Where have all the lap dancers gone?

Sex workers are surviving the dot-com bust, but they too mourn the days of easy venture capital and IPO-inspired lust.

Published May 8, 2001 7:31PM (EDT)

"This industry transcends market fluctuations," says Annalise Ophelian, who has been working as a dominatrix in San Francisco since 1995. For about $250 an hour, Ophelian straps on 5-inch heels and a leather corset and turns her dungeon into a haven for flogging, whipping, humiliation and other forms of B&D and S/M (bondage and domination and sadomasochism). But today Ophelian looks sweet and stylish as she sips a cup of tea. Her brown hair flows over the shoulders of a colorful T-shirt. She looks intently across the table and assures me, "The erotic industry in San Francisco is a booming one that certainly rode the crest of dot-com-ism, and profited from it greatly, but is not going to disappear because the dot-commers went away."

Even so, Ophelian admits that business is slower than it was at the height of new-economy fervor. Some customers schedule one-hour sessions where they once asked for three- or four-hour ones. The clientele has changed or, rather, much like the economy at large, has been "corrected." Last year Ophelian had an influx of 22-year-old clients who were eager to experiment with professional domination as the "extreme sport" of the sex industry. "But after the October dip in the stock market, all the young ones left," she says. Now her client base consists of old-economy reliables. "All my 45-year-old CFOs are still around," she says.

Dancers at Bay Area strip clubs are also feeling the pinch. At a famous San Francisco club where bare-breasted women hustle customers for lap dances in private booths, one employee said she's bringing home about half the tips she was a year ago. The dancers at this club receive no wages, they work only for tips and they are required to pay a "stage fee" of more than $200 for each shift they work. It was a lucrative job when the economy was good, but now working conditions are tougher.

The oldest profession and the newest profession became intertwined when young and suddenly rich high-tech bachelors set off a boom in the Bay Area's sex industry in the late 1990s. While working as a research assistant on "The Center of the World," Wayne Wang's film about sex and the dot-com economy, I heard about numerous incidents of the sex-tech embrace. Baby-faced CEOs scheduled three-hour sessions with professional dominatrixes. Socially awkward computer programmers hired high-class prostitutes to escort them to Silicon Valley functions. Start-ups celebrated successful IPOs in Las Vegas brothels.

Plenty of venture capital has been tucked under the elastic waistband of a stripper's G-string. And plenty of B2B (business to business) deals have been signed because of the attentive service she gave to a customer's business client. Some local sex workers even told me that they ended up benefiting twice from the high-tech gold rush of the late 1990s. First they made profits from the influx of wealthy young men wanting to pay for affection. Then a few were hired as writers and marketers for their customers' companies.

But the synergy between the sex industry and the tech industry has its downside. The cash a stripper brings home ebbs and flows with her clients' stock portfolios. So many women working in the sex industry have seen a decline in business as the flurry of instant wealth, so prominent in the late 1990s, has dissipated. But despite dwindling income from new-economy types, many Bay Area sex workers are smug. They realize that while dot-coms may come and go, they're in an industry that will always persevere. And if the sex industry follows the same trend it has over the past 30 years, it won't just persevere -- it will continue to grow. As jobs that require constant flexibility and long hours spent in front of a computer become more commonplace, many men have less time to date. Instead of fostering mutually fulfilling relationships (which are time-consuming), they're paying for sexual gratification as a service akin to take-out food or wash 'n' fold launderettes. Sex in the new economy is just another outsourced job perfect for independent contractors.

A year ago, dancers at San Francisco's high-end strip clubs were making upward of $1,000 a night. A good portion of that money came from groups of men living it up on company expense accounts. "When the V.C.s would come in, they'd have a big group and they'd be like 'Oh yeah, it's just money,'" one dancer recalls. Not so long ago, she was reeling in that casually tossed-about cash. She remembers lucrative nights when Linux vendor Red Hat was doing really well and VA Linux stock was skyrocketing. But now groups come in less frequently, expense accounts are few and far between, and company pride has dwindled. The dancer says, "I always ask who they work for if they come in a group. Lately they won't tell me."

That wasn't always the case. One customer at a strip club in Silicon Valley's Sunnyvale actually recruited a dancer there for a job in his high-tech company. That was about a year ago, when he paid her very well for a lap dance. She e-mailed him a brief thank-you. "He e-mailed me three months later like, 'Hey, I've been thinking about you. There's a new position that's opening up. If you're really serious about getting out of this ...,'" she says. The next time he came to the club, it was to talk about the job opportunity. When it was time for the dancer to go onstage, "He turned away so he wouldn't see me naked. He was awesome," she says.

The dancer got the job on the company's marketing team. But the long commute and the frequent travel wore her out. Besides, she says, "dancing makes more money." Earning around $100,000 a year by dancing just three or four nights a week, she had plenty of free time and the money to enjoy it. So she quit the marketing job and went back to the strip club. But her stint in high tech was valuable. "That job was more like a confidence booster; I realized I can go in the real world and do this," she says.

