"Look: Don't Touch: The Strip Club Scene"
by Dawn Ramos
For one evening I studied the customs in a gentlemen's club. To gather information about this subculture, I used participant-observation (emic), and I conducted interviews with three informants (dancers Lena, Nicole, and Vivid) whom I met there. I also took my friend Linda as my co-researcher and she shared her own observations with me. In an effort to be more fully aware, I went in with a mindset that I knew absolutely nothing about what I was about to experience, and I tried to erase my preconceived expectations. Later in the evening, our friends Pam and Margaret met us there and they were helpful as well.
At first I felt a little self-conscious because my friend and I were the only female customers there, but as the evening wore on, other women showed up and I felt a little less conspicuous. I did notice, however, that many of the dancers did not greet us as often and as warmly as they greeted the male patrons.
I do not think I experienced culture shock to any significant extent. While I had never been to an actual gentlemen's club, I have seen strippers at bars and parties and in movies, so the suggestive dancing and the semi-nudity were not uncomfortable for me. What stands out for me as having been uncomfortable was my not knowing what was expected of me in terms of my interactions with the dancers. At first I was not certain if there were norms about when and how much I should tip, or what kinds of conversations it would be appropriate for me to engage the dancers in. When I first spoke to Lena and asked her if I could ask her a few questions, she told me that she didn't have a lot of time because she had to get back to work. I agreed to pay her for her time and she became willing and informative. As the evening unfolded, I let my observations guide me, always mindful that my behavior and demeanor should remain consistent with the customs of the "natives."
Before I went, I called the establishment to see if it would be acceptable for me to do my fieldwork during business hours. The manager agreed to my request, asking only that I remain discreet and not direct my questions to any of the other customers. He graciously put me on the guest list, which exempted me from having to pay the cover charge. At the door, we were greeted by one of several large, muscular gentlemen who work there as "bouncers." Later in the evening, I learned from Nicole that the bouncers are employed to protect the dancers from customers that behave disrespectfully towards them, and to remove any customers that exhibit other disorderly behavior. In addition to receiving compensation from the club, the bouncers and the doorman receive tips from the dancers. We also learned from our experience with Vivid that the bouncers report it to the management when they see dancers violating protocol.
When Linda and I got inside, our eyes had to adjust to the dark. Except for some colorful and decorative accent lights, the interior was dark compared to the well-lighted entryway and parking lot. I chose seats in a corner where I felt we would have a panoramic view, and Linda and I sat down. A tall, thin, attractive, blonde woman wearing what looked like a one-piece bathing suit and high heels came over and offered to bring us drinks. It was understood that we were to pay for the drinks because she had a miniature cash box on the tray she was carrying. While it seemed acceptable and almost expected that we would order alcoholic beverages, we decided to deviate from the tradition so that we could maintain our lucidity. We ordered water and soda, which were brought to our table. Based on the price that our server quoted us, we guessed that it was the custom to make a considerate profit from the sale of drinks. Knowing I would need to reserve my cash to barter for information, I sipped slowly.
At all times during the evening, there were dancers on the centralized raised dance floor, which served as a stage. They seemed to be on an organized rotation or schedule, which was guided by a man who sat in a small, private room on the second floor. From inside his kiosk, the man used sound equipment to maintain a steady flow of loud, rhythmic music. Occasionally, he would announce a list of dancer's names to let them know when it would be their turn to dance onstage.
There were almost always three dancers on the stage. Each of them would dance three songs, so that when a song ended, one dancer would enter the stage and another one would leave the stage. As they left the stage, each dancer collected the money off the stage floor that had been thrown to her by customers who had enjoyed watching her dance. While on the stage, the dancers would often remove one layer of lingerie to reveal a second, scantier layer. Most, if not all of the dancers, ended up being half-naked on stage. None of them got completely naked. The farthest a dancer is allowed to strip down to is her g-string. Nicole told me that the dancers are only allowed to be topless near the center of the stage. Many of the dancers wore sexy high-heels. One dancer wore a cowboy hat pushed low on her forehead, which seemed to add a mysterious and seductive look to her profile. The majority of the dancers and waitresses appeared to have breast implants, but some of them did not. The implants made the dancer's otherwise fit bodies look misshapen and artificial to me, but the dancers with breast implants seemed to be more popular among the other patrons than the dancers without implants.
