I have never been one to get my boobs out at a party. I’ve never become intimately acquainted with a bespangled g-string, and the closest I’ve come to tabletop dancing is standing on the kitchen bench to change a light bulb. Don’t get me wrong – I’m no prude – but I’ve never had the desire to strip for strangers while teetering in stilettos.
Which is why I’m feeling rather uncomfortable sitting in a dark corner of ‘Adelaide’s Finest Gentlemen’s Club’, watching a policewoman strut upon the stage to Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’ in what is surely not regulation uniform.
I take another sip from my overpriced drink and tell myself to relax and see the place for what I’ve been told it is: ‘just a bit of fun and fantasy.’ To my left a devil and a nurse are engaged in animated conversation. They lounge on a spare couch, laughing and tapping the ash from their cigarettes into a grubby ashtray. Music blares from the stage. Everywhere I look I see quantities of fake tan, bleached hair, bare legs, cleavage and plenty of perky buttocks slipping out of too-small underpants. My friend quietly remarks that she feels ‘somewhat overdressed’.
Sitting amongst the faux elegance of the club, watching ‘Sergeant Destiny’ have notes shoved down her knickers by a man old enough to be her father is hardly my idea of a good time, yet I was the one who dragged my friend here to discover the true nature of striptease. After living most of my life believing that strippers were addicts strapped for cash, or abhorrently uneducated speed-humps on the road to feminism, I had finally met one in the flesh who had profoundly contradicted this stereotype. It was she who finally convinced me to go to a strip club to see for myself what it was like.
I got to know Lara over a series of visits to Sydney. My sister, whom I was visiting at the time, pointed her out as a friend and fellow classmate. ‘She’s also a stripper,’ she had added, grinning, knowing that I would be shocked.
I was shocked. But, despite my aversion, her profession also fascinated me. How could this girl, studying at a prestigious institution, make her living as a sex object? Was she drug dependent? Was she lacking self-respect? This girl was intelligent, sassy and committed to her education. So why was she buying clear plastic heels and crutchless undies and wearing them in front of a bunch of inebriated blokes night after night? I eventually summoned up the courage to ask Lara why she did what she did. She was kind enough to explain to me:
‘It’s a common misconception that strippers are nasty girls who couldn’t finish high school and need to feed a drug habit … I started for the great money, fun atmosphere and great girls.’
According to Lara, striptease was nothing more than a novel way for her to earn a lot of cash in a short amount of time; a means by which she, and all the other women she worked with, could quickly get the money they needed to put down a deposit on a house, go on an overseas trip, or to pay off their university fees.
‘Most girls are paying off HECS … At my club, only three girls out of the twenty-five haven’t been to uni.’
Stripping is a prosperous business; the striptease industry is worth $14 million in Victoria alone. According to Lara, a striptease artist at a middle-of-the-range club can make over $600 dollars in one shift. That’s about $85 an hour. A ten-minute ‘full nude’ strip pays around $100 to $200. Tips, sometimes outrageously generous, can easily double this figure.
‘Most [strippers] realise the money is there to be made for wearing what you’d wear to a beach … The men who come to strip clubs have the money and are willing to spend it. You need to capitalise on that.’
While the financial benefits of stripping are obvious, there’s more to the job than just removing clothes. Lara stressed to me that a striptease artist must become acquainted with the formal and unwritten rules of the club, and the ‘immediate understandings’ between the dancers. She must also learn the strategies used to maintain the ‘tease’ and wring the most money out of a customer.
‘On stage I dance fully clothed for the first song and the second. Shirt off third song. Skirt off fourth song. Fifth song: moneymaker! … I keep that order strictly … If you’re not making enough money you flick your garter at the guys who haven’t tipped. Talk a bit, flirt a bit. Pole tricks are the biggest crowd pleaser. If you’re good at them you’ll get booked [for a private show].’
Perhaps surprisingly, good looks are not necessarily needed to become a stripper. ‘After all’, Lara reminded me, ‘guys like all different girls.’ What is needed, is confidence, an ability to converse easily and a taste for alcohol.
‘[We have to] drink in a social way. Not to get slaughtered, but it’s money for the club, and it’s something to do while you’re talking to wankers about their wives.’
Asked whether or not she ever feels sorry for their spouses, Lara shrugged her shoulders.
‘Strip clubs are supposed to be a bit of fun and fantasy, not break up a marriage. If a guy becomes too obsessed, you get him banned … Patrons need to remember that, in the club, the girls have the power. We can kick you out, refuse to talk to you, get the bar staff to refuse you drink. It’s our stage and if we are uncomfortable with anything we change it.’
My friend and I have relaxed a little after being in the club for an hour or so. On stage, ‘Chalice’, a long-legged blonde, winds her way around the pole with astonishing strength and flexibility. She somersaults in slow motion; she grips the pole with thighs of doom. ‘A highly trained athlete,’ whispers my friend.
Suddenly, a crowd of men storm into the club. The atmosphere changes in an instant. The chatting girls get up and introduce themselves to the new customers, as some of the men look at my friend and me with curiosity.
For one brief moment I see myself as a stripper. Under the loaded gazes of these men I can almost taste ‘the experience of absolute control’ Lara has told me about. I know that were I to get up on that stage and peel my clothes off, these men would hand me their money. I could earn over $1000 a week. Part-time.
But the fantasy fades. A man wearing a T-shirt imprinted with ‘i.wanna.cum.onu’ grabs the French maid. She warns him and he backs off, but it is enough: I realise I don’t want to be a part of this. It’s more than a mild concern about what my mum would say: it’s a quiet revulsion that makes me want to leave. Fear? Disgust? I can’t quite explain it, but this feeling must be that which separates me from women like Lara. I am neither better nor more virtuous because of this, only different. Yes, it may be empowering for some. Yes, the money is good, better than good. But stripping is not for me.
We finish our drinks and go home.