“The American imagination demands the real thing and, to attain it, must fabricate the absolute fake.”
Shedding clothes for cash has been a lucrative occupation for young American women throughout the twentieth century, from burlesque, to cabaret shows, to Playboy magazine. It was only in the nineteen-nineties, however, that stripper culture exploded into the American mainstream through blockbuster Hollywood films like Showgirls, episodes of Jerry Springer, and academic tomes about sex industry employees. Now, everyone from Howard Stern to third-wave feminists is eager to hear strippers talk about their motivations and mindsets. With all of this interest in stripper culture, however, precious little has been said about the individuals who drive this industry: the customers.
According to folk wisdom and pop psychology, the motivations of strip club customers are fairly transparent: a natural male drive to ogle beautiful women. This convenient theory exempts male customers from stigma or guilt while upholding stereotypical notions about gender differences. In her recent book G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire, anthropologist Katherine Frank explodes these assumptions through a study of the men who frequented several strip clubs in a major Southern city.
Frank worked as a dancer for six years while gathering research, and she uses her customers’ revelations in official interview sessions as well as her interactions with them at the clubs to draw a number of conclusions about their reasons for consuming exotic dance. Contrary to popular opinion, many of the men who attended these clubs regularly claimed that nudity was not the primary attraction. Instead, the men Frank interviewed frequented strip clubs to relax, boost their egos, and have interesting conversations with beautiful women, among other things. What comes across from this study more than anything else is the customers’ desire to experience fantasy versions of themselves and their masculinity. This is best expressed in a quote from Jay Bildstein, the creator of an upscale gentlemen’s club in New York City, that begins one of Frank’s chapters:
“I could provide a place where men who faced the increasing stresses of the late twentieth century could escape for a few hours. A place where choices and options are clear-cut, a place where ‘feminism’ was a dirty word, a place where a man could be a man? And I knew those men would leave the club each night perfectly content without having had a physical union with the women. For the most part, my clientele were married. They were not as much interested in the physical act as in the mental exercise. This club would be safe for them. They would not catch AIDS, and they could honestly say they were there to watch the ball games? the women would be an added attraction. The women would make them feel like the hotshots they knew they were.”
Strip club customers are not just paying for naked dancers; they are also paying to see a perfected image of themselves reflected in the dancers’ adoring eyes. Frank points out that the product purchased in a strip club is interactive, that the customer buys a relationship between himself and the dancer. As such, a dancer’s work is both emotional and physical labor. To be successful, a stripper must feign affection for her customers and fake interest in their lives; and it is this that allows the customers to relax, boost their egos, and enjoy visions of themselves as potent, powerful men.
Strip clubs are selling fantasy. In order for the customer’s fantasy to work, however, the illusion must be seamless. For this reason, all of the men that Frank interviewed stressed the authenticity of their interactions at the clubs. Most of the customers claimed to have real relationships with particular dancers, and many of them also bragged about their ability to see through strippers who were faking interest and affection. Although Frank did experience true affection for some of her customers, more often than not she had to “perform realness,” pretending to have fun as part of her job. In this sense, the stripper’s profession and the commodity that the customers purchase are much more complex than they would initially seem.
A final aspect of customers’ experiences at strip clubs that appeared in Frank’s study is marriage. The majority of her interviewees were married or in a committed relationship, and none of them viewed their regular visits to strip clubs as a threat to the stability of their households. The men did not consider their experiences at the clubs infidelities; but many of them used these visits to fulfill needs not met by their partners, such as danger and excitement, mystery, the sharing of erotic fantasies, and acceptance or an ego boost. Oftentimes, the release of tension that these men experienced in the clubs helped them to stick with their marriages or long-term relationships.
Weaving interviews, psychoanalytical interpretations, historical information, and fictional tales told from strippers’ perspectives into a nuanced tapestry, Frank has created a surprising, entertaining, and thought-provoking read. More importantly, her book fills a void in contemporary studies of the sex industry. Until now researchers, filmmakers, and television show hosts have only focused on sex workers. This has allowed those opposed to the industry to demonize the workers without launching a larger critique of the customers who keep this industry running. By portraying the ordinary, white, middle-class, oftentimes married men who frequent strip clubs, Frank has paved the way for a more complete understanding of sex work.