Playing the Man Among the Girls:
The performance of heterosexual masculinity in strip clubs
Sex work is common in almost all cultures, yet it is an issue of moral, ethical, political, and/or personal debate everywhere. The assumption behind many states’ and municipalities’ regulations of adult-themed businesses, including strip clubs takes for granted that the interactions taking place within the walls of these businesses are immoral or harmful to at least one of the parties involved in these transactions. A common assertion among some feminists is that the production and consumption of sex work is exploitative and abusive of the women involved, and that the men who consume the sexual and emotional labor of the female workers are either perpetrators of an abusive patriarchal capitalism or are themselves secondary victims caught in a double-bind of hegemonic masculinity. The religious right co-opts part of this argument for their own statements that sex work is exploitative of women and humanity in general and that it is destructive to the moral fabric of society.
A detailed examination of the production and consumption of exotic dance, the major issue at heart in the potential regulations, is warranted. The nature and meaning of strip clubs and similar sexual entertainment venues is a much debated topic beyond the realm of regulatory legislation. Many have weighed in on the public debate of the issue from radical feminists to religious leaders. Those who argue for the abolition of sexually-themed adult entertainment cite numerous theorists and researchers who have connected the consumption of exotic dance with overarching themes of exploitation and misogyny.
Some involved for the pro-strip club side (or those who do not actively oppose these venues, or feel strongly against the regulation of them) feel that the production and consumption of sex work is a natural outgrowth of capitalism and/or human nature. Sex work is, as the saying commonly goes, the world’s oldest profession. This argument is dismissive of the social and personal effects of the business, but does raise an interesting point, to be revisited later.
Obviously, the arguments on any side of the issue are more complicated than the summations described here. However, these simplifications are often the extent of information to which many people who are not somehow involved with the sex industry are exposed. The greater emotional-psychological, socio-cultural, and economic implications and effects of sex work are not examined at a complex or involved enough level for the issue to be fully understood by many. Those who advocate for or against regulation or illegalization of strip clubs and those who consume exotic dance, as well as those who perform in or otherwise financially benefit from the sex work industry would do well to examine these areas beyond the immediately personal before continuing their current course(s) of action.
In order to provide for a more complete and informed discussion of this issue, the broader social context must be examined. Sex work is gender-specific, with the production being done by mainly women, and the consumption predominantly by men. This pattern is part of an over-all social structure of male-female relationships and is part of the production and consumption patterns of a capitalist economic system. Further, what happens within the confines of strip clubs is a reflection of socially constructed and scripted gender relations and has implications beyond the immediate interactions. I intend, through an examination of existing research and my own research, to create an understanding of sex work production and consumption, particularly strip clubs, within these contexts and to offer an explanation of the meanings of the interactions and performances within the walls of strip clubs. Because men are the primary consumers, my focus is on the motives of men who patronize these businesses. Of particular interest are the aspects of the male gender role, or masculine ideology, that may inform men’s decisions to visit strip clubs.
There are many contextual elements that shape the existence of strip clubs as well as the happenings within them. The gendered order of society is responsible for the production and consumption roles of men and women in sex work: “It’s not just the customers who try to take advantage of [dancers’] working bodies” (Bremer: 49). Gender roles for men and women are salient and well understood, though not necessarily seen as set roles (as the saying goes, the goldfish is the last to see the water, and gender is a crucial part of our socio-cultural pond). While the scripting of women’s sexuality is clearly described (see Laws & Schwartz, 1977), men’s sexuality has not been studied as extensively. Scholars such as Michael Messner, Michael Kimmel, and Joseph Pleck enter the feminist conversation about gendered practices with their own research on men’s sex/gender role in American and British society.
Judith Long Laws and Pepper Schwartz, in Sexual Scripts: The Social Construction of Female Sexuality, describe the social scripting of the female sexual role and function, but remark on the nature of roles as a whole: “A role focuses attention on some highlighted function or attribute of the person. To a degree, once roles are established, all persons who can fill the role expectations are interchangeable. They can be identified according to their functions in the division of labor rather than as total persons. If they perform these functions effectively, the need for communication, accommodation, and negotiation is reduced” (4). Males are included in this alienating role identification as well. According to Joseph Pleck, “the two fundamental themes in the male role are stress on achievement and suppression of affect” (1976: 156). The male role requires that the male partner in a heterosexual relationship take a dominant role over the female partner due to his activity as provider and refrains from expressing his vulnerable emotional side.
A person is thrown into an identity crisis if or when s/he deviates the script of his or her gender or encounters a person or event that questions the dominant view of gendered norms. Because of shifting social positions and understandings that have brought women into the work place and allowed for greater independence for women, men are no longer universally dominant over women within the family or inter-personal relationship structure (Pleck, 1976: 159). The popular idea of a “crisis of masculinity/manhood” arises in part from this role change (among other claimed sources such as the ‘incursion’ of women into the workplace or other social advances of non-white, non-male persons that seem to have upset the ‘balance’ of power for traditionally powerful groups). Strip clubs may be a form of ‘backlash’ against the gains of feminism, a way for men to feel compensated for “power losses under equality”—that they as a group or as individuals lose power as women as a group or as individuals gain equality (Kahn: 234). Indeed, the environment of strip clubs is one in which strong cues are provided to shape the gendered performances of all parties involved (see Trautner).
Male-female relations, social and heterosexual are highly scripted, and based on a power differential between men and women (Kahn: 234), and the interactions within strip clubs seem to be perfectly reflective of the dominant social script of sexuality: women perform a sexualized labor for men who then reward the women with the resources with which they, as men, rightfully possess and distribute (235). Strippers, quite literally “sell an image of female sexuality” (qtd. In Egan, et al.: xix). The interactions within strip clubs fit precisely within sexual scripts that demand that women “control sexual access to their bodies [while] men are not expected to control their sexual desires” (Laws and Schwartz: 207). In many ways, sex is seen as a “purchasable commodity” (213), sold by women to men at a set price, whether in dollars or social status (see also Schur: 164-185).
From a young age, women and girls are socially educated toward permanent heterosexual marriage as the realm in which they will learn or receive their sexuality from their male partners. A woman’s sexuality is her bid value on the marriage market, her virginity (or in a more realistic modern interpretation, her monogamy), the expected exchange for a diamond ring. A woman’s sexuality is not her own, but a product she sells in order to achieve full acceptance into ‘proper society’. This is problematic in many ways, and some may argue that stripping can be more than a deviant act of a fallen woman, but an exercise of sexual and personal self-expression. In the introduction to Flesh for Fantasy: Producing and Consuming Exotic Dance, editors R. Danielle Egan, Katherine Frank, and Merri Lisa Johnson argue that for the women who dance in strip clubs, “being labeled a slut can reveal the goal of good womanhood as a farce. Sex work can lead to a different perspective on how a woman could, or should, relate to her sexuality” (xxvii), a different way of looking at sexuality and gendered relations, as well as capitalism.
Women are groomed, quite literally, into the appearance of salability on the marriage market, and men are taught to recognize or expect particular traits as those of a desirable whore or proper wife (see Laws and Schwartz). The appearance of the women who dance in strip clubs is highly informed by this process, reflecting the image of the desirable woman; most dancers in strip clubs, particularly higher class clubs, reflect specific cultural values of beauty and desirability (Trautner:777). Allison Fenterstock describes this as “shaved and painted and nekkid [sic] and wriggling around… the ultimate mainstream hetero fantasy girl” (2006:200). This presentation of the “ultimate mainstream hetero fantasy girl” is problematic even within the club. Though the hyper-feminine image is encouraged, it is punished. Dancers, the penultimate image of feminine sexuality, are simultaneously celebrated and reviled by a misogynistic culture: “This is what you encourage me to be and what you punish me for being, I think” (200). In this way, strip club dancers reveal the cultural ambivalence felt toward women.
Even the selling of sexuality as seen in strip clubs, though seen as deviant, conforms in some way to the feminine sexual script (180-184), which is demonstrated in many accounts by dancers who provide narratives of customers confusing what was actually for sale in these interactions (see Manaster, “Treading Water”:10; “The Lap Dancer”, Egan: 24-26, Bremer: 45-47, Fenterstock, “How You Got Here”: 82-83). Laws against sex work (such as the one referenced above) imply that “women do not ‘own’ their sexualities, outright” (Frank, “Keeping Her Off the Pole”: 210). These laws, in the context of contemporary and traditional sexual scripts and practices, create an understanding of women’s sexuality as a commodity owned by society or her male partner, something over which she has no right of control. She may be coerced or forced to sell her sexuality for the benefit of another, but she may not actively and voluntarily choose to engage in this kind of economic exchange.
