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Guest Writer

The business of selling attention
A stripper tells the truth
by Danielle

f I were to describe my job in the language of an employment ad, my description might sound something like this: I am one of a team of independent contractors working in a very busy and rapidly growing industry. I am a resourceful, outgoing, energetic and self-motivated person with strong communication skills who provides excellent customer service.

There are outstanding financial opportunities available in this field. My job is extremely flexible: I create my own schedule and choose my own hours. I can work full-time, part-time or even overtime – coming and going as I please. My job, however, is not for everyone. The rewards of this profession require that I have the fortitude to manage my business myself and bravely assume its risks. Intrepid, persevering and enterprising, I am – in every respect that matters – that quintessential American hero: an entrepreneur.

I take my clothes off for money.

Apparently, a large segment of the public does not regard stripping as a laudable example of American entrepreneurship. Quite the opposite, in fact. My job is commonly the object of scorn, misapprehension and stereotyping, which extends to myself and my colleagues.

Strippers are typically considered by the public to be stupid, uneducated, inane – most likely drug addicts or prostitutes. Many people assume we are all battered or otherwise abused girlfriends, wives or daughters. To others we are, if not actually immoral, at least desperately misguided, probably damaged individuals with low self-esteem. Some people even go so far as to accuse us of betraying our gender by our choice of work.

Evidently, many people have strong feelings about what I do for a living. The fact is, though, that most of these people have no idea what my job is really about. Most people have never been in a strip club. And of those who have, most have come from the outside as customers or observers; researchers and investigators digging up material for a book, news article, screenplay or documentary.

These media feature very few dancers themselves, and when they do, tend to feature inarticulate or unrepresentative dancers. The strippers you see on "The Jerry Springer Show," on post-midnight cable TV programs, or in local news 30-second sound bites, are chosen for their entertainment value (in other words, ability to draw viewers, hence dollars, to the network), and as such tend to have "colorful" qualities: outrageous, provocative and extraordinarily superficial characteristics meant to engage a voyeuristic American public.

My colleagues and I rarely find our own extensive knowledge and experience of what we do for a living accurately reflected by the books and newspapers, documentaries and movies, conversations and conclusions of the world at large.

This collective ignorance about stripping is ironic, given that the public is most likely going to be put into the position of having to vote on issues of public nudity.

On March 29, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Erie, Penn., had the right to require nude dancers to cover up while performing. The decision reverses a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which said that Erie's ordinance was an unconstitutional restriction of freedom of expression.

The ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision are beginning to be felt in communities across the nation because it essentially expands the ability of government to regulate, or even eliminate, sexually oriented businesses. All over the country, citizen groups that disapprove of stripping now have a tool in their hands for accomplishing their agenda. Ballot-measure-happy Oregon, with the OCA and factions like it, will certainly be no exception.

I want the public, therefore, to understand me and my job.

This is not the same thing as saying that I want to defend it. My purpose here is not to defend wholesale the stripping biz, but to paint a picture that portrays it accurately for a change. There are unfortunate, even dangerous sides to the business, but they are not ones most people are aware of or have even considered.

Likewise, many of the dangerous sides most people think they know about are often myths based on nothing but ignorance, prejudice and self-righteousness. It's tempting for people outside the stripping business to criticize or deride it, and it is just as tempting for people inside the business to want to defend and justify it. But the stripping business simply cannot be categorized in these ways. It is a complex phenomenon that exists and flourishes for complex reasons. It is not black or white, but many shades of gray.

Because it is rarely perceived that way, I offer my insider perspective on the following list of preconceptions about the stripping industry:

The stripping industry is only about sex.

The issues surrounding stripping would be so much simpler if this was true, but it simply isn't, or at least mostly is not, true. Of the men who come to the club where I work, I would say that perhaps only one-third come for the sexual gratification of seeing a woman prance around naked on a stage or near them during a table dance. Most of the others seem to come for emotional reasons.

Sex is only the front line of a noisy little battle in an infinitely larger and more mysterious war: the need for human contact, attention, love. For every hundred men who go to strip clubs, there are a hundred reasons why they are drawn there, and lust is only one of them.

