A couple months ago I had dinner with friends in Los Angeles. At the table was a guy I hadn’t seen in 20 years: Brad, the younger brother of two of my buddies. Brad had an attractive young woman on his arm. We all enjoyed a drink together.
After the young woman left, the conversation quickly turned to the nature of her relationship with Brad. His brothers chuckled knowingly. Brad once managed a strip club, and the fresh-faced young woman had been a stripper there. He had since moved on to the gourmet-food business and hired her to conduct, and then manage, demonstrations in high-end grocery stores. Brad proceeded to tell stories I found funny, sad, and surprising about what it’s like to work at a strip club.
That conversation came rushing back to me when the Good Men Project Magazine ran “The Professional.” In that article, sex worker Charlotte Shane explains that she doesn’t think of herself as exploited. She claims that many of her clients were good men. Of all the stories we’ve published, “The Profesional” was perhaps the most challenging to wrap my head around.
The editorial team at the magazine operates with complete autonomy; the first time I was aware of the piece was when I got an email from a source on one of the stories I’d written about teenage girls being forced into prostitution. She was emphatic that publishing “The Professional” had done irreparable harm, by endorsing prostitution and minimizing the violence done to women in the sex industry.
At first, I instinctively agreed with my source. I have sat with child prostitutes and the people who try to help them. I learned firsthand how their young lives were devastated at the hands of pimps and johns who exploited them emotionally and physically.
But two things changed my mind. I posted the piece on Facebook and asked my friends if they found it offensive. A dozen respondents all said it was a revealing glimpse into male sexuality and how the sex trade works for some women. They didn’t interpret it as an endorsement of prostitution. Shane, a well-educated woman who chose sex work, was careful to point out that she was writing about her experience, not the experience of all sex workers.
The second thing that turned me around was recalling my conversation with Brad. While I didn’t completely agree with his perspective on stripping as a vocation, I realized that it’s important to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to the sex industry. Where I had previously seen it as a black-and-white issue, I began to see shades of gray: all sex work is not the same.
After the publication of “The Professional,” I called Brad to ask him a few questions.
TOM: What kind of club were you working in?
BRAD: They were owned by a larger chain, Scores, from New York.
How did you get involved in it?
I have a good buddy I ran nightclubs with back in Chicago. He called me, and he said, “Buddy, come on up to the club; you can work for a few nights. You’ll be around a ton of girls, we get to hang out all the time, you don’t really do anything. Let’s have some fun.” And I was like, “Well, I don’t know.” But I went, and it was easy. For the most part, I got a ton of cash for really doing nothing.
How did you get paid?
Tips. We made minimum wage, and every time a guy would walk in, I would start talking to him, sit him down, try to get him a drink or something, see how much money he had, and then I’d introduce him to a lady. At the end of the night, girls tip you out for helping them. I would say those girls would probably be tipping out anywhere from 30–40 percent of what they made.
Wow. So how much did the average girl make a night in that club?
Well, that club kind of sucked. I would say the average girl there would make anywhere from $300 to $700 a night. An amazing girl could come in there on the weekends and make anywhere from $1,000 to $7,000. They all had regulars who just sat there, and these girls would just talk to them all night, and by the end of the night the guy basically threw down, like, three, five grand.
Did the guys want dances, or was it that they wanted someone to talk to?
A little bit of both. Some guys just came in to hang out with these girls, and some guys came in because they wanted the dancing and to get as close as they could to sex—but nothing really ever happened like that.
Who was the typical customer?
Your regular blue-collar guy who was probably married or in a relationship, and would come in and just want to be next to a girl who excited him. Just your average guy. I didn’t see too many white-collar dudes come in. The ones who did were regulars.
Sex was not allowed?
Not at all. I’ve been going to strip clubs since I was young, and any time you start getting into the nicer establishments, these places are watched over by the city and the police like hawks. We had cameras everywhere and security guys to make sure everybody kept his pecker in his pants.
Where do the girls come from and how do they get into this?
You just had all walks. They were college students who could make a ton of money doing this one or two days a week to pay their student loan, their car, their rent, and go shopping. Or you would have your seasoned veteran chick who’d just been doing it forever and kind of got addicted to the cash and couldn’t figure out anything else to do, or you’d get your ghetto rats, and the kind of chicks who aren’t well educated. You can tell the prostitutes when you see them; they go from club to club because they usually get caught doing something they’re not supposed to be doing.
What was the mindset of the dancers? How do they deal with what they were doing?
