"Get fucked-up drunk!" barked the DJ, sounding like a broadcasting school dropout. "Make out with your lover!" He segued into a nu-metal song and a tall brunette in a pale blue floor-length gown strutted down the shiny catwalk. She flipped her hair, wrapped a long leg around a well-smudged brass pole, and did a little twirl. Then, leaning forward slightly and pressing her breasts against the pole, she unhooked the halter neck of her gown and slowly pulled her dress down to her waist.
A sturdy tuxedo-clad man with silver hair led me down a carpet that looked like it belonged in a Vegas casino to a seat one row back from the stage--close enough for an unobstructed view but not so close that I'd be a jerk if I didn't constantly tip. A full-figured brunette in a gray velour dress introduced herself as Athena. She batted her false eyelashes like a pro and asked if I'd like a dance. Table dances--done right there on the main floor--were $10; lap dances were $25, and were held in a semiprivate alcove downstairs. Both were done topless. I told her no, I'd just gotten there, but I'd let her know when I was ready. "OK, honey," she said, "maybe later."
I was at Dreamers, a gentlemen's club in Stone Park, for a one-night-only event at which the doors were closed to men (save the bouncers) and open to women. Normally women aren't admitted there--or at pretty much any strip club--without a male escort. In fact, there's nowhere in Chicago, even in a dyke bar, where an all-female audience can ogle naked women. But Sunday, December 15, was a party for the lesbian and bisexual community and a benefit for the American Cancer Society, organized by Kristi Thanos, who's had ovarian cancer and is married to one of the door guys at the club. She used to work as a manager at Temptations, a bar just down the street from Dreamers that caters to the gay/lesbian/bisexual/ transgendered community, and many of her friends there had supported her through the emotional hardships of her illness. Thanos says she held this party because she wanted to give back to both groups who helped her--the ACS, which hooked her up with hospitals doing less invasive therapy, and her GLBT pals.
Looking around, I realized I was the only woman who'd come alone, and at first I couldn't tell if that made me a loser or a catch. To my left sat two buxom dark-haired ladies in tight black dresses and smoky eyeliner. Behind me was a large group of short-haired women in T-shirts, jeans, and lipstick. Mostly the room was full of very butch women--many in men's clothing, many looking a lot like men. Everyone was laughing, exchanging smoldering looks, or both; soon I felt like a lonely, perverted voyeur.
I went to the bathroom to put on some lip gloss. "Hey, you're cute," said a woman with short black hair and a thick Chicago accent. I recognized her from the group behind me. "Are you a lesbian?"
"Uh, no," I said, clearing my throat. "I'm bi."
She rolled her eyes, sighed, and dismissed me with a wave, a reaction I've gotten many times. Most of the lesbians I meet seem to think that women who claim to go both ways are just waiting for the right man.
"Hey!" I said, riled up. "Just because I like men doesn't mean I'm not also genuinely attracted to women."
"Oh, all right," she said. "Can I have your number?"
"Um, there's already a special someone in my life," I said, afraid that if I admitted I had a boyfriend she'd really think I was a poseur.
Back at my seat, I was feeling a little looser when the DJ started shouting again. "Watch out!" he yelled. "It's gonna be a pussy stampede!"
Two single-file lines of dancers in stilettos and G-strings emerged from the wings and sauntered down the catwalk for the so-called dollar dances--30-second table dances that cost a buck. A blonde in neon pink panties, who had such tight, enormous boobs that they seemed about to explode, caught my eye. Feeling bold, I crooked my finger and beckoned her over. "What's your name?" I asked. Her shiny pink lips didn't move; she just stood there waiting for payment with a vacant look on her face, so I warned her that my hands were cold and gingerly stuffed a bill in her garter. She tweaked her nipples, then turned around and wiggled her tan booty near my nose, and I felt a huge, idiotic grin take over my face. She turned back around and nearly pressed her midsection to my forehead. Though she looked over my shoulder the whole time, I rather enjoyed her company. She was naked and beautiful and sort of paid attention to me, until the song changed and she was on her way.
The girls meandered, sniffing out customers with deep pockets. After a few tails shimmied right past me, I realized that casually waving some cash generated more interest than a sweet smile. I'd slip a buck or two into a garter and pat a tan thigh--that's a good girl. I started to sink into my chair and relax. The rest of the dollar dances were just as blissful as the first: tits bouncing almost close enough to touch my lips, peach-fuzzy asses grinding seductively between my knees, soft midsections swaying rhythmically, overprocessed hair falling around my face, and lots of cheap but yummy, fruity smells everywhere. Even the girl with the dots of blood on her G-string was enticing.
