The main premise of Berson’s well-researched book is that strip clubs have become branded entities and, as a result, are no longer seen as the dirty underground businesses that they once were. The massive global strip club chains that have developed, like Spearmint Rhino or Rick’s Cabaret, have attempted to brand their product to seem both more wholesome and more businesslike — just good innocent fun. But exotic dancers continue to be stigmatized, and Berson addresses this with age-old feminist questions: Is stripping empowering or disempowering? Is the fact that stripping can feel empowering really just a ruse, one that buys into patriarchy in a can’t beat ’em, so join ’em kind of way?
Berson doesn’t answer this quandary, and doesn’t pretend to. She says she wasn’t sure when she was a dancer, and she isn’t sure now. She’s smart not to answer these extremely complicated questions. Whenever a feminist has taken one side or the other, Berson argues, the argument never feels convincing:
Many more traditional feminists […] demonize exotic dance, sex work, and many kinds of sexual experience as oppressive and objectifying; on the other hand, many sex radical feminists celebrate these same activities as empowering and transgressive. Both groups are right, and both groups are wrong — the binary is false.
This is the same conclusion I came to as a stripper: I found the experience both empowering and disempowering. Sometimes every man I encountered seemed thoughtful and respectful — at those times, I believed I had the best job in the world. Sometimes every man I encountered seemed misogynistic. Throughout the five years I danced there were ups and downs — times I felt empowered and times that I felt the opposite. A strident for or against stance doesn’t account for the nuances. And yet asking the big questions remains important if for no other reason than, as Berson points out, “More women are employed in exotic dance than in all other dance idioms combined.”
Berson was pressured during her research and writing to take a firm stance.
As I have presented this work at conferences, many feminist scholars have demanded that I take one side or the other — that I confirm their understanding of stripping as empowering or degrading, nearly always the latter — while they look me up and down with the coolly judgmental gaze that only one woman can turn upon another.
Anyone who supports sex work and considers themselves sex-positive, while recognizing that there are problems with the industry, especially with the treatment of the dancers, will feel similar pressures. Although I believe that the industry can change for the better, the trend toward corporate takeover isn’t helping — at least not for the dancers. Large corporate chains treat the dancers more and more like a commodified product, and less and less like actual people.
Berson notes that women feel objectified in several professions — not just sex work. In addition to being a stripper, I’ve also worked in retail, as a waitress, and as a bartender. In all of those jobs I was objectified. And in some cases, it was worse than stripping because I was required to be kind to the customer no matter what he said or did. Stripping is empowering in that the dancer wields more control — as a dancer I got to decide which interactions I would participate in. And with sex work, acting out desire and fantasy is the entire point — not an unwelcome intrusion into the act of providing food or clothing, but the job itself. Ultimately, this gives strippers an upper hand in their profession that other kinds of service workers don’t have. Berson agrees:
Performing a role as a stripper is in many ways similar to the performances demanded of waitresses, child-care workers, or flight attendants; most service work, especially that performed by women, entails the evocation of emotions on the part of both worker and customer. However, the range of feelings at play in striptease runs deeper — it is one thing to manifest a “genuine” smile for customers whom one will likely never see again, and another to call forth desire and intimacy for patrons one hopes will become regulars.
Berson calls the creating of intimacy between the dancer and customer “deep acting.” Dancers must act from a deep level to create the depth of fantasy desired by the strip club patron. Only some customers are worthy of this level of acting — men that are respectful, spending money, and have the potential to become regular clients. This idea of “deep acting” rang true to me. As I tried to cultivate my regular customer base I tried to find ways to connect emotionally with the patron, even when those feelings weren’t genuine. In order for this to work, I had to find a way to trick myself into feeling empathy for the customer, and at times I was shocked to realize how real, and deep, those feelings felt — feelings that dissipated as soon as I was done with each interaction.
In contrast, men who were obviously not going to spend money, or who were rude, or misogynistic, weren’t worth calling on “deep acting” for, not worth the amount of emotional energy required, the level of time, attention, and care in the moment. At most, I was polite to those men (particularly if it became clear they wouldn’t spend money). And often I needed to make it clear that I wouldn’t put up with the way certain men treated me. Berson writes of her experience as a dancer:
Men who behaved arrogantly, or clearly didn’t have money, or were rude didn’t warrant the effort of deep acting; for them we acted out a highly stylized version of “stripper” drawn from popular culture, never really engaging them in any sort of meaningful exchange. […]
Regular customers, those who showed promise of becoming regulars, or even men we just liked elicited a more complex kind of engagement and performance. The cynicism with which we regarded many of the men in the club faded in the face of customers with whom we imagined ourselves having “real” relationships — not romantic relationships, usually, but some sort of genuine connection. […] [I]n deep acting, we cause ourselves to experience feelings that we — and those we interact with — may perceive as real. While Method actors achieve this through sense memory, strippers often create emotions through empathy and fantasy.
