Rachel Met God. She’s a Stripper.
Written by Chinwe Oniah
It’s 11pm and the doors are open like Sunday morning.
Come one, come all, come as you are. Patrons are like parishioners. They come eager and ready to have their fill. They populate the seats like pews in a church during a Saturday night revival, necks craning to see the altar-like stage, their cash offerings in their hands. The lights dance about like angels on glass stained windows.
And then the girls come on stage. Patrons drink them up like holy communion. They offer up their cash and submit to the stupor of their dancing. They’re drunk in ecstasy. As the girls dance and twirl around the pole, patrons have their hands up in praise and reach out as if to touch the hem of Jesus’ garments. They’ve come to see girls, but the women in front of them aren’t just strippers. For photographer Rachel Lena Esterline, they’re goddesses, and this is their holy place. It’s Sunday and the strip club is Rachel’s church.
Rachel Lena Esterline is a photographer and sex work activist who has been photographing sex workers for six years. She is known across the industry by hundreds of girls who Rachel holds close to her heart like family. She stumbled into this profession by luck and the will of the “Goddess” that she prays to, after being let go as a stylist for the Huffington Post. She feels like her life has been preparing her for this work and journey.
“I didn’t realize in that second that in about two years later my life’s purpose would be to show women of sex work from a radical position of respect,” she says, “all the things that men did to us, to challenge our beliefs and demean us and separate us since myth.”
She has seen the not-so-happy side of the industry, the typical story we all hear about sex workers: they’re downtrodden, poverty stricken women. But, she has also seen women who love what they do and use sex work as a launch pad to other careers. She wants to tell the other story of the women who are happy, empowered, and who don’t feel ashamed of being sex workers.
“Honey, those girls have Master’s Degrees now, and those girls are UCLA professors, and they’re therapists for their own kind,” she says, “This is the one industry where women make 300 - 400 percent more than men, and we want to shame them? Like, I’m not about it. I’m not with it. I’m not with it at all.”
She grew up in a strict religious household in Portland, Oregon. Her mother is Jewish and found God before she was born, and her father was a pastor. However, she’s never been a believer. Even after being conceived following her father’s vasectomy, and her parents getting the daughter they prayed for, she says she “literally came out of the vagina like, ‘I don’t believe!’”
Nonetheless, her parents’ doctrines and practices were very much engrained in her. “They teach fear and I’ve had to unravel and unpack fear my whole life.” Her parents vilified sex workers as immoral women, women down on their luck, or women who’ve been trafficked into the clubs. Rachel didn’t fit any of these tropes when she took her friend up on her invitation to dance at a strip club in San Francisco when she 22 years old. She had never danced before.
“I auditioned at Gold Club, I got hired, I did one dance and I was like, this is not for me. But while in the club, I was standing in the locker room and I remember looking around being like, ‘Ok, this means something, but it’s not this.”
In 2010, Rachel worked as a style network editor curating a blogging network for the Huffington Post. As glamorous as the job sounds, she wasn’t happy. She didn’t realize it at the time, but she wanted out of that life. She had fallen out of love with fashion and disillusioned with consumerism. On a press trip to France with her Huffington Post team, they decided to visit a famous local church. Rachel had no intention of going in.
“You can’t bring a witch into church. No, I’m not going.” She was deadass. The last time Rachel was inside a church was at age 17. That same year she denounced Christianity in front of her parents and flew their nest. She wasn’t trying to go inside any church, least of all the venerated 735 year-old Cathedral of Our Lady of Reims.
One of her spiritual guides instilled in Rachel the story of Joan of Arc, the teenage girl who lead France to victory against the English, and was later executed for heresy at 19 years old. Despite her protest, her friend pulled her inside the church, and there in front of her was the statue of Joan of Arc. She broke down and cried.
“I had a visionary experience. I saw my whole career crumble. I saw a bunch of people that were in my life fall away and then I saw a rise. Like literally a rise, like a phoenix out of fire with a [smaller] group of people, but very strong,” she said. “What I didn’t see was that I was going to rise with women.”
