Missed Connection: Ms. Iceland at the Fox Club
I graze my ass across his pinstripe pants, my dangling earrings brushing across his upturned face. The smell of whiskey, a dub step bass line, and his hands inching up my hips. Fake fog mingles with his cigarette smoke; my disco-ball heels gently knock the sides of his shoes.
“Where do you want to go?” he asks.
I am one of 93 bare-skinned women at “Treasures,” a strip joint that calls itself the most opulent in Vegas. There are psychedelic light projections crawling over each of the four stages and a “grand stair case” that spirals to three gold-laden VIP rooms with gleaming bars and tucked away velvet booths. It’s a striking difference from the subdued, brothel-in-disguise darkness that I’m used to at Los Angeles clubs. Here, an elephant-sized chandelier dangles in the entryway and plastic Renaissance sculptures of bodies and busts bulge from every niche. It looks like somebody tried to design a French château version of the Playboy Mansion on a budget. So when he asks me where I want to go, I tell him the truth.
“Taiwan,” I respond.
He opens his eyes. “Is that a VIP room?”
“No, it’s a country.”
“Why do you want to go to Taiwan?”
“It’d be cool to see how minimalist culture is doing there.”
He squints at me.
“I wrote a paper on fringe dance movements in college. There’s a burgeoning little scene in Taiwan for some reason.”
I graduated from college two years ago, trained to take over the world. But with a crumbling job market for English majors, the best I could do financially was take off my clothes. For the past year, I’d stripped in clubs around Los Angeles, but I always figured it’s a pretty portable gig. So three weeks ago, I set off with a couple friends on a tour of Western America, stripper-style. Lap dances pay for gas as we weave through the dirty underbelly of the States. If Henry Miller were alive today—and a stripper—this is how I imagine he would have done things.
He asks where I went to school. When I tell him Cornell, he squints in disbelief, pulls his body away from mine and holds up his hand to show me a big, gilded college ring. Cornell, 1996. He says, “This is so not what I imagined I’d find here.”
Los Angeles, CA
Carly, Rhea, and I sat at a taco stand for a quick dinner before leaving for Portland, the first stop on our circuit. Under a flickering, grey-yellow parking lot lamp and the perfume of simmering carne asada, we pored over the road map in a ceremonious last look at our route before hitting the road. Up through the coastal redwoods to hipster-haven Portland, across Lewis and Clark territory to the old logger town of Missoula, down to Mormon-dense Boise, with a grand finale in the purported stripper cash mine of Vegas. Carly and I would dance in each city while Rhea became the observation-thirsty third eye, gazing on, detached. We wanted to see how strip culture differed from city to city and to figure out how we fit within it—an informal anthropological study of sorts.
Carly was my freshman roommate at NYU before we both transferred to other universities; we had stayed in touch over the years through long distance phone calls, in which we bonded over books and the struggles of coming out. She started dancing in New York City around the same time I did in LA. I met Rhea through LA’s lively underground art scene. She was fresh out of a seven-year relationship and was curious about what we did, feeling that it might help her rediscover her own sexuality. As a self-employed craftswoman and zine-maker, she was always on the hunt for new material. The three of us shared a fondness for hyper-analyzing every experience and falling victim to fits of laughter.
When I started out dancing, I felt like I would be the only one from the social circles of my previous life to work in the sex industry. But then Carly told me she had started stripping, too. And even within the single year I’ve been doing this, more and more of my peers have started dabbling in various sex work arenas: cam girl, dominating, phone sex operating, prostitution. Since the financial crisis, there’s been a “proliferation of stripping,” according to researchers from Leeds University, UK, who in 2012 conducted the most extensive study on exotic dancing to date. Apparently, “the supply of female labor into the strip industry is currently likely to be at its all time high.” And a quarter of these women have college degrees.
Carly and I had been stripping for almost a year, yet we never had the space to fully dissect the complicated implications of this choice of work. What was it doing for our self worth? How were our perceptions of money, men, intimacy, and our bodies changing? And beyond ourselves, how might our work affect the fight for gender equality?
When dancing in our home cities, the basic need to support ourselves often eclipses the luxury of teasing through all of those issues. And unprocessed conflict weighs heavy. Going on tour would force us to leave our “real lives” behind and to fully immerse ourselves in the world of strip clubs. We’d be undistracted by other responsibilities. This tour, we’d imagined, with the camaraderie and inspiration of one another, would allow us an opening to explore the hard questions directly—to feel uncensored—and maybe reach a more cohesive understanding of it all.
