Sexing It Up for the Bad Economy

striptease-271x300It used to happen every six months or so. I would be on my way home from the restaurant where I work to make ends meet, smelling of salsa and coffee and the tequila I didn’t drink, and wondering how over the past 14 hours of horror I hadn’t even made $100. And then it would come to me, this pleasingly simple thought: Maybe I could be a stripper. I would try to chase it away with cautionary tales of prostitutes in fishnets on the side of the highway in the dead of winter, but the thought would amble back with the easy confidence of a Clint Eastwood movie. “Not a prostitute,” it would say, “a stripper. An exotic dancer, if you will.” Then the thought would pull out its secret ace, a bone for my vanity to gnaw on: “Come on now, you’re a pretty girl…”

The sexualization of women is so commonplace, that if most of us got a call from Maxim to pose in our underwear, we probably wouldn’t mind. Some might even consider it a compliment. Stripping may strike some as less classy than being on the cover of a magazine, but essentially you’re still getting paid to be hot and nearly naked. In our current culture, sex appeal has attained a status that no other quality shares. So the thought of making money from it, especially in these tough times, may become increasingly appealing. And as Maxim seems to have misplaced my phone number, stripping is what I think about as my bills pile up. Since our economy formally began its downward spiral, I’ve started to have those thoughts almost once a week. And you know it: I’m not alone.

“With raunch-culture ever on the rise, sex appeal isn’t just one of the many cards a girl can play; it’s the ultimate trump, no matter how smart or talented she is.”

Applications in every job market have skyrocketed since this time last year, but unlike so many other industries, most strip clubs don’t have hiring freezes. They are doing better than ever. The New York branch of Rick’s Cabaret International Inc., an operation of upscale gentlemen’s clubs (one that’s publicly traded on NASDAQ), now gets an average of 40 to 50 job applicants per week, up from 20 a week this time last year. But the company also reported a 58% increase in total revenue from 2007’s last quarter to 2008’s. During that same period, the number of unemployed rose by 3.6 million in the United States. Disposable incomes are definitely shrinking, but sex is selling better than ever.

Despite living 10 blocks south of Private Eyes and passing Lace on the way to the gym, until recently I had never actually been inside a strip club. Although I increasingly fantasize about it as a get-my-career-off-the-ground strategy, I haven’t stopped to ask too many questions. So when, in the name of journalistic inquiry, I decide to check one out, I figure a chaperone was a good idea. So I left a message for my close friend Jake (whose name has been changed for reasons we’ll get to).

I call him on a Friday afternoon and am partway through my shift at the restaurant when he texts me back. His response is not what I expect.

“Did you see The Post this weekend?” he writes.

He means The New York Post, and no, I had not.

“Randi was on the cover for stripping. She’s become semi-famous overnight. She got a book deal and possible reality show out of it.”

I should take this opportunity to mention that Jake and I used to go out, and that Randi is his new girlfriend.

Hiding at the back of the restaurant’s coat check, I stare at my phone and feel my heart drop out of my chest and land on the floor of my stomach. Jake is the last guy I really cared for. And now he’s seriously with someone else. But that isn’t the real reason I’m upset. Maybe it’s her sudden celebrity status that’s bothering me, or the book deal I certainly wouldn’t mind for myself. It’s that Jake has never before mentioned what Randi does for a living, and now that I know, my honest fear is that she’s hotter than me. Plus, she has the courage to do the one thing I fantasize about as my “last resort” every day. Rationally, I can say I don’t care, but as my heart rolls over and starts checking itself for bruises, I find myself dreading that he’s traded up.

My reaction isn’t uncommon. Ariel Levy, in her book “Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of Raunch Culture,” explores the exalted and surprisingly mainstream place strippers and porn stars have come to hold in our culture. Porn doesn’t hide under the bed and strip clubs are no longer euphemized as “boys’ night out.” As Levy illustrates, today we live in a world where Jenna Jameson’s memoir can be on the best-seller list for six weeks, Crunch gyms offer a “Cardio Striptease” class, and ads for “vaginoplasty” run in LA Weekly. American pseudoroyalty like Paris Hilton launch careers with sex tapes. And as Levy points out, “Hilton isn’t some disgraced exile of our society. On the contrary, she’s our mascot.” No wonder Randi’s profession catches like a fishhook in my stomach.

