Sex & Relationships

Trading Flesh for Cash: Inside the Strip Club

Strip clubs reveal much about modern-day American capitalism.

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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Today’s strip club originated in late-18th-century and early-19th-century English sex shows and the star attraction was known as the "posture girl" or, far less frequently, the posture boy. A 1749 publication, The History of the Human Heart, describes a London peformance: 

… a Bumper the Ladies was ordered to prepare. They immediately stripped stark naked, and mounted themselves on the middle of the Table. …They were clean limbed, fresh complexioned, and had Skins as white as the driven Snow, which was heightened by jet-black Color of their Hair. … The Throne of Love was thickly covered with Jet-black hair, a least a Quarter of a Yard long, which she carefully spread apart, to display the entrance into the Magic Grotto. 

For such performers, posture was an art form. The most celebrated performer of the era was Emily Lyon, a teenager who later became renowned throughout Europe as Lady Emma Hamilton, the most famous British courtesan of the late 18th century. A woman of remarkable talent and intelligence, Lyon became the mistress to such notables as the sea captain John Willet Payne, Sir Henry Featherston, Sir Charles Greville and Lord William Hamilton, the British ambassador to the Court of Naples. She also served as the principal model for a number of leading British artists. While married to Hamilton (and following his death) she had a scandalous liaison with Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson and bore him a daughter.   

Renowned for her striking beauty, she was one of the foremost performance artists of her day, celebrated for her "body poetry," "plastic poses" and "living statues." No less an authority of beauty than J. W. Goethe, the author of Faust, was witness to one of her performances:

An Englishwomen of about twenty years -- very beautiful and shapely. She had a Greek costume made for her which suited her admirably. Then she loosened her hair, took a few shawls and arranged a series of attitudes, poses, gestures, so that one finally thought that one was dreaming. Standing, kneeling, sitting, lying, earnest, sad, droll, debauched, repentant, enticing, threatening, terrifying, etc. … She knew well how to choose and change the folds of her veil for each expression … . 

No one knows when striptease was first performed in the U.S. As legend has it, on a particularly hot evening in 1917, Mae (sometimes spelled May) Dix promenaded before an enthusiastic, nearly all-male audience at Minsky’s National Winter Garden theater in New York on 2nd Avenue and Houston Street. Dix was, according to impresario Morton Minsky, “a red-haired beauty with a gorgeous figure and a great way of putting over a comedy song." Amidst the revelery, she “accidentally” stripped off her costume, a short black dress with detachable white collar and cuffs. “At the end of her song one hot summer night,” Minsky recalled, “she removed her collar as she walked offstage, trying to forestall the next laundry bill.” Her “accident” changed commercial sexual enertainment.

Inspired by the loud applause and cat calls from the audience of mostly working-class, ethnic men, the starlet returned for an encore.  Dix casually removed her costume’s detachable wrist cuffs, and as Minsky recounts, “between the heat and the applause, May lost her head, went back for a short chorus, and unbuttoned her bodice as she left the stage again.” Her display broke a long-held legal and social convention that barred women from fully exposing themselves in entertainment venues while performing. Dix’s performance announed a new aesthetic, the female nude as an erotic spectacle. 

Historians still argue whether Dix’s performance was the first theatrical striptease in America. One claims it was performed by Anna Held in 1875 at Los Angeles’ Mason Opera House; Held was the common-law wife of Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary theatrical empressario. More telling, an historian discovered that the striptease appears to have made its first appearance at the St. Louis Exposition of 1896 when Omeena performed what was called the “take off.” Another found the “popular entertainer Gabby Deslys stripped from one outfit to another during a solo song and dance act in 1915.” Still another says the striptease was invented by Hinda Wassa as “an accidental strip during a shimmy performance … .” Nevertheless, Dix’s performance signified a change in America’s sexual culture.

