business of selling attention
A stripper tells
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
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:
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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