“It's Different From Anywhere Else”

Searching for escape

by Katherine Frank

The fascination with looking as a form of entertainment is, of course, highly significant in understanding the current attraction of strip clubs. Going to strip clubs obviously presents the opportunity to look at women, and it is this focus on looking in a public atmosphere that differentiates the strip club from many other forms of adult entertainment. 1

I’m drawn by the attraction of sexuality You know, sex sells. Sex and beautiful women are very appealing. And they’re very appealing to able-bodied men. And what can I say? You know … It’s just a fact. (Jim)

Strip clubs attract me because I love the feminine form. I have a weakness for beautiful women. (Brian)

I’m an appreciator of female beauty in all forms. (Ross)

I liked that kind of environment … it was pretty cool … you know, I mean, who wouldn’t like going to watch naked women running around? You know? Who wouldn’t like to drink beer and watch naked women running around? I guess—what male wouldn’t? That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. (Alex)

Book cover: G-Strings and Sympathy

G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire

Katherine Frank (author)

Duke University Press, 2002
331 pages
9.1 x 5.7 x 1.1 inches
$22.95

Some of these men be­lieved that the de­sire to look at wo­men’s bodies was an ex­pres­sion of na­tur­al male bio­logy a claim ex­plor­ed in more de­tail in Chap­ter 4. Whet­her or not they un­der­sto­od their de­sire to look at wo­men in this for­mat as a re­sult of bio­logic­al in­fluen­ces, how­ever, there were al­ways a num­ber of other el­ements in­volved that were im­port­ant to the cust­omers in ad­dition to the vis­ual as­pects.

After all, the de­sire to vi­sit strip clubs is more than just a de­sire to pas­sive­ly see women’s bod­ies, even for the most sco­po­phil­ic of cust­omers. There are many ways to po­ten­tial­ly see naked women: pe­ep­ing, vie­wing por­no­gra­phy read­ing med­ical texts, and de­ve­lop­ing in­ti­mate re­lat­ion­ships, for ex­ample. Fur­ther, men’s in­ter­act­ions in strip clubs are with wo­men who look back at them, from the sta­ges (“Re­mem­ber to make eye con­tact!” man­ag­ers would coach), or in in­divid­ual­ized in­ter­act­ions at their tab­les. These vi­sits, then, must be seen as also a de­sire to have a part­icu­lar kind of ex­peri­ence ro­oted in the com­plex net­work of re­lation­ships bet­ween home, work, and away. Tour­istic prac­tices, ac­cord­ing to Urry, “in­volve the no­tion of ‘de­part­ure’ of a lim­ited break­ing with esta­blish­ed rout­ines and pract­ices of every­day life and al­lowing one’s sen­ses to en­gage with a set of sti­muli that con­trasts with the every­day and the mund­ane” (1990:2). The sights that are gazed on are chosen be­cause they of­fer “dis­tinct­ive con­trasts” with work and home and also be­cause “there is an anti­cipat­ion, es­pecial­ly through day­dream­ing and fan­tasy, of in­tense pleas­ures, either on a dif­ferent scale or in­volving dif­ferent sen­ses from those custom­arily en­counter­ed” (3).2 1. Urry (1990) has discussed the role of photography in the universalizing of the tourist gaze. The connection of strip clubs to a particular kind of photography—pornography—is unmistakable. Women who do spreads in men’s magazines, for example, often get highest billings in the clubs and may become traveling feature dancers who earn significantly more than house dancers. Porn stars also work as traveling features between movies, where they draw male fans to the local strip clubs. Even when interacting with the house dancers or in clubs that do not provide feature entertainment, men often want to see poses that they have often seen before in still pornography or pornographic films and videos. 2. If customers are engaged in touristic practices, dancers are positioned somewhere between “natives” (or part of the site / sight themselves) and service workers / tourist industry employees (helping to create the customers’ desired experiences; sometimes also part of the site / sight themselves). Sex work, like tourist employment, has previously been discussed as a form of emotional labor (Ronai 1992; Chapkis 1997: Frank 1998), which means that the work requires an employee to draw on emotional reserves to create a feeling, a mood, or an experience for a customer. Tourist employment, argues sociologist Philip Crang, involves the “co-presence of employees and their customers in the so-called ’service encounters’,” and is associated with “moral dilemmas of honesty–dishonesty, trust–distrust, and the seen–unseen.” This phenomenon is reflected in dramaturgical or performative metaphors where “workers are said to take on roles, [and] workplaces become stages” (1997:138).
   Drawing on Urry’s (1990) distinction between different kinds of tourist gazes, Crang argues that tourism employees both work at producing gazes and become part of them, working at becoming familiar with and to the tourists and also at “providing brief encounters that are memorable enough to be collectable.” He writes: “In doing so tourism workers have to inhabit visual practices that are power-laden, in terms of class relations, histories of ethnic power, and sexuality. But … they are not just passive recipients of touristic gazes. They actively respond to them. They may hide from them finding or constructing places shielded from the gazes; they may masquerade within them, using gazes to facilitate the development of one or more personae; and they may pose through them, using the gaze to send a message” 1997:151. The gaze may thus be taken up and used by the tourist employee in creative ways, allowing for diverse experiences of agency, enjoyment, dissatisfaction, self-efficacy, and so on. This certainly corresponds with my own experiences as a dancer and with those narrated by an earlier group of individuals whom I interviewed, all women who worked in various sectors of the sex industry. See Chapkis 1997 for more discussion of the various kinds of sex work as emotional labor.