Berson points out that strippers come from several backgrounds — “Some dancers had graduate degrees; some had never attended high school.” The stereotype of the lower-class, uneducated stripper or sex worker is simply not the case. I worked with several dancers who were pursuing higher education or already had bachelor’s degrees. A few were in graduate school or already had graduate degrees. One was going to law school, and another was in medical school. It’s a cliché that strippers pretend that they are in school, but it is actually often the case. The five years I danced allowed me upward financial mobility I hadn’t had until then, and I started funding my higher education out-of-pocket. I financed my undergraduate degree through my work as an exotic dancer.
Berson starts her argument about the corporatization of strip clubs by comparing her time dancing at two different clubs: Backstage Bill’s and Diamonds, the first an independently owned club and the second a New England–based corporate chain.
She notes that at Bill’s the girls varied in appearance and body type. At Diamonds, the girls were almost all between the ages of 18 and 24, thin, and mostly blond. At Bill’s the girls wore themed costumes, showed more expression, and utilized pole work and actual dancing in their performance. At Diamonds the dancers wore nightclub-style dresses and swayed in sexy poses instead of dancing. At Diamonds, Berson never created bonds with the other dancers because there were simply too many: Backstage Bill’s had 15 dancers working at any given time, while Diamonds had 60 or more. She formed friendships with dancers at Bill’s, but she rarely saw the same girl twice at Diamonds. Diamonds was a streamlined experience for the customer — they knew what kind of experience they were going to have from the decor to the kind of dancer and dancing available. In contrast, Bill’s was a wild card.
Berson makes the argument that Bill’s was a strip club, but that Diamonds was a brand. I, too, have worked at independent strip clubs and corporate strip clubs, nine clubs in total. Two were corporate chains — one a small local chain, in Oregon, and the other a giant national chain — Rick’s Cabaret, which Berson writes about later in the book. The other seven clubs were independently owned. At the independent clubs the women were more likely to come from various backgrounds and there was much more actual dance. At the corporate chains, the girls tended to look the same and were more likely to sway on stage. My favorite club was an independent called Lucky Devil located in Portland, Oregon. My least favorite was Rick’s.
The overarching theme of Berson’s book is that big business is taking over the exotic dancing world. She employs several terms for this idea: McDonaldization, Disneyization, and her own Starbucksization. While she makes the case for each term, she deems Starbucksization the most appropriate to describe the corporatization of strip clubs: “At Diamonds and other corporate strip clubs, dancers and customers perform a demographically designated brand that shapes erotic desire in much the same way that Starbucks inculcated a global taste for frothy espresso drinks.” In other words, Starbucks sells a fantasy that the customer participates in. It’s not just a coffee shop, it’s an experience. And stripping, even more than Starbucks, is selling a fantasy in which both the dancer and the patron are participating. It’s what Berson calls “the really made up.”
I’ve found, as Berson has, that most people don’t have a solid understanding of what exactly constitutes a lap dance. And that makes perfect sense, considering that only five percent of the population visit a strip club, not all of them get a lap dance, and lap dances vary widely depending on local laws and the type of club. Berson tries to explain what a lap dance is:
Lap dancing usually takes place in a private or semi-private booth, although sometimes these spaces are monitored to ensure that both the dancer and the customer uphold local regulations. The customer sits on a chair or bench, and the dancer performs directly before him, removing her clothes while she dances. In most clubs in the United States and some in the United Kingdom, she also touches the customer, caressing, kissing, and rubbing against him. The moniker “lap dance” derives from the practice in many US clubs of the dancer straddling the customer’s lap, sometimes grinding her pelvis against his. In some clubs, the customer also touches the dancer, despite the fact that this is usually prohibited by state or local law. The duration of a lap dance is generally tied to the length of whatever song happens to be playing when the dance begins: one song equals one dance. When the song is over, so is the dance, but the dancer will likely try to get the customer to agree to another dance, for another full fee, generally $20 or £20 or more. Many clubs charge dancers a percentage of their “tips” from lap dances (usually 10% to 15%), often through the use of “funny money” that customers purchase from the club.
I don’t agree with all of her characterizations. The idea that kissing is part of a lap dance, for instance — this was true at none of the nine clubs where I worked. In fact, if a dancer were to kiss a customer, she would’ve been at least castigated by the other dancers. More likely, she would’ve been fired. It’s hard to know for sure what some dancers do or don’t do, though, since some clubs have VIP areas with no supervision.