Rhea was so uncomfortable about the idea of a strip club; she’d never even been inside one. “I want to understand why,” she said. She felt conflicted about the power dynamic.
“My girlfriend always questions my feelings of empowerment. ‘How can both the client and the dancer have co-existing power?’ she asks me. But I feel it…is it real?” Carly said.
“And which are more real—the feelings of helpless entrapment or the feelings of unparalleled freedom?” I added.
A year before this trip, I had been living in Europe when I got a phone call telling me to come home. My dad was about to have the second surgery in a colectomy procedure, and at 73, it was unclear whether his heart would make it. Before then, I had no intention of moving back. Two weeks later, I found myself sitting in my dad’s hospital suite watching his cardiac monitor escalate in numbers and noise. The alarm went off. Lights flashed. A rush of nurses and doctors came streaming in. A needle was prepared. And I watched it all with a strange stillness, the hectic scene unfolding around me like a tornado of which I was the unmoving, unaffected eye. Why didn’t I feel penetrated?
The next day, I called my friend Kristina who had been dancing in LA for a couple of years, to ask about auditioning at her club. I thought that maybe the hands of strangers would shake me into feeling something.
Early evening customers were already beginning to trickle in to the seedy Northeast LA “gentleman’s club,” sandwiched between a plumbing supply store and the metrolink railroad tracks, when I got there to audition. They watched me ineptly wrap my bare limbs around the pole to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness.” I was aware of my own body in a way I’d never been before. I looked down, saw the slope of my stomach and my legs beneath it. Noticed my hipbones pushing out the sides of me, like it was somebody else’s body I was watching move. My moves were unskilled but whiskey-fueled. When I took off my top a few dollars landed on the stage, and after it was over, the Godfather look-a-like manager told me that a customer had already requested me for a lap dance. “You start working now,” he said, handing me my cut of the dance. I didn’t hesitate to accept.
The year of dancing that followed was a succession of tested personal limits. I have flashbacks now—some thrilling, empowering, even charming, but others loom darkly. Like this man’s hand on top of my head in the VIP pushing my face down onto his dick, which had somehow slinked out of his pants without my noticing. I feel again that noxious reflex surge, the heat that pulsed from my neck as it tensed to push back against his open palm. And suspended in that moment of unresolved motion, the feeling of skirting that threshold where I terrifyingly consider whether I should maybe just do it. It’s been stuck on loop inside me ever since.
JC’s breasts were almost spilling out of her Superman-themed crop top as she waited for her stage set at Portland’s Casa Diablo, the world’s first and only vegan strip club. She clutched a small, rhinestone encrusted briefcase with a matching Superman “S” on it.
“What’s in there?” I asked.
“My freaky side.”
The first couple minutes of her show were no different than what I was used to seeing back home. Nelly’s early 2000s “Tip Drill” played while JC swung around the pole with the same tricks I’d taught myself. But then she squatted over her case and opened it up. It was brimming with sex toys. She used them on herself, one after another, for the rest of her set. I’d never seen anything so explicit on stage before. The customers—both men and women, and Rhea, too—hovered over the tip rail, necks craned. The stage was covered in cash by the end of her songs.
In the dressing room after, I talked with JC about Portland clubs.
“Diablo is my favorite spot because it’s nasty and I’m nasty.”
“You made a lot of tips with that show of yours.”
“M-hmm. I like riling people up. Everyone should master masturbation. I hope they all go home feeling inspired to get to know themselves a little better.”
It was a different approach to performance than what I’d seen back home. In LA, the stage sets are minimally theatrical and centered on slow, seductive gestures that leave something to be desired—the girls use these teasing public performances as leverage to sell private dances. They focus on the customer-client dynamic and the mystery of what might happen between them. With most LA clubs operating under an unwritten don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy (and many of the girls operating under an I’ll-do-anything-if-you-pay-me-enough policy), that mystery has some real intrigue.