- - - - - - - - - - - -

"Please be respectful. Don't give orders," says the sign (in three languages) inside a dark, narrow booth at San Francisco's Lusty Lady. Stick in a dollar and the window curtain rises, revealing a roomful of nearly naked young women. A cherubic blond who goes by "Bianca" wears a short white nightie trimmed with marabou and her hair pulled back in pigtails. She has taken off her wedding ring so she can better grasp the bar above each window. Her other hand moves in slow circles between her spread legs. As she sways, onlookers glimpse flashes of the paw print tattooed on her bottom. Bianca started working full time at the peep show last November, when she got laid off from her job as a Web designer.

She had been dancing a couple of nights a week while she worked for a dot-com during the day. So when she got laid off, she took on more shifts at the Lusty Lady. "It was right before the holidays; I didn't want to start looking for another job," she says. "Then I looked at the market and I realized that contracting was the way to go." Now Bianca does Web design on a freelance basis, and relies on the peep show for her steady income.

Because of the format at the Lusty Lady -- the workers remain behind glass and have no direct contact with customers -- the dancers are paid hourly wages and receive almost no tips. It might seem that they'd be immune to new-economy woes: Their income remains steady no matter how many customers walk through the door.

But in fact the workers there have lost money as an indirect effect of the giddy economy of the late 1990s. The rise in real estate prices fueled by the dot-com lust for land led to a huge rent increase at the Lusty Lady. At the same time, business was stagnating as insta-millionaires spent their mad money at fancier clubs like Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater and Boys Toys. To cover the added expense, the management of the club wanted to cut dancers' salaries by $3 an hour, says Bianca. "We were like 'No way. We don't make that much to begin with; you can't take that away from us.'" The dancers at the Lusty Lady are unionized, so the change in pay was negotiated at the bargaining table. In the end the dancers took a $1-per-hour pay cut, not an insignificant amount for people who make between $14 and $23 an hour.

In chat rooms where "clients" rate their sexual service "providers," talk of the moody economy is everywhere. Web sites such as SFRedbook.com provide bulletin boards for people to discuss their experiences with streetwalkers and strippers. One bargain hunter who calls himself "just your average 2001 dot-commie" wants to know how far $1,000 will go with an escort. He'd like to hire a date to celebrate his 36th birthday but is afraid he doesn't have the money to get the kind of service he wants. "I'm more likely to get laid off than to cash in my stock options," he writes. A response says: "You well might likely negotiate down a longer date including social time at a lower rate. With the slowdown, it seems even more likely."

One man reports that the down economy was forcing himself to cut back on his consumption of commodified orgasm. In a posting titled "I will be off whoring for a while" he notes that "as a laid-off Silicon worker, I will be off the hobby till I am back at work." The ensuing posts reek of empathy: "Sorry to hear about your situation. I may not be far behind," says one. Other postings recommended new territories to conquer -- advising Bay Area men short on funds to head to the Central Valley town of Modesto for better deals in the prostitution market.

While the dip in the economy may be forcing some men to cut back on sex for pay, the steady expansion of the sex industry continues for deeper reasons, says Elizabeth Bernstein, a sociologist at Barnard College in New York. She has been studying changes in San Francisco's sex industry. "Everyone predicted that with the sexual revolution, things like prostitution and commercial sex would disappear, because men, quote unquote, could get it for free," she says. "In fact the reverse has happened. The sex industry has grown, has diversified and has taken on a wide array of new forms."

Bernstein says that today's vast erotic labor market is a result of greater societal changes over the past 30 years. As family structure and work ethics have shifted, the traditional source of intimacy -- a family -- has become a less viable alternative for many men seeking new-economy jobs. "The best arrangement, if you're going to be that completely flexible, isolated and mobile employee, is to be able to purchase sex in the commercial marketplace, and not to be encumbered by a wife and children," she says.

Paying for sexual intimacy is compatible with an economy in which we pay for all kinds of domestic labor. We pay people to deliver food to our door, to wash our clothes, to clean our cars, to scrub our toilets, to raise our children. Why not pay someone to perform the ultimate wifely duty? In all cases, Bernstein says, men are now paying for "services that women used to provide for free."

In the quest for riches, sexual service providers and their new-economy clients seem to operate on common ground. "What I heard about a year and a half ago from a lot of these young men," says Ophelian, "was that they were, in a sense, selling themselves to these companies. They were working these outrageous hours, incurring a great deal of physical and emotional taxation, so that when the company went public, they'd be millionaires and it would be worth it. Like: 'We've got four more years till the IPO. I can hold out until then.'" Sex workers, she says, are quite similar. "That's exactly the same language you hear from women who are making $1,000 a night stripping," she says. "They figure, even if this might be very hard work physically, might be emotionally taxing work, I can do this for two years and put away enough to achieve a goal. So you have to start wondering who the whore is in this situation."

Whether sex workers and high-tech workers are selling their body or selling their mind, the risks -- financial, physical, emotional -- that they both incur in their careers shouldn't be underestimated. "A lot of people in both situations can come out the other end -- like either their company didn't go public, or their $1,000 a night didn't get saved properly -- and not end up achieving the goal that they wanted. So you have a similar sort of burnout or disappointment," says Ophelian. In a culture that values money over love and mind over spirit, the role of sex work in the new economy has taken on a more intense and visible presence. But in many ways the love-for-sale exchange remains much what it has always been -- a stigmatized practice steeped in lust, loneliness and financial gain or loss.

By Laurel Rosen

Laurel Rosen is a freelancer living in San Francisco, Calif.

MORE FROM Laurel Rosen

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Love And Sex Sex