By World War I, the striptease had become the principle attraction on the burlesque circuit. In the years following Dix’s performance, the striptease began to move in two directions. One involved how the female performer removed her costume; the strip or the tease. The other involved the venue—and the paying customer—where the performance took place, whether the downtown working-class or the uptown sophisticate. The striptease’s appeal to men helped preceiptate a major antivice campaign directed at repressing city nightlife from the late '20s until World War II. In New York, it culminated in Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s shutting down all burlesque houses in 1942.

The most celebrated postmodern stripper was Anna Nicole Smith, a great American tragedy. Smith dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Her first job was at Jim's Krispy Fried Chicken Shack, before moving up to a cashier at Walmart. At 17, she met and married a fry cook, Billy Smith, and had a son before they divorced. Desperate for dollars, Smith started stripping at Rick's Cabaret, a Houston club. It was at Rick’s that she met billionaire Howard Marshall II, 88 years old and one of Texas’ richest men. Smith was Playboy's “Playmate of the Month” in May 1992 and Playmate of the Year in 1993. She died in 2007 from what appears to a drug overdose.

Smith represents the postmodern fantasy of success, a fantasy shared equally by trailer-trash girls as by ghetto ball-playing boys, coke-rushed stockbrokers and weekend gamblers feverishly scratching their Lotto cards. It is the success of magical thinking: all hope of freeing oneself from a dead-end life is through a magical experience, with something coming from nowhere and forever changing the logic of dreary, daily existence.

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Being a sex worker in America is no easy job. Many women (and some young men) literally risk life and limb to gratify the sexual needs of paying (mostly male) customers. Other than drug dealing, few occupations are as tainted by as much suspicion and shame as the commercial sex worker. Prostitutes sell actual sex; strippers sell the fantasy of sex and sometimes more. 

Rose Dahl, in her analysis, “Sticking to Your Moral Guns,” raises a perplexing existential question: “A dancer’s professional performance involves the constant production of the appearance of authentic interest and emotional engagement with customers to the same extent as dancing itself.” She further clarifies her concern: “The need to give a convincingly authentic performance is even more pronounced when dancers are working with regular customers, who are often crucial in ensuring a dancer’s steady income, because these relationships usually require consistent and increasingly intensive emotional performances that in many ways mimic non-commodifiedintimate relationships.”

The sex worker’s relationship with her (repeat) client is one of the most intimate exchanges under capitalism. Not unlike a doctor treating a patient, a sex worker engages in a highly personal experience, sex, with someone she has over time gotten to know. The doctor-patient and sex worker-client relations are based on the acceptance of a social fiction—that a doctor can cure you and that a stripper can satisfy your sexual fantasy. Unlike the relation between the doctor and patient, however, the sex worker’s relation to her “patient” (client, customer or john) is morally stigmatized in two ways. First, she is shamed because she engages in commercial, out-of-wedlock sex; and, second, because she reveals a truth about capitalism.  

On the most celebrated level, Americans enjoy the fruits of capitalism, enabling the U.S. to be the most powerful country on the planet.  Relatively speaking, many Americans live the good life. Nevertheless, many recognize that as a capitalist society, we must each sell our labor power, our very self, in the marketplace. A vast distraction industry -- what we call popular culture -- is organized to deny this simple existential truth. At the strip club, marketplace denial can no longer be hidden. In the commercial sex act, capitalism’s existential truth, its core immorality, is reveled in utter, shameful transparency.

One of the great powers of the capitalist system is the increasing distance between the expropriators—whether corporate mogul, banker or government official—and the workers, those who actually produce real wealth. In the act of sexual commercial exchange, including what takes place at a strip club, the distance between the buyer and seller is reduced to its most interpersonal, primitive exchange. The strip club reveals too much about the true workings of capitalism and thus must be denied, stigmatized and suppressed.

David Rosen is the author of "Sin, Sex & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal" (Skyhorse, Feb ‘16). He can be reached at [email protected].