My interviewees, for example, corroborated that these sites / sights are “out of the ordinary” at least initially. For regulars, of course, the experience of just looking at undressed women eventually becomes almost ordinary. (“Almost” because even for the regulars the fact that women were displaying their body meant that this was a very different environment from ordinary spaces like work and home.) Matthew and Steven, for example, spoke about how this became “boring” after a time and that they began to desire other types of interactions, such as intriguing conversations and even ongoing friendships with the dancers. Louis said “I don’t want to go just to watch bodies move around … I get to know someone and that makes a difference to me.” Several other men who were regular visitors also discussed this process. In all of these cases, what kept the regulars returning to the various clubs was the opportunity to interact with women whom they generally would not meet in their everyday life and to cultivate the relationships they developed with particular dancers and club employees. Thus, although the significance of the dancers’ nudity was often minimized by the men in their conversations with me, and was described by the regulars as something that became “routine,” it was unquestionably an important and essential part of the encounters in the clubs. Even a man who pays a woman to sit with him and asks her to remain fully clothed, for example, is doing so in an atmosphere in which he simultaneously has the privilege of asking her to remove her dress, and the significance of this possibility cannot be underestimated.

For some customers, just to enter a space where nude bodies are readily exhibited is to step into a strange and foreign world. For others, the strip club is but one destination on their daily geographic trajectories: “a good place to stop for a beer.” Yet, either way the club offers a distinctive contrast to other public spheres. For one thing, the behavioral structure of everyday life is indeed inverted for many customers inside the clubs: for example, women do the approaching rather than the men and thus face the possibility of rejection; women “ask” to be looked at naked; and usually “private” performances of sexual desire or sexual display are suddenly made public. Further, although intimate relationships between individuals may be covertly facilitated with money in everyday realms, inside the clubs this facilitation is blatant, immediate, and far less apologetic (though no less complicated in its various enactments). The club is, in the words of one interviewee, “a very different world.” Hence, there is an emphasis in men’s talk about their visits to strip clubs that these experiences are something that they “don’t get at home” (and often don’t want at home) and that the visits are somehow intrinsically pleasurable for this reason.

In addition to the display of women’s bodies and the provision of their social and emotional services for an agreed upon fee, strip clubs also provide an environment where men, singly or in groups, can engage in traditionally “masculine” activities and forms of consumption often frowned on in other spheres: cigar smoking, drinking, watching sports events, and even being “rowdy,” vulgar, or aggressive. Phillip said that in the strip clubs he “sometimes acted like an asshole because I could” and that this was a form of release for him. Alex said that he enjoyed “real bad hole-in-the-wall dive bars” because they were places where he could get “wild” with his male friends. He explained: “We’d do something just to get thrown out. We’d get crazy. We’d get a table dance and like, grab some girl’s ass or something like that or just something crazy. We’re just—we liked to get rowdy or whatever. Crazy.” Alex admitted that he acted differently when he visited the clubs alone, however, and that it was less common for him to go to the clubs with other men at this point in his life. Other men spoke similarly about the release that the clubs offered:

I want to have fun and be relaxed and cut up and laugh and, you know, have a good time. It’s a big stress reliever for me. My business is a very high-stress environment and when things get really busy, I can slip out, you know. Stay out for a couple hours and really just let go a little bit and feel better. [In the club] there’s something going on that’s not normal. You know, if I just went out to a singles bar, say, then I would know that those girls there are looking to have some kind of relationship beyond what’s going to go on just at the bar. But if you go to [Diamond Dolls] you’re going there and y’all are entertainers. We’re being entertained. And you know, it just takes your mind off things. And of course, guys like to look at girls so … it’s just so different from any atmosphere you can get anywhere else. It’s just for fun and everybody knows what the rules are. (Roger)

