Stripped: A Look Inside the Life & History of Exotic Dancing
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when I found myself walking through the main street of a busy business district and noticed a large billboard ahead of me featuring a woman in a glittering black bikini and a sign that read: Non-stop adult entertainment from noon to 2 am. I had just recently returned to Canada after almost five years of living and traveling abroad, and with the economic climate being as precarious as it is in North America (especially for an Arts major like myself), I was having a hard time finding a full-time paid position in the city. After handing out yet another batch of unsuccessful resumes, I decided to try my luck on something different and got up the nerve to walk into the adult entertainment club that day and apply for a cocktail waitress position.
The manager sat me down at the bar and conducted our interview right there in front of the live stage. I did my best to hide the fact that my heart was slightly racing, in part because I had never been in a strip club before. But we oddly hit it off that day and I seemed to pull off pretending it was an entirely normal experience for me to have a serious job interview while surrounded by half naked women. I was hired for a full-time position that day.
It’s now been a little over three months since I started waitressing at a high end Gentlemen’s club and it has been a bit of a whirlwind of experience. The job has offered me good tips and a place to get on my feet financially. For better or worse, the sex industry is still one of the more lucrative places for a young woman to make money and my reasons for taking the job were largely economic, which is indicative of why many other women are there as well. The job has also allowed me a unique opportunity to make friends with dancers, as well as get acquainted with the customers that frequent my club. The experience so far has been both intense and illuminating, at times exciting, at times depressing, and at times deeply humorous.
Exotic dancers hold intense fascination for many of us. In our cultural imagination strippers represent eroticism, secrecy, and transgression of taboos—this gives strip clubs their mysterious allure to both men and women alike. There is perhaps no other industry (aside from prostitution) that is both so widely demonized and also so heavily glamorized/romanticized by contemporary culture and media. But aside from the numerous outside projections we carry about strippers, what is life inside a strip club really like? Why do dancers choose to strip? Are they empowered or exploited by what they do? And what are the patrons of strip clubs really like beyond a caricature of the crude college frat boy or the sexually aggressive male? These were some of the questions that surfaced for me shortly after entering the industry, and the answers I encountered were complex and sometimes surprising.
This post will explore a few facets of the strip club environment and offer some little known history on the changing role of exotic dancers and strip clubs throughout the last two centuries. My experience and viewpoints don’t fit well into any one political or spiritual perspective, as I neither demonize nor romanticize dancers or the work that they do. Rather, I come at this as an empathetic listener and outside observer, as a burgeoning scholar on sex and gender issues, and as a young woman in ongoing inquiry about what women and men’s sexual empowerment means today. I should also be upfront that I won’t be divulging juicy stories or intimate details of conversations I’ve had with dancers as I wish to respect the dignity and privacy of the women I work with.
So to start us off, let’s strip things down and begin with something many of us often forget…
Stripping is Work!
Yes, being an exotic dancer is work; sometimes very hard work! Despite how easy they make it look, dancing in seven-inch heels, swinging yourself upside down on brass poles, and walking in those same seven-inch stilettos all evening long, is not an easy task and can be quite taxing on the body.
Dancers are also essentially performers and entertainers, and have to stay deeply in tune with the needs of their patrons. Exotic dancer and feminist writer Katherine Frank notes in her book, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire, that upscale strip clubs are a venue for a very particular form of modern consumption based on the commodification of intimate interaction. This service of “intimacy” is arguably a form of emotional labor, as services are highly individualized to each customer. Patrons at high-end clubs want an authentic experience so that they can feel special and desired by a real human being. As a result, dancers have to be convincing in giving the impression that a customer is seeing their true selves when in reality most are performing with little emotional attachment. But, as Katherine Frank notes, there is still a unique form of intimate exchange/transaction being offered that can indeed involve real vulnerability, sexual awakening, and emotional engagement for the customer.
