Sarah Caouette had several experiences with strip clubs, and each time she vowed never to go back. Now she knows why.
My first experience in a strip club I was barely eighteen, and had made it over the Canadian border without the slightest inquisition about my age. The guy I was caught up with was twenty-one, we lived together, and were pretty good at pretending to play house. To be real for a moment, I was a 2001 high school graduate. And at the time, every American seemed to have a hyper sensitivity to where they were and what they were doing. Meanwhile, I was sleeping off one late night shift after the next with no tangible goals in mind. And my peers, the young formidable minds they were, joined up with military branches and got hitched. Making us grow up a little faster, in a reminiscent and historical way as any dawn before war.
Our road trip to Montreal was laced with the agenda that it was the only place where we were able to go out and have a drink together. We worked in a bar back home, and unless someone could pull strings and get me in somewhere locally, our partying was restricted to our apartment or low rent spots with seedy acquaintances. I wasn’t much of a drinker, never really cared for the stuff. But my boyfriend really wanted to share this experience of consuming alcohol together, in a place where taboos were replaced with vices.
The last time I’d been to Canada, was a trip to Toronto I took in the sixth grade, to see the water falls of Niagara. It wasn’t that memorable, since all I remember of the trip was finding humor in the small tour boats below getting dumped on with water, as the group shrieked in their plastic yellow ponchos. And also, my friends getting caught by security shoplifting—classic American arrogance and entitlement that started early with basement experimentation and parents who didn’t know how to say “No.”
We didn’t have to steal—we did it for the cheap thrills, because we were bored suburban kids who liked to dare one another to go a little further in our obnoxious behavior. It’s embarrassing to think of now, but you were either a part of it or you were ostracized. They were my friends superficially, and any show of depth or inquisitiveness wasn’t appreciated. We were the “Them Not Us” generation—where taking responsibility for one’s actions wasn’t minted into our being, nor were we inspired by anything outside of the booming media industry.
Sex was sold to us dressed as MTV spring breakers in midriffs and string bikinis, and commercials for Girls Gone Wild. Drugs and money were promoted in the commercial rap music, and pharmaceutical companies pushing our parents to diagnose our attention and behavior disorders. Little did we know, we were becoming more and more desensitized as we became savvier consumers—dreaming about the cars we would one day drive or the McMansions we would one day own. The glitz and the glamour and keeping up with the Jones’ was all a part of the experience, and it was hard-wired into us from the start.
It was Halloween in Montreal, and we stayed in the only hotel we could afford off of St. Catherine Street. The equivalent of Bourbon Street in New Orleans, Beale Street in Memphis, or The Strip in L.A. If there hadn’t been a bright blue H on the roof lit up like a hospital or parking sign, the place could’ve passed for public tenement housing. The lobby was full with young American, European, and Asian males congregating before they stepped into the frigid streets to prowl for unwary women showing off a little skin. If I hadn’t been there, my boyfriend would’ve fit in just fine.
Not knowing our way around, we followed behind the drifting crowds going from one bar to the next. People were loud and riotous. Beggars begged outside ATM booths and club promoters pushed cards into our hands to see all the GIRLS! GIRLS! GIRLS! And when we found ourselves standing outside Club Super Sex (known to be a famous favorite among college guys in New England), we exchanged a look between us saying, I dare you.
Being a female, I got in free. We chose a table on the second tier away from the stage, and ordered drinks through a cocktail waitress. I don’t remember what the girl looked like who was dancing when we walked in. I remember thinking she looked really young—younger than me—and that there was a group of Asian guys sitting right beneath the stage, waving money up at her with uninterested faces.
We continued to drink, and some of the entertainers began to approach our table in pairs. Some were over-the-top in their approach, playing up the erotic fantasy that they were willing to do anything, at a price. Some used their bi-lingual French, to appeal to the exotic side of our ethnocentric psyches. And then there were the girls, like Candy who sat down with us and shot the shit as though we were sitting in a Café and it was normal for her to be topless. She was the one who immediately detected we were Americans, since my boyfriend was wearing a baseball hat, and offered to meet up with us later to show us around town. But after my boyfriend and I discussed it further we decided it probably wasn’t in our best interest to get tangled up with a dancer we hardly knew. I offered to buy him a lap dance, and he said he would only take me up on it if we came across a girl who we both found attractive enough and worth the money.
