Stripping, social class, and the strange carnalities of research

by R. Danielle Egan

My social class expressed itself like a genetic code, providing knowledge of the strictures of capitalism long before I ever read Marx or learned the word “proletariat.” Walking the tightrope between working class and working poor, families in my neighborhood hoped for the best but expected the worst (not an unreasonable assumption during the Reaganomic trickle down years).

In the midst of these tensions I knew, before anyone told me, that women from my community might end up performing erotic labor. Somewhere inside I realized that we were more likely to be sex workers than surgeons. Just as surely I knew that the boys I played with would probably end up with grease under their fingernails or iron bars surrounding their bodies instead of wearing Brooks Brothers.

As a six-year-old girl arriving home from St. Genevieve Elementary School in my blue-checked and yellow-striped uniform, I informed my mother that I wanted either to be a Playboy bunny or a Catholic nun (ironically, I think my mom was far more horrified by the nun possibility). Wondering how I came up with such a bizarre duo, my mom laughed and encouraged me to “be a doctor.” Since then my second grade career aspirations have become a familial joke told and retold over barbequed hamburgers and coleslaw at family gatherings. But there are times when I think my six-year-old self tapped into something, a kind of fortune-teller's premonition, that my friends and I might end up in the buildings by the side of LAX airport that flashed “Real Live Nude Girls,” “Naked Girls Inside,” and “Come Inside You Will Be Pleased” in red neon. In our small living room on Colbath Avenue the virgin/whore dichotomy lay before me, and I in my proclamation naïvely thought there was a choice between the two. If only it were that easy.

Photo of book sleeve: Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love

Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love:

The Relationships between Exotic Dancers and Their Regulars
R. Danielle Egan (Author)

Palgrave MacMillan 2006
174 pages
8 x 5.3 x 0.5 inches
$24.95

One hot summer day in 1982, my best fri­end Kri­stin and I were sit­ting in her back­yard eaves­drop­ping on her older brot­her and his friends whis­pering about a girl. Fru­stra­ted by the code they were spea­king, Kri­stin said, “What are you guys tal­king about?” With a smirk, her bro­ther said, “None of your bus­iness.” Fas­cina­ted and high­ly cur­ious we kept both­ering him until he told us, “We know some­one work­ing on Sepul­veda Boule­vard.” I knew this street as one of the bus­iest in the San Fer­nando Val­ley, lit­tered with shops and rest­aurants and always full of traf­fic. It traver­sed sev­eral areas some good, some bad. Our be­wild­ered looks caused a fit of laugh­ter among the boys, be­cause neit­her Kris­tin nor I was ex­act­ly sure what “work­ing on Sepul­veda” meant.

Frustrated and uncomfortable, I wanted to ask my parents but was afraid to because I could glean from the boys' laughter that it was something sexual. My mom, a woman who always believed in telling her children the truth, undoubtedly would have sat me down and answered my question. But something in the pit of my stomach told me I did not want to know. Once the proverbial cat is out of the proverbial bag, you can never stuff it back in, and I was not ready to meet this particular animal head on. A couple of years later I found out that there was a strip club on Sepulveda and that the women who worked there took their clothes off for money.

As a teenager, I was both fascinated and repulsed (I was Catholic after all) by sexy women. After school, before anyone else came home, I would sneak into my father's room and search under his bed for his private stash of Playboy magazines. Furtively I would quickly glance at them (he must have had issues collected over at least three years), … the women who worked there took their clothes off for money. pick one, and return the others to their dark and dusty hiding place. In the privacy of my bedroom, I would spend hours studying these women and their naked bodies, searching for the silhouette of the Playboy bunny that always featured on cover, in a different place every month. As a 14-year-old stuck in the ooze of adolescent angst and my own self-absorption, I was preoccupied with the questions “What's next?” “What's my future?” For some reason I thought the bodies in these magazines might provide the answers. Flipping through the pages I hoped that one day I might look like these Playboy women but was petrified of what that might mean.

The word “slut” and its connotations permeated my consciousness. Plagued by the fear of being given such a painful designation, I tried to evade its sanction. To be a slut was to be popular among boys and a pariah to girls. Mired in the contradictions all girls find themselves in—be sexual, but not too sexual; like boys, but not too much—all my actions were measured against a socially constructed “slut” or “whore” standard. If you crossed this ever-shifting line you were unprotected, subject to ridicule, and sent to no (wo)man's land also known as social purgatory in a Catholic school. Operating as a form of social control, the slut label kept me, at least in the overt sense, in the “good girl” category in high school.