Clubs, however, are often organized in a way that casts the dancers as “independent contractors” who use the club as venue for the selling of their ‘wares’ (Bremer: 37). The female sex worker is seen as cast as a two-dimensional object on which the patrons’ desires can be played out “undiluted by intrusion of an unpaid partner’s own desires and personality” (qtd. 214). Dancers in strip clubs are somewhat unique in sex work, as they are not simply sex objects and non-persons. A factor of some male patrons’ attraction to clubs is rooted in the fact that the women dancing are not the paper pin-ups and digital porn queens, but rather “immediate”, “interactive”, and “present at the moment of consumption” (Egan, et al, 2006: xix), that the dancers make eye contact with the patrons (Berger: 144). “Conversation [is] so much more important than anyone who hadn’t been to a strip club would realize” (Smith: 103). It is often a dancers’ ability to make some kind of emotional or personal connection with a patron (albeit feigned or temporary) that determines success in the dancers’ ability to sell private dances with the patrons (Trautner: 782-783; Wood: 12).
There is a disconnect somewhere in the male perception and valuing of strippers and other sex workers, who perform a task that is valued yet stigmatized by hegemonic forces of the society (see Schur, 1984). This places dancers in a dangerous position, outside of the protections of society, allowing some men to justify abusive behaviors and attitudes (see Egan: 26). The danger presented by one’s sexuality is “a uniquely female fear” (Fenterstock: 199), whether the woman is a dancer, prostitute, professor, or (and) homemaker. Western society’s self-contradicting and ambivalent views of sexuality are cast onto the female bodies of sex workers, creating the threat these women would not otherwise experience in their work (Johnson: 160). This process of deviance-labeling and devaluing of strippers and other sex workers (see Schur) reveals “an artificial connection between sexual practice and the deep essence of one’s identity” (Johnson 160). Strict social definitions and scripts of female sexuality and morality are violated by sex work. To some, the performance of sex work may then represent a rebellion against these definitions, a conscious choice to defy this “artificial connection”, subversively casting more socially acceptable ‘modesty’ and gender conformity as victimhood. The traditionally masculine practice of guiltlessly displaying and celebrating sexuality, when done by women, may be empowering for the women and challenging to the gender status quo (see Johnson).
Sex work, predominantly considered a deviant activity, is performed most commonly by women for the consumption of men, and according to Edwin Schur, “to understand the relationship of women and deviance, a major focal point for research must be male perceptions, outlooks, and behaviors” (1984: 17).
For many young men strip clubs, far from deviant, are a rite of passage into full heterosexual adult manhood (Egan et al, 2006: xix), one of many steps in the “achievement or task” (Harrison: 69) of masculinity. That women who strip are labeled deviant in this activity and not the men who use strip clubs is further revealing of our cultural ambivalence toward women. Male patrons conform fully to the scripted masculine sex role in consuming sex work, even if the activity is considered deviant: they are actively performing their heterosexuality and being the financial provider. This is not to say that the men are fully comfortable with their consumption; they often understand that many in the wider society, and particularly their own wives/girlfriends or female relatives, view the consumption of sex work as deviant as the production (Frank, “Observing”: 137). Guilt is not uncommon (Berger: 143; Frank, 2003: 73-74).
What exactly does lure mean to these glittering palaces of “artifice and truth” (Blauche: 98)? Laws and Schwartz outline what the literature available to them at the time described as the reasons for men to patronize prostitutes. These reasons seem explain some men’s choice to patronize strip clubs: “(1) sexual deprivation due to travel; (2) social needs; (3) physical handicaps; (4) special sexual needs, which might seem perverted to others; (5) impotence; (6) a need for therapy; (7) desire for sex in quantity, a variety of sexual experiences, without involvement with any one person; and (8) loneliness” (191). While these motives all seem plausible, much research has been conducted, and much opinion and theory penned since Laws and Schwartz examined the issue.
Male patrons explicitly purchase access to female dancer’s sexuality: “Clients do not want to have to woo or persuade their partner; they want a girl on call, ready when they are” (Laws & Schwartz: 127). The men reward the women with money, or “you [patron] give my money, I give you me [dancer]” (Manaster, “Treading Water”: 18). Many men understand their visits to clubs as a way of satisfying the “desire to see women’s bodies” (Frank, 2003: 64). As in everyday life even for women who do not dance for a living, personal and sexual boundaries are erected, negotiated and modified on a regular basis: in strip clubs, the incentive is financial gain (Bremer 46). There is no ambiguity in these exchanges (Berger: 144). Berger, in an autoethnographic account, states directly that his own use of peep shows—a simpler version of the strip club theme in which women dance nude or perform other activities including sex with other women in a room surrounded by windows at which stand customers who pay to raise the covering over the window—was “first and foremost to get off” (145). However, Katherine Frank notes explicitly that “not one man that I interviewed said that he went to the clubs specifically for sexual release” (“Observing”: 115). If not for the simple seemingly obvious motivation of sexual thrill, what are men’s reasons for patronizing these clubs?
Frank’s research found that “by far, the most prevalent (and usually the first given) spoken motivation of the interviewees for visiting strip clubs was a desire to ‘relax’” (Frank, 2003: 115). Because the strip club is neither home nor work, it is an environment in which the responsibilities of family and job are not present, and the entertainment function of the club further aids in the relaxation (Frank, 2003). Humor on the behalf of dancers is highly appreciated by many male patrons (Bremer: 41-42) who may feel uncomfortable with their consumption of sex work (see note above) or who are simply looking for a way to unwind after a taxing day at work or home (see Frank, 2003). Regulars often begin to develop a sense of friendship or intimacy with the dancers and other employees of their favorite clubs (Frank, 2003: 65).
Frank lists several reasons that she found men have for visiting clubs: “Searching for escape from work or home” (2003: 64); simultaneous sexual “safety and excitement” (67); “personal and sexual acceptance” (69) similar to the reasons alluded to by Laws and Schwartz; and “performing desire and the fantasy of the ‘perfect penis’” (72).
The level of performance alluded to by some authors suggests that the experience of patronizing a strip club may not necessarily be as relaxing as these men implied in their interviews. Rather, the men who visit the clubs seem to be rather involved with performances of their own. Strip clubs are, after all, places where “a man could be a man” (qtd. Frank, 2003: 64). Susan Bremer notes that male patrons may have their own “stage names” and constructed backgrounds (40; see also Smith: 107-108; Wood 20-21). Gender performance, especially those masculine practices often frowned upon by family or the wider society such as smoking, cursing, and drinking heavily, also seems to be a major concern of the male patrons, or is at least rather obvious when observing them (Frank, 2003: 65). Gender may be performed in a variety of ways in strip clubs as well as in everyday life, down to the non-verbal communication and postures of participants. Men take up more social space, positioning themselves in relaxed poses, making little eye contact. This posturing conveys power to those with whom the actor may be interacting (Kahn: 237). The performance of power, gender, and identity has important links to men’s enjoyment of the strip club experience, as this performance shapes the meanings of the interactions and pleasures they experience (Frank, 2003: 133).
Success with women is a huge part of a man’s image as success object (see Gross: 94). Strip clubs provide a forum in which men can demonstrate their success with women by ‘attracting’ dancers who, regardless of fact, pretend to be available to the men, and showing their own sexual attraction to the proper object of desire. The acts of tipping and paying for dances are veiled under a pretense of “gifting” that obscures the falseness of the attraction (Wood: 13-14), allowing the fantasy remain whole. In a strip club, a male patron is able to perform his successful heterosexuality—he attracts a woman to whom he is himself attracted, and shows himself to be sexually competent—without ever having to risk the vulnerability of actually having sex, potentially exposing himself as less than the power-tool phallus of cultural legend (Frank, “Observing”: 135). The social rules and games of dating and heterosexual relationships are not present in strip clubs (2003: 65). Sexual insecurity may be a major influence in men’s choices to patronize sex workers. Alan Gross, in his paper on heterosexual behavior and the male sex role, describes another study that found that men often asked prostitutes to “direct the sexual activity” (Gross: 99). With prostitutes and strippers, men do not need to act out the traditional masculine sexual behaviors expected by them in other relationships (99), which require expertise and knowledge on their behalf (see Laws & Schwartz, also Gross: 97). Much of strip club interactions may be understood as means of bolstering a man’s feelings of success and power. The high-pitched, soft voices and submissive behaviors of strippers enforce the feelings of masculine power brought up in the male patrons (Kahn: 238).