But one dancer in particular caught my eye: Jessie. She was tan, blonde, and had a tight little body (though I'm pretty sure she had implants). Her navel was pierced, and she had a small tattoo of a flower on her back, but her best feature by far was her eyes, which seemed almost sad, or a little tired, but still bright. Unlike the other women, she used them to her advantage, stealing naughty glances at me when she turned around, gazing lustily right at me when she faced me. My heart was pounding. I just wanted her to sit down and hold my hand. But when my 30 seconds were up, she was gone.
After the dollar dances, I sucked down my vodka and lemonade, waiting for the next girl to get onstage. Soon the dancers flocked around me, asking one after the other if I'd purchase a table dance. After saying no several times--I was waiting for Jessie to come back--Athena approached. "Hi, sweetheart," she said. "You want a dance?" I felt guilty and I wanted her to leave me alone, so I put a $10 bill in her garter and sat back. She told me to spread my legs and I did, even though I was wearing a skirt. She slid out of one well-worn strap of her gown, then the other, pushed her dress down to her waist, pulled it over her thighs, and let it fall to the floor. Her body was much bigger than mine, but she was well-proportioned. A tattoo of a vine and flowers curled around her whole figure, and she used a lot of makeup to try to hide it. She crouched on the floor, put her hands on my thighs, and slowly pulled herself up, making sure her breasts grazed the insides of my legs. "No fair," she said. "You're wearing nylons."
I really wished I wasn't.
For a few minutes she did more of the same, dancing slowly, like she thoroughly enjoyed her body and my company. My stupid grin came back. I had my hands on her thighs almost the entire time, and I felt like I was getting away with something naughty. When the song was over she quickly put her dress back on and said, "Thank you. Hope I didn't get any makeup on you!"
By this time I was a little tipsy from the drinks and the girls, and it made me less timid. I walked up to the stage, waved a George Washington, and waited for some blonde dancer to come bend over me or shake her ass or put her tits in my face. I have a theory that some people are attracted to same-sex partners because they're narcissistic and want to make out with themselves. Until that Sunday I thought I was one of them--I've always fallen for the petite dark-haired dames who could pass for my sister. But for some reason, that night I was forking over my money to the blondes with fake boobs.
Now, I used to work as a stripper, and I know the drill: when dancers look out at the audience, all they see are dollar signs. Once I got past the stupid comments I actually felt sorry for the men in the clubs. They wanted my pussy but nyah-nyah, they couldn't have it. It was pathetic.
So if I had it all figured out, why the hell did I pop such a boner at Dreamers? I turned to Katherine Frank's G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire for some answers. A cultural anthropologist interested in her own admittedly uptight view of the sex industry, Frank spent years working in strip clubs in a large southern town. Though she originally planned to study her fellow dancers, she ultimately changed her focus to the clientele. She concluded that men make a habit of visiting these clubs--especially ones that permit only little or no touching--for only a handful of reasons: the tease, the power trip, the appearance of danger, and, on occasion, to communicate. A trip to a strip club is temporary and rarely life changing. It's a safe place where your ego can hang out and know that, no matter what, it won't get bruised. And it's a place where patrons not only get to look at naked ladies--they get to talk to them too.
Most of the men Frank interviewed wrote off their strip club visits as part of their "male sexuality," referring to themselves as "hunters" and "predators." They described their sexuality as aggressive and difficult to control, which more scientific types (like physical anthropologists) might attribute to basic hard wiring: men are programmed to seek out the most attractive mate possible, and failing that, to at least try to boost their sex-hormone levels (when male monkeys are around female monkeys they perceive to be available, their testosterone spikes). Frank dismisses this argument, pointing out that men go into these clubs knowing they're not going to get the chance to spread their seed. I, too, disagree, but not for the same reason. Though I'm not a man, don't look like one, and don't want to be one, I've often thought my sexual essence assertive and unruly--same as the men Frank interviewed.
