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.
That said, I also came to appreciate that men still have so much privilege and they should realize it. Their stigma for going to the club is nothing like the stripper who’s trying to get her next job and can’t say what she’s been doing for the past four years. Dancers make a lot of money compared to women working in some other low-skilled occupations, but they are downwardly mobile: Women can’t do this much past their mid-30s.
The man may think he’s giving money to this woman who’s “captured his heart” so she’s got the power, but it’s entertainment money to him. Sometimes a guy will spend $500 on a dancer: I can’t imagine having that kind of money to spend on top of rent, groceries and bills.
How did you become a stripper?
I started working for liquor promoters when I was 24 to pay for grad school. Have you ever seen the Bud Girls? We were like that: We wore skimpy outfits and we’d go out in teams to different bars and sell shots. We did some promotions in stripper bars and I started talking to strippers and liquor models about body image and identification and decided to study that in school. As an anthropologist, I was interested in doing ethnography — not writing about people from a detached stance but actually becoming a part of what I wanted to study — so I started working as a dancer in an upscale club. I realized quickly that the women were doing it for the money, so I turned my questions to the customers.
Did you worry about the stigma?
It was a risky project. Other academics were saying things like, “Are you ever going to get a job if you take a job as a dancer?” But I think the timing was right; a few people had come out but nothing like it is now.
The ivory tower has been stormed by sex workers since then?
It’s certainly more accepted now. A book came out while I was in grad school called “Whores and Other Feminists”; a lot of the writers were grad students and other public intellectuals and they’d worked in the sex industry. During the late ’90s, it still felt like doing this project was going to expose me to some judgment and stigma. [Frank is now a Social Science Research Council sexuality research fellow at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, in the department of sociology and has taught at several other colleges.]
How did stripping affect your body image?
I had really positive experiences dancing. I learned that men have a much more varied perception of what sort of bodies are beautiful or sexy than a lot of women think they do. The upper-tier clubs had less variety than the lower-tier clubs. But even in the upscale clubs, you’ll see more variety of shapes and sizes than you’d see in a Cosmo or a Maxim. I had stereotyped men as wanting something narrow, when in fact they have a wide variety of tastes.
Really? When I went to a strip club, the dancers all looked generically flawless.
If only a black light could follow me around everywhere! Those lights make you look tan, they make your skin look perfect, hide your cellulite and the red bumps from shaving your pubic hair.
In the dressing room you’d see what people really looked like. But yeah, there are some parameters: Youth is a big thing, and the short-haired girls quickly realized they had to wear long wigs to get any tips.
What kind of money did you make?
I’ve made over $1,000 in a night, and I know dancers who made over $3,000, but both of those figures are way above average. The busier clubs you work in, the more expensive dances are, the more you’re going to make. But I could never work more than four nights a week because it’s physically really hard. You’re in high heels, it’s late, it’s smoky. It’s a working-class job, hard labor. You’re wearing a nice dress instead of coming home covered in ketchup, but you’re still using your body in a difficult job.
Did the guys ever creep you out?
Men in groups are different from men alone. Men in groups talk more, compare women’s bodies more blatantly, are more critical of their wives’ or girlfriends’ bodies. I didn’t like working Saturday night — bachelor party night. When I started stripping I thought it would all be groups, and I was really pleased to find out that a lot of it was sitting and talking with an individual guy.
You give a concise definition of the male gaze in Chapter 1: “In a society such as our own where there are distinct gender inequities … ‘looking’ becomes a form of domination and visibility a form of oppression. The gaze becomes a disciplining force when it is internalized.” You then dismiss that pretty quickly, but isn’t it central to the strip club experience?
Yes, the men are looking and the women are being looked at and that’s one important aspect of the experience, but that’s not the only looking relationship that’s going on. Men are looking at each other, watching each other spend. Women are looking at each other; women are looking at the men, sizing up who’s a big spender. The assumption is the man looks and he sees what he’s looking for, but the dancers realize they can show their body and not reveal their subjectivity.
Context is a big part of it. Say you’re walking down the street and someone yells, “Nice ass,” you may feel exposed because you weren’t expecting it. But if you’re exposing your body for money, that’s in the context. In the strip club, nudity is a costume. Some of the quest for authenticity that the customers were on was a result of this — they wanted to see that final costume drop away.
I guess playing the male gaze and the touristic gaze was your job. Did you exploit the class biases — dress trashier for the guys in the lower-tier clubs or more glamorous for the high rollers?