These interactions are additionally influenced by the fact that “status in one’s own sex peer group… depends in part on avoiding exploitation by the other sex” (Laws & Schwartz: 106). “As long as they paid for the dancer’s time, customers could still maintain a sense of control over the situation by dictating how long the conversation would last, what would be discussed, and whether or not the dancer took her clothes off during the interaction. There was an unspoken understanding that if a dancer was not pleasing, she would not be paid” (Frank “Just Trying to Relax”, 2003: 70). Many male customers find intense pleasure and power in the fact that the dancers approach them (Blauche: 98; see also Frank “Just Trying to Relax”, Wood). Attention from the dancers is most important, according to Wood when it fulfills two requirements: that it “allow[s] for witnesses” and “allow[s] the customer to imagine the personality and history of the dancer who is attending to him” (10), creating “a possibility for the enacting of masculine power (11).
It is important to note that the exchange and exercise of power within strip clubs is not so cut and dry as to allow only men to possess power. In their own experiences and research, Frank, Egan, and Johnson found that “power is exchanged and negotiated among the customers, dancers, managers, club owners, and legal enforcers” (2006: xviii). Socio-cultural definitions and constructions of power have given the interactions in clubs a specific meaning that informs the decisions of male patrons to use strip clubs. As Frank notes, some men may experience “their visits (and also, in part, justified them) within a framework of confusion and frustration rather than simply one of privilege or domination” (“Observing”: 120). The mutual touch of lap dancing further obscures power boundaries, as Egan explains in “The Phenomenology of Lap Dancing” that in touching, “bodies become subject and object simultaneously. Control becomes hazy, undermining the power relations inherent in traditional subject/object divisions”. Others even argue that the dancers have the larger share of power in strip club interactions, using their sexuality as a weapon, and exercising complete control of the situation (see Shackleton, Trautner:783). Blauche summarizes the ambiguity of the power balance in his essay “Why I Go to Strip Clubs” as, “she makes me feel weak; …she makes me feel powerful” (99). This ambiguity of power, even the feeling of powerlessness, may be a major draw for some male customers (see Uebel).
The peer group, particularly the same sex peer group, is another source of pressure on individuals to perform the proper gender roles. In their discussion of dating scripts, Laws and Schwartz describe the power of an individual’s same-sex friends to influence the sexual selection process (107-108). The desirability of a dancer may be affected in the same way: a man may choose to purchase a dance or tip a dancer based on his friends’ opinions of her. The patron’s tipping, viewing, and other behaviors may be highly informed by the presence of his friends and their own preferences (Wood: 20-22). “The audience of peers is an essential part of impression management” state Laws and Schwartz (107). Providing a stage for the performance of heterosexual masculinity can be a major function of strip clubs. Strip club dancers, by receiving the rewards of money given them by their male patrons, become accessories to advertise the men’s success: the more the men tip, the more successful (ergo masculine) the men show themselves to be.
Competition between men in peer groups is also important; proving one’s manhood may center on the ability of a patron to attract dancers to a table where his group is sitting (Frank, and Wood). Indeed, “powerful men’s public performances… are often staged for each other” (Messner: 732), and in her research, Frank found that men in groups were “more likely to speak in demeaning ways about a dancer’s body or to act as if the dancers didn’t exist as individuals. These same men, however, were respectful in individual interaction” (2003: 63). “Self-presentation” to the peer group is a factor in shaping men’s behavior in the clubs (Wood: 20-22). Being the loudest, biggest tipper in the club may win a patron status in the eyes of his peers (21).
Though the women in the club must accept the men, must play along with the guise of attraction, the customers still value and place meaning the attention they can ‘attract’. That the dancers approach the patrons is very important to the patrons themselves, especially when considering the dialectic of power relations taking place in the clubs. Should a patron approach a dancer (beyond the stage tipping that is for some the only interaction with the dancers), he may show himself as desperate or dependent on the dancer’s approval. A similar impression may be invoked if a man develops a particular affinity for a specific dancer. This dependence on a female dancer is “not compatible with the internalized masculine ideal” (Gross: 90). The dancers do, however, provide the perfect opportunity for the patrons to demonstrate their masculinity for their peer group (94), as a more powerful person’s (patron) exercise of power is often the understood motive for a less powerful person’s (dancer) actions (Kahn: 239). The maintenance of this image of the patron’s power as the motive for the dancer’s behavior is important, then, in the dancer-patron relationship.
Though feminists argue that the social benefits of feminism are good for both men and women, some more masculine-identified men may feel stress or threat when confronted with the modern social arrangement that no longer favors the highly masculinized individual. Boys who are traditionally masculine may “lack the social and intellectual skills needed for successful adaptation in the adult world” (161, see also Pleck, “The Male Sex Role”). The contradiction that these boys face—raised to be masculine and manly and then finding that the values of domination, physicality, and rejection of the feminine are not compatible with the adult world that claims to require intellectual and social skills that in childhood were associated with weakness and the feminine—can lead to crisis or strain in adulthood.
Men raised to be traditionally masculine find themselves today in a social environment that does not provide opportunities to “validate their masculinity” (Pleck: 159). Strip clubs may provide this opportunity for some men, where they can put on or perform a “compensatory masculinity” (Harrison: 69) to make up for the anxiety and confusion brought about by the weight of the modern male sex role. Vices such as smoking and drinking are often “symbolic manifestations of compensatory masculinity and as an escape mechanism from the pressure to achieve” (Harrison: 81). Strip clubs may also serve a similar function.
One of Frank’s interviewees notes, “I’m definitely confused about what it is to be a man” (“Observing”: 121). For men such as this one, the cues provided by the environment and the audience dictate very clearly what masculinity is and how manhood is to be lived. There are no confusing contradictions in the strip club as in the wider society, rather, gender and sex are concrete and the rules are clearly laid out. “Strip clubs offered a temporary respite from both changing definitions of masculinity and … requests from women for either instrumental support or for reciprocal emotional communication” (121). Patrons in Frank’s sample do not reflect the “dominant patriarch” type one might expect to find, but rather are more often “wounded, confused, underappreciated, uncomfortable, or bored” (137). Men may feel powerless, ‘impotent’ in the face of a social role that demands of them control, strength, and unrelenting power. In a strip club, this pressure may be either heightened or alleviated, at the least, men may feel more comfortable relaxing from that role in a strip club.
The contradictions of masculinity training may be most immediate in the experience of working class males who seem to be more conventionally masculinized, and who “typically have the fewest resources for meeting male role demands” (Pleck: 160). Socio-economic class affects the kinds of sexual scripts to which one is held (Laws & Schwartz, 26). According to a 1964 study by Marjorie Hall and Robert A. Keith, children of lower socio-economic class are more likely to choose sex-role appropriate behaviors. The male children were particularly strict in their choice of gender-specific activities and objects. As these children grow into adulthood, it is expected that at least some of their gendered education and socialization should be carried with them. Within the walls a strip club, these socially emasculated men can become ‘whole’, powerful men, celebrating their traditional masculinity (Trautner: 776), perhaps raising their status however temporarily by becoming the Man to a dancer’s Woman, “her body as material through which [the patron] can claim higher status in his blue-collar masculinity” (Johnson: 175).
Socio-economic class affects sexuality in several ways (see Trautner), including the kind of clubs a man may favor, the dancers and costuming he most enjoys, the kind of dancing he enjoys and the amount of money and manner of tipping (see Manaster, “The Lap Dancer”; and Trautner). Class issues are heavily present in strip clubs. Strip clubs that cater toward a working class customer base are different in appearance, the bar selection, the dancers’ looks and performance styles from those catering toward an upper middle-class clientele (see Trautner, Smith). Manaster contradicts some ideas that men of higher socio-economic status are more ‘gentlemanly’ and respectful with women. It is those women whose perceived deviance places them outside of traditional society’s protection toward whom wealthier strip club patrons dump their misogyny and classism:
“They don’t need to pay for attention, and tend to favor word economy and rudeness to make this clear when you approach them. They tend to favor silicone breasts, g-string tan lines, and bleached hair, signs that the group can recognize together as constituting a sex-industry worker from years of exposure to Playboy pictorials. These breasts and tan lines can be treated badly. They are meant to be consumed. Those dancers who do not provide this visual stimulus do not even merit the attention of poor treatment. They are dismissed outright” (“The Lap Dancer”:54).