Yes, there are the men who whoop it up with their friends during bachelor parties, and those who are looking to buy sex for the night – usually mistaken in thinking they might find it at a strip club. But there are also lonely men whose wives have died or left them. There are men who are socially dysfunctional when it comes to women: the only relationships they feel they can be successful in are those they can control, the ones they can buy.

From feelings of fear, vulnerability and self-doubt, some men use strip clubs to escape from the real world of authentic experiences with women, redirecting their need for sexual and emotional contact to a non-threatening arena in which a real relationship can never be realized.

There are overweight, unattractive, socially inept, shy, physically disabled, short, mentally disabled, eccentric, poor and foreign men whom women have repeatedly rejected. Some take comfort from relationships with strippers who are paid not to leave or reject them. There are men who look for companions, and men who rebel against girlfriends or wives. There are men who are curious virgins. Religious ideology compels some men to unsuccessfully deny their sexual selves; for them, the strip club is a kind of compromise by which it is less sinful to watch a naked woman than to actually have sex. There are men who only want the comfort of an hour's escape from their problems.

And then there is the most common reason of all: men who once came in for any one of these reasons and continue to return – having convinced themselves that they are in love with one of the strippers.

In a society that expects women to ask for human contact and emotional closeness, men are only expected to ask for sex. Accordingly, men come to strip clubs for sexual reasons. But for most of the men, sex isn't the real reason; it is only the excuse.

The stripping business is less about selling lust than it is about selling attention.

My table-dances, therefore, are only one part sexual provocativeness. The other part is personal interaction. Between dances, during dances – over hours or weeks or months or years – I discover what my customers do for a living and what they do for fun. I find out if they are married, in love, happy with their relationships or their sex lives. I learn about their personalities, merits and shortcomings. I discover their hopes and needs, and what they want from me. I learn who they are.

And if a man is too reserved or shy to reveal himself over time in confidences, he does so with eye contact, small-talk, his comfort at my proximity, and by the fact that he returns over and over again to see me.

Most patrons are regulars who come back repeatedly to talk to a specific dancer. Fully 80 percent of my income comes from these regulars; it is the same for my colleagues. My workplace is a strange, paradoxical place full of hope and frustration, hunger and gratification, manipulation and compassion, fellowship and the illusion of fellowship.

And illusions – whether useful or detrimental – serve a purpose.

A flood of crime, drugs, alcohol abuse and other unsavory behavior manifests around the vicinity of adult entertainment establishments.
According to Daniel Linz, a professor in the Departments of Communication and Law & Society at the University of California at Santa Barbara, the 10 studies most frequently cited to justify the regulation of sexually oriented businesses are "with few exceptions ... seriously and often fatally methodologically flawed."

Such flaws include the failure to take into account the impact of bars and increased police surveillance on crime rates, inadequate matching of the neighborhoods surrounding "adult" businesses, failure to distinguish between types of "adult" businesses and subjective survey responses.

In a detailed analysis of the studies in question, Linz, together with University of California/Santa Barbara Ph.D. candidate Paul Bryant and attorney Bradley J. Shafer, conclude that "those studies that are scientifically credible demonstrate either no negative secondary effects associated with adult businesses, or a reversal of the presumed negative effect."

As a stripper who has worked in the business on and off for about 10 years, I can attest that these alleged "negative secondary effects" are hard to identify. There is no prostitution near my club, nor do my colleagues and I entertain favorite customers in our cars. There are no vomiting drunks, no trench-coated lurkers in bushes, no child-molesters combing nearby streets to terrorize neighborhood innocents. I have never witnessed a drug deal. The doormen who escort the dancers to their cars after their shifts must be foiling the machinations of the rapists who are surely hovering behind the club, because I haven't spotted one.

The criminal incidents that have occurred have been relatively minor affairs of fake IDs or the occasional broken car window or car robbery – nothing that doesn't already happen in the vicinity of any "respectable" business such as a restaurant, bar or disco.

But despite this lack of proven "negative secondary effects" associated with adult businesses, certain stereotypes persist about the men who frequent strip clubs.