The other form of work a dancer performs is explicitly sexual. Here in Canada, sexual touching is illegal at strip clubs, but many clubs in certain parts of the country don’t enforce this rule in the VIP area where private lap dances are given. At my club, the V.I.P area is a wild place where dancers are fully nude and pretty much every form of touching occurs aside from a guys fingers going up a dancer’s vagina (for sanitary reasons). It is also a slightly less known fact that the private dances are where strippers make their real money. Stage dancing in general pays quite poorly nowadays, and stage dancing is mainly for the purposes of “advertising” oneself for private lap dances. This means that a good portion of your time as a dancer at my club is spent conversing and rubbing yourself up on men whom you have to pretend to be attracted to (and maybe some that you actually are attracted to). A dancer will do private dances throughout the evening, sometimes with up to twenty-five or thirty men a night. This can be a lot of energetic work and requires a high level of performative vigor, especially on those days when you are feeling tired or just having a bad day.
Also, with the economic squeeze underway in Canada, and people having less disposable income in general, there is more pressure on dancers to “do more” in the VIP lounges in order to make the kind of money they used to make without hands on touching. In fact, I know a few dancers that have shifted down to becoming cocktail waitresses because of this change in the industry. For some dancers, this aspect of the work is routine and no big deal, but for others it can be an unexpected aspect that they didn’t sign up for when they became dancers, which can lead to dependence on alcohol or drugs to get through the night.
Whatever one thinks of what strippers do, my point is that exotic dancing is, at the end of the day, real work. Because it is real work, it should also be treated with the same legal protections and labor rights as any other profession (which it is not in many places because of how stigmatized the work is). Despite how much money these women can make in an evening on a good night, they also pay for it in the social stigma they face, in their often lack of full medical benefits and legal protections, and in their inability to put “exotic dancing” on their resumes when they wish to change careers. These drawbacks, both socially and legally, are true of women working in all areas of the “sex industry”.
There is no doubt that the decision to strip (not unlike prostitution) is for many women a class/economic issue, and therefore as an occupation shouldn’t be romanticized, especially by privileged women and men that have no idea what it feels like to have to rely on stripping or other forms of sex work to pay the bills. At the same time, this doesn’t mean these women are purely victims either, and there are some dancers that express enjoying their work. Many of the women at my club who have chosen to dance are supporting children or paying their way through school. A few of them are professional dancers by trade and strip to make ends meet. Not all dancers love their job, some of them even hate it, but that is also true of almost any occupation. As I said, stripping is work—sometimes hard work.
With that acknowledgement, I want to segue into a bit of little known history that is relevant for giving context to the profession of exotic dancing and the development of the strip club industry that we know today.
A Brief History of the Striptease
The origins of erotic forms of dance are diverse and multi-faceted, but striptease as a broadly recognized form of modern entertainment emerged in the late 19th century. Most notably in France, with shows like the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere, which featured scantily clad dancing women and beautiful female tableaux vivants. In the United States, this form of entertainment burgeoned mainly through the immensely popular traveling burlesque entertainers.
Robert Allen, author of Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture details the fascinating history of burlesque performers and argues that while these women were certainly sexual and sexualized, they were also rare performers who actively transgressed norms of proper feminine behavior and appearance. They also challenged proper class relations by talking back to their audience through witty political commentary, humorous transgender expressions, and satirical parodies of famous plays, alongside dancing and singing in scant clothing. Burlesque’s anarchic and nonsensical displays had clear political intent to undermine hierarchical norms of class, gender, and social decorum, and gave women of lower classes an opportunity to gain economic independence and have a public voice. Initially, burlesque was performed to middle-class audiences, but it quickly faced social opposition by both men and women and was relegated to the “shadow world” of working-class male leisure. In this process, Allen argues, the burlesque performer “lost her voice”, as burlesque increasingly revolved around only the display of her body. Burlesque would continue to see boom revivals and then suppression at different points in the twentieth century and right up to today.