Private dances vary, too, and for the majority of the time that I was a dancer, I worked at clubs where there were no lap dances. We table danced instead (closely dancing in front of a customer, but no touching from either party). These kinds of clubs might be less common in the US, but they still exist, and I found it unfortunate that they were not represented in Berson’s breakdown. But however they might be regulated by law or a specific club, intimate dances are the main source of a dancer’s income.
The goal of the dancer is to keep the customer interested in buying dances for as long as possible. And to keep them coming back. I spent most of my time as a dancer trying to balance finding new clients and keeping my current regular customers happy. Lap (or table) dances are intentionally blurry as Berson points out: “Lap dancing, like many other forms of sex work, operates along a border between performance and service, necessarily troubling the boundaries between the ‘real’ and the ‘really made up.’” The goal of each interaction is to convince the man in front of you that you want to be there. That you are enjoying every moment of the interaction.
Berson pays special attention to four case studies of corporatization. She chose the United Kingdom as her first example because, unlike the slow development over time in the United States, corporatization was much faster and more condensed. “In the mid-1990s,” she writes,
British striptease underwent an American-led revolution, spearheaded by a new development in exotic dancing: the lap dance. While lap dancing (originally called table dancing or tableside dancing) was an essential feature of strip clubs in the United States from the early 1970s, its late arrival in the United Kingdom swiftly transformed the practice of striptease, its movement vocabulary, and its venues and audiences.
When lap dances first came to the UK, a journalist named Nick Horley described perfectly the way that the “really made up” works when a lap dance is executed well. Berson quotes him:
She pushes your knees apart so she can gyrate between them, her gym-toned torso one foot from your nose. Embarrassed, you avert your gaze from her groin and look up, to find her maintaining direct eye contact with you, wearing an expression of arousal that, with the help of a few drinks, you find convincing. … After half a dozen such encounters, I found the distinction between sexual fantasy and reality had blurred. These women were not images in a magazine. I felt as if I’d been on the brink of having sex with them. And I was convinced that my sexual partners had enjoyed every minute of it.
Lap dance hasn’t always been a part of strip clubs. In the early 1970s in Florida, a strip club owner named Michael J. Peter wanted to create a more upscale and personalized experience for the guests of his club. He had a new concept, the lap dance. However, Florida law prohibited nudity anywhere but the stage. Peter had his dancers carry around fold-up tables to dance on — effectively taking the stage with them wherever they went. He also classed up the dancers by having them wear gowns instead of other, less glamorous attire, and had his bouncers wear tuxedos. The fantasy was not only having sex with a beautiful woman but of being immersed in a life of wealth and privilege. Peter franchised his idea and spread the concept across the US, and by 1993 he had an empire of 50 clubs.
During the 1970s and 1980s, strip dancing was still widely considered shameful. “Strip clubs in London were clustered in the then shady neighborhoods of Soho and Shoreditch.” There were differences in the east and west pubs — in the better-off west side, the pubs featured topless waitresses and then topless hostesses who were paid for their time chatting with customers instead of dancing. On the east side, topless girls danced on stage. “It was into this class-bound, bifurcated environment that a British businessman who had spent time in the United States studying Peter’s model sought to bring American-style lap dance.”
That man was named Peter Stringfellow. Stringfellow asked Peter to allow him to use his lap dance model in the UK and Peter agreed. Stringfellow had to jump through some legal hoops, but in 1996 he opened his first strip club in Westminster, called Stringfellow’s Cabaret of Angels. He did have to make some legal concessions that Berson notes would later “put him at a disadvantage: his dancers had to wear knickers, and they had to remain a meter away from customers at all times.” Stringfellow had great success with his new upscale strip club model until 1999, when John Gray, the owner of the strip club chain Spearmint Rhino, decided to expand his brand to the UK.
John Gray’s business model was slightly different than Stringfellow’s because he wasn’t just concerned with appealing to the upper echelon. He wanted a “brand identity that would appeal to both businessmen and ‘the lads,’” Berson writes, and a seamless experience for the customers of his clubs; he “frequently cited McDonald’s as his business model and Ray Kroc, the chain’s notoriously ruthless founder, as his hero.” Additionally, he was able to secure a better location in the UK than Stringfellow — in Camden, which had much more relaxed laws than Westminster. And in 2000, Gray opened the first Spearmint Rhino location in the UK. This led to drama between the entrepreneurs — “a lap dance war.” In 2002, Stringfellow successfully petitioned the Westminster City Council to allow his dancers to perform naked — although in 2003, the national laws changed. “Stringfellows wasn’t the only club to capitulate to the new expectations established by Spearmint Rhino, and fully nude lap dancing became the standard rather than the exception at strip clubs throughout the United Kingdom.”
The second case study Berson uses is about the former “Combat Zone” in Boston.