It never happened. We stayed for a couple hours and versions of the show, and found not one girl who had what we were looking for. Before we left, I used the ladies bathroom, which turned out to also be the dressing room for the dancers. I felt like I had walked into Tom Wait’s Small Change album—the record I would pull out of my parents collection, just out of curiosity to look.
Oh, I said, caught off guard. The bathrooms?
A girl with glitter all over her breasts, giggled. It happens all the time, she said, pointing around the corner.
Thanks, I said, trying not stare. They were used to people ogling them, but for some reason I felt they probably enjoyed hiding out back there and the downtime, much more. The group of girls, standing around waiting to go on, brought back memories of the female comrade of a gym locker room. And in that moment, I saw just a bunch of young lost girls, who hated their jobs and their lack of direction. I saw how easy one could jump into certain situations, when they didn’t have a support system or good role models in their lives.
When I left the dressing room, I caught a glimpse of a 300-lb plus man receiving oral sex from a girl of very slight frame. Her back muscles told me she was uncomfortable with the exchange, and I nearly tripped over a couple steps from the shock of the scene. When I made it back to my boyfriend, the stage show had taken a more gratuitous track and I felt very uneasy. I wanted to go, and he didn’t question why.
We talked only a little about it later. He said he was lucky to have me, and that he wouldn’t have been able to choose any one of those girls for a lap dance, because not one compared. He complimented my open-mind, and apologized for the experience not being enjoyable. We spent our last days in Montreal looking at the architecture of the churches, shopping, and eating—trying to wipe clean the salaciousness of our first night.
I refused to step foot in another strip club after that. I couldn’t suspend my moral conscience and not feel compassion toward the young women who believed they had no other choice than to take off their clothing for money. Then at a gym one day, I was introduced to a pretty girl who danced at a local club and talked candidly about her job. And I was just stunned the money wasn’t all that good and that I made the same, if not more on some nights, bartending in a restaurant that catered to a more affluent clientele. My gig was degrading in its own way, but obviously not in the same sense as hers. She seemed smart and was quite sweet, and I tried to understand why she couldn’t see herself doing anything else. Years later, I heard she’d run off to Vegas, where the money was better.
I was working and living in Boston with a couple roommates, the next time I ended up in a strip club. A friend of one of the girls I was living with was a student at Boston College, and apparently she had been putting herself through the finance school by hosting private parties in her apartment. It all started when she had taken a pole dancing class as a PE credit at the university. This sounded incredulous to me, but it was true. This wasn’t your standard, run-of-the-mill, daddy-doesn’t-love-me scenarios. My roommates and their friends came from upper-crust families, out of Greenwich and New York and Andover, MA. And many of them had just started working for the first time in their lives, in positions that were lined up for them, at companies where the starting salaries were well above average. We simply had money to blow.
As the BC girl’s time at school was coming to a close, she decided she wanted to try at an amateur night in some small town out in Western Massachusetts (where no one knew her), before she moved back to Los Angeles where she was from. This rationality made sense to everyone but me, but of course I didn’t speak up. I tagged along with about fifteen other college students and recent grads, and when we walked into the club we had the air that we owned the joint. I could tell our presence was disruptive to the regulars who frequented the place—the guys who had lunch there on a usual basis with their buddies or coworkers, eating burgers and fries as they gawked at the afternoon talent. The more tenured dancers had been dancing too long, and when the lights hit them just right you saw the years they had lost like the elasticity of their skin. It was sad.
A couple girls approached our group to offer massages, but as soon as they surveyed us in our expensive jackets and scarves their eyes seemed to drop to the floor, or looked down to the cheap lotion in their hands. It was pointless. We had no interest in being touched by them. We were there to cheer on our friend, and help her win the $1000 they were offering as a prize. We threw 5’s, and 10’s, and 20’s on the stage, hooting and hollering when she came out in her clear-soled stilettos—as though we were at some professional sporting event with V.I.P tickets.
