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Trading Flesh for Cash: Inside the Strip Club

Strip clubs reveal much about modern-day American capitalism.
 
 
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Pick up a newspaper or turn on a local news show almost any day and you're likely find a story about a scandal involving a strip or “gentleman’s” club. Like streetwalkers, strip clubs are part of the low-hanging fruit of the U.S. commercial sex trade.

USA Today recently reported that a former University of Florida football player was busted for leaving a 3-year-old girl in his car alone while he went into Diamond Dolls, a Clearwater, FL, strip club.

But the jock’s indiscretion is small potatoes compared to the many busts at strip clubs involving alleged prostitution. A Google search of recent (2013) arrests at strip clubs across the country includes busts at strip clubs in Allentown, PA; Kokomo, IN; Coweta, OK; and Houston, TX.  

Perhaps the most illuminating busts involve the "bikini baristas" at drive-through coffee shops in Everett, WA, Snohomish County.  These shops, with inspired names like Java Juggs and Twin Peaks, came to the attention of local law enforcement officials because customers were paying $20 for a cup of joe, and according to local press, at least one coffee server pulled in tips totaling $100,000.

Adding froth to the tale, Snohomish County officials undertook an investigation of a county sheriff for promoting prostitution. Surveillance cameras placed by the FBI showed the sheriff hugging several baristas but never buying a cup of coffee. A local search warrant claims the shops "essentially operate as drive-through strip clubs or brothels."

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Strip clubs are not limited to Las Vegas. TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists nearly 3,000 operating throughout the country; another estimate puts the number of clubs at 4,000. Estimates of the number of employees—dancers and support staff—range from 400,000 to 500,000 people serving some 1.2 million customers a day. Various estimates claim that the industry’s annual revenues are $3.1 billion and $7.5 billion. In addition, some 30 club-chain operators control over 300 adult clubs across the country and one chain, Rick’s Cabaret, is publicly traded on NASDAQ.

A strip club is legally identified as a “sexually oriented business” or SOB— a commercial enterprise where the primary business involves goods and services that are (as stipulated in Texas and other states) “intended to provide sexual stimulation or sexual gratification to the customer.” Other SOBs include adult bookstores, porn theaters and sex paraphernalia shops.

According to Amy Baker, writing about Las Vegas but appropriate throughout the country, a strip club is a unique homo-social male entertainment venue. Women, other then as entertainers, rarely attend on their own; if they do attend, they either come with a man or a group of women. A club is distinguished by a bar, sound system and erotic entertainment. The entertainment offered includes women performing a striptease, a pole dance, a lap dance and still other, more illicit encounters. Some high-end clubs offer specialty or “VIP” services, often taking place in a more intimate space like the "champagne room."

Performers referred to as strippers or exotic dancers are not employees, but—in the great 21st-century new-speak euphemism—“independent contractors." Like most urban taxi drivers who license the cab for the night, dancers pay a fee as well as a portion of the tips they earn in private engagements to perform at the club. Strippers get tips while performing; lap dancers normally get tips on a per-song basis. Other services are paid for on an as-performed basis.

Local laws govern SOBs, often as zoning regulations or “public nuisance” ordinances. They are ostensibly designed to maintain public health and morals; they are directed at preventing prostitution, sex trafficking and sexual assaults as well as the sale of drugs and illegal weapons. SOB rules also apply to such issues as age of performers and customers; the kind of contact dancers and patrons can have with each other; how dancers perform and what they wear or don't wear; and distance separating the SOB from a church or school.

 
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