The Combat Zone was an adult entertainment district created by the City of Boston after it razed the burlesque theaters and strip bars in Scollay Square in the 1960s in order to make way for the new City Hall and Government Center. Rather than risk the invasion of residential neighborhoods by evicted exotic dancers, transvestites, and prostitutes, the city chose to contain the sex industry within two derelict blocks.
Outside the Zone, no adult business of any kind was allowed. However, within the Zone the police looked the other way, not enforcing any of the regulations of the city within those two square blocks.
In 2010, Berson attended an exhibit of the Combat Zone at the Howard Yezerski Gallery. She notes that most people reporting on the gallery called it “grim.” But she also interviewed people who worked in the Zone at that time, and they mostly reported feeling wistful and nostalgic. Not just for the Zone, itself, but for the authenticity that came with the place and time. In the 1980s, the Zone was demolished by Mayor Thomas Menino in his bid to clean up the city. “The city suddenly realized that some of its most valuable land was occupied by its least valued citizens. […] Luxury condominium towers rose from the rubble.” And this is where the story of corporatization comes in. Like most cities in the US, Boston has become homogenized. It wasn’t just the Combat Zone that disappeared, but most local businesses were replaced with corporate chains. And Berson reports that the gallery owner, Howard Yezerski, “connects the development patterns around the Combat Zone with the larger renewal projects that dominated Boston in the 1980s and 1990s and largely drove out independently owned retail businesses in favor of large chains, as has been the case in most major American cities.” This wasn’t so much the corporatization of strip clubs, but rather their displacement by large corporations with government help.
The third case study is a national chain: Rick’s Cabaret. Rick’s was the first strip club chain to be traded on the stock market. Rick’s story deviates just slightly from the narratives of other corporate chains. Rick’s, more than any other, has tried to brand itself as good clean fun with classy dancers — an image essential to becoming a publicly traded corporation and to keeping shareholders happy.
Unfortunately, this led to legal trouble for Rick’s in 2013 when a group of 200 current and former dancers won a $10 million class action lawsuit. The lawsuit stipulated that the dancers were employees, not independent contractors — which had long been the standard designation for dancers. The judge that presided over the case, Judge Paul Engelmayer, described the dancers as being “micromanaged.” And, in fact, having worked at the Rick’s Cabaret in New York City, I can say it was by far the most micromanaged I’ve ever been while working as an exotic dancer. They required us to work at least four eight-hour shifts a week, destroying the flexibility that dancing typically affords. They checked our hair, makeup, and attire each shift. And they charged more fees than any other club I’ve worked at: a nightly $100 stage fee, plus a mandatory tip out of $20 to each of a number of employees — DJs, bouncers, managers, house moms, makeup artists, and hair dressers (even if services weren’t rendered, or if they came at an additional cost). I never paid less than $200 to work a shift and often left with less money than I paid. The list of the ways we were micromanaged is very long — too long for the scope of this essay (and unfortunately, Berson did not interview a single dancer that worked at Rick’s, so her list, while extensive, isn’t complete).
In addition to the large fees and extreme control over the dancers, Rick’s wasn’t interested in protecting the dancers that worked there. When I complained about men grabbing at me — something that was never tolerated in the other clubs I worked, the bouncer shrugged and said, “You’re a stripper.” Even though the dancers pay the bouncers for protection, at Rick’s they were really there to cater to the customers. Berson quotes the owner’s concept: “‘When you go to a New York club now, they don’t greet you, they don’t seat you,’ Langan told the New York Times. ‘We do that. We say: ‘Are you going to have dinner?’”
Losing the lawsuit didn’t slow Rick’s down. It has continued to expand its brand (43 clubs and restaurants in 15 cities) and reported profits even in the years that followed the suit.
The final chapter and case study of the book discusses another way that stripping has become corporatized: the pole-dancing fitness craze. Berson points out that these fitness programs position themselves in opposition to actual exotic dancers. She writes: “Ironically, most of these programs define their image of feminine, playful, and above all safe eroticism by positioning themselves in opposition to striptease dancing as practiced by actual strippers.” But it goes even further: “Performing for a romantic partner is encouraged, but performance is firmly framed as individual and intimate, something between yourself and a male partner — ideally your ‘true love,’ who is, surely, your husband or fiancé.”
In fact, the fitness craze encourages the shaming of actual dancers. A new hashtag (and Berson couldn’t report on this because it’s a new development) has emerged — #notastripper — usually used on Instagram by women doing pole tricks who want to distinguish themselves from real strippers. In response, a group of exotic dancers in Portland came up with another hashtag — #yesastripper — to fight against the continuing stigma that dancers face — even with the corporate takeover of exotic dancing, which has transformed objectification into commodification. Commodification simply makes things worse.
Natassja Schiel is currently an MFA candidate at the University of California, Riverside. She is writing a memoir about working as an exotic dancer in Guam.