At Diablo, where the rules were explicit and more or less enforced—no touching the girls while they’re on stage, hands away from private parts during lap dances—the dancers’ performances hinged on expressions of sexuality, either solo or with other dancers. JC saw her toy play as a demonstration of sexual self-knowledge and as an appeal to others to know and love their own bodies, like a superhero version of Eros, saving people from sexual shame. And girl-girl stage dances were abundant at Diablo, but they transcended the usual kitsch of faux-lesbian strip club fare, sugared up to suit the male gaze. These girls were fucking each other with strap-ons.
It was Rhea’s first time in a fully nude strip club. “I can’t believe the girls are always on their phones!” she said.
“It gets boring,” said Carly.
“Like any other job,” I pointed out.
Carly sold a standard three-song, $100 dance to a fellow who wanted to watch the two of us get each other off. He’d pay double for two girls of course, but in New York and LA a dancer would normally tack on an obligatory tip for a special request like that. An extra $200 perhaps, to compensate for the performance of a more explicit sex act. But since we weren’t sure how things were normally done in Portland and weren’t looking to get into trouble or lose a customer, we didn’t broach the topic.
I’d never done girl-girl privates in Los Angeles. They aren’t as common because prices are higher and big spenders who take two girls to the back are usually expecting a lot more than a dance. But I thought it would be easy, since I’m queer anyway and since Carly is my best friend. In the rush of winning a customer and in the chaos of working in a new city, we failed to discuss a game plan—neither of us knew whether the other was intending to mime the sexual gestures or to actually execute them. But we trusted each other enough to wing it.
She hovered over me on the dance couch, kissed my neck, let out a whimper. I caught our client’s focused gaze. Carly squeezed my thigh. I didn’t recognize her touch on me. There was no trace of that knowing tenderness that usually transpires from her friendly embraces. Her eyes on me were unfamiliar. I was at a loss for how to move. When I touched her arm, it felt so foreign, like I’d never touched it before. And yet Carly was the first girl I had ever slept with. Five years ago, our delirious hook-up would be the catalyst for both of us to reexamine our sexual identities, and thereafter to support each other throughout that trying journey.
We are the most intimate of friends.
Our client sat watching as she pretended to move her fingers in and out of me, her back occluding him from the artifice, and I sat stunned at how difficult it was to perform intimacy with someone I was used to feeling so genuinely close to.
I remembered something Carly had said a few days ago: “When there’s someone watching, you become a performer. As a performer, you play a character. You are no longer the subject.”
“Involuntary dissociation,” Rhea had added. “Physically from your body, emotionally from your idea of self. The feelings you associate with you are no longer yours.”
A friend of a friend put us up in this house in Missoula that was sitting empty in its transition from a punk DIY squatter haven to traditional family home. She used to be one of the kids lighting couches on fire in its backyard for fun—now she’s the property manager and lives in the backhouse. Savannah described Missoula as a “no-one-gives-a-fuck town,” where she could drive up into the local mountains with an open beer in hand, wearing one of her floor-length, vintage prom dresses, and shoot guns into the wooded valley without any sense of deviance. There was no hot water in her place, and we slept on the floor between two blankets.
We washed ourselves in the sink with freezing cold water and hand soap, shaved as best we could, Carly wrote in her journal. I felt a kind of pride for being able to run around naked like, that’s my body, ashy and still a little dirty even after the water.
Reading that passage made me recognize again of one of the principal reasons I started dancing in the first place; I had almost forgotten that initial quest to learn my body. I’m 5’ 10” and a little awkward in my thinness, my long limbs just out of my own reach. I’ve had this gangly gait for as long as I can remember. It’s what drew me towards dance and dancers of all kinds. When I was 10 years old, I’d push my face against the windows of the local ballet studio, my mom urging me past my shyness to go inside, maybe sign up for a class so I could learn to move like those kids. But I could never work up the nerve.
I felt that same sense of envious enthrallment when I watched Kristina practice twerking and other stage moves in her living room one day after meeting her for a welcome-back-from-Europe lunch date. She had perfect control of every undulation of fat and muscle in her body, like she could feel her whole self inside all of her individual parts and then move them with that totalizing precision and vitality. I wanted to be in myself like that, instead of feeling this sense of disembodiment where my bits float as unfamiliar objects somehow separate and estranged. Her convicted way of moving through space was the exact inverse of the unsure footing with which I was stumbling through post-graduation life.
