, and you’re naked on stage and realize that it’s not such a big deal, then I was in. But even the first six months I was struggling with, ‘have I changed? Am I amoral now? Can I be my dad’s daughter?’ There was a real trial period where I was struggling with new identity. There is a societal damnation that is very real.”
Eighteen years later, Osthus has found normalcy in her profession and insists she enjoys her job more and more everyday. “I really love the connection [stripping] has and the immediacy… I’ve always been an actor, but this is more rewarding because it’s unscripted. I like to challenge people, and it’s a great venue for that… You meet people anywhere else, and they wouldn’t be as open. You have an amazing opportunity to change someone’s mind a little bit, and partly because you’re naked, they pay more attention.”
Through her work as a stripper, Osthus has befriended many of her personal heroes, including the director Gus Van Sant. She has become a vocal advocate for stripper’s rights and is a frequent guest on news shows. She has written extensively for publications like the Village Voice and The New York Times.
But those are the external metrics of success – the things she might have based her identity on back in high school. To Osthus, her real successes are her community of friends and her commitment to her own integrity. “I could’ve become a doctor or a lawyer. There are certain jobs where if you go through all the doors, you’re going to get “success.” It’s much harder to pay attention to what your inner yearnings are and to honor those. Having done that for 20 years, I’m proud of myself for having said no when I needed to say no.”