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How Working As a Stripper Made Me Have More Sympathy for Men

Katherine Frank stripped, interviewed her customers and then wrote a thesis about male desire.

Anthropologist Katherine Frank spent six years stripping and interviewing 30 of her regular customers to research her book “G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire.” Adapted from her Ph.D. dissertation, it’s an academic yet accessible exploration of the exchange between the naked lady on the platform and the man who keeps returning to tuck money in her garter.

Frank discusses with equal ease the bounce/rump-shaker move and the self-reflexive nature of the post-tourist, and her experience reflects less mind-body dissociation than one might expect. She created a set she calls her Ode to Baudrillard at one of the clubs, stripping off layers to songs (one from “The Matrix” and one by White Zombie) that reference the philosopher who argues that reality — sorry, “reality” — has become indistinguishable from its representations, or simulacra. (Had she not retired to academia, I would suggest that Frank add Hole’s “Doll Parts” with its Baudrillardian refrain, “I fake it so real I am beyond fake.”)

Frank worked in several clubs in a Southeastern city she calls Laurelton, a mecca for strip club enthusiasts. In the huge, upscale, mostly white Diamond Dolls, 200 to 300 “girls” danced on stages and moved through the crowd selling $10 table dances to individual customers. Upstairs were private rooms that cost between $100 and $500 an hour and $200 an hour for dancers. Celebrities would often go straight upstairs, and rumors flew about orgies in there — rumors, Frank points out, that were neither true nor squelched. She also worked at Tina’s Revue, a smaller, cheaper, mixed-race club where the fantasized activities were drug dealing and prostitution. In both places, men could and often did pay dancers to sit and talk with them.

Among Frank’s well-argued conclusions are that the “touristic gaze” is more relevant to the strip club experience than the “male gaze.” The strip bar isn’t home or work; it’s a place where men can vacation either as high rollers or bold explorers of a seedy underclass — without any risk. She also found that men were obsessed with the authenticity of their interactions with the dancers (“that guy over there is deluded, but she really does like me”). The dancers exploited their customers’ longing for “realness” by giving fake real names and fake home phones (cellphones devoted to regulars who considered themselves friends). And in a fascinating chapter called “The Crowded Bedroom: Marriage, Monogamy, and Fantasy,” Frank counters the charge that strip bars erode men’s abilities to achieve intimacy with a girlfriend or wife and argues that the strip club forays actually held together the marriages of many of her interview subjects. Frank spoke to Salon from her home in Virginia.

Your book is incredibly sympathetic, in contrast to things I’ve heard about strippers hating men. How did your feelings about men change during the six years you worked in the clubs?

I think I became much more sympathetic. When I was an undergraduate I was an anti-pornography feminist. I read Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon and thought they had some good points. But talking to the guys in the strip clubs, I realized that they were damaged by the sexist culture, too. They felt repellent, that their wives and girlfriends could never accept their desires and that they could never ask advice about sex because they were supposed to somehow know everything. These guys were struggling with how to deal with what they saw as women’s conflicting demands for both traditional masculine traits and more emotional presence. They were also confused by women’s desire to be called beautiful but not be objectified.

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