I managed to keep my reputation intact (a truly difficult endeavor for any girl), narrowly escaping the slut stigma, although I came close to crossing over when I thought of dancing for dollars in college. With each year the “parental contribution” portion of my tuition rose, to levels unfathomable for my mother. After pleading with financial aid officers and trying to explain the finer points of the phrase “You can't get blood from a turnip” with little success, I thought of “alternative” and less socially acceptable forms of income. Considering a job on the “Block” (Baltimore's version of a red-light district) was particularly difficult because at Goucher College my “consciousness” had been “raised,” and stripping felt paradoxical to my new-found radical feminist politics. Although I never became a sex worker, I made other bodily sacrifices, such as staying in bad relationships too long, in order to survive monetarily.

During my senior year in college, a friend of mine from home became a dancer. Shocked, I vacillated between thinking it was degrading and feeling it was exciting. Over rounds of beer we would talk about her experiences whenever I was home. In the middle of one of her stories about a customer or the club, my internal alarm bells would deafeningly ring, “I could never do such a thing!” While a much quieter voice would whisper, “Well maybe I could.” My internal confusion continued when Tina, my lover during my last year in college, had a friend invite us to “see her show.” Torn between apprehension and speculation, I never went. I did not want to see women perform for the type of men I feared went to such places. I thought that they would be disgusting or, worse, that they would remind me of men from my neighborhood I knew and loved.

Exotic dancers made me nervous. Their combination of eroticism, confidence, bad-girl defiance, and “fuck you” attitude felt both alluring and threatening. Stripping felt like a dangerous precipice luring me to jump free-fall into the void. Keeping my distance felt like the safest bet. When asked about stripping, attraction and … eroticism, confidence, bad-girl defiance, and “fuck you” attitude … repulsion coursed through my body; however, the words that slipped from my lips were often moralizing ones. Citing the inequality inherent in strip clubs and their degrading nature, I insisted they should be closed. But as Gertrude insightfully pointed out in Hamlet, “The lady doth protest too much.” Chagrined and perplexed, my friends who were dancers told me that for the most part they “enjoyed it.” Dancing provided financial stability unobtainable to most women with only a high-school diploma (Hell! Dancing paid more than I currently make with a Ph.D.). Caught between my radical feminist education and my working-class experience, I was confused. Then something happened.

Chris, a friend of mine from college, became a dancer to pay her way through graduate school. In an economically desperate situation, Chris felt stuck between a rock and a hard place, between dancing for money and dropping out of her master's program. A highly educated, feminist, Ivy League student, Chris felt defeated and forced into dancing. I felt confused. How could something like this happen? After Chris and I talked we decided to record her entry into exotic dance and write about it, to create a feminist text. We hoped the process would help both of us make sense of what she was going through. Visiting different clubs, talking to managers, we watched women dance nude and seminude on stage and on tables. After finding the right club in which to work, Chris started dancing. Sitting at the bar watching her onstage for the first time seemed surreal and felt wrong. Words failed and tears flowed. Our initial forays into the clubs were hard. Chris's desperation was palpable, and it was painful seeing her do this work and shed tears because of it.

My experiences with Chris illuminated the complexity of exotic dance as a cultural practice. Over the months Chris's understanding of her time as a dancer changed. Her situation stabilized, and dancing shifted from being the only option to being an option among many- not easy but not totally disempowering either. Providing a window on this scene, Chris's insights were (and are) incredible, brilliant, and invaluable. One night I realized that there were some men who were in the club every time I was. These men who brought flowers and gifts looked more like boyfriends than customers. Alternating between holding hands and table dancing, dancers would spend hours talking and laughing with regulars. Chris told me that these men were how dancers “made most of their money.” Fascinated I needed to know more. I decided to study the relationships between dancers and their regulars. I wanted to understand how desire, fantasy, and power operated within these clubs. I had to understand the mechanisms of desire and how it was that men were in a position to buy fulfillment and women were most often relegated to being commodified objects of desire. I needed to tease out the complex mechanisms of power and fantasy and examine how they circulated throughout the club. Quite simply, I was hooked.