So if it's not nature, it must be nurture, Frank argues. She believes society urges people to splurge, to ostentatiously display signs of wealth and spend frivolously. A strip club is the perfect place for this, sure, but I think what's at the root of our culture's high prioritization of consumption is our desire for expansion. It's a grass-is-greener complex. We want more of whatever we don't--and in most cases, can't--have, whether it's land, cars, clothes, mates, freedom, stability, space, or anything else. In my case, I'd like to be able to more comfortably interact romantically with women. To me, women are some sort of "other" creature I only half understand; I know how to be friends with them, but I don't know how to hit on them without feeling like I'm creeping them out. So I--like many of the men Frank interviewed--enjoyed my visit to the strip club because I got that sort of validation. But once I felt an interaction with a dancer was going well, my next step--because there's always a next step--was to try to dominate her. Which I guess makes me not just a pig, but a sexist pig.
It was midnight, and finally I saw Jessie again. I waved for her to come over. "Would you like a dance?" she asked. "No, I want you," I said, and she laughed like she was used to cheesy, embarrassing lines like that. "OK, let's go downstairs then," I said.
We went down into a little open pit containing banquettes surrounded by mirrors. "What are the rules down here?" I asked. Jessie laughed. "Oh no, I'm not asking so I can find out how trashy I'm allowed to get with you," I lied. "I'm asking as a reporter, just looking for the facts." Instead of calling me on my bullshit, she politely explained that it was just like a table dance, only more "up close and personal." She said she was more lenient with women, which she guessed was a double standard.
After pulling off her dress, she spread my legs with her knees and crawled forward into my lap. She looked me in the eye and coyly smiled, then leaned back and grabbed her breasts. She stood up, turned around and straddled me, and--leaning back over my shoulder--again grabbed her breasts. I repositioned my arm and accidentally touched her boob. "Oh, I'm so sorry!" I said, and I meant it. But she didn't seem to mind.
I lightly ran my hands up her legs and grabbed her hip. No reaction. I placed my hand on the small of her back and traced up her spine. Over the course of about three minutes--I don't remember what song played--she and I moved around a lot, but I only specifically remember when she ran her hands through my hair and when she leaned her face close to mine and traced my lips with a finger. When we finished, I was totally sexed up and full of lusty thoughts. I wanted to tell her what was on my mind, but she was gone.
I returned to my seat alone. A cocktail waitress in a skimpy sailor top, short flouncy skirt, knee-high white boots, and captain's hat approached.
"Would you like a body shot?" she asked. Why not? I gave her $5. First she ran her hands up the back of her thighs, lifted her skirt, and slapped her ass. Then she turned around, shook a long tube full of clear liquid, and stuck it between her breasts. As she bent over me, I put my lips around the tube and leaned back with it in my mouth, nearly gagging as I sucked down whatever was in it. Afterward, I knew I had to hurry home before all that liquor kicked in and got me into trouble. But I didn't want to leave. Jessie was onstage and she was about to slide out of the same white dress I'd seen her slide in and out of all night. I stood at the side of the stage, impatiently waiting for her to acknowledge me so I could give her my last two dollars. She took her sweet time walking over.
I tucked the bills into her garter. "You're so cute," she said, smiled, and gave me a quick peck on the lips. I giggled and almost floated out of the club.
On my way home guilt rippled beneath the giddiness of my schoolgirl crush. Sure, I'd been a gentlewoman with Jessie, but I'd been kind of a scumbag with the rest of the dancers. While it's sort of rude to refuse to look at someone when she's presenting herself to you, I didn't just look, I leered. I said stuff like, "Yeah, that's right, touch yourself for me." I went in a skittish kitten and left an alpha ape, practically beating my chest. At least it was for a good cause, I told myself.
The next day I talked to my boyfriend about my escapades. "I spent a lot of money last night," I said. "What do you mean, 'a lot of money'?" he asked.
"Oh, not like $500 or anything," I answered, trying to be casual. "More like $100."
He was sort of laughing, but he wasn't particularly amused. He's a stickler for things like respect and fidelity, and though he knew I'd gone to the club my behavior there could've been a deal breaker. "How?" he said.
"Um, I sort of turned into a maniac. I bought a table dance and a lap dance and I did a body shot off the cocktail waitress! I couldn't help it--I was out of control!"
"Did you make out with any of them?"
"No, but I did touch them a little. Granted, it was a controlled environment...."
"I'm not mad," he said, then paused. "But I do think you're weird."
He was right. And I was a sucker. Strippers don't care whether I or any other client is an asshole or a saint. As long as we give them money, they're happy to continue to set up and control a fantasy that makes us think we're getting what we want. But what I didn't realize until that night was how intoxicating the house cocktail of power, hormones, and--yeah--actual infatuation can be when you're the one with the wallet.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mireya Acierto.