More on Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work

“…women become strippers; strippers are produced by their experiences, strip clubs, and broader cultural understandings of stripping. Far from being easy, stripping work is often fraught with uneasiness and entails physical as well as mental difficulties. Embodying the role of ‘the stripper’ means confronting ageism, racism, and sizeism, in addition to sexism” (p113). 

“sexual agency–the ability to act according to one’s will in a sexual realm–is a necessary component of sexual health” (Laurel Crown and Linda Roberts, p.166).

I finally finished this book. It got much better after the first chapter, and I am really glad I stuck with it! I think Price-Glynn makes some astute observations about the gendered working environment of The Lion’s Den, how masculinity is portrayed, how strippers manage their work emotionally and physically, and how larger cultural issues such as rape myths and rape culture perpetuate unsafe working conditions for dancers.

Here are some of my favorite points, notes, and thoughts from the remainder of her analysis:

-She spends a great deal of time discussing how masculinity is created and portrayed in The Lion’s Den. A number of her categorizations fit with my own experiences and observations. She describes men who come in to the strip club to: 1) seek affirmation, 2) experience group connectedness, and 3) perform aggression. I have witnessed and encountered men in the first two categories. It is quite common that men who come in are seeking the attention of young, attractive women to feel validated and gain a boost to their self esteem. In addition, men that come in groups of two or more have quite a different dynamic. They are there to talk about business or sports or their wives, and to also to see a show. Luckily so far, I have not encountered men seeking to perform aggression as a way of displaying their masculinity. Of course, I have heard stories of this, and I would not be surprised if it is more common during the night shifts when there are more people in the club and more alcohol being served. I think, too, the psychology of anonymity probably plays into that scenario: someone may feel like he can get away with being aggressive because a bouncer is less likely to see or because he could easily slip away in a crowd. In addition, the ability of a dancer to create and maintain boundaries, hold a customer accountable, and feel protected and supported by management also helps in keeping aggressive masculinity at bay (of course I have to also say then: it is never the fault of a victim of assault or aggression that they were assaulted).

-Her discussion about how women manage their work was fascinating to me. Ways that strippers integrated their work experiences with their personal lives included: identifying as an object of desire, denying involvement and keeping their work a secret from family and friends, adopting an attitude of cynicism and alienation, transforming the work, creating personal boundaries, and washing away their work. Identifying as an object of desire means taking compliments from customers and believing them, feeling uplifted, and noticing a higher self-esteem as a result. Denying involvement had negative impacts on strippers’ relationships, and Price-Glynn notes that this strategy has more to do with the stigma associated with stripping. The cynicism and alienation strategy is based more on focusing the money: strippers narrow in on their economic gains as a means of rationalizing the work they do. Transforming the work relates to strippers who find meaning in their work, trying to create and maintain a sense of professionalism and finding ways that they help customers. Creating personal boundaries is pretty self-explanatory: strippers define personal boundaries, stick to them, and report customers to management. She describes how strippers use a variety of self-harming techniques to “wash away” the mental and physical grime from their work. Things such as Brillo pads, bleach in bath water, and scalding hot showers allowed dancers to feel like they were getting rid of what they often described as a nasty (both mentally and physically) job. In addition, many strippers told Price-Glynn that they had to act while working- they found it imperative to pretend to be interested in customer’s problems, lives, and interests in order to be tipped well. Her discussion about how dancers manage their labor of course prompted me to reflect on how I have managed it so far. I definitely identify as an object of desire; I readily take compliments, and I don’t feel cynical about hearing them. I think the fantasy work of a strip club goes both ways: customers are paying to have a fantasy about a beautiful girl who likes them and takes off their clothes for them. I also recognize that they are playing into that fantasy, and talking and behaving accordingly. I am probably not “the most” beautiful girl they have ever seen, but I can believe them for the sake of the act. I definitely act while I am working. Some people I feel genuinely engaged with; I have met a number of intelligent and respectful and nice people that I like talking with. Sometimes, though, there are definitely those that I simply smile and nod at. The only people that I have denied involvement to are my parents, which has started to negatively impact my relationship with them because I have started not talking with them as frequently. I also feel like I have transformed my work; feeling like I am providing a sexual service (like porn) and being an energetic and happy dancer that truly enjoys her work. Washing away work isn’t something I do, although taking a epsom salt bath feels ritualistic for me when my body feels so tired (it is not about washing away the mental dirt, though).