Another important trend to note was the introduction of the “cooch dance” (a form of quasi-oriental belly dance), which Allen argues was the main forerunner of American striptease. The cooch dance was introduced at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 with the aim of exposing the “Science of Anthropology” to the American public. The exposition was based on turn-of-the-century scientific notions of white supremacy and the exposition grounds were constructed into a racial hierarchy. Visitors would first walk through the White City to view the seminal achievements of advanced white civilization and then proceed to the Midway Plaisance, which contrasted the underdeveloped barbarianism of uncivilized dark races. One would pass through the Turkish, Arab, and Chinese villages, and finish by viewing the most “primitive” races of all: the Savage American Indians and West African Dahomans. The women who performed the cooch dances were all in the Midway Plaisance and the spectacle drew on a long history of eroticizing the supposedly primitive “Other”. In Puritan America, cooch dancing was also used as an excuse for baring parts of the (oriental) female anatomy for viewing. Cooch dancing broadened the Western vocabulary of “exotic” and “erotic” and was soon incorporated into New York burlesque shows, providing a catalyst for the birth of modern American striptease. In fact, this is where the term “exotic dancer” originates from. 
Cooch dancing remained associated with working class entertainment until 1916 when it suddenly began to expand to upscale Broadway cabarets. As Industrial Capitalism developed in the early 1900s, a new kind of consumer emerged; one who consumed in order to express and perform their social class identity. Thus a process of upscaling entertainment centers emerged at the turn of the century in America to make certain venues more fit for upper class spenders. Women who worked at high-tier clubs were dressed lavishly, hosted in luxurious environments and considered glamorous, while still offering a transgressive allure for the patron. In contrast, the cooch dancers and chorus dancers of the cabaret who worked at lower class venues were more directly associated with moral depravity and prostitution. In the United States, this process of stratification of upper-tier and lower-tier venues was also heavily racialized. As historian Kevin Mumford points out, the fact that white women were increasingly able to move around and perform in the public sphere was only made possible by the reassignment of the sexual stigma of prostitution largely to African American women. 
This doesn’t mean that the lower tier venues disappeared or lost their appeal. Quite to the contrary, higher and lower-tier venues represented a diversification of leisure sites with different kinds of appeal to men (and some women) at different times. Harlem, for example, became quite popular with whites during prohibition as a place to experience the “Exotic Other” and to view music and dancing that they considered less inhibited. Visiting these lower-tiered venues was a practice often referred to as “slumming”, and was described in terms of a travel experience to foreign exotic cultures. The term slumming is still sometimes used today in reference to visiting lower-tier strip clubs.
Another further period of proliferation and upscaling of strip clubs occurred during the 1980s in the context of late capitalism and increased preoccupation with forms of leisure, entertainment, pleasure, and spectacle in the American economy. It was the American style of striptease that was also widely exported globally, and has influenced the development of strip clubs in many other countries such as Japan and Thailand. Tracing all the global trends of this would be an essay in itself, but the point being that the distinction between upper-tier (often called gentlemen’s clubs) and lower tier venues remains today. Although women still of course face social stigma no matter what tier of club they work in.
This brief history is important context to consider when asking the question that is usually the first on everyone’s mind when they think of exotic dancers:
Is Stripping Empowering for the Women that do it?
The question is obviously a loaded one, and it’s one I’ve felt the most conflicted about since starting to work at my club. It’s certainly a question that has to be looked at on an individual basis that honors the experience of each dancer (no two dancers will experience their work in entirely the same way), at the same time I argue the question itself can’t be divorced from its larger matrix of historical context, including its class and race stratification. As exotic dancer Katherine Frank argues, the intense fascination and focus we often put on individual strippers with questions about whether they like their job, or whether they were sexually abused, or whether they are sexually empowered, ends up sidestepping the economic and political context in which dancers work. Frank argues that the problems inherent within the sex industry are not to do with the selling or offering of sexual services, but rather are related to larger patterns of social inequality that dancers themselves never fully escape. These social inequalities are a reality that can’t be individually or spiritually bypassed.
Some exotic dancers do express enjoying their work and express feeling individually empowered by it. A dancer does have agency and therefore has the possibility of bringing her own quality of awareness and energy to bear within her profession. My own experience getting to know the dancers and watching them perform is that there are a few rare dancers that do indeed seem to totally OWN the stage and their own energy and boundaries in a way that is quite beautiful, entertaining, and at times even temporarily transcendent. They are the ones at my club that also tend to be a bit older (late twenties and early thirties), and are usually professional dancers by trade. I find these women to be more of the exception than the norm in the industry, but it is important that they are validated.
