Nearly every woman has been called a whore, but we rarely bother to find out for ourselves why such an identity is supposed to be so threatening. Many men's sexual rites of passage involve sex workers, but women are rarely encouraged to visit strip clubs or prostitutes. Instead of actual experiences, women learn from news stories about the horrors of stripping and prostitution, or hear contradictory accounts from feminists and sex workers.
After realizing that our curiosity and ignorance about sex work could only be dispelled through greater experience, my women friends and I spent several weekends in San Francisco visiting strip clubs and paying women for lap dances.
Strip club row on Broadway runs through the middle of North Beach, a neighborhood famous for old beatnik happenings and Italian immigrant culture. Today it's an upscale nightspot and tourist destination full of swank bars, cafes and expensive Italian restaurants. The most famous strip club landmark has disappeared: The Condor, now a sports bar, once featured an enormous nude woman with red flashing light bulbs for nipples. Now only fancy neon letters remain.
After swooning over a plate of creamy tiramisu in North Beach, Annie, Lisa and I ventured up Broadway in search of the kinds of naked women that the Condor no longer advertises.
At the Casbah, two extremely female women barkers informed us that if we'd brought "a gentleman," we'd have gotten in for free. Suddenly we'd entered a world where, anachronistically, women were called ladies and men were called gentlemen.
We pushed through a heavy curtain and into a small, dark room. A low stage dominated the dim, mirrored interior, surrounded by a handful of men in chairs. Off to the right, a shabby row of doorways stretched down a hallway. "Lap dances $20," read a plastic sign.
Although all the club's patrons were male, they barely noticed us as we sat down. Music throbbed meaninglessly in the background as we watched several women do their acts. To show appreciation, audience members placed dollar bills on the edge of the stage. Everyone who stripped was available for lap dances.
Strippers crawled and writhed on the floor, spreading their legs and interacting playfully with the audience. Some dancers would allow their bodies to be touched -- usually in the context of tipping. The dancer would stroke her chosen patron's face, fold his dollar bill carefully, put it between his lips or thighs and slowly pull it out with her mouth.
We were drawn to the dancers who played with the audience -- they seemed more authentically erotic. When a blond calling herself Kiki rolled all over the stage in vintage leopard-pattern lingerie, we looked at one another and nodded excitedly: She was the one we wanted.
"Will you give us a dance?" I asked Kiki when she had finished.
"I promised that gentleman over there a dance first," Kiki said, looking across the stage where a clot of men were talking. "But I'll do you first. I'd much rather dance for ladies than icky old men."
We piled into one of the tiny wooden booths, barely able to fit, and closed the short curtain behind us.
When the music began, Kiki took off all her clothes, first snuggling into Lisa and Annie's laps, and then rubbing up against me. But our positions seemed awkward, so Annie and Lisa stood up. As they joined me to make a circle around Kiki, we all started to dance and touch each other as we stroked our dancer's naked body. Kiki seemed surprised. "This is really fun," she said, giggling along with us. "I've never done this before."
For a few sweaty minutes, the dark club evaporated. We danced with a beautiful, naked woman, sharing her body and surrounding her half-protectively with our own. It was erotic and innocent, a fulfillment of all my high school crushes on girls who would dance with me but never admit there might be anything sexual behind our sororial intimacies.
When we left the club later, I saw Kiki emerge from a back room dressed in a puffy white parka and jeans. Already she was melting back into my high school fantasy.
Lisa and I continued our Broadway adventures the following weekend. This time we brought our friends Dana and Dave, and my partner Jay. We rationalized that the men wouldn't compromise our experience because they were in the minority.
Centerfolds is a huge three-story club featuring dozens of different lap-dance "fantasy" rooms decorated with couches, beds, office desks and even showers. There's also a bizarre "Psychedelic Ride Room," fitted out with a soft couch, fluorescent beads, flower stickers and a "make love not war" sign. In the world of stripping, the '60s have become just another sex fantasy. Perhaps, for many people, that's what the '60s were about all along.
When we found the main stage, a woman with a labia piercing was threading a dollar bill into the small hoop that sparkled in her vagina, undulating on her back and spreading her legs. Everyone clapped and hooted as she stood back up, the dollar bill remaining in place like a bow decorating the present that was her nude body.
I wanted to escape again to the dreamy place that Annie, Lisa and I had shared with Kiki at the Casbah. I suddenly understood what people meant by sex addiction: The urge to abolish this surreal scene in a crush of naked bodies overcame me like drug-lust.