After Linda and I were there for a few minutes, a dancer came to our table and extended her hand to me, introduced herself as Morgan and asked me if I was enjoying the show. I didn't understand why she was introducing herself to me. It seemed strange that she would just walk up to me, a stranger, and start a friendly conversation. I told her I was enjoying the show and I smiled. She let go of may hand and walked away. It wasn't until a little later that I realized that this is one way the dancers solicit their tips. I observed that the customers often showed their appreciation for a dancer by slipping dollar bills into the dancer's lingerie when the dancer stopped at their table to chat. It was usually during this interchange that an arrangement for a "dance" (also referred to as a "chair dance" or a "lap dance") was made. If a customer saw some value in the movement and appearance of a dancer, the dancer could provide an up-close and personal version of her dancing skills for the duration of a song, wherever the customer was sitting. Lena told me that a dance sells for ten dollars per song. The client can also request to be taken upstairs to the VIP area where, for twenty dollars a dance, they could lounge on a comfortable sofa and enjoy their dance with fewer nearby onlookers. The VIP treatment seemed to come with an extra privilege for the money. While touching the dancers is prohibited, dancers who were taking their "dancees" to the VIP area would take them by the hand and lead them upstairs, as if showing off a prize. After the dance, the client would be led affectionately back downstairs to his seat. I observed that many of these dances lasted for numerous songs. Nicole told me that tips are sometimes given in addition to the per-dance fee, and that some dancers make over a thousand dollars a night.
Vivid informed us that during the dance, the client may not touch the dancer, but it is acceptable for the dancer to touch the client's shoulders or knees. However, one dancer repeatedly pressed her silicon breasts against the faces of a group of middle-aged men who seemed to be taking turns paying her to dance with each of them. She would also act like she was going to kiss one of them on the lips, then she would put the tip of her finger in her mouth, suck on it suggestively, then touch her wet finger to their lips. This seemed to be a substitution for a kiss. To my surprise, none of the participants seemed to object to the potential exchange of body fluids. My co-researcher Linda pointed out that a couple of the men were wearing wedding bands, which gave me concern for their wives.
With few exceptions, men sat with other men and seemed to enjoy the experience together. A few of the women who showed up later in the evening were actually dancers who had come by not to work, but to watch, and to talk their peers. They even tipped their fellow entertainers, and a couple of them seemed to share a sexual connection.
Nicole had just started as a dancer and she was only on her fourth night in the profession. She seemed to gravitate towards our group of four women, and I imagine she was seeking reprieve from the demands of being a rookie. She was genuine, friendly, and easy to talk to. She was definitely shy; I could tell that about her when I saw her on stage. She told us she was a day trader. When I offered to pay her to give a dance to my friend Pam, she admitted that she felt a little embarrassed because she had only given a couple of dances before, and never to a woman. She asked us to go into a more secluded area of the bar, and we obliged. After the dance, which she seemed awkward doing, she talked with us at length. She told us that she had heard that 90% of the dancers become bisexual. She confessed that although she has always had a boyfriend, she had never really felt attracted to men. She seemed to consider herself straight, but when we told her that we are gay, she gave us all a high-five. She also gave us her e-mail address, which I found surprising.
