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And Audrey Was Her Stripper Name-O

November 16, 2011

Not this Audrey.

This is the second article in a series exploring the realities, motivations and morals associated with the sex trade: the first post was an interview of a male, gay stripper in Chicago.  NSFW.

After a pause, she said her name was Audrey. I have no idea if that is her real name. In fact, it is 99% likely that it isn’t. Popular wisdom tells me that strippers don’t give out their real names to patrons.

I met Audrey at the Camelot, a gentleman’s club in downtown DC. It’s the kind of place without a cover, but with watery drinks for exorbitant prices. I was with three friends; of the four of us, three were female. The last was a boyfriend, there for the ride. We went in on a whim.

We were seated at a table right in front of the action. In DC, the dancers are allowed to be fully nude but are not allowed to touch customers while nude (hence no lap dances, and no cover.) Rules concerning stripper and client contact are legislated on a state by state basis.

In this particular joint, strippers would ‘dance’ for two songs, getting progressively less clothed throughout. By the end of the second song (in reality, almost always three bars into the first song), the stripper was entirely naked. There was a pole, and the expertise level with the pole varied from girl to girl. Some strippers made their dancing look like an exercise routine, with such intricate pole work that I forgot they were naked, focused entirely on just how they managed to hang upside down with just a leg wrapped around for balance. Other strippers didn’t touch the pole and just shimmied in place, or kicked up their legs. Some strippers clearly didn’t know how to dance at all. That seemed to be okay, as long as they had two breasts and weren’t overweight.

Demographically, the strippers were a mixed bunch; all young, female, and beautifully fit of course, but various shades of skin and body type. There was a woman who was rail thin, her ribs showing in a strange birdlike waif beauty, the stripper who went on after her was curvy in all the right places with a large butt and breasts. The clientele was also more diverse than I thought they’d be: black and white, a few college aged but mostly the middle aged mingled together. There were a scattering of women as well, though they were all with boyfriends or husbands, and not there in nearly the same numbers as the menfolk.

Audrey instantly caught the attention of all four of us. For one thing, she was dressed more fully than the other women, entering the central stage area with a white sweater shrugged on one shoulder, and a pink skirt. Most of the other women had entered in bikini-like bling. She looked more girl next door than porn princess. The music started and Audrey began to dance.

Every dancer had a style; some were frenetic, some passionate, some fiery, some quiet and intense. Audrey was playful. There is no other way to describe it. Her movements and facial expressions seem to indicate that you and she were alone together, and that you were onto a big and hilarious secret that she shared with you. The taking off of her clothes had a little artistry, unlike most of the other strippers who just threw them off. She knew she had breasts and she shook them. She performed isolations of the hips and chest and arms. She knew she was shaped like a Botticelli vision of Venus, and she played it up. Her hair was black and wavy, and her mouth was full.

We girls liked her, and so as one we approached her during the dance and gave her some dollar bills. She winked at us and gave us an up close and personal shake. Apparently, the men liked her too; she had more money stuffed in her leg band than most of the other strippers. I saw a twenty dollar bill peeping out from the inside of her thigh. We returned to our table and thought that would be that. A few minutes later, however, Audrey was back. She sat down at our table. And that’s when things actually got interesting.

Audrey opened by thanking us for coming up to her. She said that it was often intimidating for women to approach her. Nudity was threatening, in her experience. She appreciated that we felt comfortable enough to engage with her. Her exact words were that she was “proud of us.” Her face was serene and she radiated calm and comfort. To all the Firefly nerds out there that will get this reference, she reminded me strongly of Inara. If I were a down on my luck straight guy, I probably would have tried to lay my head on her breasts and cry as she stroked my hair. As it was, I complimented her on her dance.

It is hard to know, of course, when act ends and reality begins. Perhaps everything she told us then about her life story was a lie calculated to win dollars. But I don’t think so. First of all, as this provocative psychological study indicates, women strippers usually felt a sense of female solidarity with female clientele, regarding they less as patrons and more as fellow girls. This meant in practical terms that strippers didn’t approach women as much ‘on the job’ (viewing them as unlikely to give money) and also let the wall slip more frequently between the public display and the real person underneath. Plus, in this particular case, Audrey didn’t drip tantalizing facts, or angle for a drink or more money. She just seemed like she wanted to take a moment to make a human connection.

As much as I could without being off putting, I asked Audrey questions about her life. What were the working conditions like? Why did she become a stripper? Did she enjoy stripping? Did she have a day job?

The front entrance of the Camelot.