Some of them were really secretive. Everybody has a stage name, but the funny thing was, they would keep their personas outside of work and continuously call each other by their stage names. A lot of those girls really protected their real identity, and the girls would only tell you their real names if they really thought of you as a friend.
What was the nature of those friendships?
At first, I would probably have loved to date any of these girls, but a lot of them do have some social problems or things like that. I’m still kind of like the lonely dude here in L.A., so if I ever want to go out and have a great dinner these gals will always oblige. Two of the girls still work for me.
They work for you in your food business, not stripping.
Does she strip still?
No. A lot of the normal ones, the minute they don’t have to, they won’t. You always hear they’re just putting themselves through college, but the minute they can get a real job, they’ll do it. The problem is, sometimes they find themselves a little bit too lazy to get up and do that. You can tell which ones are motivated and which ones are just kind of like,”Well, fuck it.” The normal ones, I don’t think it’s ever their lifelong passion to stay in the business; they’re always looking for something better.
So what are some of the crazy things that would happen in the club?
The VIP rooms are infamous for guys pulling their cocks out and not thinking it’s a big deal. And then security comes in and they’ll say, “Buddy, what are you doing?” And the guy will say, “What, what’s wrong?” Well, that’s illegal.
Retell me the story about what it means to “make it rain.”
That was probably one of my first nights there. One guy sits down nonchalantly and says, “Well, could you do me a favor?” And I said sure. He’s like, “I need to change out $9,000 in ones.” And I go, “Say that one more time?” “Yeah, I need $9,000 in one-dollar bills.”
I go over to talk to my buddy, and my buddy immediately says, “Oh yeah, it’s going to storm.” And he says, “Let me go check out in the safe.” He comes back and says, “I can do this.” We grab the gentleman’s money, we change it into singles. His gal, the girl that he was looking for, goes up onstage. All of a sudden, he just starts throwing the money straight up into the air, and it’s raining $1 bills, and it lasts for the entire song. Money’s everywhere. I have to get up onstage with a big broom and sweep it up into big garbage bags. It takes me an hour and a half to recount it, and she pays me $150.
What made for the most successful stripper?
The most successful strippers were usually the girls who were intelligent and could talk to anybody. She could talk to a thug, and make him feel all warm and happy, but could also go up to the Mexican cowboy dude who doesn’t speak much English, or the white college kids who would come in with the credit card. If you had a girl who could really only deal with one type of person, that’s all you could use her for.
So it was personality, not necessarily how beautiful they were?
It was all personality. You’d be surprised at how different the girls would look outside of the club, in normal attire. Walking around in a bikini—these girls could make themselves look gorgeous, but you’d see them walking in or you’d see them leave, and it was like nothing special at all.
You’re no longer involved with the club, right?
Correct. My friend still is.
In hindsight, do you have any moral pangs at all in terms of what was going on there?
No, no. I think it’s an amazing business. One, it’s just an incredible cash business. The tough thing is, my buddy, because he’s been doing this business for the past six, seven years, he really can’t do anything else. He puts that on his resume to go for a job outside of the industry and it’s a huge hindrance.
So you don’t feel bad in terms of how the girls were treated in any way.
No. They’re there because they want to be there. It’s not prostitution. The ones who aren’t good at it or the ones who have a problem, you don’t hire them back, or you don’t schedule them.
What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about strip clubs?
Well, I think the majority of guys think that they could offer these gals money and take them home, that they’re all prostitutes, and that’s not true at all. I would say a good 40 percent of them are no different from any of the other women walking around, except they just don’t have a problem taking off their clothes. They are comfortable with themselves, and they look at men as complete idiots. I can take that guy’s money, why not? Why not. And I love that.
The other misconception is that everybody there is on drugs and whatever. You couldn’t be. If these girls were drunk or on drugs, they couldn’t talk to the customers, and we would ask them to leave. Everybody’s there to make money, pure and simple.
What does it say about male sexuality that men, especially the big spenders, would go into the club and sit there for hours talking with some girl and spending thousands of dollars?
That we’re complete suckers.
Suckers, or you think it says something about how we deal with our sexuality?
We have no control over our sexuality or over our hormones. That’s pure and simple. The only time we have control is after we’ve busted a nut—that’s the only time in our lives when things are crystal clear.
So your view is that, especially the 40 percent of girls who are smart and doing it for a period of time, they were just taking advantage of men, and “good for them”?
Totally. Good for them. Why not?