Earlier in the evening, I had paid Vivid to dance for my friend Pam. Pam pointed Vivid out when Vivid was on the dance floor and we waited and hoped that she would come to our table, but she did not. Later, I saw her in the restroom and told her that my friend had specifically requested a dance from her. She asked who my friend was and I said, "A cute blonde girl." She turned to another dancer in the restroom that she had been talking to and said enthusiastically, "A cute blonde girl? I can do that!" They both laughed knowingly and slightly lasciviously. Later still, I saw her standing near us, so I walked over to get her attention. Her back was to me, so I put my hand on her upper arm. I realized immediately that this gesture might not have been socially acceptable in this subculture. No offense seemed taken, and she came over and danced enthusiastically for Pam. Then she sat and talked with us for a few seconds, being especially flirtatious with me as I asked her questions about the protocols for contact between dancers and customers. When I gave her the ten dollars, Vivid told me that she thought she was in trouble because of how she had danced for Pam. At that moment, the manager walked over and asked her to see him upstairs. We did not see her for the rest of the night. She had violated the norms of her own subculture! Had she been excommunicated? Only suspended temporarily? A few minutes after Vivid was escorted away from us, the disk jockey got on the loud speaker and announced emphatically that customers may not touch the dancers, and it doesn't matter if the customer is male or female. Pam swore to us that she had not touched Vivid. I had seen Vivid put her hand up the back of Pam's shirt. Pam told us that Vivid had also put her hand down the back of Pam's pants and pulled on Pam's g-string. During the dance, we all saw Vivid grab the top of Pam's head and pull it down in front of Pam. Then Vivid rubbed her own crotch on Pam's head.
My first reaction to all of this was that the manager was being a little too picky. After all, women were topless 40 feet away from us. But then I remembered the concept of cultural relativism. In order to stay in business, the club has to make sure that certain guidelines are followed. Even though at first it seemed like a blatant double standard to me, the policy makes sense within the gentlemen's club subculture. Nudity is allowed and touching between customers and dancers is not. If the club gets raided and closed by the vice squad, the owners, the employees, and the patrons will all be affected.
According to Lena, being a dancer is "big business." Besides having the potential to be incredibly lucrative, the culture seems to satisfy a need for some of the women to have more control over their own bodies and their own sexuality. Nicole told me she was using being a dancer as a way to get back at men. I also observed a strong sense of community and camaraderie among some of the dancers.
The customers were definitely enjoying themselves. A myriad of needs seemed to be met for the mostly-male clientele. In addition to the sexy women and cold beer, the club aired sports events on a large-screen television. For some men, the club may feel like a place where a guy can be a guy and enjoy guy stuff with other guys. For a lonely or shy man, it might be the perfect place for him to enjoy the company of women. One customer sat for hours at a table in front of us drinking beer and talking to one of the dancers. Every once in a while, he would slide some bills of denominations unknown to me from in front of him to the area on the table in front of her. She seemed to acknowledge him with a discreet nod, and then they would continue talking. I never observed any behavior that indicated sexual interaction of any kind between them. The ease with which they spoke seemed to indicate a friendship, but it was clear that he was paying for her company. Like most of the men there, he was dressed casually. He was slightly overweight and he was starting to lose his hair, but he was not unattractive. I felt kind of sad for him. But I also admired him for having found a place to get his needs met. After all, the arrangement he had with the dancer is not that different from the conditions found in many marriages where the man provides financial support in exchange for the woman's emotional support.
Since many people are aware of the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases, as well as concerned about the limits of so-called safe sex, a strip club seems like a fairly safe place to release some sexual tension. The two heterosexual couples that I observed seemed to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps the lap dances they received added some spice to their sex lives. Maybe the partners got to experience the fantasy of bringing another woman into their lovemaking without really inviting a third party, with all the inherent medical and emotional risks, into the relationship.
For all these reasons, the atmosphere and practices I observed seem to be an adaptive safety valve. The practice of women showing off their sexual prowess for the benefit of men has been an accepted reality in many cultures since time immemorial. Gentlemen's clubs are the modern era's manifestation of this time-honored tradition.
If I were to do more fieldwork, I would want to interview more dancers. I think it would be enlightening to interview the clients at a strip club, as well. I would ask the men who receive the dances whether it creates or relieves sexual tension for them. I would ask both parties about their real sexual and romantic relationships and histories. I would like to talk to the bouncers also, to see if they have become numb to the sexual content of their work environment, and to find out if and how they find their jobs fulfilling. Another thing that interests me about the bouncers is the dual role they play as protector of the dancer and enforcer for the establishment.
This assignment was interesting. The patrons went to watch the dancers and drink the beer. I went to observe the culture and take in the atmosphere. I watched them watching, and I observed myself observing. My opinion of gentlemen's clubs has not changed, but I feel a little wiser for having had this experience.