-She mentions the work of sociology Bernadette Barton, who argues that “when strippers are relatively new to their work they emphasize the positive aspects–the money, flexible hours, and their enjoyment of performing. Beyond three years of employment, strippers emphasize the costs of their work, such as the longer-term effects of substance use and abuse, bodily strain, and aggressive and abusive patrons” (p123). This jives with my experience so far, and I think it also jives with the experiences of other strippers I have talked with who have been dancing for a couple of years or longer. However, reflecting more, I have met a couple of dancers who have worked in the industry for two or three years, and another couple who have worked for over a decade. All of those women emphasize the positives of the work without mentioning the negatives that Barton found in her work. Also, when people have asked me what negatives I have found, I mention the physical difficulty and how worn out my body feels. Bruising, sore muscles and joints, and doing things like popping out ribs (yikes) are all negative consequences for me.

-I continued to notice some main differences between her observations and my own in our town’s clubs. She points out several times throughout her ethnography that there was a huge emphasis and pressure on the strippers to embody the following image: tanned whiteness, large breasts, tall, thin, blonde hair, and shaved/waxed genitals. Strippers felt this pressure acutely, and spent considerable amount of time and money on trying to achieve this look. The dancers here, I think because of the sheer number of clubs and dancers, do not, from what I can tell, feel or act on these same pressures. The variety in body shape and size, hair color and styles, tattoos, piercings, makeup, body hair preferences, clothing choices, and musical tastes satisfies an audience’s desire for variety and I think it also allows dancers to remain as true as possible to themselves.

-I found this analysis quite useful in thinking about how stripping compares to other kinds of emotional labor:

“While bartenders and cocktail waitresses also performed emotional labor in the form of companionship and intimacy, their performances differed from that of strippers. Robin Leidner’s work is helpful in illustrating this difference. In her study of workers at McDonald’s and agents at Combined Insurance, she argued that there are three types of emotional labor in service work: when personality is inseparable from the product (e.g., teachers), when personality is provided in conjunction with the product (e.g., flight attendants), and when personality facilitates purchase of the product (e.g., salespeople). Bartenders and cocktail waitresses resemble Leidner’s description of flight attendants in that they provide emotional labor with another product: drinks. Doormen and bouncers, since they are often the first people to meet the customers, act most like salespeople–encouraging and making entry into the club possible. The contrasts that Leidner makes fall short when we think about what strippers produce. Since strippers are simultaneously inseparable from their product, providing personality, and facilitating purchases, they begin to look like hyper service workers. What is more, strippers’ service work includes an added dimension, erotic labor. Erotic labor performed in the nude is the central product of strip club, shaped by broader cultural, industry, and club-based norms” (p109).
-Price-Glynn discusses what she sees as needing to change culturally and in clubs in order to make strip clubs safer and healthier environments for strippers. Transforming the work environment includes management that takes the safety of dancers seriously by holding aggressive workers and patrons accountable, and promoting positive norms of women and dancers. We must also address the “larger social causes of violence and aggression toward women through rape culture and rape myths. The most important problems include continued valorization of hegemonic masculinity; cultural acceptance of discrimination; disrespect of women, racial, and sexual minorities; and a climate of sexual intolerance” (p197). Her final point was extremely satisfying to me: 
“…eroticizing the sale of sex and power is not the problem. The problem is that the sex industry continues to promote gender inequality, racism, homophobia, and sizeism, as well as ambivalence about sex and sexuality. Instead, the industry could work toward creating broader norms that de-stigmatize sex for pleasure and fun in its various forms of consensual forms. As well, strip clubs could work to humanize gender, race, bodies, sex, and sexuality. Alongside these kinds of industry and club-based reforms, broader social change may help foster safer spaces for women to work inside (and outside) of the sex industry” (p198).

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