Many people like to characterize such men as being tainted in some way. To these people, the patrons of strip clubs must be immoral, perverted exploiters of women. At the very least, they must be ignorant of decent behavior, good taste and appropriate boundaries. They must be weak or damaged and, therefore, rather pathetic.

At worst, they are perceived to be potential criminals: rapists, flashers, purchasers of prostitutes, users of drugs and alcohol and corrupters of children. They must be kept from schools and decent neighborhoods, and if they cannot be banished from society altogether, they must at least be zoned to the periphery of society.

On the surface, this "offended" attitude of society toward the patrons of strip clubs might seem like a contradiction, because American society is, in fact, itself obsessed with sex. Like an insecure teen-ager wearing too much makeup, we flirt with the world, demanding to be paid attention to, demanding to be noticed as breezy, uninhibited, unconventional, sexy.

Our actors, politicians, conversations and clothes are sexy. We use sexy imagery in advertising to sell everything from cars to hamburgers. From the sensationalism that passes for local and national news broadcasting to the fodder for voyeurism that is reality TV – we celebrate audacity and revel gleefully in our ability to be controversial and shocking (and make lots of money from it). And then we smugly brag to other countries about our openness, tolerance and freedom to live the way we choose.

There is more than just a little hypocrisy in all this.

In point of fact, we are, as Shakespeare says so well, a society that "doth protest too much." Our very vehemence about demonstrating our openness has the result of pointing to its exact opposite and, far from being sexually uninhibited, many of us are actually the true heirs of our Puritan forebears: we are ashamed of and feel guilty about our sexual selves; we are embarrassed to acknowledge the pleasure of sexual desire and its overwhelming power over us.

Sex is something we are continually struggling against. We turn sex into an adversary that we try to control by denying its power over us. But its power is real and unmistakable, so the struggle never ends, our fascination never ends and the mystery and power of sex grows and grows – hence the proliferation of sexually oriented businesses.

What's left for a decent, moral American to do? Simple: we demonize lust. And then we demonize those people – such as strip club patrons – who engage openly in the struggle against it.

My customers do not deserve to be demonized. They are no more likely to be rude, perverted or dangerous than any other clientele at any other public business. If we truly do live in an open, tolerant, "free" country that encourages multiple points of view, then the men who choose to frequent strip clubs are entitled to have their choice respected and not be negatively stereotyped for it. If we do not want to be considered a society of hypocrites, then individuals and individual groups of people should not have the right to determine (and thereafter legislate) what "morality" is for everybody else.

In the stripping industry, a male clientele holds power over strippers.

In the course of my employment as a stripper, I have heard innumerable variations on this theme.

An apartment manager urges me to be careful as I drive home because one of the "weirdoes" might just follow me. A college friend gazes seriously into my eyes and intones, "you're giving up your power to those men, Danielle, by allowing them to objectify you." A therapist friend asks me how I manage to handle all the abuse I must get on stage and during table dances. Even pop music has an opinion to offer: in her song "Private Dancer," Tina Turner tunefully urges me "not to think of them as human," but instead to block out my customers' disgusting, predatory attention by keeping my mind on the money and my "eyes on the wall."

If Tina Turner has ever done a table dance, she was probably not very good at it.

Every successful stripper is a businesswoman who knows that ignoring her customers would make her absolutely no money. I, too, am a businesswoman. Men come to me in the vulnerable role of supplicants seeking attention, which I sell to them. My job is in sales. A good salesperson is necessarily a good manipulator. Because I am a good salesperson, I am the one in control, not the men.

Persuading men to buy table dances means using my natural qualities like tools. It has less to do with the shape of the body than it does with the shape of the mind. It has to do with instinctively knowing whom to ask, what to say to them, who to be at different times. It means being a good actress; being smart and perceptive; knowing how to be empathetic when empathy is required; and knowing the precise, strategic moment to reveal enticing glimpses of my "real" self.

Surprised at our intelligence, education or authenticity as "normal" women who are not stereotypically depraved or stupid, many men believe they have stumbled upon the Grand Exception: the pearl in a sea of empty oyster shells, someone fit for their fantasies and, sometimes, someone to save.