Merri Lee Johnson reports similar experiences in her narrative of a college fraternity party at which the fraternity brothers “in fancy ties… revealed themselves as aggressors, a side I had rarely seen of this type. Once I was categorized as stripper or whore, they were no longer the ones who would protect me” (Johnson: 184).
Homophobia may also contribute to the shaping of heterosexual men’s desires to consume sex work. The “partners or reference group are…critically important for maintaining or changing sexual orientations” (Laws & Schwartz, 27). By publicly performing heterosexual attraction to a female exotic dancer, the male patron “proves” that he is straight and properly functioning as a sexual “tool” (see also Frank).
An additional aspect of the women’s role in the strip club is to provide psychological or emotional reassurance for the male patron (127), another way for the men to relax (Frank, 2003). This is one service not explicit in the contracted exchange within strip clubs, but seems to be fairly common. Emotional labor is a service many, if not all, dancers are familiar with (see Bremer, Egan, Frank, Wood, etc.). As noted above, conversation with dancers may be highly valued by male patrons, as it may vary from the kind of talking the men get at work or home (Frank, “Observing”: 128). This kind of socialization may give men the opportunity to express emotionality and weakness that the traditional male role does not allow them, as “men are often more concerned with preserving their image as ‘real men’ than with open and constructive interchange” (Gross: 95) with their peers or others. Strip clubs also provide a place where men can bond with one another, re-establishing connections that are undermined by capitalist social organization (see Messner: 729). The patron’s ego-boost provided by being made to feel successful or powerful (Kahn: 240) is another form of therapy provided by the dancers, as well as the feelings of desirability and masculinity that dancers may cultivate in their patrons (Wood: 13). Emotional labor on the part of the dancers may also help to relax the patrons, assuaging their feelings of guilt or fear about being in a strip club (24).
Western societies have a disconnected understanding of sex and emotion, particularly in the masculine gender role. Men are stereotypically described as disconnecting sex from emotion, a reason for their unblushing use of strip clubs and pornography. The isolation of sex from emotionality may be “a defense against male vulnerability” (Gross: 90). Connecting emotions with sex can create feelings of dependency, something strongly discouraged in the masculine role, as discussed above. “Being able to walk away” from the sexualized situation of a strip club without having to even “ask her her name”, not being required to open up emotionally or personally to the female partner, may be a huge draw to strip clubs for some men (Frank, 2003: 65-66).
Dancers often have similar feelings of emotional disconnection from their sexualized performance, understanding their work as something disconnected from actual attraction and sexuality: “it was always strange for me to dance for someone for whom I felt attraction (it was just too confusing)” (Egan: 28). When “lines between consumption and emotion [are] blurred” (32), strip club interactions are more difficult for both producer (dancer) and consumer (patron) to understand. The simple and blatant exchange of money for ‘pleasure’ is not as common as many would like to believe.
Dancers and patrons are caught in a complicated system of personal and social relationships and interactions that do not seem to culminate in a single, clear meaning. Exploitation and the exercise of gendered power are not easily understood and simple exchanges in the clubs, with one party wielding power and action over another group (Egan & Frank: 307). Men and women work together in strip clubs “primarily for the benefit of men through interactions that affirm cultural notions of masculinity” (Wood: 27), though the female dancers still “retain ultimate control over [the patron’s] access to her smile, eye contact, and further affirmative interaction” (28) and the emotions raised in the patrons, a power of which the dancers may be well aware (Uebel: 13).
Issues involving the commodification of female sexuality and the dialectics of power in sex work are rooted in the divisions of power and gender in the greater society, and how power and femininity are interpreted. Because of the negative outcomes of the disempowerment and devaluing of women, these greater issues must be explored. As a particularly controversial site of the performance of gender, and clearly the site of the consumption of (female) sexuality, strip clubs are particularly conducive locations to study these larger issues of the intersections of gender, sexuality, and power.
In strip clubs and in all sex work, women are the primary producers of a sex-product that is consumed primarily be men. This dialectic is reflective of the gendered order of society and results in, and is a result of, the commodification of female sexuality. This commodification can result in women being seen by society as merely producers of a product to be consumed without consequence. Women, as producers, are no longer subject of their own being, but the objects of both the process and results of production. The power imbalance is obvious in this understanding of the dialectic of sex work but some contend, as alluded above, that the actual exchanges occurring in the production and consumption of sex work are not as simple and clear as described here.
As the primary consumers of sex work, men stand out as a group deserving of research. Why do men choose to patronize strip clubs or to otherwise consume sex work? This study was conducted and designed with two interrogative hypotheses in mind: 1) What issues of gender, specifically masculinity, are at play in strip clubs? and 2) How is power understood and exercised in strip clubs?
The site chosen to help find answers to these questions was a private “gentleman’s” club in a west-central Ohio suburb. As an employee of the company, working as a cocktail waitress at a separate location, I was afforded the opportunity to conduct some of my observations from sections of the club not available to most paying customers of my modest financial means and observe in the areas most popularly favored by patrons. I visited the club on Friday and Saturday nights during the post-bar rush (as a private club, it stays open later than bars and other clubs in the area). My visits lasted between 30 minutes and three hours, totaling about 20 hours in the club over a course of two months. Time constraints, further than those created by my job at the separate bar, presented by my other job limited the amount of time I was able to spend at the club.
As an employee I also had access to other employees who worked at that particular site and who were willing to act as informants and participate in my research. Their perspectives and observations helped to shape my interpretations of events, provided deeper understandings, and pointed out meanings for behaviors and actions that I might have dismissed or taken for granted such as the common incident of dancers taking and wearing patrons’ hats, which will be discussed below.
In addition to these observation periods, I also conducted two in-depth interviews with men who identified as regulars of other clubs. Both of these men were contacted through a website that offered chat rooms, bulletin boards, and community groups along with nude pictures of women. Initial response to my call for interviews was very strong, however only two of the men who responded stayed in contact with me through the planning and implementation of the interviews, resulting in the two final interviews used in my analysis. I suspect that the thrill of telling a woman about their ‘deviant’ behavior may have been an attraction to those who initially responded but did not complete the process.
Since neither of the two men interviewed is nor has been a customer of the club used as a field site, some variance in experience may occur. However, I feel confident that the emotions, behaviors, and motivations they described in their interviews are generalizable to the larger population of strip club regulars. The interviews lasted approximately one in a half to two hours and were done through an instant messaging service over the internet. I did not ask the men’s names or any other identifying information in order to assure their anonymity.
I chose to contact interviewees through this website instead of through the club because I felt that my social location as a young woman would change the responses given by the interviewees, who might interpret my approaching them as a romantic or sexual come-on or fear my possible moral judgment of them or otherwise be made nervous by my presence. For this reason, conducting research on masculinity and sex work or any other area considered “sexually deviant” may be difficult for female researchers. My position as a company employee also made the use of customers of the club as research participants more difficult as many know me from work and might feel uncomfortable discussing these sensitive issues with someone they see on a regular basis, particularly if that person is a young female. Further, I did not want to jeopardize my employment status by making my customers uncomfortable or angry.
Participant observation requires that the researcher does not interfere with the action in the research setting beyond her own interactions with the research participants, however the presence of a woman in a strip club draws immediate attention, and for that reason may change the environment the researcher is hoping to observe. Though I cannot guarantee that my presence never had an effect on the phenomena I observed, I made several visits to the club to acquaint myself with the surroundings and become more comfortable so as to provide as little cause for distraction as possible before I began making notes on my observations. In order to make myself as inconspicuous as a researcher as I could, I participated in some of the interactions in the club as well, which involved tipping and having private dances purchased for me.
Throughout the design and implementation of my study, I was confronted by several ethical issues and other personal problems. My personal relationship with the regulars of the club, as described above, presented a problem. The issues being studied are sensitive, personal questions that many are not comfortable discussing outright, and most people are made even less comfortable with the idea that the conversations about these sensitive issues might be used for research. For this reason, I chose not to include information gathered from casual conversations I had with bar patrons unless the person knew about my research and offered information, as in the case of Jeff.