By contrast, there are many dancers who started dancing very young and were quickly pulled into the seductions that come with the industry, including the party lifestyle and addictions to drugs and alcohol. There are some women at my club that simply see what they do as a way to pay the bills and nothing more, and those that see it as an exciting non-traditional job. There are also women that have developed a very hard protective energetic shell around themselves after years of working in the industry. So the question of whether these women feel empowered or exploited doesn’t have an entirely easy answer.
There are a number of arguments that could be investigated which have gone on within feminism regarding the question of empowerment vs. exploitation when it comes to stripping and other forms of sex work. The tensions in these discussions hit their peak during the second wave feminist pornography “sex wars” of the 1980s, which revolved around intense debates/conflicts between those within the feminist movement who were anti-pornography and those within the movement that were pro-pornography. These two groups were later labeled with the more simplistic caricature of “sex negative” vs. “sex positive” feminists.
There have always been influential radical feminists who viewed any form of sex work as pure violent exploitation of women by men and the patriarchy (most notably Andrea Dworkin, Karen Davis, and Catherine McKinnon), there were also many feminists who held much less extreme positions within the debate and concern about women’s representation in pornography. There were also many feminists who actually looked within pornography and sex work for unique expressions of female agency, such as Ellen Willis, Gayle Rubin, Anne Snitow, and Carole Vance. The “sex negative” vs. “sex positive” labels and dichotomy that has been applied in retrospect and carried on into third wave feminism have always seemed somewhat sloppy to me in this regard. This would be a whole other complex conversation to get into beyond the scope of this article (which I hope to write in future), but I mention it because one can’t talk about the history of stripping without acknowledging the impact of feminist ideas (and ideology) on how the industry has come to be viewed.
What I would say, regarding my own view on this particularly loaded question, is that I personally feel there are more powerful possibilities for artistic expression and sexual-political intervention arising in certain forms of less mainstream burlesque revival shows today than I do in the modern mainstream striptease industry. I say this mainly because the modern striptease industry has become so heavily shaped by the values of capitalist commercial excess and consumption, and as a result I think it is less conducive as a space for spontaneous sexual expression, or authentic sexual exchange.
That all said, I don’t whole-scale negate that the strip club can for some people be a unique space of potential emotional connection, relaxation, and even sexual awakening. To explore this further, I’d like to take the attention off the exotic dancer and turn the gaze onto the patrons who visit them…
The Truth About Men (and Women) who Visit Strip Clubs
Wherever there have been erotic entertainers throughout history, there has also been resistance and protests against them. Where historical arguments against sexualized entertainment often focused on the moral depravity of the female performers, later campaigns against these venues also began to focus on the supposedly dangerous and aggressive out-of-control sexuality of working class males. These campaigns played into deep fears about the need for male sexual orderliness in a chaotic industrializing world, and traces of these fears about out-of-control male sexuality continue to influence some of the moral objections to strip clubs today.
Before I started working in a strip club I admit I had a somewhat caricatured idea about the kinds of men that frequented these clubs, and I was preparing myself to be constantly sexually harassed by aggressive drunk patrons. Of course, I certainly encounter aggressive men who think they have a right to my body and personal space because I work in a strip club. I’ve also encountered rich men who think they are entitled to buy women’s time and then subsequently treat them like shit. But I find these men are actually the minority of patrons at my club.
Aside from the small group of entitled assholes that will always be part of the strip club experience, there is a wide spectrum of men that visit my club for a variety of different reasons. The most common reason I hear from men for why they come to the club is that it creates a “fantasy world” away from the stresses of their work and home life. These tend to be successful men that work hard (and some that have inherited wealth) and have probably never been taught other ways to release their stress, so the strip club environment offers them a space of ease and relaxation. They are the majority of regulars because they enjoy the social interactions with beautiful sexually open women who are there to cater to their needs. Many of these men are also married and feel, for better or worse, that the space at the club gives them a way to be with women that is removed from the demands of their wives. For some of these men, sex isn’t even the primary reason they visit. I’ve earned some of my biggest cash tips from these men simply for engaging them in intelligent authentic conversation. I’ve also seen men pay dancers thousands of dollars just to give them backrubs for a couple of hours everyday.
