“How much is the show?” I ask the balding man standing at the foot of the stairs.
Just behind him, the mystery radiates. Half-naked women are waiting to become fully naked women for paying customers (like me!) and everything about this idea excites me more than I can handle. The thrill of naked flesh. The power of money. The heat of doing something “taboo.” I’ve had a few drinks and my husband is 3,000 miles away — I’m ready to cross lines and masturbate in front of a complying stranger.
The man looks confused. “You mean for the peep show?”
“Yes, the peep show.” I sigh. I’ve just been belting out Bon Jovi and Johnny Cash songs at a nearby karaoke bar with co-workers, in the type of place that provides a whole stage for you to stagger through broken song lyrics at various pitches in full view. And now I’m dizzy and horny and have no interest in explaining to the man that even a young, healthy woman dressed in corporate attire like myself can get off on paying a woman to strip for me.
“Um.” He scratches his head — literally — as if the stimulation of dead follicles should somehow make sense of this situation. He must be new at this job. Any seasoned peep show bodyguard wouldn’t be fazed by its variety of customers.
Even though I’m tipsy and on a mission, I feel bad. Judged. Flawed. If I had a penis, the man wouldn't have that look on his face. The look that says, “You are in the wrong place, lady. Something’s wrong with you.”
Then again, maybe he isn’t judging me at all. Maybe my biggest critic is me.
For one, I’m a sex addict, and though months have passed since I last watched hardcore porn, my drug of choice, I have somehow managed to convince myself on this night that peep shows are OK. Alcohol and work stress have helped me come up with this ridiculous idea. Little do I realize this is the beginning of a relapse, and it will lead to obsessive scrolling through Craigslist and Backpages for months, expensive strip club visits and, of course, multiple porn binges. Not to mention all the consequential emotional baggage that will follow — isolation, secrecy, anger, self-loathing.
But just as tormenting is the hypocrisy I feel as a proud feminist. For years I’ve been vocal about how peep shows and strip clubs and porn and prostitution perpetuate the objectification and exploitation of women. There is a part of me that clings to these beliefs, yet another part that feels powerfully tugged toward them. This latter part believes that women should be entitled to use their bodies however they wish and it’s not my job to monitor that. In fact, trying to argue against a woman’s choice to seek sex work and victimizing her without actually knowing her story seems a much more anti-feminist approach.
Obviously I know that in some countries, even in America, women go into these professions for horrid and horrifying reasons. Poverty. Abuse. Force. Self-hatred. But what about porn stars like Asa Akira? As a woman who had a privileged childhood and performs “to fulfill her exotic desires,” Akira doesn’t seem to need saving. What if the women at the peep show don’t need saving either? What if they love their job?
“Forty dollars, baby.” I hear a soft voice call out from the top of the stairs. The balding man looks at her, my savior. “Come up this way.”
The bodyguard gives his attention to a rack of thongs while I make my way up the stairs, my laptop bag heavy on my side, my palms wet, my heart ready to bust. The woman is smiling, maybe because it’s her job to smile, maybe because she likes smiling, maybe because she likes seeing a different kind of clientele climb these steps. I’m not sure, I don’t ask. I smile back.
“It’s 30 dollars to see me topless,” she says. “If you pay 40, I’ll play with my pussy.”
Time slows down when that electrifying word slithers out of her mouth and into the air.
“That’s it,” I say. “That’s what I want. I’ll pay 40.”
“OK, honey, just go in there.” She points to a dark room with a small stool, and I go in and sit down. She closes the door for me and steps into the adjoining room. Between us now there is glass, a curtain and my heavy breath. The space eerily resembles a church confessional and I think for a moment how humiliating it would be if the curtain opened up to a disapproving priest and I’d been somehow duped into revisiting my Catholic girlhood guilt.
It’s so quiet now that I can hear the bodyguard below rummaging with the lingerie. I wonder if he gets employee discounts on peep shows, and I feel slightly jealous. My thoughts are racing.
She’s so hot. She’s so nice! Forty dollars is a lot of money. Forty dollars is not that bad. I wish I hadn’t sung Bon Jovi.
The curtain opens and there she is, flattered by a beam of red light cast down on her dark skin. She’s still calling me “baby,” asking me if I like it – it being her legs spread, her bare breasts, her gyrating hips, her fingers enveloped by her sex, her titillating presence there for me, a business traveler with an itch that needs to be scratched, like so many other types of customers before me.