The presence of alcohol also presented problems. Patrons of the club were often inebriated, which meant they were unable to give consent to participate in the research, and that their behaviors and words might be different than if sober. Further, it is nearly impossible to judge the honesty or validity of statements made by intoxicated persons. Out of respect for participants and out of concern for my own safety, I avoided prolonged interaction with individuals who were intoxicated. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons I chose to use the internet interviews rather than conduct face-to-face interviews with club patrons.
A final obstacle was presented by Senate Bill 16, enacted in mid- to late autumn of 2007, which limited strip club interactions and made it difficult for new members to go to the club I was using for the study. Because of this, most of my observations are of men more accommodated to the strip club atmosphere. While this may prevent the formulation of any knowledge about those who visit as a ‘rite of passage’ or those who are casual or incidental patrons (those who are there for the sake of friends, etc.), it limited my observations to those who are already familiar with the etiquette and protocols of the strip club environment. I cannot be certain whether or how this bill had a serious affect on my research, but according to the patrons, dancers, and other employees, it affected business to the point where my observations may not be representative of a typical weekend crowd.
The private gentleman’s club used for observation in this study is located in a shopping center in an affluent suburb of a mid-sized mid-western city. Upon entrance to the club, patrons are searched by security guards and checked in through a members database. Those who are not current members are asked to fill out forms and submit to a background check to assure the safety of the employees and other patrons of the club. From this entryway, no club activities can be seen, but the music can be heard. After checking in, patrons walk down a short hallway and past an ATM to access the main floor of the club.
The club consists of four stages: the main stage at the far end of the room where the featured dancer will perform for three songs before another dancer comes on; the smaller secondary stage on the opposite wall, past which patrons first entering the club must walk; and two small, slightly raised stages on the second floor. The second floor is essentially a wrap-around balcony, referred to as the “sky box”. Along the walls of the sky box are private “booths”—couches large enough for three people. The couches can be separated from the main activities of the club with a curtain. Along the back of the sky box area, above the secondary stage, are a few tables with chairs for patrons. From this vantage point, the patrons can see the activities of all four stages. Beyond these tables is the entrance to the “champagne room” where patrons can view private dances.
The lower level of the club is divided into two levels: the floor and a second level accessed via a flight of about six stairs. The main stage divides this second level and then extends out about fifteen feet into the main floor. The main stage, then, forms a catwalk at about mid-chest-level for patrons on the floor. Both levels of the lower part are filled with tables and chairs. In the spaces under the sky box are a bar on one side and a counter where patrons can purchase “funny money” for tipping, and other club-themed products.
Security guards, dressed in tuxedos, are stationed throughout the club, and floor-men, as they are called, also dressed in tuxedos, are positioned at the entrance to the champagne room and at the bases of the stairs leading up to the sky box. All security personnel are male. The DJ is the only other male presence on the staff. The bartenders, servers, and other employees are all female and dressed in tight, revealing clothes, though more covered than the dancers who circulate the floor in lingerie or bikinis.
Patrons are mostly male, as is to be expected. When women do enter the club, they are always in larger groups, usually mostly male, though bachelorette and birthday parties consisting of all females do come to the club. These groups do not typically tip or use the full extent of club “services” offered (private dances, VIP areas, etc.). Anytime a woman who is not clearly a club employee (as marked by her attire), enters the room or crosses the floor, she draws attention. Female patrons are watched almost as closely as the dancers when crossing the bar, and often stay close to other female patrons or the male patrons with whom they entered the club. Often the women patrons are integrated into the show via touching or other contact by dancers. Several times, I was asked by male patrons to tip the dancers for them. It quickly became clear that the patrons got a “bonus” by having a woman tip as female tippers are often fondled or caressed by the dancers, creating a display of mock lesbian sexual contact.
Patrons often arrive in groups ranging in size from about three to eight males. These groups are usually of younger men in their early to late twenties. Older men come in smaller groups, with a female partner, or alone. Age and group size determines where the group or individual will sit in the club. The tables on the upper level of the floor are often occupied with smaller groups of men in their mid-to-late twenties. These men are typically well-dressed and are often quieter or more reserved than other groups. On the lower level of the floor, the groups are larger and younger, and often dressed in clean jeans and stylish t-shirts.
Men who were older than thirty and/or who were not there in groups sat at the bar or stood along the periphery of the patron-occupied areas while not in private booths for dances. This observation is confirmed by statements by my interview participants, both of whom identified as “regulars”. These men often attend clubs alone; the older of the two almost exclusively attends clubs alone except on occasions when he brings his wife. Both men prefer to sit in booths away from the patron crowd.
Interview participants were careful to separate strip clubs from other forms of sex work, a theme noticed in the literature. Matt, a white man in his mid twenties, who described himself as “rul[ing] the strip club scene”, discussed his exposure to sex work as a member of the U.S. military overseas and expressed feelings of disgust and outrage at the prominence of prostitution, including forced sex slavery, in Asia and eastern Europe. Earlier in the interview, he noted that “I don’t like the girls who look like they’d screw you in a booth if you gave them enough money.”
Ryan, a white, middle-aged man with a graduate education, stated that though he enjoys the sexual display found in strip clubs, he gets “only a minimum of sexual gratification out of it—seeing beautiful women naked is gratifying, of course—but I never get hard, much less come; so it’s not exactly sex.”
These men both demonstrate that the choice to patronize strip clubs is not directly connected with a need to experience immediate sexual release, confirming an observation made by several previous researchers. The close social interactions I observed taking place between dancers and patrons, and described by interview participants reveal that the sexual display present in clubs is only part of what motivates men to patronize strip clubs.
Several themes emerged from my interviews and observations. Men’s choices to visit strip clubs were rooted in their attitudes toward women in general and motives to relax, to socialize, and to interact with women in a sexualized or pseudo-romantic manner. Further, many men demonstrated, and one of my interview participants described, the motives of inter-peer competition and issues of masculinity underlying the performances and behaviors of men in the strip clubs.
The themes found in my research—attitudes toward women, female interaction, relaxation, socializing, competition, and performance—can be further sorted into three categories or directions: for or towards women, for the self, and for or towards other men.
For or towards women
The attitudes held by strip club patrons in regards to women are the object of much speculation on behalf of non-patrons and activists in the anti-strip club camps. It is commonly thought that men who patronize strip clubs and other forms of sex work believe that women are objects designed to receive male sexuality, to perform for the pleasure of a male audience. This attitude is connected to more general forms of misogyny, though the actual presence of misogyny may not be immediately apparent in the patrons’ own understandings of their behavior. Several instances of this kind of attitude were found in my research.
Jeff, a wealthy middle-aged white man, was the most explicit in his expression of misogynistic ideas. During our conversation about the club, he alluded to the stereotype that all dancers in strip clubs are addicted to elicit substances, either from the beginning of their times as dancers or eventually through exposure to and contact with the culture of vice that Jeff sees as being prevalent in the club atmosphere. Women who claim to be dancing in order to pay off student loans or to fund a college education are “lying”, according to Jeff. Wayne, a young white male who has worked as a security guard in the club in this study, expressed similar ideas about the dancers lying about their motives to dance. Wayne stated this despite the fact that he personally knows several dancers and former dancers who have or did dance to pay off debts or fund schooling.
Matt, one of my interview participants, noted that he has dated several dancers and that “they’re not all dancing because they love it, or dancing to pay the college tuition.” He went on to say that “a lot of dancers tend to have issues of their own … when you get to know a lot of them, you kind of see trends that there is always a catch.” My own experience talking to dancers does not fully confirm these men’s observations and statements that “all” dancers have addiction problems or emotional issues.
It is also important to note that a causal relationship between dancing and emotional or addiction problems is not certain, and the direction of any possibly existing relationship cannot be determined from the information these men offered. That dancers are emotionally disturbed or are addicted to drugs are common stereotypes. These stereotypes exist for almost all women who participate in sexually “deviant” activities. While further research is necessary to determine if any of these stereotypes hold true or are in any way reflective of dancers’ realities, the fact that these men subscribe to this attitude reveals that they view the dancers as deviants. Neither man, however, seemed to believe that they, or other male patrons, was deviant for consuming strip club entertainment.
Ali, a highly-educated Middle-Eastern young man who frequents the club in this study, told me that he never buys dances and seldom tips at the stage. These “girls” are not “good enough” for him, he says. Though he is always friendly with the dancers when they approach them, and even seems to be acquainted with many of them on a personal level, he feels that because they are strippers, they do not warrant an expenditure of more than a few dollars on his part, let alone a direct expression of affection or personal connection. He maintains a mental separation between these women who use their bodies to make money and the women that he considers “datable”, a classic separation described in the literature as between the “girls you date” and the “girls you sleep with” (see, for example, Laws & Schwartz).