Getting dances means doing my best to maintain my precarious position on this pedestal of theirs. In other words, getting dances is a crafty business. They're the fish and I'm the fisherwoman; I have to figure out which lure works best.

One time when I explained to a novice coworker my technique for getting table dances, she called me ruthless. She was right. At work, any stripper must be ruthless in order to be any good. This is one of the dark sides to the business of which the general public is unaware. This is one of the things about stripping that I am uneasy about – a feeling shared by many of my colleagues.

The average person might say, "Come on, if you are manipulating the men, they deserve it. When they come into the club, they must know it's a game; they must know what they're getting into."

The fact is that many men come to my club knowing our interaction is a game, but leave believing they're on the road to being in love. It is a stripper's job to make this happen. It's her job to make them forget it's a game. In fact, that is the game. And it's not the one the men think they are playing when they come into the club.

Most of a stripper's money will come from these men who, week after week, come back to see her, who believe that she cares for them, who routinely spend their entire paychecks on her and who have forgotten that it's a game.

It's a kind of addiction. And whether one calls it an addiction to attention, variety, infatuation, hope or even simply to lust, it's an addiction just the same.

My feelings about my part in this addiction are deeply ambivalent. Like a bartender, I am simply serving the public what it asks for. These men are living the way they choose to and it is not my responsibility to judge them or to decide what they need.

On the other hand, my work requires me to be systematically manipulative and disingenuous, and that bothers me – sometimes quite a lot. I am walking a tightrope between idealism and pragmatism and, in the end, self-interest wins: if it is legal, possible and justifiable, why not do it?

I am not alone in choosing this path; it is practically the credo of modern America. As a society, we compromise our ideals every day in hundreds of small, imperceptible ways.

Waitresses flirt with men to get bigger tips. Advertisements manipulate people with sexual imagery, half-lies and small print. Businesses hire people for 30 hours a week instead of 40 to avoid providing health insurance. It just goes on and on. We live in an opportunistic country. We have given money the power to save us.

Stripping is no more opportunistic than most other professions. It just goes against the moral grain of most peoples' preconceptions, which have little to do with its real problems or with its advantages for working women.

Strippers are either prostitutes, prostitutes-in-training or promiscuous.

Whether a strip club offers only "stage dancing" to its clientele, or also "table dancing" or "lap dancing," it does not offer sex.

Nevertheless, the public routinely lumps sexually oriented businesses together. People assume that stripping and prostitution are a happy sisterhood, skipping merrily hand-in-hand down the same twisted path.

Prostitution and stripping may share sexuality as a "product," but there is a difference between stimulating a man's imagination sexually through dancing and stimulating a man's body to orgasm through sexual physical interaction.

It is the men's fantasy that we are sexually available; it is not the truth.

Ironically, it is a stripper's job to encourage this very fantasy that will result in derogatory stereotypes about the promiscuity of strippers. Strippers who are good at their jobs never tell the men that they are married, or have boyfriends, or are gay. They never confess to their customers that he is only a customer to them; if he is uninteresting, ridiculous, or repellent to them he will never know.

I never say to a customer, "I'm not interested in a casual sexual relationship; love and sex should go together," even though this is what I believe. My job is to encourage my customer to imagine that I am a skinny little tree that will eventually fall to the battering of his axe. And though my income to a certain extent depends upon the success of this deception, it is still a deception. The gap between stripping and prostitution is as wide as the gap between fantasy and reality.

Still, both businesses are often categorized together for other reasons.

The public seems to believe that strippers and prostitutes lack emotional stability or scruples, and that strippers, therefore, cannot erect appropriate boundaries between the two professions. This is not necessarily true. Women who have learned to use their sexuality as a tool through stripping also can be expected to know when to stop using it. Stripping does not necessarily lead logically to prostitution or to a life of rampant promiscuity in which women use and then discard men according to their material and skewed emotional needs.

Most of us know how to draw a line between our jobs and our lives and we stand rigidly behind that line. We do not date customers. We do not look at the men in our lives the way a cat looks at its supper dish. We are as monogamous as most people are. We date and marry decent men; we suffer the normal heartbreaks and disappointments; we fall in love and have kids; we live our lives without abuse and dark tragedy. In these ways most of us are just like anybody else.

