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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.")

And the prices paid are more than financial. Eaves writes that Zoe had bought freedom in her life at large--freedom from a nine-to-five job, and freedom from having to choose one single role to play. But she had done it by conforming over and over again to an exacting, specific role--the sex object that says, in appearance and words, Pay me and I'll be what you want.... She was earning a living that made choices for her. Honest decisions about boundaries and sexuality were impossible, because they had both become subservient to cash.

For all they have in common, Strip City and Bare are two very different books. For starters, Strip City is practically a joy ride. Burana is a great writer; her self-deprecating, casual style is not only engaging, it's seductive. As she begins her trip at the Pure Talent School of Dance in Clearwater, Florida ("the nation's only academy for professional exotic dance"), and moves on, with breaks here and there, to dance in clubs from Pueblo, Colorado, to Newark to Dallas to Las Vegas, we see her fret about her body, her boyfriend and her bank account. With precision and humor, she describes each dance she does, each club and each emotion her journey evokes. There's real joy when Burana wins "Best of Show" in the Miss Topless Wyoming contest, and real disgust when a coked-up guy in an El Paso club beckons her with, "C'mere so I can do a line off of your tits." Burana doesn't glorify her work, but her honesty certainly glorifies her.

And while it tries to reach into the deeper meanings of dancing and its effects on the women who do it, Bare fails to address the subject of erotic entertainment with the sexiness that oozes from Burana's every sentence. Eaves's style is almost academic, which would work in an objective study of the sex industry, but doesn't in a book that's part memoir. Eaves declares early on, "I have always been terrible at revealing anything of myself," and she proves to remain so. Despite her intimate revelations--which are many--she often appears at a distance, as if she's observing herself experiencing things. Elisabeth Eaves, we learn, is pretty, smart, exceedingly comfortable in her body and a little prudish when compared to other dancers. But we can't hear her voice or her laugh, or see the big smile that she wears during her audition at the Lusty Lady. She fares better in bringing her co-workers to life, but only because we observe them with Eaves's sense of awe.

Neither writer spends too much time worrying about the political implications of being a stripper, or whether you're a better or worse feminist for working in the sex industry. At this point, it's a pretty tired issue anyway. If you're under 30, chances are that you know someone who has stripped, whether for the money or just to prove she could; there are readily available feminist arguments to marshal support for her: A dancer controls men and destroys the patriarchy by dancing in a peep show, where each customer is at your mercy. Making men "pay" so much for something so simple is subversive. Taking off one's clothes is liberating, and a flagrant display of power and beauty that exalts all women. I could keep going. There's some truth to all of this, as well as some self-serving justification. Whatever political power dancers derive from their work, there are major personal tolls to pay. Burana recalls experiencing "stripper damage" at 24:

Stripper damage isn't something quantifiable. It's a state of being. In this job, there is no neutral territory. No repose. It's chaos.
   You're managing the chaos, you're in control. Then, suddenly one day at work, you're not. That invisible thread that keeps you together just snaps and shit's flying everywhere.
   Exhaustion. Men in the club sucking the life out of you and women outside the club sneering at you and bitchy management and bitchy coworkers and you feel fat and old and insignificant. And then the inner monologue begins...
   ...If this is all I'm good for, then what good is my life? How much time do I have left, anyway? You'd think that for all I go through I'd make more money, but what if I can't ever find a job that'll pay me more than this?
   ...The promise you made to yourself when you started that you'd work the business and not let the business work you seems like a joke now.

Indeed, the difficulty of leaving might be the most dangerous part of stripping. In the end, Eaves can only think of "dancers in terms of when they would leave their jobs." And not just because of the money. Relationships with friends and family are often strained for sex workers, not to mention with lovers. Straight dancers seem to have it worse than lesbians--of whom there are many in the sex industry--in part because their partners are more likely to be jealous but also because dancers are under pressure to make sure that the man they are with is not like one of the nasty guys from the club. In Strip City and Bare, both writers are very particular about the way they want prospective partners to respond to their dancer pasts. If a date is too eager to hear about dancing, or judgmental, or overly impressed, he's out the door.

Then there are the lasting effects. A dancer is always trying to tough it out a little longer, hoping to earn a few more bucks, pushing just a little harder. Boundaries are broken all the time; shame, disappointment and rejection are emotions that just come along with the power and pleasure the work and money bring. But even once she's out, the feelings linger--that's why we have these two books. It's clear: You can take the dancing girl out of the business, but you can't take the dancing business out of the girl.

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