Not all interactions with women within strip clubs are rooted in disdain or misogyny. Though the cultural context of strip clubs is one in which women are seen as the producers and men the consumers of sexuality, and men, as a group, hold the dominant share of power, not all men feel personally empowered in their social, romantic, or sexual interactions with women. For this reason, they may choose the environment of the strip clubs, where as Ryan describes it, “the dancers kind of have to initiate conversation as part of their jobs,” something he says he would never do “on his own”.
Matt told me that one of the major draws of the strip clubs in his area is that he “could easily spend $250 trying to flirt with some random girl in a bar and end up with less than a phone number” while he could spend the same amount of money in a strip club “and see girls dancing”. For him, strip clubs are almost a proxy to dating, a scenario that seems to be common in the motivations provided by other men. There is “little commitment” involved in his interactions with dancers because he’s “not dumb enough to think that it’s not about money, too.”
The “honesty” of these interactions is another positive aspect for patrons who dislike the complications of actual dating:
“I guess in my mind, everyone is always using someone—at least to some extent. Like I said earlier, I can go buy some girl a few drinks, chat her up, etc. and get nothing. Yet she got free drinks. I’m not saying they all do that, nor am I saying it’s not my fault for being a retarded man. I’m just saying it sucks to pour effort and money into something and not even get a number. At a strip club, it’s all fair. I get something, they get money. Simple. I like honesty. At least strip clubs give me that on the surface.”
Another patron told me that he did not like getting lap dances because “it’s like the worst part of dating: you spend all that money and maybe get a little action, but you’re still going home alone and frustrated.” This statement relates the exchanges within strip clubs to the interactions of dating and romance while still recognizing the artifice of the interaction between the patron and the dancer.
While most customers do not seem to have any difficulty accepting the artifice of the romanticized or sexualized exchange, they do express an appreciation of the time they spent socializing with the women who work in the clubs. Ryan, for example, chose his favorite club because “it’s the friendliest … they all remembered me and greeted me by name. That really won me over.” Ryan said that he visits strip clubs during the afternoon, when it’s quieter so he can “spend more time chatting with the dancers”. He “enjoys the company of the strippers [he has] gotten to know”.
Ryan describes the kind of fulfillment he gets from the clubs as being more than sexual, saying that “something psychological… gets satisfied to do with not feeling like I’ve had much of a sex life.” He “enjoy[s] chatting as much as getting dances” with the women who he feels “some of them are genuine friends”, who are “happy to hang out with me”. The attention he gets from the dancers is important to him, and he “gets[s] paranoid about the dancers who never ask me if I want a [private] dance” during his visits, which suggests that the female acceptance and attention he finds in the strip clubs is a key motivator for him. Several of the patrons who spoke to me or who otherwise participated in my observations showed signs of friendship with the dancers, addressing them by their real names (as opposed to stage names typically used to distance the dancers while working) and carrying on personal conversations. When the dancers were too busy to talk, these men often seemed disappointed or brought it up with the dancers later in the night.
The desire for this attention from and friendship with a woman seems to be understood by many of the dancers, who feed this impulse for emotional connection with physical contact and displays of affection. A particular common practice of the dancers is to take the hat worn by their tippers and wear it and maintaining eye contact while accepting a tip from a patron. Many of the tippers often seem to feel uncomfortable or tense when first approaching the stage to tip. The dancers, whether or not they are aware of the emotional discomfort of the patrons, relax the men by telling jokes or whispering in their ears. This brief moment of personal interaction often relaxes the tippers who smile or laugh and generally seem more physically relaxed afterward.
Manny, a former DJ for the strip club, and Elle, a former dancer, describe coaching young or new dancers on how to best sell private dances. The method they prescribe is involves approaching the older men who sit by themselves and whispering, “I can’t wait to get you upstairs”, alluding to the private dance areas. The sexual tension and emotional connection produced by the ambiguity of this interaction was highly successful in selling more expensive private dances for Elle, who is still on friendly terms with many of her former patrons.
For the self
Relaxation, escape from daily responsibilities and realities, and a chance to socialize with others are other common motives expressed and demonstrated by the men who participated in this study. These reasons, unlike those described above and below, are most seated in the self, motivated not by the desires or views of or for others.
Matt, who as a soldier spends most of his days surrounded by other men, said he sees the “scenery” of strip clubs as a change of pace from “having some guy’s ass in [his] face 24/7”. In strip clubs, he can “sit there and have a drink and see a nice view. Or, I can sit there and have a drink and stare at some dick [he] work[s] with” if he went instead to a sports bar.
Ryan said the “aesthetic” draw of nude women in strip clubs is an influential factor for many men, noting that most of the other customers in the club when he visits are there for a “pub experience plus half-naked women wandering around”.
Indeed, I noticed during my observations, that most of what men do in the club seems to be more centered in socializing with their friends. The men often just talk amongst themselves at their tables, the conversations centered on work, relationships, and the details of everyday life. Matt described most of his experiences in clubs as “hanging out”, noting that where he sits in the club—a private booth—differs in the style of interactions usually experienced by the younger men who sit closer to the stage. In the private booths, Matt is able to talk to dancers and his friends without much interference from noise and other people.
Ali and his friends Ravi and Mo also seemed to experience this club the same way. I often sat with them at the club. They were more interested in talking to one another and the simple act of relaxing than in interacting with the women who worked there or with other customers. Several other groups of men that I either observed or sat with seemed to also be more interested in just drinking a beer and talking with friends than with the dancers. Jeff stated that his major reason for patronizing the strip club was that he was “taken care of” when he went; his visits were relaxing.
Music, a pervasive element of the strip club experience, is a major factor in this relaxation. Tony, one of the club’s DJs noted that the kind of music played by the DJs can influence men’s choices to tip and otherwise influence their behavior. In this way, the music is an important part of the strip club atmosphere, and can make a patron’s experience more or less relaxing. The fact that popular music or music that is preferred by particular patrons can influence their decision to tip, along with the amount and frequency of their tipping, implies that if the atmosphere were not one in which the patrons felt they could relax and enjoy themselves, they would not be there. The music is part of the environment, and should the environment not be as comfortable as the patrons desired, they probably would not spend as much time or money there, opting rather to take in a quick show and leave as quickly as possible.
For or towards other men.
The final theme I observed in men’s behaviors and stated motives was a desire or need, though often unvoiced, to compete with other men or otherwise perform for their masculine peer group. Elements of competition and domination are common in masculine stereotypes. Two quotes from Matt summarize this experience in many men’s lives:
“It’s not like guys sit around and talk about it [feelings of inadequacy], that’s for sure. Technically they do, but it’s not a conscious, ‘Oh man, I’m so pathetic’, or anything. It’s more of the fact that when it comes to everything involving other men we’re highly competitive. Like, it doesn’t matter if you like a guy or not, you do everything better than him. Period. So, if someone implies that someone does something better than you, it’s a big deal.”
“If you examine a group, you’ll notice a hierarchy. There really is the Alpha Male, if you will. There are never two in one group. It can’t work. It’s all the male ego (…) It’s not conscious, it just kind of happens. I’m sure we all think we’re the Alpha Male.”
When asked if this competition extends beyond his highly competitive work situation, Matt said, “only if women or sports are involved. I mean, I’m sure it does, but those are the only times we notice it.” As for the competition extending into strip club interactions, Matt said, “I rule the strip club scene, thank you very much. That is my domain and everyone knows it. That should answer it.” He implies here that he knows the most about strip clubs and how to best enjoy the experience of visiting clubs more so than any of his peers. This is a fact in which he takes pride, knowing that he is the strip club “expert” for his peers.
Seating in the club facilitates competition among groups of patrons. Those who sit closest to the stage “toss… bills around” (Matt), making themselves highly conspicuous to others within the club. A practice called “rain” is performed from these vantage points. “Rain” involves standing next to the stage, or above it, as in the case of the secondary stage, and flipping a large quantity of bills onto the body of the performing dancer. The practice, seen in commercial rap music videos, is usually performed by young men who also dress in a manner that can be understood as an attempt to project a higher level of socio-economic status in which conspicuous and frivolous spending is possible.