The clubs are so stratified — ranging from high-end gentleman’s clubs to smaller neighborhood bars or red-light district venues — and the men choose where they go because of the meanings that those differences already had for them. Men came in with so many preexisting beliefs about what women were like in each club that I didn’t feel like I had control. Even if you tried to dress like a biker chick in an upper-tier club, the guys would think, Isn’t that cute, this nice girl is pretending she’s a biker chick. Or a really thin girl: In the upper-tier club they’d say, “Oh, look, a ballet dancer.” The same girl in the lower-tier club they’d be like, “She must be a heroin addict.”
Being interested in and able to talk about news, current events, politics or the stock market would give you more appeal for certain clients. Knowing how to dress, accessorize, apply makeup and that sort of thing helped along the fantasy that they were with a middle-class girl if that’s what they wanted.
Did you change your “look” much?
We didn’t have that much leeway. In upper-tier clubs, the manager would do a full body check before you went on the floor. You had to have fingernails and toenails painted, three accessories — a long gown counted for two but in a short dress you’d need, say, a boa and gloves. No chunky platform boots, it had to be thin heels. They wanted a put-together look.
What were the rules about pubic hair?
In the bottomless places, a city law said you couldn’t be clean-shaven, I suppose because that would be like fetishizing pedophilia. So if you didn’t have enough, the manager would say, “Pencil some in.” Some dancers wouldn’t shave because that’s a fetish; there’d be enough men who liked that look to support maybe one completely unshaved dancer a night.
Did men seem to prefer the fantasy that you were an exhibitionist or that you were a “nice girl” and it was hard for you? Did anyone get off on the fantasy you did it against your will?
They liked both of those answers — the trick was figuring out which answer a specific customer was going to prefer! While I was doing the research, I was always upfront about the fact that I was dancing as part of my research project, though, and there were certainly customers who got off on that as well.
Had your interview subjects all put money in your garter? How did it feel to turn the tables and study them?
Yes, all of the men that I interviewed I met working in the club. I definitely liked being a dancer studying the customers since the dancers are always studied — people say, “What’s wrong with these women that they would take up such a job?” Why all the attention to the dancers? Why not look at the men who actually fund this kind of entertainment? I liked the idea of being a dancer studying up.
And I felt lucky to talk to so many customers. It made me a better dancer, better at the job, which is pleasing them; I was thinking all the time about what do these guys want, why are they here? I was really interested in their lives and their work. I got to see how a transaction actually occurs, how a sale happens. I learned things that I never would have considered if I’d just been sitting in the corner with a notebook. And I think it has helped me to understand sexuality better in general as well.
Can you expand on that?
Working in strip clubs dramatized for me the fact that fantasies can be experienced as very personal yet widely shared or cultural. It also let me think through how this happens, and especially how fantasy is so influenced by other social positionings, like social class. Since writing my book, I’ve gotten lots of e-mails from guys saying, “Oh no, I am just like the other guys. I’ve said all of those quotes in your book!”
Your subjects were almost all married and most said they were in love with their wives and wanted to stay married. How did they square this with coming so often to the clubs?
For the men who said that they were in love with their wives and wanted to stay married, what happened in the clubs was transgressive and real enough to be exciting, but was still a fantasy. In the chapter “The Crowded Bedroom,” I really wanted to question the whole idea of true intimacy. What does that even mean? Lots of couples hide things from each other, from negative everyday thoughts to really serious sexual or emotional entanglements with other people. My current research project is actually looking into this more in depth — the whole relationship between secrecy, intimacy, sexual exclusivity and marriage.
You picked up on a pattern of men saying, “It would hurt my wife if she found out” they went to the strip clubs, but they go anyway. You explain that with object-relations psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg’s theory that aggression is an integral part of marriage that couples should accommodate rather than deny. Can you say a little more about his theory and why you subscribe to it?
I wouldn’t say I subscribe to it in whole, but his primary idea that relationships involve and re-create past object relations [primarily with one's parents] and that they involve more than just positive emotions is one that I think deserves careful consideration. I think most of us can think about our own relationships and recognize times when we’ve been nasty to the person supposedly closest to us. The question is where this hostility comes from and what we can do about it. What appealed to me about Kernberg and other object-relations psychoanalysts was the attempt to look at this hostility as something that inevitably arises but that does not necessarily destroy the passion that two people have for each other.
I hate to be such a square, but how would you feel if your husband went to strip clubs regularly?
Honestly, I wouldn’t like it! For me, a lot of it is about the money — I don’t have the disposable income to spend on that kind of entertainment, and if he did have that kind of extra money, I’d want it to be fair. Maybe if I could spend dollar for dollar somewhere else, but unfortunately, there aren’t yet places where women can go pay hot young men to stroke their egos. That may come in the future.
Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York. More Virginia Vitzthum.
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