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The Naked Truth | The Nation

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The Naked Truth

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If you've never set foot in the likes of Club Paradise, Scarlett's, New York Dolls, Secrets, Peepers or the boldly named Booby Trap (yes, it does exist), your image of a strip club might be borrowed from a film like the, uh, "memorable" 1995 Showgirls or Atom Egoyan's subtler Exotica: a sort of luxurious jungle-ish habitat where decently dressed men sip drinks and quietly, admire the smooth-skinned dancers, who strut confidently, stretching long limbs up, down and out and will, in a secluded corner, share certain soft parts of their anatomy for an agreed-upon sum of money. This isn't totally off; these pristine oases in "adult" entertainment do exist. But it's a vision that ignores the darker, dingier and more common environs of strip clubs across America, where floors are sticky and crowds make crude demands.

About the Author

Hillary Frey
Hillary Frey, a former Nation editor, is the Books editor at Salon.com.

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And as for the dancers inside... One might picture big, busty, gum-chewing blondes who just love getting naked, or petite, pierced punk rockers with an attitude. Or fit feminist art students taking off their clothes simply because they can. Whatever your picture is--of the club and the dancer--it exists, somewhere, in reality. Still, both Lily Burana's Strip City and Elisabeth Eaves's Bare show that in the adult entertainment industry, you're just as likely to find a chubby single mother working in a peep show, or a gay student earning a psych degree stripping onstage, as you are that toned, tanned, centerfold-type who truly loves to dance nude for money.

Both Burana and Eaves are ex-dancers who quit and later returned for sport--to do some soul-searching, some coming to terms and, clearly, some note-taking for their books. Burana started dancing out of desperation as a teenager in New York City, and she made her living on stages in the East (Peepland in NYC) and West (the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater and the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, well memorialized in the documentary Live Nude Girls Unite!) for many years before launching a successful career in journalism. Strip City is both a memoir of Burana's days in those venues and the chronicle of her farewell trip through a sampling of America's clubs; when she gets engaged, she also decides to send out her stripper past with a bang by dancing her way across the country. Similarly, Eaves left the Seattle branch of the Lusty Lady to attend graduate school and then work as a reporter. She returns to dancing to try to understand what motivated her, and what motivates others, to be, as she calls them, "naked girls."

For both women, re-entering the dancer life out of curiosity rather than necessity requires setting up some fast rules. Burana doesn't want to perform totally nude on her tour (though she winds up bending this maxim to dance in Anchorage, Alaska, at a club called the Great Alaskan Bush Company), and she doesn't want to do dances that involve contact with customers (she breaks this one in Las Vegas in order to break even). And while Eaves had danced exclusively at a peep show--where a customer pays to open a window onto a room full of naked women rather than tipping dancers, in person, one at a time--she returns determined to "push myself into things I hadn't tried before--which meant clubs with stages and private dances.... The peep-show windows were a physical shield that kept me from having to wield a psychological shield that I thought must be necessary in clubs." She gives lap dancing a try, but only twice; when she realizes during her second dance that with the zip of a fly, she could be having sex (and could charge for it), she vows not to do it again.

She also forgoes the promise of real cash. In both books, it's clear that if a dancer isn't willing to provide "hands-on treatment," she's not likely to make much money (unless she's in one of the rare clubs that prohibits, and enforces the prohibition on, touch). In a club where lap or "private" dances are available, a dancer who prefers simply to do her turns on the stage might walk away in debt, as clubs increasingly charge a "stage fee" for performing, and dancers have to tip out everyone from the deejay to the bartender to the manager at the end of the night. At a glitzy club, a performer might end up paying $200 for the privilege to work. Burana does a turn at Cheetah's--immortalized in the aforementioned Showgirls--and, because of her "no contact" rule, can't make a dime. When she complains to "two sweaty men in suits" about this, one of them tells her, "Well, you need to grab these guys by the crotch to get their attention."

Unfortunately, in Vegas as elsewhere, that's not an exaggeration. "These are very educated customers," Burana writes, "and with dozens of girls only too eager to peddle their wares, the men watch closely and choose with great care." Club owners, who treat dancers like independent contractors rather than employees, don't care how many women work the floor on any given night; this makes the competition for business fierce. And making money increasingly isn't about arousing customers or helping them fantasize, it's actually about getting them off. As dancing becomes less stigmatized--cool, even, among pockets of young, middle-class women--and as the media smack us daily with advertisements featuring ecstatic, next-to-naked models peddling perfume, the demand for more only grows. At the Lusty Lady men wanted "more body, more tongue, more tit, and especially more pussy, as deeply as they could behold," writes Eaves. But "more was never enough. You could have your labia nearly planted against the window and they still made 'spread it' motions with their hands, bending and peering to get a better angle." In a peep show, a dancer always has the option not to grant the request. But every time a stage dancer says no, she loses money.

Eaves, especially, wants to point out that, psychological side-effects aside, stripping--in a peep show, on a stage, in a hotel room or at a bachelor party--is, in the end, all about the money. And there's a lot of it. At the Lusty in Seattle, a dancer is paid an hourly wage that starts at $11 and maxes out at $25 an hour for hanging out in a hot pair of shoes with a bunch of other nude women who, as they appear in Bare, are interesting, well educated and kind. On top of that, a dancer can do shifts in the "Private Pleasures" booth--a one-on-one (or two on one, called a "double trouble") meeting of customer and dancer where they're separated by plexiglass but have an intercom for communication. There, a customer can request that a dancer perform a particular act, for which the dancer names the price and gets a good cut. (Continuing on the subject of more: One of Eaves's fellow dancers actually invested in her own speculum to use in the booth, which allowed customers an unfettered view all the way to her cervix.) A stage performer who does private or lap dances might make $20 for five minutes of work, which adds up when a customer orders dance after dance from the same woman. And if a dancer performs at bachelor parties, she can easily make a couple of hundred bucks in a few hours.

Eaves shows the positives of these lucrative exchanges by describing the lives of some of her fellow workers: Zoe works just part of the year and earns enough to bike all over the world; Kim can afford to purchase a huge, custom-made house and a parcel of land on a beautiful island; Lara makes $3,000 (cash) a month, enough to finance school and her hobby of taking pictures. But Eaves draws out the negatives as well. All struggle to stop stripping, despite other interests: Zoe wants to be a writer, but she's dismayed by the small sums she makes starting out; Kim puts off saving money for school and keeps sinking it into stuff for her house; Lara often works so much she doesn't have time to pursue the projects she is supposedly financing. This worries Eaves: Stripping "was a young woman's field, no question, and it would always have a voracious appetite for younger, smoother, firmer flesh." Dancers too often find themselves pushed off schedules or let go for minor infractions as they reach their 30s, and without skills to fall back on, they struggle to enter the regular work force and balk at the minimal salaries. (One dancer at the Pure Talent School of Dance, where Burana starts her tour, wisely advises: "The first day you work is when you should start saving for your last.")

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