Dave stayed behind and watched the stage as Jay, Dana, Lisa and I searched for some willing ladies. A woman in a clingy evening gown draped herself over Jay's shoulders. "Wanna dance?" she asked.
"Sure," I replied for him, "but we want another lady too." At that moment, the woman who had done the dollar-in-the-labia dance walked past us. I touched her arm and asked if she'd be our second. Both women seemed nonplussed as we bartered a price, finally agreeing on $60 for each of them.
The presence of women in our group didn't seem to make the dancers any more enthusiastic about the deal. Based on Kiki's reaction to us the week before, I'd begun to imagine we were special, a welcome female respite from the usual "icky old men." Here at Centerfolds, however, I was no better than an icky old man.
My misgivings evaporated when our dances began, but not because I thought our hired companions liked it. Their lack of interest wasn't tragic, after all. It was professional.
The strippers pushed Lisa and Jay down on the velvet bed in our "fantasy room," mounted them, and began to writhe as the song commenced. Dana and I gave each other mock lap dances in the dim light, bumping against each other and the bed.
When it was our turn, I began to feel like I was on ecstasy or, less appealingly, an erotic amusement park ride. As my friends watched, the dancer pulled off my shirt and bra and grabbed my breasts.
"How was it?" Dave asked, regarding our flushed faces as we rejoined him.
"Pretty amazing," I said dazedly. "Do you want to try one too?"
"No, I don't think so -- it's all very erotic, but I just don't think I could have an orgasm. I'm turned on by the idea that a woman really likes me, and I can't see getting that here." Dave paused, smiling a little bit. "But I'm enjoying myself. The women are beautiful, and you can't argue with beauty."
Later that week, Lisa and I were still pursuing strippers. On Friday, we met Dana and her boyfriend Ian at the famous Mitchell Brothers Theater on O'Farrell Street. Hovering on the edge of downtown San Francisco at a busy intersection, the Mitchell Brothers Theater advertises itself as a high-class "gentlemen's club" where live sex acts are part of the entertainment.
As if to distinguish itself from the dark clubs on Broadway, the Mitchell Brothers Theater is all brass and glass in its well-lit lobby. With its plush carpet, backlit photographs of "the ladies" lining the walls, and an ever-present, uniformed staff of well-groomed young men, it reminded me of a hotel.
Lisa and I arrived early and walked down a hall lined with curtained lap-dance booths, finally finding ourselves at the intersection of two rooms cloaked in the usual strip-show shadows. As we paused uncertainly, a middle-aged man appeared out of nowhere. "So are you here to watch the ladies or to meet people?" he asked, wriggling close to us with a smile that was a little too hungry.
We were so startled by his invasive cruising that neither of us had time to answer before two dancers, their arms around each other's waists, warbled cheerfully, "Hey, are you guys together?"
"We're together," I gestured at Lisa and myself, pointedly excluding the cruiser.
"Well, so are we!" exclaimed one of the women, "Do you want us to give you a little show?" As we smiled and said no, the man disappeared behind us. Moments later, the dancers followed him.
We sank into some seats next to the main stage and Lisa whispered, "I think those women just saved us." I nodded numbly, looking across the stage into the leers of three young men in suits who looked like they'd just driven up from Silicon Valley.
Although we'd grown accustomed to being the only women in the audience at a strip club, something about the Mitchell Brothers Theater was different. The only bathroom for women had to be opened with a key by a clerk at the front desk. We'd been in far sleazier clubs, but there was a strange, menacing atmosphere here that we hadn't felt before.
Even the music at Mitchell Brothers was unsettling. While most strip clubs we'd seen had featured pop music, here every song was slow and soulful. The Eagles' "Hotel California" played while strippers writhed, groveled and posed -- never dancing. A DJ was calling out each woman's name as she came on stage, urging us to pay particular attention to her "exotic charms."
"Hey gentlemen and LADIES, let's show the girls some appreciation!" the DJ barked. I fumbled in my wallet for one-dollar bills.
Seconds later, the DJ spoke again. "Hey LADIES," he growled, "Let's start tipping!"
We were the only "ladies"; he was clearly talking directly to us. Most of the men at the edges of the stage hadn't started tipping either. But I put several dollars down anyway, wanting, for a panicked moment, just to blend in.
After finding Dana and Ian, we entered the "Copenhagen Room," where patrons crowd onto carpeted benches in a dark alcove filled with flashlights to illuminate the show. Two dancers swirled into the room, utterly naked, and chirped sweetly, "Presents? Presents? Do you have presents for us?" Everyone threw dollar bills on the floor as one woman propped her foot on the wall over my head and the other licked her pussy a few inches from my face. We aimed our flashlights at their spread legs, keeping our own bodies in darkness.