Savannah accompanied Rhea to watch us dance at Missoula’s Fox Club. With an unfamiliar cleanliness and airy openness, it was the nicest club I’d ever been in. The pole stretched 20 feet from the stage to the ceiling, and the girls worked the whole length of it with acrobatics fit for Cirque de Soleil. Some men huddled over IPAs at the leather-wrapped bar, their conversations undistracted; others hovered over the tip rail with glowing blue shooters and boisterous commentary.
Our friends sat at one of the cabaret-like tables closest to the main stage, conspicuous with their notebooks sprawled open in front of them. Rhea was enjoying her role as audience observer, casting me a knowing smirk when she caught wind of my attempted Bjork accent—I had decided to be Icelandic that night. Savannah relished the opportunity to watch new friends dance at the spot where she had won an amateur night a couple years back when she was strapped for cash. It didn’t take long before they were approached by other customers.
“Are you lesbians?” was the first thing a young, sporty looking guy asked them.
“I’m queer,” said Rhea.
“I don’t know what that means except for that you’re not a lesbian. So can we get lap dances from you?”
“No, we don’t work here. But there are plenty of beautiful women who do work here who’d be glad to give you lap dances.”
“We want lap dances from you, not them.”
The girls told us later that similar episodes happened multiple times throughout the night with different fellas.
“It’s impossible for them to imagine that two women could exist in a strip club without being part of the task to fulfill a male fantasy,” said Rhea.
“So either we fulfill the lesbian fantasy, or the fantasy where they get the ‘real girls,’” said Savannah.
“Where we grind on them without getting paid.”
It reminded me of something I had just read in Carl-Michael Edenborg’s “The Parapornographic Manifesto”:
According to both (pornography and antipornography), pornography is devoted to men’s fantasies of omnipotence, of a limitless access to and power over women, of never having to take no for an answer.
I made $174 my first night stripping—that’s not great but it felt damn good to have a wad of cash in my hand. A few days prior, I had no idea how I was going to support my writing habit. Even finding jobs in the service industry is tough these days. After that first night, I felt a little light open up on me. A warm rush, like I could feel the possibility of my future again.
That high still happens when I make real money. On the occasions I walk with more than $500, I’m absolutely flying, like that night at the Fox Club, when Carly and I both did well. We hopped in the car, looked at each other, and screamed with elation and relief. The cash seemed to wash away the dozens of hands on us, the pries at our vaginas, the men that had said, “you’re not good enough for a second dance.” We recognized in each other that feeling of indestructibility, that hatching of romantic dreams. We talked about going to Australia—the economy’s good there, and we could dance in Melbourne and make music and write poems. Why not?
But sometimes, you walk with nothing. And then it’s morbid. You can feel all those dozens of hands still on you, pressing hard, trying to get past your skin and into your bones. Those are the nights when I tell myself I’m quitting. But the potential to make it big the next night is hard to turn down. “I can make the equivalent of my two-week paycheck at the bookstore in one night of dancing,” Carly told me.
She needs the extra cash to survive in New York City. And for my colleague in LA, Kristen, dancing is her way of saving for the weed-growing op she’s always wanted to start. And it’s putting Paris through a master’s degree in sociology at UCLA. Diamond’s raising two kids in style. Carly’s roommate back in New York is almost at her $200,000 goal so that she and her partner can open a café together.
But it wasn’t just the money that made me start stripping, nor is it what keeps me at it. It was a coincidental alignment of circumstances—the reluctant homecoming, a shit economy, a sick dad and a strange numbness, a thirst for novel experiences to explore what I am and am not capable of, a curiousness about humanity, a lunch with a stripper friend—that led to that moment, the moment where I shrugged my shoulders and said, “well, what the hell.” And every dancer I’ve ever talked to has had that moment of shrugged shoulders.
“My ex didn’t like it when I wore boots because he thought the clacking noise they made when I walked made me seem too powerful,” Rhea said.
Devon’s 7-inch heels came within inches of Rhea’s head before landing thunderously on the stage floor. She gripped the tip rail to support her headstand and whirled her legs around her torso, smacking the floor with her shoes between rotations. Clack! Clack! Clack! Devon was named Performer of the Year at the Spearmint Rhino in Boise, ID and competes in national pole competitions.
“I was a scared little goth girl who hated her body when I started ten years ago,” Devon told us.
