Professor Sally Slocum started taking her clothes off in public when she was 22 years old. As a University of Hawaii student she needed money and discovered that while waitresses averaged $70 a week, strippers were paid a union minimum of $125. Sally choreographed what she calls “a black-cocktail-dress, sophisticated-lady routine” and launched her career as Autumn Lee.
Today, 12 years after her farewell strip, the 38-year-old anthropologist still calls upon her career in burlesque for insights and anecdotes while teaching human sexuality at the University of Montana.
“The earliest formula for female contraception,” she told a recent class, “was recorded around 1850 B.C. It was crocodile dung mixed with honey.” Though Slocum often jokes that she now “preaches what she used to practice,” she finds sex education no laughing matter. Despite the sexual revolution, she says, “students are just as confused as they were 20 years ago. We are in the midst of crossing sex roles. We are unsure of our sexual identity.”
Her years of stripping taught her, she says, that “pretty ladies doing pretty things” is not unhealthy—”if the audience has other sexual outlets.” But she turned cynical about her customers. “I had a real disgust for the men and never associated with any of them. I learned not to look them straight in the eye. Stripping was never an erotic experience for me.”
She once roomed with a woman who ran a call girl operation. When Sally declined to take on a second profession, the prostitutes said she was stupid to pass up such easy money. “At least I do my work in private” was a familiar taunt.
Sally grew up in rural Clear Lake, Iowa, where her father was a commercial artist. Despite an active life—camping, ballet, sewing, music lessons—she says she was “an unpopular outcast, a tomboy; nobody ever asked me to play post office.”
By age 19, she was a drama major at the University of Iowa and had had her first sexual experience. “I lost my virginity with a poet,” she confides. “I had heard enough to know that it might not be enjoyable. It lived up to my expectations.” (She argues that these days girls are maturing earlier, which forces them to deal with sexuality before they are emotionally ready.)
Sally dropped out of school and bummed around San Francisco for nine months before going to the University of Hawaii in 1960. After becoming a stripper, she left school again to take it off in Sydney, Australia for $300 a week. But by 1966 she had given up the runway for a husband and graduate work in anthropology at the University of Colorado.
Not long after writing a paper titled “Woman the Gatherer: The Male Bias in Anthropology,” she got a divorce. In 1973 she married a family friend, Russell Smith. They moved to his hometown, Missoula, Mont., where he began working seriously on metal sculpture and she joined the university faculty.
At an anthropologists’ conference in 1975 her lecture—”Strippers and Their Customers: Interaction at the Bar”—won widespread attention without hurting her academic standing. She is now doing research in primate behavior. “We can learn a lot from them,” she says. Her next project: determining what effect pornography has on chimps.