“We’d rather go topless than wear fur …”
This is the tagline on the poster hanging in the back of the Manhattan branch of Rick’s Cabaret. The girls featured in it, clad only in G-strings, are from the UK version of the same club. The poster is part of an anti-fur campaign run by PETA.
“I bet there was a black girl who dropped out at the last minute. It’s just way too much fake blonde hair,” observes the redhead I am sitting next to.
“Yeah,” agrees the brunette to her left, “there’s even a space in the middle like they were missing a girl.”
It is 11 a.m. and I am at the strip club for the second time this week. Ostensibly I am here researching my Sirens article “Sexing It Up for the Bad Economy.” But I’ve almost finished writing, and I have all the material I need. So why am I lingering? Maybe I am being thorough. Maybe I just want to say I’ve been to a strip club before lunch.
In the morning, the stage room at Rick’s looks just like it does at night, save for the lack of customers. The girls I am sitting with are wearing bright, slinky dresses. I am wearing a T-shirt with a graphic from “Where the Wild Things Are.” I would rather be wearing a dress like one of theirs. Outside sunlight has filled 33rd Street, but in here the husk of evening is tacked on with candles and dark red lights. It is seductive but uncomfortable, the way drinking in daylight is uncomfortable, or sleeping ’til dinner, or looking at a PETA poster with naked girls on it.
I had started my “Sexing It Up” research with mild curiosity and a vague anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to understand the girls. I left wondering if I should ask for a job. So when the PR agent at Rick’s proposed I work as a guest dancer and write a follow-up, my first impulse was to say yes.
Why I wanted to do it is not too difficult to understand. A girl I know named Julie—who just out of high school was a hostess at Hooters—articulates the attraction to such a job prospect based on looks: “I was 19, I was really young, and it boosted my self-esteem. I felt better about myself because they thought I could actually work there. I could brag to people that I was going to be a Hooters girl.” That morning at Rick’s, a couple of the girls asked me if I was a dancer. The first time it happened I rambled about doing ballet four days a week in high school and still taking class from time to time. But once I caught on, I was more flattered than I wanted to admit.
I am not 19, but apparently I have not outgrown the seduction of such a compliment.
There is a difference between working as a stripper to feed your children and doing it to feed your self-image. And I come from the luxury of the latter category, which gives me both the leisure and the responsibility to understand the historical context dancing presents. If I were to strip, if I were to write an article for which I worked as a stripper, the article would be about stripping as a feminist act. For me, stripping as a choice of work is about the right to my own body, to the power of my sexuality. And so to educate myself a little on the history of those rights, I read “The Feminine Mystique,” “The Beauty Myth,” “Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance,” and a whole lot of Gloria Steinem. I even tried reading “The Four-Hour Work Week” to get a sense of how mainstream America thinks about shortcuts to money and its accompanying freedoms. But I quickly realized that I feel about self-help books the way most people feel about stripping: It’s a morally questionable institution I want nothing to do with.
Still, I did not feel ready to bare all onstage. Because the more I thought about it, the more I had to acknowledge it wasn’t the idea of taking my clothes off in public that bothered me. It wasn’t the commercialization of my sexuality either—why should getting paid for something make it wrong? It was because the reasons why I want to strip—and why I don’t—both have everything to do with who is watching and how I will be perceived. And to me, that doesn’t sound empowering or feminist at all.
In the introduction of “Flesh for Fantasy,” the editors outline how “[t]here is no preordained meaning to sex work—it is neither inherently feminist nor inherently oppressive.” And I am inclined to agree. Stripping exemplifies the “paradoxes of simultaneously being subject to and subversive toward existing systems of power.” Getting paid for something that is too often taken from you can feel very powerful.
But beyond that idea of power, my desire to call stripping—or any other performance for the gazing male—feminist is really about wanting it both ways. There is a level of attention that I want. I want my intelligence acknowledged—of course I do—but I want my sex appeal acknowledged as well. I want to know that I am desirable. But too often the attention I get is infuriatingly unwanted, or even threatening. Sometimes I get so angry. Alison Fensterstock, in her contribution to “Flesh for Fantasy,” expresses my frustration particularly well. “[Y]ou listen to the men in the streets, or you catch the looks in their eyes, and you think, somebody owes me something for this. After four years of women’s studies you can talk for hours about it but there’s no way to verbally quantify the male gaze. You just know that something uneven is going on and somebody should pay up.”
When I walk down the block from the subway to my apartment and some dude sitting outside the appliance store leans-in close, whispers under his breath, and moans at me, it makes me angry. When I’m leaving work in SoHo, in what should be the-paradigm-of-social-grace-Manhattan and some guy grabs my ass—not lightly but hard, so I can feel every finger—it makes me angry. When a 9-year-old boy calls out phrases I did not understand ’til high school, maybe I should find it funny, but I don’t.
At least when you are up on a stage, you are supposed to be there. “They” are supposed to be looking at you. There isn’t a great range of clothing choices—the less the better—so of course you “are asking for it.” And if you are stripping, there is a level of safety provided—and compensation.
