By Julia Connolly
When I was a 19-year-old college student, I briefly dated a guy who was a bartender in a strip club. And by “dated,” I mean that I’d sit at the end of the bar drinking a ginger ale and studying while he slung vodka sours and kept patrons from propositioning the gyrating women, occasionally running over to talk to me for a few minutes.
At the time, I was amazingly oblivious to what was happening around me. I was far more interested in reading my film critique textbook than checking out the scantily dressed strippers or the men who drooled over them.
The club had a French name and was located on the main street of a small city in the upper peninsula of Michigan, just a few doors down from the Western Auto store.
The dancers were mostly from Chicago, traveling a circuit of strip clubs across the upper Midwest. As I sat at the bar in my sweatshirt and jeans they’d hop up on the stool next to me in their filmy coverups, hoping for a quick chat between sets.
They seemed glad to have a non male to talk to, someone who didn’t want anything from them for a change. Some were sweet, some were brash; some skinny and some Reubenesque; some impossibly young-looking, others nearing retirement from their dancing career. Yet their stories were remarkably similar.
Many were single parents who’d parked their kids with a relative until they could earn enough to give up dancing and get a regular job and a decent apartment. Often they had plans to get a GED or go to college as soon as their saved tips would cover tuition. Usually there was a guy who’d done them wrong—cleaned out a bank account, skipped out on child support, knocked them around.
I remember being heartbroken by their stories, wishing they too could have parents who paid for college and a nice place to live, a sweet boyfriend, a fun job where they were required to wear clothing.
But no. They were all well aware that their main asset was their body. And, to them, exploiting that asset was the best way for them to make a living. They didn’t actually make all that much, but it was more than they could earn at a waitress job. Enough to keep them in “the life.”
I’ve heard of women who say that stripping empowers them. That rather them making them feel objectified by men they feel in control of them. They feel desired and adored, relishing the “look but don’t touch” rules of the game.
That seems illogical to me, and was certainly not the case with the women I met in the club with the French name.
They mostly disliked men—some despised them—and saw exotic dancing as just a job, a means to an end. They longed for normalcy, a career, a nice guy to settle down with.
But they weren’t going to find any of those things in a strip club. And most of them knew it.
I ran into one of the dancers in a laundromat one day. We laughed about the fact that her spangled and tasseled garb would take just a few minutes to dry while I’d use a fistful of quarters drying my flannels and denims.
She stopped me mid-giggle and tears began to well in her eyes. “I’d give anything to trade dryers with you,” she said, hugging me. “Anything.”