You go in and it is so different from the workaday world that I’m in … You’re immediately going to fantasyland. You don’t have to deal with the stress like you do at work … You can be real nice to them and you know they’re going to be real nice to you. And that does not happen in the workplace. (Beck)

Herb was married to a “very conservative” woman who did not smoke or drink. For him, then, these were pleasures that he could not indulge in at home. At the club, however, “You got your cold beer, you got your shooters, you got your good-looking girls, you got your music, you got your smokes. You can smoke a cigar if you want. Women do the approaching rather than the men and thus face the possibility of rejection. And when you’re ready to go, you leave it all behind and that stays there and you go home.” Herb usually came to the club on his way home from work. Sometimes he came with friends from the office and other times he came alone. Either way his time in the club was described as “’personal” time that was pleasurable because it allowed him to engage in activities that were inappropriate in the other spheres of his life and marked a transition between these spheres. As most of the men I spoke with kept their activities in the clubs a secret from their coworkers and wife or partner, they were careful to remove traces of these visits before returning to the office or home—checking for lipstick on their cheeks (remnants of a thank you peck on the cheek) or perfume on their clothes, for example. Such illicit remains were clearly inappropriate in these other spheres, even more literally marking the separateness of the clubs.

At the same time that strip clubs offer an escape, the temporary nature of the experience is highly significant. The desire to return to work and home were unquestioned elements of the men’s visits and were reflected in the balance between risk and safety that was often being sought. Though some customers expressed the desire for an affair with a dancer or for more “excitement” in their sexual relationships outside of the clubs, very few of them seemed prepared to give up their positions in these other realms to pursue such desires. One customer, for example, spent an entire afternoon telling me his fantasies about visiting a legal brothel in Nevada. He had never used any aspect of the sex industry except for looking at a few pornographic magazines and visiting strip clubs. “I just want to do it once,” he said, “and then I want to go home to Mama” (his wife of thirty years). However, he explained, she would never condone it and it was not worth the risk. His hours in the strip club provided him with a transgressive and exciting experience—indeed, provided him an opportunity to share this even more transgressive fantasy and develop it further through our interaction—yet still allowed him to return home.

A touristic practice might be understood as part of a larger process that makes “the habitual desirable as well as making escape from the habits of labor seem possible through everyday practices of consumptive pleasure” (Allison 1996: xv). Not only are the realms of work and leisure still constructed as separate spheres for many individuals (despite the fact that the boundary may be weakening in late capitalist societies), but the (often imaginary) image constructed out of tourist gazes also “serves to validate and legitimize routine experience, domestic and working life, and the social structure within which they are located” (Manderson 1995: 307). Though customers may try to find out information about a dancer’s life or ask a dancer out on a date, for example, the creation of the possibility of an outside relationship is often more desirable than a real encounter (Frank 1998). Most of the married customers claimed that they were not interested in leaving their wife, and even the men who described their job as “boring,” “unfulfilling,” or even “intolerable” seemed to have no intention of changing these circumstances. Some men seemed to especially enjoy hearing “hard-luck stories” from the dancers, and seeing other people, customers or dancers, in a state of “extreme desperation” (Alex’s description) could serve to make these everyday situations even more appealing.

Part of the reason this distinctiveness from work and home was experienced as relaxing was related to the different kind of relationships that could be developed with women in the clubs. For these customers, everyday relationships with women often were seen as a source of pressure and expectations. Indeed, many men I spoke with described relations between women and men in general in the United States as being “strained,” “confused, “ or “tense.” Beck for example felt that there was a “chasm” between men and women in modern society in terms of understanding and expectations, and Kenneth referred to the “war between the sexes.” Over half of the men I interviewed said that they found the clubs relaxing specifically because they provided an escape from the rules of conduct and the social games involved in entering into interactions with other women in an unregulated setting. If “dating is the institutionalization of romantic encounters without the goal of commitment” (Illouz 1997:289), relationships formed in strip clubs take this institutionalization a step further: there is no longer a need for pretenses, specific social niceties, elaborate plans, mutual exchanges of personal information, and so on. There is really even no need for romance—romantic props can be used to set a scene or to individualize an interaction, but are not necessary to move the encounter to a sexualized level (involving nudity, erotic conversation, the sharing of fantasies, etc.). At the same time, the encounters were to some extent “predictable.” Phillip called his interactions with dancers “relationships of convenience,” explaining that he worked so much he could never find the time to meet women outside of the clubs and move through the expected steps of courtship. In a way the interactions available in the clubs fit perfectly with the sped-up pace of consumption more generally in contemporary late capitalist societies.