Tipping a dancer on one of the stages is a visible action. Will, a young white male, gave me a “lesson in how to tip” during one of my observation periods. He handed me three single dollar bills and directed me to stand a few feet from the edge of one of the upper-level stages. “Wait until she notices you, otherwise you’ll just look desperate,” he told me. According to this, if other patrons saw me, or another tipper, trying to get the dancer’s attention, they might decide that I, or the other tipper, was desperate for attention, unable to attract the dancer on my own, a failure of the tipper’s masculinity.
Attempts by the patrons to prove one’s attraction to a dancer or ability to tip may become competitive within or among groups. The affections or attention of a dancer might be competed for by two individuals or groups. In order to get more attention or time from the dancer, two competing patrons or groups may attempt to be louder than the other or to tip better. Matt describes this situation:
“[If] two of them decides one of the dancers likes them better than the other one, (…) they essentially start a bidding war. Sure she likes the money, but she’d like them better if they didn’t treat her like that.”
The male peer group influences patrons’ behaviors in other ways. As mentioned above, any appearance of ‘desperation’ or other ‘weak’ emotion can set one up for derision and discomfort. Many male customers, as suggested by Will’s statements, are aware of their fellow patrons and the possibility of being criticized and/or judged as less of a man. Many patrons, when approaching the stage to tip, are often nervous or anxious looking. While tipping, they keep their arms at their sides and avoid showing any facial expression of emotion. I often observed half smiles and the corners of their mouths often twitched as though fighting off a smile. Men leaving the sky box area after having presumably received a private dance appear uncertain and nervous if they are returning to the main area of the club without the dancer with whom they had gone upstairs.
This nervousness or uncertainty can be observed on the faces and in the posturing of many men, particularly those who are younger or alone. Many men avoid eye contact with dancers or other patrons. Tony told me that men who do not visit regularly or often are usually much more nervous than those who are more familiar with the surroundings. This suggests a few possibilities: the men who are not accustomed to strip clubs are more susceptible to feelings of insecurity in this environment because they may still associate strip clubs with deviance; those who visit more regularly understand that their patronage is seen as deviant, and therefore what they do within the walls of the strip club cannot help or harm their already deviant status or are otherwise simply more comfortable with their sexuality, hence their more frequent visits; and/or those who do not visit often are less comfortable with their sexuality and/or more fearful of judgment from others and therefore do not visit strip clubs for this reason, as well as expressing more anxiety during their visits when they do occur.
For even those who are comfortable with their consumption of strip clubs, the experience of visiting a strip club may bring up feelings of insecurity and vulnerability. My own experience as a patron-observer often made me feel powerless and weak. Often, when other patrons would purchase lap dances for me as a joke or ask me to tip the dancers on stage, I felt awkward, unsure of how to react to the dancer. These feelings may be rooted in the fact that as a woman interacting with another woman in a ritualized and pseudo-sexualized manner, I was breaking sexual scripts and violating heterosexual mores. However, the facial expressions and body language of the men who were tipping or receiving dances, as described above, suggest that the men felt similarly. Tony pointed out that the common practice of dancers taking their patrons’ hats, as described above, can be a counter-productive move as far as tips are concerned, as it may make the men feel violated and vulnerable in front of the other male patrons by exposing them.
Even those who do visit regularly or are otherwise more comfortable with their visits are critical of others’ behavior and possible motives. Many of the patrons with whom I spoke told me that most men that go to strip clubs, excepting themselves and their peer groups, are pathetic and seeking female attention and affection that are only available to them through paid transactions.
Teasing of fellow patrons seems to be a common occurrence in strip clubs, particularly among friends. Matt describes a game he has seen his friends perform:
“[When] you get the guy who has a girlfriend, is married, or something like that, everyone decides to ‘test’ him by buying him lap dances and shit. Much to his ‘dismay’. Like a bachelor’s party almost.”
In instances like this, patrons tease one another for being attracted to the dancers, though, as mentioned above, a certain level of attraction is expected or required of the patrons by the peer group.
Showing a level of attraction that might be deemed excessive by the peer group places a patron in a position to be taunted by his peers. One young man who had been tipping dancers liberally throughout the night from his position seated next to the stage was mocked behind his back by his friends. This young man’s behavior may have been interpreted as the ‘desperation’ of which Will spoke, which warranted the playful derision of the man’s friends.
The two interrogative hypotheses in mind during this study were: 1) What issues of gender, specifically masculinity, are at play in strip clubs? and 2) How is power understood and exercised in strip clubs?
Power does appear to be related to gender in this case, though it is not possible to state that a single and definitive power relationship exists in which one gender group is the dominant party over the second gender group. The sources of power for male patrons and female dancers are directly related to the individuals’ gendered identities. Similarly, the exchange of power and submission, and the relinquishing of power is gender role-specific.
Aspects of masculinity
As mentioned above, the existence of strip clubs and the behavior observed in the clubs are products of the dominant gender order. Because men are the primary consumers of strip clubs and other forms of sex work, and because men as a group hold the larger amount of power, particularly economic power, it can be argued that sex work, or sexualized work, is a result of masculine or masculinized desires. As described above, aspects of the masculine gender role are clearly visible in strip clubs.
While not all males who patronize strip clubs can be simply described as misogynistic, my research participants and observations revealed certain attitudes toward women that are distinctly connected to masculine gender role-typed behavior and thought patterns. Men and women as groups are separate from one another, especially men from women, according to the psychoanalytic understandings of gender. Women, especially in strip clubs or other sex work venues, are the “erotic other”: research participants described the female bodies on display as “a nice view” or as aesthetically pleasing backdrops for their favorite place to relax. The women who dance in the clubs are different from the co-workers, wives, girlfriends, sisters, and mothers of the patrons, which provides the patrons with a temporary escape from the everyday world or work and family; nor, strictly speaking, are the women who dance at the clubs men.
Heterosexual attraction is also a display at strip clubs. Masculinity requires heterosexual attraction to the female body, and this is easily demonstrated in a dark club filled with naked women who writhe seductively to bass-heavy music. Any man who wishes to demonstrate his heterosexuality can do so in these clubs, perhaps resulting in a (friendly?) competition with a peer, each man attempting to show more attraction for a dancer.
Competition, often described as an inherently masculine concept, is present among males in strip clubs, as described by Matt. The competition may arise over any topic in order to test or prove any patrons’ worth as a man. Many of the competitions, both blatant and subconscious in display, that I observed were directly attributable to the masculine gender role. Tipping competitions, conspicuous tipping, loud demonstrations of attraction, and the personal appearances of patrons all demonstrated a need for the patrons to be seen as a particular kind of man: the hegemonically masculine man. These displays are designed and affected to demonstrate the men’s attraction to women and his financial success.
Also connected to the male gender role are behaviors that belie an insecurity of some individual patrons’ faith in his masculinity, or the possibility of failing to measure up to the very narrow hegemonic masculine gender role. Many men expressed appreciation for the fact that the strip club environment required the women to approach the men. This alleviates pressure and social anxiety for the men, and it provides proof, real or imagined, that the male patron is capable of attracting women. This may simultaneously provide a display of masculinity for others, and give the individual patron an “ego-boost”, as voiced by many patrons and employees with whom I spoke.
Another aspect of masculinity that is seen in the performances of the patrons is a fear of dependency. Independence is a common and important component of the masculine identity, and showing dependence on a woman is deviant in this regard. Many men seem uncomfortable expressing “too much” attraction to a dancer, and those who do show “excessive” attraction are teased by their peers. Other displays of vulnerability may make the patrons uncomfortable, as described by Tony. Facial expressions are kept to a minimum, and posturing often reveals a level of discomfort with exposing oneself as a “sexual deviant” or strip club patron, which has implications for an individual’s social standing beyond his masculinity.
The “gifting” context of tipping dancers also provides an ego-soother for men who feel that their lower socio-economic status compromises their masculinity. In strip clubs, however, the men, no matter their socio-economic status outside of the club, are able to cast themselves as providers, sharing their financial resources with a woman who is his, albeit temporary, dependent. This may be especially true in clubs that cater to a working class audience, where patrons may feel emasculated or otherwise disempowered in their daily lives. However, due to the constraints of this particular study, more research is needed to confirm this hypothesis.
Dialectics of Power
Power in the strip club context, is not a simple relationship of domination of one group over another, but rather a complicated and dynamic process intrinsically linked to gender. One common argument among some lay-persons is that the relationship of power within strip clubs is female-dominated, as the women “take” the men’s money and dominate the men sexually. Others frame this argument as a way for women to “make men pay” (quite literally) for sexually objectifying women.