Our profession does, however, have a negative effect on the healthy sexuality that most of us bring to it. Contrary to popular belief, one downside of stripping is not a tendency to turn our sexuality into "learned" behavior that we use to manipulate others throughout our lives.

The problem is that we run the risk of not wanting to be sexual at all. Understanding the enormous importance of erecting a wall between our jobs and our lives, we protect ourselves by creating a distinction between the manipulative behavior in which we engage at work and the integrity we practice in our private lives.

Ironically, the manipulative behavior of this work leads us to unconsciously align our sexual selves with this pretend, theatrical, inauthentic world. And since we don't want to be inauthentic with the ones we love, we simply stop wanting to be sexual. Many colleagues who have been in the business for a while agree that this is happening to them, though it didn't happen right away.

If systematically faking our sexual interest can affect strippers so detrimentally, "faking" actual sex must be even more detrimental to prostitutes. This instinctive understanding of prostitution's profoundly damaging effects helps strippers to draw a clear line between themselves and prostitutes.

Strippers cannot possibly have good reasons for stripping.

Given the emotional drawbacks of stripping, its potentially unpredictable income and uncertain career security, and the fact that strippers are routinely misunderstood and negatively stereotyped by the public, why would any intelligent woman put herself through it?

There are perfectly good reasons. The earning potential of stripping is outstanding for those who are good at their jobs, allowing many strippers to make a decent living at less (sometimes much less) than 30 hours a week. But the biggest reason most of us choose this career is that stripping is flexible, allowing most of us to make our own schedules. We can disappear for days or weeks or months and still have a job when we get back from our vacations, illnesses or other careers. The freedom we get from stripping is very hard to walk away from.

These rewards of stripping, however, evidently are not very apparent to the general public. For example, many of my customers and other acquaintances know that I have an English degree from one of the best colleges in the country.

"So," they often ask me, "why is someone as intelligent and resourceful as you are working as a stripper?"

This question irritates not only me, but also every stripper I know. We live in a country in which it is five times more profitable to take your clothes off than to teach a child to read, an immigrant to speak English, or even a community college student to write a coherent essay.

How many people in conventional professions can honestly say they are doing their jobs for the sheer love of it, and not for the convenience or the money?

Stripping has allowed me to organize my life the way I want to. I have had time to travel, to take classes, to work as an actress, to pursue a writing career. Saddled with a chronic illness, stripping has allowed me to be sick whenever I need to be and still retain my job.

My colleagues have equally good reasons for stripping. A few are college and graduate students, stripping to avoid the crippling student debt that awaits most Americans who choose to educate themselves. Other colleagues have saved enough money to start and support families, with or without husbands. Stripping allows one woman I know to have the time and the means to care for her sick mother. Stripping allows others the time to pursue artistic careers such as painting, costume design, jewelry making and dance. And rather than work for ridiculously unlivable low wages – or enter the even more ridiculously unlivable welfare system – many who do not come from educationally privileged backgrounds have chosen the independence of stripping in order to provide for their families with dignity.

Many people like to point to stripping as somehow causing or propagating the condition of single motherhood, lack of education, drug addiction, etc.

That is about as logical as saying that welfare causes people to lose their jobs instead of the other way around. No – though flawed and inadequate, welfare is a kind of refuge for the poor and unemployed. Similarly, stripping is a kind of haven or refuge for those in our society whose circumstances would, in a conventional job, deny them a decent standard of living and quality of life.

Most strippers, therefore, have perfectly good reasons for doing this demanding job, and they are the same reasons most workers have for doing their difficult jobs: we are trying to give ourselves the best lives we can, given our individual circumstances.

I don't know anybody who is wealthy from stripping, but almost everybody I know has the time and enough money to do whatever in their lives they consider a priority.

Remember the vacations you never had, the book you never wrote, the countries you never visited, the classes you never took, the people you never met or got into a relationship with, the children you rarely played with, the person you never had a chance to become?

Unlike many Americans, we are in control of our days. And, as any entrepreneur will tell you, that is an exhilarating feeling.

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