Two men dressed head to toe in Old Navy sporting gear started groaning and yelping "Hey boys, give them more money!" The dancers ignored them.
The Old Navies started hooting again; they sounded like sports fans cheering for a strange new game. "Give them money!" None of the other men in the room were behaving like that. Without thinking, I aimed my flashlight at the faces and bodies of the Old Navies, revealing that despite their grunting, they had given no money yet.
When the show ended, I wanted to get a lap dance and go. We returned to the main stage and watched as a dancer named June strutted to the tune of Radiohead's "Creep." While this song seemed a weird choice for a strip -- it's about a loser pervert with an unrequited crush -- it made June's performance into a subtle form of revenge on the audience.
We wondered aloud if she had chosen her song with an intentional sense of irony. There was one easy way to find out.
When June and I were alone in a plush Mitchell Brothers booth, I discovered why the activity in this club seemed simultaneously more raw and yet more secretive. A tidy rack next to me contained condoms, lube and rubber gloves.
"So you want a dance, right?" asked June when I gave her a twenty. "I haven't done a dance in a long time. This isn't really a strip club -- it's a sex club."
"You mean women here normally do more ..." I trailed off uncertainly, not wanting to say the wrong thing.
"Yes, some of the women here will have sex," she replied matter-of-factly.
I tried to process this information as she cuddled me, blew in my ear and gave me the most erotic lap dance I've ever had. When it was over, I was shaking with a combination of nervousness, arousal and shock. I wanted something more.
"Did you play the song 'Creep' when you danced to be ironic?" I blurted out as she readjusted her corset.
"Yeah, I did. Usually people don't notice." At that moment I realized what was provoking my mixed emotions. June was the kind of person I'd normally try to befriend or date in the far-away world of real life. She was smart and self-aware, and had chosen to make sexuality central to her work. I liked her.
Then I did something I had never done before with any of the dancers I'd paid. I told her I was writing a story about strip shows and asked what she thought about that, especially since I wasn't a stripper myself.
"I've often considered writing something about it, but writing just isn't my strength," she replied. "But you're a woman, so you can see what we go through."
I wasn't sure if that was true.
Dana and Lisa joined me for another dance with June. As she started to strip, we gushed about her look and stage performance. After a few minutes, June sat on the sofa and chatted with us about the other dancers she liked at the club, how long she'd been working that day and what a pain in the ass it was to zip into her latex dress. Although she had done as much for us as the women we'd hired in other clubs, June wouldn't let us pay her for the group dance.
"It didn't count; we just did girl talk," she said, waving our money away. "Plus it's the end of my shift and I was too tired."
We finally accepted her refusal after our several attempts to pay started to feel rude, but we still felt bad about not compensating her. It was, after all, her work.
At the same time, I appreciated her gesture. It confirmed my sense that in another universe, far away from this club, all of us might have been friends. And yet that sense of potential friendship didn't inspire any of us to want to "rescue" June from stripping. On the contrary, it proved to us that she didn't need to be rescued. We thought June was so self-possessed and appealing that we began to wonder aloud about becoming strippers ourselves, and whether any of us could do it as well as she did.
Perhaps this is a story that could only be told in a sex-positive city like San Francisco, where vice cops' orders are usually to bust people who abuse prostitutes rather than busting prostitutes working on private property.
Regardless, when women go to strip clubs, we get to experience an erotic pleasure that is generally reserved for men alone. And more importantly, we have an opportunity to see that the women who choose to strip for a living are more like us than we might imagine -- not because all women are whores, but rather because all women should be allowed to make their own choices about what they want to do with their sexuality. While it's true that some prostitutes and strippers are abused, many of them are not. Some women make well-informed decisions when they choose sex work. And while others are forced into the profession for sheerly economic reasons, being forced to do a job that one doesn't enjoy does not make sex work special. In many ways, sex workers are like hundreds of thousands of other women in the United States today. Poor and disadvantaged women perform undervalued labor like waitressing, sweatshop manufacturing and housework all the time but rarely do people wring their hands over it or try to save them. Often those who condemn the idea of paying for sexual pleasure have no qualms about paying a domestic to clean their toilets and windows.
Ultimately, how much of the confusion and unhappiness associated with sex work comes from the "work" not the "sex"? Looking sex work in the face invites us to question whether we should be more disturbed by the idea of buying someone for sex, or just the idea of buying someone at all.