Audrey told us that she was paid $7 an hour by the establishment, and that they treated their employees well. She did not mention any re-appropriation of funds by the Camelot at the end of the night, but in a place with no cover and a minimum wage for its strippers (legally this means that the Camelot wasn’t treating its strippers as contractors but as employees, which is rare but good for the employees) it is likely that she paid a tithe of her total earnings to the DJ, bouncers, etc. Still, it is possible that the Camelot is the rare exception to the rule- according to Camelot’s website, it is “Vietnam Veteran and Woman owned and operated.” Vets can be generous sorts.

She said that she had stripped for just over a decade now; she started when she was 22 because she wanted to travel the world and also help pay for her younger sister’s college. She said that she worked for about seven months, then would travel around the world until the money ran out and then rinse and repeat. She had visited India and Nepal, backpacked through Europe, and now wanted to go to China. She worked as a dance instructor in New York and only came to DC about once a month to see her sister and strip in a place unlikely to be inhabited by people she knew in NYC.

Audrey said that she really enjoyed stripping. She saw herself as her own boss, and liked that no one told her what to do, and that she could come and go as she pleased. It didn’t hurt that is was extremely lucrative, either. She told us that she could make more money stripping for a month than as a dance instructor for an entire year. She laughed then, and said it was ironic that she enjoyed stripping so much, considering she considered herself “a homebody” at heart. Audrey wrinkled her nose as she told us that she didn’t like clubs or drinking, and that her perfect weekend was staying at home and reading a book.

After talking to us for about 15 minutes, Audrey gracefully excused herself. She smiled at each of us in turn and said that it had been a pleasure talking to us. Exeunt Audrey.

This experience with a female stripper at a straight gentleman’s club was a nice contrapasso to my conversation with the male stripper at the gay bar. It was far cleaner, emotionally at least. Audrey was a 32 year old woman who claimed to enjoy stripping. Max had been a 19 year old boy was didn’t like gyrating in a golden thong but needed the money. Audrey exuded confidence, choice, and maturity. Max seemed tired, overworked and painfully young. And despite my feminist proclivities, I didn’t, couldn’t, see Audrey as ‘exploited by the male gaze’ or ‘a victim of the patriarchy.’ If anything, it was the opposite. She seemed like a woman who controlled her own destiny, and just didn’t mind showing some skin to do it.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ted permalink
    November 18, 2011 12:16 AM

    If you want to see a way she’s oppressed, I’m not sure if it would be the patriarchy or just culture in general.

    But she makes more in a month of working in a strip joint than she does as a dance instructor for a year. Isn’t it considered bad that selling women as a sexual object is so lucrative, while being a skilled dancer is not?

    • November 21, 2011 12:34 PM

      Perhaps one of the reason selling sex is lucrative is because it is such a high risk industry. With liberalization of puritanical sex laws we might be able to lower risk and thus lower the misleading differential between the societal value of these relative vocations.

  2. November 21, 2011 12:32 PM

    I’d be interested to see a similar analysis regarding prostitution; if you would find many prostitutes just as un-exploited by the “male gaze.” In general, people often have a very critical view of sex work without understanding the economics behind it; particularly those which may contradict their preconceived notions about patriarchy or oppression. In any event, good piece, as always.

  3. Anon permalink
    September 1, 2013 6:21 AM

    I don’t think either of them liked stripping. At all. One was just much more honest about it than the other. One had just settled into the role better than the other. True, Camelot does not offer lap dances or anything like that but there is still a hidden seediness there, a darkness and a lot of shame associated with it. And anyone that associates themselves with a place like that for so long allows that kind of place to expose the darkness, the wickedness in their own hearts. I think “Audrey” was the perfect example of how a mannered person can artfully cover all that up. Almost symbolic of the beautiful cover to a wretchedness, a falseness that is almost impossible to eliminate. Even the name of the location “Camelot” implies a safe haven, a protected refuge of ideals and romance…but it is really an alluring cover-up.

    “Max” on the other hand resists his occupation…he verbally opposes what his job wants him to become. But both of them are stuck…”Audrey” much more so than “Max” because anyone that has been stripping for over 10 years (in “Audrey’s” case much longer probably) is in a much more precarious and difficult position with far less options and more desperation than someone who is only 19 years old.

    Looking at both entries I think what is most interesting is how you describe the reasons your friend decided to go to The Pirate’s Mark. They were not only similar to the reasons a straight person would tend to go to Camelot, but they were the same feelings that the dancers probably feel in going there.

  4. Anon permalink
    September 1, 2013 6:54 AM

    And female strippers usually don’t like female clients. Especially straight female clients. Because most women don’t tip well at straight clubs…and they can be very rude in an insecure way. It was probably a slow night, you girls were polite with her, and that is why “Audrey” decided to sit with you.

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