Carly and I couldn’t get hired at Rhino because business was too slow that week, but the manager, Adam, invited us to hang around to see how a “respectable club” operated. His wife used to be a dancer, so he strived to maintain working conditions that she would have appreciated. That meant that the girls took a 90 percent cut of every dance—as opposed to my 50 percent in LA—and had no house fee to pay. He encouraged them to be creative with their stage performances, but without using any self-play. On weekends, Devon wore feather outfits she made by hand and performed dance interpretations of ancient erotic myths. Sylvia sported head-to-toe goth gear and played with BDSM themes. It was with the promise of quality stage shows, rather than a promise of raunchy lap dances, that Adam attracted his clientele. Customers that transgress the hands-off policy were escorted out by bouncers who kept a constant protective eye on the booths.
“Spearmint Rhino’s President is a woman,” Devon told us. “I think that makes a major difference in how things are run.”
I thought about the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. The strippers working there bought the franchise in 2003 and started managing it as a worker cooperative. It’s the only adult entertainment venue in the country whose workers are unionized. The girls there make all the rules.
We talked over the clacking of another girl’s heels slapping the stage.
“I wore my boots every day then, for months, walked with weighted steps,” Rhea said. “Click clack click clack. Like echoes of my internal pleas for him to see me, and not just look. For him to hear my voice.”
There’s a documentary on how the cyber age has created a new sexual landscape for girls and women, where “the adult entertainment world has completely infiltrated the mainstream.” In Sexy Baby, 2012, co-directors Jill Bauer and Ronna Gradus attend a Miami porn convention and find hoards of college girls and housewives eager to buy stripper poles and take pictures with porn stars. The women seemed to embrace sex work, find it liberating. They idolized skin trade culture. “They’re objectifying themselves,” Gradus later told Vanity Fair. “The thinking is, ‘If I’m in control of it, then I’m not objectified.’”
Carly once told her bookstore co-workers that dancing is empowering. They said to her, “No, no. You just feel that way.”
She thought of all the times she felt beaten down by sexuality. Grabbed at, hollered at, handled like meat, cursed for being gay. In a world where women are constantly objectified, sometimes it feels like the only answer is to embrace the objectification. Her first night dancing, it felt powerful to exploit that sexuality for personal gain.
“As if the feeling of power isn’t in and of itself truth enough?” said Carly.
“What is the other option—giving way to censorship of skin?” asked Rhea. “Doesn’t that also support patriarchal structures of feminine propriety?”
Carly thought for a moment. “I feel cornered by those responses, stripped of my agency.
She told us of her rape scenario role-playing where she struggles under the strength of her girlfriend, her legs squeezed tight in opposition to the prying force of Jaenett’s hands, Carly panting hard in vain resistance. She recalled the voices of Andrea Dworkin and other feminists who assert that rape fantasy dangerously affirms rape culture.
“But my consent to playing that role is inherently a direct opposition to rape and rape culture, isn’t it? It assumes a complete trust for the safety of my body in her hands.”
Las Vegas, NV
Vegas sits in the dry mouth of Nevada’s lunar mountain ranges like a misplaced open wound. Fifteen thousand miles of lighted neon tubing forms a network of glowing arteries. Pulled levers and 8-bit beeps produce a ubiquitous white noise as vacant-faced patrons linger at penny slots for comped drinks. High roller gambling seems shrouded in distant legend.
The strip is oversaturated with exotic dancers who aren’t making enough cash in their hometowns and think they can make it big in the City of Sin. The top-rated clubs would only offer Carly and I the least desirable shift, from 2:30 am–10:30 am. That’s why we ended up at Treasures instead.
“So what the hell are you doing stripping in Vegas, Ms. Cornell?” my fellow alum asks as he tries to maneuver me off his lap.
I look around the faux château room—there are twice as many strippers as customers. I haven’t made any money yet tonight and my shift’s almost up.
“Baby, because I love it! School was never really for me. I’m too much of a wild child. C’mon, let’s get some more drinks, and I’ll tell you about what I really like to do for fun.”
I nibble on his ear and feel his body relax again. A few moments later, I slip $300 in my jeweled hand purse and escort him up the grand staircase to the VIP rooms. As I straddle his hips and let my gaze descend behind me, back arched and undulating, Audre Lorde’s words circle in my head:
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
This piece originally appeared in issue 3 of The Intentional.