After I had spent more time in exotic dance clubs, I developed a more intricate and complicated picture of exotic dancers and their relationships with regular customers. From being against sex work at the beginning of my research, my views shifted after talking to many dancers and watching Chris's transition. I realized that women in the clubs slipped between easy binaries, they were neither victims nor were they falsely conscious. They were something else all together. Dancers' experiences gnawed away at me. I felt drawn in. Inching closer to the precipice I wanted to jump over, to try exotic dancing, to see what it was like. I felt it would make my research and my life richer, yet I was afraid. I dreaded the idea of being a bête noire to other feminists and facing stigma from the academy at large. There were, as Virginia Woolf eloquently said, “angels in the house,” that I needed to wrestle with before I could make my decision. Backing away, I sought safer ground. However, I continued exploring my options, asking many dancers, “What is it like?” Most encouraged me to “try it.” I was definitely playing with fire.

During my first year in the clubs, customers rarely talked to me. They were uninterested in a fully clothed and curious sociologist, and the only information I could get on their experiences was secondhand (from dancers). Frustrated, I wanted to untangle their understandings, motivations, and desires more fully. Finally an academic reason presented itself. Armed with intellectual hubris under the guise of “ethnographic commitment” my research dictated that I dance in order to experience the context and get to know customers in more complex ways. Clearly dancing would grant access to regulars in ways untold, but to say that my entry into dancing was purely academic would be false. I wanted to put my body where my mind was. I sauntered, albeit with shaky legs, to the edge and jumped.

Waiting to go on stage for the first time at an amateur night, I felt, for the most part, intellectually comfortable and good about my decision. My stomach, well, that was a horse of a different color. As I climbed the stairs leading up to the stage I wondered if I was walking the academic plank, stripping not only my clothes but also my academic credibility. However, once the music started my anxiety slipped away. After the manager informed me that I was hired, I decided to split my ethnographic experiences: I went to Glitters as a customer and to Flame as an exotic dancer. I traversed the boundaries between participant and observer, gaining insight both intellectually and personally. Dancing illuminated the complexity of desire, the vacillations of power, the raw emotion regulars feel for dancers, and the challenges of the job for me in ways I would have never understood sitting in front of the stage. It provided the opportunity for me to better understand the multilayered aspects of regulars' experiences.

In the end, my experiences as a dancer were mixed. There were nights when I felt on top of the world, sexy, smart, and like a super-star. Other nights I left depressed, feeling fat and unattractive. Luckily, there were more good nights than bad. However, proudly proclaiming my status as a dancer was another thing all together. As Lily Burana states,

I learned early on that I would often have to lie—out right or by omission that I would have to cut friends carefully from the judgmental herd, to spin and twist in the face of bureaucracy. Tell the wrong people and they'll never treat you the same again. You're stained: Slut. Idiot. Damaged Goods.1 1. Lily Burana, Strip City: A Stripper's Farewell Journey Across America. (New York: Miramax Books, 2001), p. 124.

Dancing felt like a torrid affair I had to hide from friends whom I feared would rebuff me. Some did. Some were hesitant fearing for my safety. Some were supportive. Losing longtime friends was the most painful consequence, far more than dancing on stage or on laps ever was.

My time as a dancer pushed my research and explorations in ways that would have been otherwise impossible. Providing me with a new level of interpretation, insight, and bodily experience, dancing made my research and my writing richer through poetry, prose, and academic writing. However, I would not say that I ever truly lived the life of a dancer because I always remained a researcher. My position at Flame was a privileged one; I could leave at any time, I could distance myself from stigma by placing my activities under the guise of “research,” and I was pursuing a degree that provided me access to a job that held more “status.” Although my vision of exotic dance was broadened by my time as a dancer, it was by no means complete.

This book does not offer the truth of exotic dance, rather it is a situated account informed by my position within both cultural and academic contexts. It has holes and limitations as well as illuminations and rich complexity. Therefore, like all research it is systematically and experientially informed. Woven through each chapter my experiences speak in the text because to hide them felt dishonest. My time on stage was, after all, formative to my analysis. Far from distanced objectivity, I have tried to heed the call by feminist post-structuralist theorists for reflexivity in order to shed light on the ruse of positivism and postpositivism. Given these concerns, Dancing for Dollars and Paying for Love ventures to illuminate the complex, messy, painful, and pleasurable interactions between dancers and their regulars in two exotic dance clubs in order to demystify and de-stigmatize this form of sex work.

 
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