She was a pro on the pole, strong and athletic. But she lacked the dirty sexiness that other dancers typically possessed. She was the girl-next-door trying too hard to be something she wasn’t, and why she chose to put herself out there in such a manner made me wonder if it was her own self-worth and insecurities about being desirable that made her do it. It made me realize that no matter how clean-cut and comfortable we grow up we aren’t necessarily immune to the negative self-images we have of ourselves.
The last and final time I spent in a strip club, I was with a couple male co-workers for a night out in Boston. We did the typical rounds that evening: a pre-game of martinis and raw oysters on the half-shell, Smith & Wollensky’s for over-priced steaks, a few bars in Faneuil Hall, and to end the evening, the gentlemen’s club near China Town. I don’t know why I had to prove that I could hang with the guys. When I look back on the experience, the impression I was trying to make is not one I’m impressed by. In my late twenties, I was surrounded by people who felt anything could be bought. Basically, they were just my old friends grown up.
If you want a pink elephant, I will get you a pink elephant, my boss used to say. He saw a price tag on everything, including women.
I found the women who worked the club rather complimentary of me.
You’re so pretty, they said pushing my hair away from my shoulders, as my co-workers elbowed each other, easily-excited and amused. But surely what was attractive to these women was that we had one of the best tables in the house, which equated to the amount of money we were willing to spend. Shallow people are a magnet for others just like them, and the entertainers at this particular locale were well-trained in the art of persuasion. They were the crème-de-la-crème in the dancing world, and I was rolling with real dogs that night.
I watched the show as though I was at concert hall or symphony. I felt anything but sexual, almost detached. The food chain went something like this: the dancers were entertaining us, I was entertaining the guys, and the guys were their all-consuming selves. Because that was what it was blantantly: sex as a commodity.
Then a guy at the table next to us leaned over and whispered, How much for a dance?
On cue, I told him where to shove it, and my co-workers interjected, words were exchanged, and before I knew it we were being asked to leave.
What a relief, I thought riding back to the hotel in the taxi, as the two men I was with complained about how embarrassing it was being escorted out.
I didn’t care. I knew I had my fill of strip clubs, and would never see such establishments the same after that night.
For putting myself in an environment that degrades women for entertainment, gave license to the man who offended me. He thought because I was there supporting my co-workers, that perhaps I held no reservations about my own sexuality—which was further from the truth. I just happened to be growing into a confident, strong woman right before their eyes. And when I put my foot down, not allowing someone treat or talk to me in such a manner, I was finally standing up for what I believed: that the female body should be worshipped, yes, but in a way that is respectful and keeps their soul intact.
Having a mother who is an artist and painter, exposure to human flesh and nudity wasn’t uncommon in my upbringing. We spent time in galleries and museums and at art openings where my mother’s interpretation of the female form was deified. She was a feminist, and taught my sisters and me to take pride in being female by honoring and respecting ourselves. Of course, in adolescence and early adulthood it was easier to be swayed by my peers and to get caught up with the flashiness of risqué behavior and perversion.
What spending time in these clubs showed me, was how important it is to remind the young ladies we know that the strength we wield is not by spreading our legs or by wrapping them around a pole, but our strength comes from having adaptive brains, compassionate hearts, and recognizing our own cognitive growth. And that goes too, for the young men of society. Young men need to understand that it is okay to appreciate what they find beautiful about women, but it is not okay to objectify or exploit them. It also doesn’t make you a man by keeping women in submissive roles that cater to and stroke one’s ego. (That goes for both genders. They are both known to be guilty).
The sex trade and industry is a vicious cycle of women and men having poor self images, insecurities and abuses magnified or covered up by the illusion of pleasure. What I now understand is that if you feel good about yourself, your contributions, and your roles, there is no possible way you can partake in activities that victimize and demean other human beings. After all, a human life is something to be cherished with the best of intentions.
Photo by H.L.I.T. / flickr