The second category of men that I see come to my club are the ones I’d probably refer to as the “socially awkward”. These are the men that struggle a lot in social interactions and enjoy an environment where they can engage with sexually attractive women without the same social fears or pressures. Some of the men in this category have probably never even been on a date with a woman and the dancers offer them a space of ease and non-judgment that seems invaluable to them.
There is also a small portion of men who visit our club with very severe physical disabilities, including men with missing limbs and those living completely in wheelchairs. These are the men I’m probably the most sympathetic to of all the men that come in. They are usually intelligent and very respectful to the waitresses and dancers. Because the dancers are so open and sexually comfortable with these men, performing lap dances right on their wheelchairs, these men seem to feel very embraced in our environment in a way they probably don’t in the rest of the world, particularly in the sexual domain.
While there is much to comment on surrounding the subtle gender and power dynamics at play in strip clubs, it is important to note that the men who visit strip clubs are diverse and certainly don’t fit one caricature of the out-of-control sexually aggressive male. Even the rowdy bachelor parties and loud college boys that come in are, I find, pretty harmless for the most part. As for that portion of men that are sexually aggressive and overtly entitled, they’ve certainly given me an opportunity to deepen my skills at setting boundaries and broadened my repertoire of sizzling comebacks.
Of course, this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the women that visit my strip club. There is a whole discussion to be had about male strip clubs and the patrons that visit them, but a significant amount of women also frequent female strip clubs. While it is rare that women come to the club alone, as many men do, it might be surprising to some that women (including many straight women) are some of the loudest patrons we host. There is an intense fascination/fantasy for many women about exotic dancers and the kind of sexual freedom of expression that many women believe they represent. I would say there is a great deal of projection involved in this fantasy for many women, but it is strong nonetheless. As I’ve shown, stripping is real work and is far from being an entirely glamorous profession in the way certain media likes to portray it. That said, I think the fascination women have about strippers speaks to a very real deeper longing we carry to find outlets in our culture for unself-conscious and genuinely transformative sexual expression, freedom, and pleasure. Spaces that are still very rare today.
Although I started working at a strip club mainly for financial reasons, I’ve learned a lot from my time spent within this unique subculture. It’s an environment that brings out a very primal side of people that you don’t often see in everyday life. It also makes gender and power incredibly transparent in ways that are often more subtle in everyday life. Working at the club has also allowed me to feel more at ease with the raw and vulnerable edges of male sexuality, which has had benefits in other areas of my life. At the same time, I’ve noticed myself becoming somewhat numbed to my own erotic attraction to women’s nudity in a way that I don’t like. I think it is simply because I’m constantly exposed to women’s bodies in a context more heavily steeped in commercial transaction than in sacred exchange.
At the end of the day, whatever one thinks of exotic dancing, or the sex industry as a whole, it is certainly not going anywhere. Attempts throughout history to stop or suppress these venues have simply pushed them underground and heightened their allure. In fact, if all forms of consensual sex work were completely legalized and socially accepted, I think it would lose much of its transgressive attraction for most people.
There are obviously many different aspects to consider when trying to question and understand the complex role of strip clubs and exotic dancers in modern culture. My own desire is to spark a conversation that moves beyond the polarized positions of demonization and romanticization that have too often entrenched themselves in discussions about strip clubs, and sex work in general. There is such a more interesting conversation to be had about sexuality, gender, and power as they show up in the “shadow world” of sex work and strip clubs that might lead us to new insights and awakenings. That is the conversation I’m most interested in participating in.
 Lucinda Jarrett cited in Katherine Frank, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire. Duke University Press, 2002. p.48
 Kevin Mumford cited in Frank, p.43
Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, University of North Carolina Press (1991)
Willson, Jacki. Happy Stripper: The Pleasures and Politics of the New Burlesque, I.B. Tauris (2007)