Even a simple conversation with a woman in a singles bar or at another location had its own set of rules and expectations that were sometimes experienced by these men as stressful:

I don’t go to a strip club to pick up a woman. This is a way to be with women, talk to women, even see them naked and not have to worry about playing the social game that is involved if you are trying to pick somebody up. (Matthew)
For me the club situation is almost a way to relax from the tension of a sexual relationship with a woman. You leave when you want. You don’t have to stay. You don’t have to get to know the person. (Jim)

As Herb pointed out: “I know why you’re there. You know why I’m there.” Ross claimed that although he himself did not enjoy the impersonal aspect of the encounters in the clubs, he felt that this was important to many men: “What do the men get out of it? Actually, the advantage of being able to walk away. No mess, no fuss, no big deal. You can make as much or as little emotional involvement as you want. You can go in there and shop for a piece of meat, quote unquote, so to speak. I mean, you want to see a girl, you can see a girl run around naked. Have her come over, pay her to do a dance or two or three and walk away and not even ask her her name. Total distancing. Boy … I hate to even think of being able to think like that but you know, I see a lot of people that way” Soon after he made the above statement, however, he said that he enjoyed the “female presence without pressure” himself.

Other men discussed their desire to look at women on the street and their feelings of guilt and frustration about doing so. Saul said that although he still felt slightly uncomfortable looking at dancers in strip clubs, he considered this preferable to his other options: “I guess I consider [strip clubs] very safe. I would never want to be walking along Main Street looking at some girl and staring at her and making her feel uneasy. You know, I don’t want anybody to feel creepy or anything. Sure, because I wouldn’t want to be a woman where I was on the other shore.” Gary and Paul, both men who described themselves as voyeurs, felt similarly saying that they had been called “perverts” by women outside of the club. “I’ve undressed girls [with my eyes] from day one,” Gary argued, “so this way I get to see the final product.” He called his voyeurism “a total secret thing,” because he knew “for a fact” that he would not find support with his live-in girlfriend. He had sought psychological help for his voyeurism and tried several antidepressant drugs that had been recommended to him by his doctors, yet still desired to visit the clubs.

Interactions with women in the workplace were also often felt to be constraining. Phillip said that club visits “let frustration out”: “With all of this sexual harassment stuff going around these days, men need somewhere to go where they can say and act like they want. The worst that can happen to you is you get thrown out … I think that going to a club is a release.” Roger said that in the clubs, “everybody knows what the rules are.” This implies that there are other spaces where the rules are not so transparent, where the men do not understand exactly what is going to get them into trouble. Frank pointed out that in the workplace he felt nervous about giving compliments to women for fear that they would accuse him of sexual harassment:

I think the whole sexual harassment issue is absolutely nuts. I think … the pendulum has swung so far the other way … they’ve taken common sense out of it. If I work with you, I should be able to say “You look nice today” without having some separate connotation to that. To say, you know, “That color looks really good on you” is not harassment. To say, “That color really shows off your body,” that’s a different context. But we’ve taken all that to be taboo, you know. We’ve taken all that to be wrong and it’s not. Or to put my hand on your shoulder when I’m talking to you or on your arm. That’s not harassment because I would do that to a guy … I’ll go like this if I wanted to make a point … but all of a sudden if I do that to you, if I’m standing behind you and I touch you on the shoulder or the arm, it’s like, wow. So I think that’s gone way overboard and I think it’s made males very bitter. That side of it. It’s taken some personal side out of it and it’s made it [work] a very sterile environment.

Some men, like Gary, explicitly stated a desire to interact with women who were not “feminist” and who still wanted to interact with men in what he felt were more “traditional” ways.

This sentiment was frequently corroborated by other customers I interacted with in the clubs who said that men had to continually “be on guard” against offending women in their everyday lives. Here I do not wish to defend male inability to respect women’s demands for comfortable work environments. Indeed, several of the above comments could be analyzed as part of a “backlash” against feminism. Rather, I am highlighting the fact that these men experienced their visits to the clubs (and also, in part, justified them) within such a framework of confusion and frustration rather than simply one of privilege or domination. The rapid increase in the number of strip clubs across the United States in the mid-l980s, after all, was concurrent with a massive increase of women into the workforce and an upsurge of attention paid to issues of sexual harassment, date rape, and the condemnation of the sex industry.

