G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire

G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire

by Katherine Frank, Frank
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Duke University Press Books


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G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire

Based on her experiences as a stripper in a city she calls Laurelton—a southeastern city renowned for its strip clubs—anthropologist Katherine Frank provides a fascinating insider’s account of the personal and cultural fantasies motivating male heterosexual strip club "regulars." Given that all of the clubs where she worked prohibited physical contact between the exotic dancers and their customers, in G-Strings and Sympathy Frank asks what—if not sex or even touching—the repeat customers were purchasing from the clubs and from the dancers. She finds that the clubs provide an intermediate space—not work, not home—where men can enjoyably experience their bodies and selves through conversation, fantasy, and ritualized voyeurism. At the same time, she shows how the dynamics of male pleasure and privilege in strip clubs are intertwined with ideas about what it means to be a man in contemporary America.

Frank’s ethnography draws on her work as an exotic dancer in five clubs, as well as on her interviews with over thirty regular customers—middle-class men in their late-twenties to mid-fifties. Reflecting on the customers’ dual desires for intimacy and visibility, she explores their paradoxical longings for "authentic" interactions with the dancers, the ways these aspirations are expressed within the highly controlled and regulated strip clubs, and how they relate to beliefs and fantasies about social class and gender. She considers how regular visits to strip clubs are not necessarily antithetical to marriage or long-term heterosexual relationships, but are based on particular beliefs about marriage and monogamy that make these clubs desirable venues. Looking at the relative "classiness" of the clubs where she worked—ranging from the city’s most prestigious clubs to some of its dive bars—she reveals how the clubs are differentiated by reputations, dress codes, cover charges, locations, and clientele, and describes how these distinctions become meaningful and erotic for the customers. Interspersed throughout the book are three fictional interludes that provide an intimate look at Frank’s experiences as a stripper—from the outfits to the gestures, conversations, management, coworkers, and, of course, the customers.

Focusing on the experiences of the male clients, rather than those of the female sex workers, G-Strings and Sympathy provides a nuanced, lively, and tantalizing account of the stigmatized world of strip clubs.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822329725
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 12/05/2002
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 557,374
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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G-Strings and Sympathy

Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0822329727

Observing the Observers: Methods and Themes

This ethnography investigates the motivations and experiences of the regular male customers of strip clubs to explore both the personal and cultural aspects of gender, sexuality, and desire. My decision to focus on the male customers of the clubs rather than the women who dance in them was motivated by both political and theoretical concerns. On hearing that I have conducted research in strip clubs, the most common question people ask me is, "Why do the women do it?" Indeed, this was my initial question as well. My original project-and many people who do fieldwork know that one rarely sticks with one's original project-was to focus only on exotic dancers. After all, nearly all of the literature that I could find on strip clubs, both academic and popular, deals with the mythologies that surround the dancers: What kind of "personality" does a woman need to have to become an exotic dancer? How many dancers have been sexually abused or use drugs or alcohol to "make the work bearable"? How did the women go on to have meaningful relationships after transgressing the taboo on mixing money and sexualized encounters and appearing nude in public? As a student of feminist anthropology, I wasinterested in the links between power, gender, and sexuality and concerned about the "culture of objectification" that I believed influenced women's experiences in the United States. I was also committed to studying these things anthropologically, by immersing myself in the community that I was studying and by qualitatively exploring what was meaningful to the people there. During an exploratory phase of research I interviewed women who worked in the sex industry-prostitutes, strippers, pornographic actresses, and dominatrixes-and began working myself as a topless entertainer in an upscale table dancing club. Though I had been an anti-pornography feminist many years earlier, while still an undergraduate student at the University of Michigan, my experiences during this early research phase caused me to rethink many of my deeply held assumptions about sex work and the women who engage in it. As I took up an identity as a sex worker, I began to deconstruct my earlier questions: Didn't a focus on the personal problems of strippers derive from the assumption that no one would do sex work unless she were forced, or unless there was something psychologically wrong with her? Didn't my questions show evidence of a preexisting perception of sex work as damaging in and of itself, both to one's "self" and to one's relationships? Didn't these questions sidestep issues of politics and economics in favor of individualistic explanations of deviance and psychopathology? And didn't a focus on the social transgressions of the women-actually, laborers who are providing a service and earning money often unavailable to them in other spheres-normalize the desires that motivated their customers, the men who paid them hundreds of dollars each evening to disrobe on stage and to talk to them at their tables? I began to realize that these basic assumptions about the nature of sex work and sex workers, along with the power differentials that often exist between researchers and their subjects in terms of gender, educational level, economic resources, and cultural capital, were influencing not only the questions that were asked, but also who was studied, in what manner, and how the findings were represented. This is not to deny that some dancers have been sexually abused, use drugs or alcohol, or have difficulty forming intimate relationships-just as many secretaries, lawyers, professors, nurses, and housewives do. Rather, it is to point out that the kinds of information sought by researchers and the questions that one asks are in and of themselves political and based on cultural assumptions. An assumption that I make in this text, then, is that the behavior of the male customers of strip clubs needs to be interrogated as a modern form of voyeuristic, gendered leisure practice, rather than unproblematically taken to be an expression of some natural male sexuality. Though the popular stereotype of anthropologists remains that of studying "primitive tribes," anthropologists have long turned their eyes homeward as well (e.g., Powdermaker 1950; Myerhoff 1978; Moffat 1989; Sanday 1990). However, social scientists, anthropologists included, have tended until relatively recently to "study down," that is, to investigate groups with less social power instead of more dominant groups. Sex workers rather than their customers, for example, have long been the object of inquiry in the social sciences: as individuals working in "deviant" occupations (e.g., Thompson and Harred 1992; McCaghy and Skipper 1969), as examples of deviant, exhibitionistic, or unstable personalities (e.g., Greenwald 1958; Skeen 1991), and, especially in the popular media, as "carriers" of the HIV virus or other sexually transmitted diseases around the world (see Kempadoo and Doezema 1998; Alexander 1987). Dominant forms of sexuality, such as those of heterosexual, middle-class, white males, have only recently become the object of critical analysis (Tiefer 1995: 20), despite the fact that, once interrogated, their practices and beliefs are every bit as theoretically interesting as those of other groups. Anthropologists and feminist researchers both have paid close attention to the power dynamics inherent in ethnographic research (e.g., Wolf 1992; Stacey 1988). Being a woman and a sex worker studying in my own country and community made the power dynamics inherent in this project quite a bit different from those of studying another culture altogether or from studying more marginalized individuals. As I was studying educated, middle-class men, I was often interviewing from an inferior position in terms of gender, age, and resources as well as from a socially stigmatized position, and this was something that many of the interviewees were aware of and commented on. Studying individuals within my own culture also means that my informants will be able not only to read my text, but to comment on it as well. In fact, several of the interviewees, as well as other sex workers, have already provided comments and criticisms on a previous article (Frank 1998), the chapters here, and the short stories that I have published about the sex industry. Interestingly, my simultaneous positioning and identification as a sex worker has also led to situations in which I was approached as a research subject, both outside and inside of the clubs. At a pornography conference, for example, I was sitting with a group of sex workers when we were approached by a male psychologist who asked if he could interview us about drug and alcohol use, sexual abuse, and the "problems caused by sex work." Although I had the background and training to respond to him directly with critiques of his methodology (Was he also interviewing women in other occupations to see if they had any of these same problems? Was he going to examine the complexities of the work, many of which had already been presented in sex worker panels at the conference, as well as in the literature?), I also came to feel the frustration that accompanies being targeted by voyeuristic researchers who are not willing to interrogate their own assumptions and ideological beliefs about the population they wish to study. In other situations I spoke with researchers and journalists who were approaching dancers in the clubs while we were working and who did not seem to have any awareness of the problems with this approach ("I'll tell him anything he wants to hear as long as he keeps paying me for my time") or the privileges and assumptions that had led them to seek out strippers as exotic others worthy of study. In working as a dancer while studying the identities and motivations of the male customers, I have attempted, in part, to problematize this assumed relationship between the proper "subjects" and "objects" of social analysis. After experiencing the financial rewards available to many women working in adult entertainment, as well as the flexibility of schedule that fit so well with my other pursuits, I also came to understand stripping as a type of work-certainly, a type of work deeply intertwined with gendered and sexual positionings and power relations, but as work, nonetheless. As I developed my own core of regular customers at the first club in which I worked, they became extremely interesting to me theoretically: Who were these men willing to spend large sums of money for relatively intangible services, who sought encounters with women that were sexualized but uncoupled from direct sexual release, at least in any overt way, who found strip clubs exciting and transgressive (despite the clubs' very controlled and regulated atmosphere)? I came away from this initial research convinced that it was essential to turn the academic gaze on the men who quite literally funded this form of entertainment, especially the men who made regular use of the clubs by visiting monthly, weekly, or even daily. The book, based on additional research in a number of different strip clubs, takes the men's involvement in commodified sexualized entertainment as the primary object of investigation, allowing me to take up questions about desire and fantasy in leisure and consumption practices as well as questions about gender, sexuality, and power.

In the next several sections, my methodology and positionality are explored in more detail, followed by a discussion of the theoretical perspectives and concepts that organize my analysis.