Soon after she returned to New York, she was fired from her job. She refused to take up other job offers and two years later, returned back to San Francisco, couch surfing and figuring out her next steps. During her hiatus, she watched anything and everything she could on sex via HBO After Hours. “Rachel’s just sitting on the couch watching porn!” Her cousin would tell the rest of her family. Two weeks later she got a call. A friend asked if she wanted to take photos at a few strip clubs in San Francisco.
“I had never taken a photo before, but I was like ‘Yeah’ and it was like the first time I’d ever really lied. Like really lied.” One of the first places where she shot was at the Gold Club, where she had auditioned 13 years prior.
“Each time I shot I got better and better and better, so I realized that whatever I was working with – it felt like something was coming through me. I always say that the Goddess works through me to help women, help humans, but it feels like something else. It’s a gift.”
She makes idols out of sex workers who are otherwise normal women who go to work. They’re her Disney princesses and healers, women cloaked in majesty who are worth every dollar they get and more. They’re les pièces de résistance, modern Joans of Arc; they are goddesses. She praises the emotional labor they put into their work, their hustler mentalities, and the people they are outside of the clubs. But she wants everyone to know this: sex work is work. When the money stops, they are “glitter in the wind.”
“I don’t think people understand that sex work is just like any other job. You walk into that job [and] you’re not the carefree self that you are with your friends. You walk into that job as a professional.”
Her friend, porn performer, artist. and activist Arabelle Raphael, told KQED just how much work it takes to be a sex worker: lots of computer work, figuring logistics for shoots, working out rates and contracts; the stuff that’s done at any production company. With San Francisco’s diminishing sex industry, and laws that hurt sex workers, this isn’t a lucrative hobby. The hustle is real.
But for Rachel, the line between work and play is blurred. Her life informs her work and vice versa. What started out as a cool gig that fell into her lap developed into activism and real friendship. But, getting the women to put trust in her took work. It took a year to win over the women. In building those relationships she learned the ruling statute amongst sex workers that keeps them safe: consent.
“Consent for them is everything and in an isolated community like sex workers, the trust has to be there,” she says, “Consent, boundaries, agency, autonomy, what you want to believe those women don’t have, they have more than you could ever imagine.”
Much of her life is open to the girls as much as they’ve opened their lives to her. Rachel’s work isn’t an impersonal 9-5 job, there’s no separation between church and state. These women are her friends and community, not just subjects of her work. Through this work, she’s also learned to be comfortable with her own body. Littered across her Instagram page are photos of her with her subjects, in various states of undress. She shoots them in her home where there’s a pole in the middle of her living room, glimmering in the sunlight, surrounded by earth-tone decor and plants. For her, “this work is personal.”
Her show “Heaven is a Strip Club” just wrapped in New York last year at the well-noted Benrubi Gallery featuring many of her friends from clubs in San Francisco. She’s currently working on several film projects, one being a documentary about strippers, showcasing their lives inside and outside of the clubs. Her name is on the work, but this is more for them than it is for her. “Nothing feels better than the girls feeling better about themselves and them talking about themselves in an art gallery and how they’re being celebrated on the walls in the art world.”
Rachel is irreligious, but devotion is seen in her work without intention. Even in her home, hidden in plain sight is a small statue of the Star of David. She also has them as earrings. Some of her future plans revolve around a church. Jesus was a Jew irreverent of the religious law of the day. He was born from a virgin, sent by God to share his light, hung with the derelicts of society, and was hated by the moral and religious leaders for doing so. Rachel’s not Jesus, but her story runs parallel (Jew, miracle birth, hangs with strippers, frowned on by religious zealots). Even her parents believe God sent her to these women. Not all of her major life events make sense to her, but at 40 years old, there’s no place she’d rather be.
“These women are my life’s purpose.”