The power that men hold and exercise within strip clubs is rooted in male privilege and the masculine gender role. Much feminist research and theory has demonstrated the imbalance of power between men and women. The very existence of the clubs can be said to be an outgrowth of male heterosexuality and financial dominance, as mentioned above. Many of the practices described above demonstrate the enactment of masculine power: the “gifting” frame of tipping, conspicuous displays of wealth and/or heterosexual attraction, and personal displays of status through dress. Other practices illustrate the need of some male patrons to take back power, or to act the role of the powerful: the desire to feel attractive to women and the other “ego boosts” that some men may derive from their strip club interactions.
This last group—the need or desire to feel attractive or powerful—hints at power that the dancers in specific and possibly women as a group may have over men in this situation. The men in these scenarios are dependent upon the approval of the dancers to demonstrate or gain their power. This is not a case of the women having greater power over the men, however, as the women are accessories or accompaniments to the men’s displays of power.
Emotional aspects of strip club interactions cannot be ignored. Sexuality is a highly emotional topic for many Americans, so the highly sexualized interactions in strip clubs may bring up emotional issues on the individual level. A possibility might exist here, then, for the dancers to exercise power beyond the soothing of male egos or playing the part of accessory to a man’s demonstration of masculine power. Uebel (2004) discusses the masochistic drive for some men to submit to the power of the dancers, to relate to her and negate himself. This relinquishing of power requires that the male subject have power to negate, however, and this argument frames the male subject as willingly and temporarily gives up his power to someone he has permitted to dominate him. Relating to the dancer as a way to engage in the luxury of powerlessness (after all, one must first have power in order to voluntarily let go of his power) means that the male subject sees the female dancer as powerlessness, her power lying solely in her ability to reflect his own fantasy.
Many of men in my observations seemed nervous around dancers, or eager for the women’s approval. I heard many men express adoration and even awe for the women. These sentiments and compliments were rooted in the sexual value of the women’s appearances, though, which may negate some of the power that might be conferred here as the power is first given to the women by the men through the valuing of the women’s appearances or sexuality. Further theoretical development on the dynamics of power and gender, including a possible redefinition of power, is needed to confirm this.
All of these proposed sources of power for the women are rooted in the patriarchal, male-dominant structure of society at large. Though the women may be capable of practicing individual agency and enacting power on a personal or interpersonal level, the interactions all take place within a larger context of female subordination to male power and do not challenge this structure on a broader level of socially-relevant significance.
Another possibility for the existence of feminist agency for the dancers lies in the reclaiming of female sexuality through the performance of sex work. Sexuality, particularly female heterosexuality, is commodified and its exchange value is set on the marriage market, as discussed above. The casting of female sex workers as deviant may be social reactions to their attempts to claim their sexual value as their own property or product from which they can benefit, which is contrary to the script in which a woman produces her sexuality, or exists as a sexual being solely for the benefit of her male partner. In practicing sex work, the female sex worker, in this case the stripper, actively participates in the ritual production of her sexuality and, to a much larger extent than in socially approved scripts, controls the consumption of her sexuality.
This study does not allow for a thorough exploration or discussion of the dialectics and exchanges of power within the strip club. However, it does raise questions and doubts about the existence of a power monopoly. As noted several times above, these interactions exist within a complex and historical context of gender inequality which has significant effect on the relationships and interactions. The men in this study, as evidenced by their nervousness and desire for approval and low-pressure female interaction, do not feel as though they are in a clear position of dominance within these interactions. Further research including clubs of varying customer-bases (working class clubs, for instance) or further interviews with men of lesser or greater hegemonically masculine/powerful social status may also reveal differences in interactions and motives, which will greatly inform an interpretation of gendered exercises of power in this setting.
Limited time and resources only allowed for this study to extend so far. The club used as a field site catered to a distinctly middle-class clientele, which limited my observations to include only those men with enough discretionary income to spend on the membership and door fees. Other clubs, including those without membership fees or those with lower door fees and dance prices, may reveal a different set of observations. Because class is believed to inform the performance of masculinity, and higher socio-economic class is an important aspect of hegemonic masculinity, those men who cannot reasonably afford the costs of attending private gentlemen’s clubs such as the one in this study may carry different attitudes about women and sexuality and the production and consumption of sex work.
Having a male interviewer may also result in different or richer interview data. Male patrons may feel more relaxed revealing private or personal details to another male. However, the inverse is also possible as another male may pose a threat to the interview participant’s masculinity in an already potentially threatening environment. I would have preferred to conduct interviews or discussions with men at the club in order to collect richer and more immediate data. Having a male co-researcher would be helpful in this. Directly discussing issues of masculinity and sexuality with patrons may provide the most accurate data regarding their attitudes and experiences, which could lend more accuracy to my interpretations.
Also of interest in this field is the nature of ritualized behaviors in the clubs. A study of these rituals, particularly the ‘rite of passage’ of a young man’s first visit to a strip club may be particularly revealing of the ways in which the masculine role intersects with the consumption of sex work.
The complicated nature of the exchanges that I observed warrants further exploration for proper and thorough interpretation. A richer theoretical perspective needs to be developed in order to more thoroughly understand the dialectics or power relationships in the clubs, as mentioned above.
Much was revealed in this study regarding men’s choices to patronize strip clubs. Men choose to visit clubs for various and inter-related reasons. These motives lie within three directional categories: those centered in the self, and those other-directed toward either women or other men. Among those reasons centered in the self is relaxation. This form of relaxation is privileged in that it involves a male-specific form of sexualized entertainment and luxury. Attitudes regarding women in general and women who are socially deviant in particular also shape the interpretations men have of their visits to the club. The attention and affection of women is an important reason for men to visit strip clubs. Women can be accessories to men’s shows of success which are performed for other male patrons in the clubs as well as help the men in the men’s own crises of ego. Performing for other men, or avoiding the notice of other men also shapes the behaviors of men in the clubs.
Further research is needed in order to fully apply these findings to a greater understanding of gendered practices and power, but it is clear that the interactions within clubs and the motives for visiting these places is greatly informed by the socially-dominant dichotomous gender paradigm.
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Appendix A: Informant/ Research Participants
(All names have been changed)
Ali: mid-to-late twenties, highly-educated, Middle-Eastern.
Elle: former dancer, mid twenties, white.
Jeff: middle-aged, white, wealthy patron.
Manny: former DJ, early thirties, white.
Matt: mid twenties, white patron.
Ryan: middle-aged, highly-educated, white patron.
Tony: club DJ, early thirties, white.
Wayne: club security, early twenties, white.
Will: mid twenties, college-educated, white patron.
 Alternatively, it can be argued that deviation from prescribed gender norms may be eroticized. Some men may patronize strip clubs because they are drawn by the problematic idea of the sexually active, and possibly aggressive, woman who is thus deviating from cultural expectations of female sexuality as passive and receptive of male desire. Visiting these ‘dens of vice’ can be titillating for patrons who engage in this “erotic slumming” (Frank, “Observing”: 124), particularly in the case of middle-class men who visit clubs that aim at working class patrons (see Trautner).
 This guilt may be a part of the ‘thrill’ of consuming sex work, possibly linked with the “erotic slumming” discussed above. Berger discusses the personal revulsion he initially felt as a patron of peep shows (143), and discusses his later, politically based, guilt (149) (see also Shackleton).
 Berger does note that “that doesn’t happen at expensive ‘gentlemen’s’ clubs [i.e. the strip clubs of Frank’s and others’ studies], at least not without a whole lot more money than I’ve got to spend” (145) which may imply a significant difference in the clienteles of strip clubs and peep shows, the examination of which is beyond the scope of this paper.
 Interestingly, the strippers’ ability to affect men’s’ feelings of masculinity through their own behavior reflects a kind of gender-validating power that the women uniquely hold.
 “Hegemonic masculinity… is constructed not only in relation to femininities, but also in relation to subordinated and marginalized masculinities” (Messner: 724), including those of men of lower socio-economic class or racial-ethnic minority status, which places the men of these ‘lesser’ statuses in a social position possibly more similar to women than to hegemonically masculine men, creating a crisis of identity.
 Sexual scripts and roles for upper-middle class men, according to Gross (also in Trautner, Laws & Schwartz, Hall & Keith, and Manaster), require sexual initiation and advances on behalf of the male more than the female (96), which may account for some of this level of aggression in this privileged group.
 All names have been changed in order to ensure confidentiality.