Inside the "Men's Hut"

As a participant-observer, I selected and worked at five different strip clubs in a fairly large Southern city (referred to as Laurelton in this text) intermittently over a period of fourteen months as a nude entertainer. Realizing that my initial experiences and relationships with customers while working in an upscale gentlemen's club could not be simply generalized to those found in a more stereotypical strip bar, I selected a range of different clubs, from the most prestigious clubs in the city to lower-tier "dive" bars. In determining where the clubs fell in relation to one another I looked at reputations, dress codes, cover charges, food and liquor choices, club size and atmosphere, location, and the clientele. The clubs are also given pseudonyms and appear here as Diamond Dolls (upper tier), the Panther Club (upper tier), the Crystal Palace (middle tier), the Pony Lounge (lower-tier dive), and Tina's Revue (lower tier, neighborhood bar). Despite these differences in classiness, the Laurelton clubs chosen all offered nude table dancing. I did not select any clubs that prohibited table dances and relied only on stage dancing, for example, or that prohibited alcohol and offered lap dancing. I also did not choose any clubs that regularly advertised feature dancers (porn stars or well-known dancers who had traveling acts) because of the way such promotions changed the composition of the audience. Though a few clubs exist in Laurelton that cater to an almost exclusively black clientele, I did not select any of these clubs for my study for two primary reasons: first, my own access to the spaces as a participant observer/dancer was limited by race, and second, as nude dancing is still primarily a white form of entertainment (Meridian 1997), the black clubs are considered a specialized and restricted market by many of the dancers and customers with whom I interacted (even those who prefer them), much like clubs in Laurelton that offer lap dancing from bikini-clad dancers or clubs that rely heavily on feature entertainment. My decision not to focus on these particular sites was a necessary but unfortunate limitation, and there is a great deal more research that can be done on the distinctions and variations among different locations and forms of adult entertainment and on the practices and beliefs of the customers, especially with regard to race. At each of the selected clubs, I went through the application, audition, and training process as would any new entertainer and worked a variety of shifts to gain access to a range of different customers, employees, and experiences: day shift (11:30 A.M-8:00 P.M.), midshift (4:00 P.M.-12:00 A.M.), and night shift (8:00 P.M. to close). After being hired I was forthcoming with my managers and coworkers about my research when asked. Some managers and other dancers showed an interest in my project, offering their own insights and observations and suggesting possible interviewees; others seemed to barely take note of my existence, either as a dancer or a researcher. Engaging in participant observation-in this case, actually working as an exotic dancer-allowed me a perspective on men's behavior in strip clubs and on the exchanges taking place inside that I would have been unable to gain using other methods of data collection. Participant observation offered me the opportunity to interact continually with a variety of male customers, and being involved in thousands of transactions in the clubs irreversibly shaped my theoretical questions and concerns. Further, despite widespread changes in the gendering of the public sphere (and perhaps in part because of those changes), strip clubs and the nuances of the exchanges that take place inside them, are still often off-limits to women in the United States, that is, unless you are the woman dancing on the table. Interactions between dancers and their customers are also semiprivate; the noise of the club and the physical proximity of the participants are such that their conversations are not accessible to a mere observer, male or female. Working as a dancer gave me access to all of the clubs' spaces, allowed me to be involved in dressing room conversations, and required me to learn the tricks of the trade (body disciplines, sales techniques, dealing with the management, negotiating stigma, and so forth). In these respects, working as a dancer and recording my own interactions was essential. Being involved in multiple interactions in the clubs gave me insight into the context and meaning of customer behaviors and desires as well as into the many different ways that other dancers negotiated these interactions.


Excerpted from G-Strings and Sympathy by KATHERINE FRANK Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: Skin Brings Men xiii

Part One

Chapter 1 Observing the Observers: Methods and Themes 1

Chapter 2 Laurelton and Its Strip Clubs: The Historical, Physical, and Social Terrain 39

Part Two

Interlude: Strawberries (fiction) 79

Chapter 3 Just Trying to Relax: Masculinity, Touristic Practice, and the Idiosyncrasies of Power 85

Chapter 4 The Pursuit of the Fantasy Penis: Bodies, Desires, and Ambiguities 121

Part Three

Interlude: Fakes (fiction) 159

Chapter 5 "I'm Not Like the Other Guys": Claims to Authentic Experience 173

Chapter 6 Hustlers, Pros, and the Girl Next Door: Social Class, Race, and the Consumption of the Authentic Female Body 203

Part Four

Interlude: The Management of Hunger (fiction) 231

Chapter 7 The Crowded Bedroom: Marriage, Monogamy, and Fantasy 241

Chapter 8 Disciplining Erotic Practice 273

Appendix 281

Notes 285

Bibliography 311

Index 327

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