But who am I kidding? Do many 30ish female business travelers — who happen to have good sex lives with their husbands — frequent peep shows? Later, a few Google searches will lead me to many articles on visiting strip clubs, but none of these address women going to peep shows, which is an entirely different animal. Unlike the strip club, I’m not sharing this woman with anyone else. I’m allowed to masturbate right there in front of her. The excitement of the strip club is about knocking back drinks with the ladies, proving to the male spectators that I, too, can slip a few dollars into a G-string.
This satisfies a deeper craving. With my hand down my pants, working fast and hungrily, it doesn’t take me long to climax. This is a good thing, since time runs out fast at the peep show and I wasn’t willing to pay beyond $40.
I don’t have to pull up my pants or clean myself up, so I’m up and outside quickly. Somehow this gives me a slight boost of pride, as if the janitor will be so grateful when he or she realizes I’m a woman and I haven’t Jackson Pollocked the place up.
“Thank you,” I say to my entertainer for the evening, and she nods at me, still smiling.
The bodyguard has moved on to a discount bin of furry handcuffs, pleather whips and other miscellaneous items of the BDSM variety. He turns his attention to me as I make my way down the stairs and onto the same level as him, still looking confused, his face full of questions. I wish I could say I was too saturated in the post-orgasm glow to care, but on the stumble back to my hotel room, I feel tormented. I can’t stop thinking about his eyes on me. Anger ensues. And not long after, shame.
On the flight home to my husband, I realize I have to tell him about the peep show. Not only because we don’t keep secrets from each other, but also because I’ve found confession to be one of the most effective ways to defuse guilt. If that’s not a sign of my Catholic upbringing, I don’t know what is.
We had only just pulled away from the airport arrivals curb when I utter what no spouse wants to hear from their beloved when they’ve just come home from a business trip.
“I have to talk to you. Something happened while I was away.”
“OK,” he says, looking me over carefully. “Should I pull over?”
“No, keep driving.” I take a deep breath. “I went to a peep show.”
“A what?” he chuckles. Chuckles. “Those still exist?”
“Yes, they still exist.” I look down at my lap, feeling embarrassed not only at my indiscretion but also at how dated my sexual proclivities apparently are. “Are you upset with me?”
“No, of course not,” he says. “Was she hot?”
If the conversation were reversed, I definitely would’ve pulled over, and I would not be laughing. Then again, if I had been involved with men during my time away, I doubt he’d be laughing either. Instead, my husband finds my same-sex sexual curiosity unthreatening. Even arousing at times. The person who struggles and aches and agonizes over this behavior is me.
In a 2011 article for the Guardian, U.K. porn counselor Jason Dean cited one in three clients seeking help for porn addiction were women. The main contrast between his male and female clients? Guilt.
"Porn addiction is seen as a man's problem – and therefore not acceptable for women," said Dean. "There's a real sense among women that it's bad, dirty, wrong and they're often unable to get beyond that."
Three years later, there are few updated statistics available on the subject of women purchasing sex or compulsively watching porn. Most articles weigh heavily on male-centric data.
Slate reported late last year that a recent Pew Research Center report found that only 8 percent of women watched porn online, an improbably low statistic. What’s more likely is that women are still too ashamed to talk about their habits, just like they were in 2011. Just like I was when I first discovered my own habits in 1994.
I often wonder if my own addiction could have been prevented if my sexual impulses didn’t get so wrapped up in shame. But shame and secrecy became part of the thrill. First the shame came from Catholicism. Then, after pushing away from organized religion, the shame came from another doctrine — feminism. This isn’t feminism’s fault, though. Many misconceptions about the movement persist — we all have hairy armpits, we all keep our maiden names — but the truth is that many of us disagree on matters like this, just as we disagree about the empowering nature of sex work. And our disagreements do not prove that feminism is failing. Or that women are failing. Our disagreements prove there has never been a more appropriate time than now to talk about it.
But whether or not peep shows are OK for other people, I know they’re unhealthy for me, just like porn. They open the door to fiendish behavior, and I have little capacity for moderation when it comes to my lower regions. My work for now is to find other forms of thrill and sexual satisfaction. And the next time I get drunk at karaoke with co-workers, I’m going to bypass the peep show on the way home. I’ll let Bon Jovi be the one thing I regret.