Many of the men I spoke with also discussed their confusion as to what was expected of them as men in relationships with women. Tim said that he felt men were under a good deal of “strain” because wives were also working nowadays, bringing in their own income and thus insisting that they be allowed to take an active part in planning the couple’s future: “She’s not taking a back seat to decisions about careers and moves, and I think that a lot of men have a hard time dealing with that.” Other men complained that they were expected to be strong and assertive, both at home and in their workplace, but at the same time their female partner was interested in greater communication and emotional expression. Joe summed this up very succinctly: “My wife expects me to be strong emotionally physically, and I expect spiritually too … But emotionally, she wants me to be strong but she doesn’t want me to be overbearing. Okay? She wants me to cry and be sensitive … to be the leader and the rock … I’m confused as hell. I wouldn’t say that openly in public but I’m definitely confused about what it is to be a man.” Zachary Eric, Kenneth, and Jason made nearly identical comments. Strip clubs offered a temporary respite from both changing definitions of masculinity and requests from women for either instrumental support or reciprocal emotional communication. Beck, for example, described the strip clubs that he visited as places where he felt he was going to be treated “like family” without having to meet any demands or expectations. Some customers even sought advice from dancers on how to negotiate relationships with women outside of the club.

The home, then, was seen as a different sphere with its own set of obligations, commitments and conflicts. Certainly, the men received a great deal of enjoyment from their family and almost all were adamant that they did not want to change the structure of their private life. The home, however, among these interviewees and for many other men I interacted with, was not necessarily a “haven” from the workplace (Lasch 1977), where the men could simply relax and be themselves. I do not want to imply that somehow a more authentic self was being expressed in the strip club than in the workplace or at home. Rather, a man might have multiple selves, or self-representations, that are experienced in different contexts. Certain self-representations, for example, are expressed in work and marriage, and for many men it is these self-representations that are first invoked to identify themselves. These Selves, however, were also often premised on responsibilities and commitments.

Changing expectations about male economic providership and emotional communication in committed relationships may have contributed to some men’s experiences of stress and confusion about their gender identity and roles (Levant and Brooks 1997). Arguably, these changes and sentiments may be most intense in the middle classes; however, nearly all of the men I interviewed identified as such. Some researchers point to what has been called a “crisis in masculinity,” which has developed as a “result of the collapse of the basic pattern by which men have traditionally fulfilled the code for masculine role behavior—the good provider role” (9). Such a breakdown of the traditional masculine code has led to situations in which former patterns of success in relationships and work roles are no longer socially elevated. Instead of positing such a crisis in masculine identity arising in different historical situations, Gail Bederman (1995) refers to the circulation of contradictory discourses of hegemonic masculinity. I prefer this approach, as it allows for the existence of contradictions and inconsistencies within each individual’s identity and for the recognition that there are always several competing hegemonic discourses of gender identity in relation to which individuals must position themselves. In such cases of competing expectations, a man might find it relaxing to be in an environment such as a strip club, where he does not necessarily have any role to perform except for that of a desiring male (discussed in more depth in Chapter 4).3 3. In addition to those discussed in this chapter, there are, of course, other roles that a male customer might consciously play. A man might like to see himself enforcing as a “big spender” for example, even if that was not necessarily a role that he was able to take on regularly in his everyday life. Some customers also clearly found it enjoyable to take on a protective, almost parental role with some of the dancers, and there are certainly other possibilities as well. In addition, the customers’ interactions became meaningful as they drew on self-representations that were simultaneously real and imagined, subjectivities that are both fantasized and experienced as authentic. Because the interactions in a strip club (through the gendered performances of both parties) spoke to a male self-representation that was not involved with family or work responsibilities and commitments, the club became an ideal space for some men to access a fantasy of freedom, independence, and idealized masculinity. <

The transactions that occur in strip clubs should not be seen as merely providing an escape from responsibilities and commitments. As I have argued elsewhere (Frank 1998) and as I discuss in the next sections, some men were also actively seeking an escape to a kind of interaction with women that was not available to them in their everyday life. It would also be a mistake to assert that such interactions are only compensatory, whether for the men’s alienation as producers or because of an inability to develop intimate relationships with other women. As Andrew Ross points out, such an assertion sees a consumer’s pleasure as “organized between, on the one hand, a restricted economy of frustration and oppression, and, on the other, the unlimited utopian haven of fantasy.” Such an approach “does not wholly account for the autonomous pleasure offered by the very act of fantasizing, nor does it account for the production of users’ fantasies that are neither wholly determined nor neutralized by the form of the containing narrative.” Individuals do have independently empowering experiences of fantasy that offer “real satisfactions, and not merely displaced or symbolic solutions to frustrations felt elsewhere” (1989:206). As emerges in other chapters, the erotics that underlie the men’s visits are far more complex than an analysis of compensatory leisure would suggest.

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