Fensterstock refers to the idea of “the freedom of being a leper.” Once outside normative society, there are not so many expectations. If you go so far as to work as a stripper, “you have the attendant privilege (requirement if you want to make money) of knowingly performing sluttiness and hyperfemininity and actually being rewarded—not punished—for it.” This “privilege,” though, comes at a price, because it is like a foreign currency. Not only is it rarely accepted at full value in mainstream America, but having it marks you as an outsider.
It’s Cinco de Mayo, which doesn’t matter except that I am not wearing my regular waitress uniform. I am wearing a brightly colored shirt for the holiday and it’s an old shirt, a stretched out shirt, a shirt I do not feel good in to begin with. I am at the bar picking up some drinks and Alex, the bartender, is talking about having gone to a strip club the night before and what a terrible time he had. My table’s drinks aren’t ready, the restaurant isn’t busy yet, and so I lean on the edge of the bar and listen.
“It’s a man’s night,” he’s saying. “It’s 10 dudes, and we’re going to go to this place, some one-word name, like ‘Shazam.’ It doesn’t seem very fun to me, but I was like, okay, whatever. I’ve never been to a strip club, I should go.”
Alex is not actually talking to me. He is talking to Claire, a pretty, blond girl who recently competed to be Miss America.
“So there’s this girl dancing around, and she’s doing it to make money,” he explains, “and I think—oh God, well I better tip her, thinking I can throw money on the bar or something.”
He is working while he talks and has finished the drinks I am waiting for. “But no, I mean, they think I want them to do something sexual when I give them tips. This girl, who’s really, frankly, pathetic, is rubbing her boobs around my hand and I don’t want her to. I don’t think there’s anything sexually attractive about the situation at all. It’s disgusting.”
Claire, the would-be beauty queen, nods with a vague interest, while I, the would-be stripper, fight the urge to throw up.
I realize a strip club is not going to be every guy’s thing—nor does Shazam sound anything like Rick’s. But that is beside the point. The point is the clear note of revulsion in Alex’s voice. Alex is the sort of guy who has Hemingway on his bookshelf, a photo of his best guy friends in the bathroom, and a picture of Sinatra across from his bed. He is, in his own words, “not the sort of guy who goes to strip clubs,” which says very little about the “sort of guy” who does, but says a lot about stereotypes of the scene in general. As he finishes his story, I cannot help imagining myself up on a stage and Alex toward the back row, looking uncomfortable, looking away, trying not to see me. That is not the girl I want to be. I feel at once naked and invisible.
The feeling that catches me is a familiar one from high school. It is the same lurching of my stomach that came when my skirt felt too short or my sex life too public. I would think that I was sexy, that I had the power. Then suddenly I would find myself stripped and alone. The knowledge that you have gone too far, that you have crossed over into being that “other sort of girl,” is like the deep end of a pool when you can’t swim—one moment the water feels great, then suddenly the ground is gone and you can’t breathe.
Perhaps I am overreacting—I am not the girl in Alex’s story, after all. But there are few women I know who have never felt that particular breed of sexual humiliation. And although most of them have never even thought of stripping, that shouldn’t make a difference. No one deserves to feel that sort of shame.
Katherine Frank, one of the editors of “Flesh for Fantasy,” puts into words a phenomenon I, too, found as I dipped my toe into the adult industry waters, hanging around at Rick’s: “The distaste that people express when confronted with explicit sex-for-money (or sexuality-for-money) exchanges [is] rooted more in ideology and fear than in any truth about sexuality.” Rick’s may not be Disneyland, but neither is it the watering hole of wayward women. There is not a certain type of woman who becomes a stripper, and the sex industry is not “a panacea for sexual ills or a capitalist utopia, … [it is] an industry with many of the same benefits and drawbacks as other industries.” The traps I see in working as a dancer are not unique to strip clubs. They are just rendered in clearer relief set up on a stage under all those bright lights.
Really, what I am reacting to is the classic division of women. The idea that you are either a virgin or a whore may seem archaic, considering virginity has lost the premium it once held. But this categorizing of women clearly has not disappeared, even among ourselves. And in many ways it is trickier now, because there is no end of the spectrum where women are safe from ridicule. “Virginity” has been replaced with “invisibility.” I do not want to be invisible, but to ask to be looked at is to risk being labeled, for lack of a better word, a slut.
I wrestle with my relationship to being looked at. Even if I never set foot on a stage, I believe I will continue to wrestle with it. So maybe the consequences of working at Rick’s wouldn’t be so different from those I have already experienced just being a girl in the world. I can’t know for sure. My choices are just that: my choices. I do worry about making the wrong decisions. I want the choices I make in my life to have a positive outcome on women’s rights. Because the key to feminism—to any form of civil rights—is choice. The power of choice is the truest mark of freedom.
In the end, I did not decline the offer from Rick’s. I can’t pretend I think stripping is itself feminist, and examining what draws me to it seems more pressing than simply trying it out. But I’m not lacking in curiosity. So I sent a politely worded email promising to think it over.
– Lily Blau