Stripping is a tricky topic for me, a feminist enamored of Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, and the history of “womyn’s lands.” Taking your clothes off can be the ultimate symbol of caution-to-the-wind liberation. It also feeds into the stereotype that women’s only usefullness in society is tied to her private parts (either for tantalizing or breeding). It’s a stereotype that’s a hard one to disprove. With raunch-culture ever on the rise, sex appeal isn’t just one of the many cards a girl can play; it’s the ultimate trump, no matter how smart or talented she is.

In fact, our culture has written a new fairytale. And Randi Newton, Jake’s new girlfriend, is currently living it. You see, she isn’t just a stripper. Part of her claim to fame, the reason she was on the cover of The Post, and the reason her book deal will likely be six figures, is that she used to work on Wall Street. That’s the story we’re looking to buy these days. “Pretty Woman” has been replaced with the real-life story of Diablo Cody (who was portrayed as the ultimate teen girl’s role model in a recent episode of “90210″). It’s not the hooker with a heart of gold; it’s the stripper with an MBA or a literary agent.

“It just seems to me that the message being delivered to young women isn’t that the hot women can be smart, it’s that the smart women need to be hot.”

And it’s pervasive. I have a picture of Diablo Cody on my wall—an article actually. It’s from the New York Times and profiles Cody and her three best writer pals, all of whom command seven figures per feature-film screenplay, or close to it. The article talks about how hard they work and the fun they have. And it makes sure to underline how “gorgeous” the four women are, exuding “four distinct styles of glamour.” It’s not that I’m objecting to admiring beauty (though not every culture requires this of its celebrities). It just seems to me that the message being delivered to young women isn’t that the hot women can be smart, it’s that the smart women need to be hot. Stripping is not just a potentially lucrative side job; it’s a step toward a storybook ending in modern American reality-show culture. And that’s a tricky message to be faced with at a time when so many markets are laying off smart girls (and guys).

But, I don’t want to judge a strip club by its front door. So the next night Randi is working, Jake arranges for me to talk with her in person. Randi works at Rick’s Cabaret, and it’s not hard to figure out that Rick’s is one of the finer of its breed. I don’t normally go to bars alone, but here I feel at ease. In fact, I’m shocked by how pleasant the atmosphere is. The plush chairs gathered around small, candlelit tables are warmly inviting, the soft light glows placidly, the music is not too loud. There’s even a flatscreen with a football game running by the bar. It’s the opposite of the scary, jarring club scene I was expecting. It feels even more comfortable than the bars my friends take me to. Except there’s the issue of the naked ladies.

But the girls do a good job of making it seem perfectly regular to stand around with their tops hanging off or stripped down to their G-strings. It’s something about the way they carry themselves—totally at ease, their movements slow and romantic, not animalistic like porn.

Until Randi, my friend Elena was the only stripper I’d known personally. She’s a talented singer, a shy blond girl who can read anywhere from 16 to 28 depending on what she’s wearing. I’ve never seen Elena dance—exotically, I mean. She gave it up this past December to focus on putting out a CD. But she maintains it was one of the best things she could’ve done to gain stage confidence as a performer.

Elena went to a women’s college; she has a master’s degree in experiential health and healing. She’s well schooled in all the implications of the business, and although she turned to it because she was strapped for cash, there was an underlying attraction. “I was fascinated by it,” she says. “But I was really torn and not sure if it was the right thing to do. I asked myself questions like, ‘Is this right?’ ‘Is this a negative thing for women?’ ‘Or is this empowering?’”

Elena’s conundrum had made intellectual sense to me then. But inside the lush, cozy strip club, I felt it for myself. Detangling the messy knot inside my chest, I found judgment tied around admiration and laced up with curiosity. I caught myself wondering which style of dress I would wear, how often the girls wax, and how I would do dancing by myself up on that stage. By the time Randi appeared beside me from the upstairs lounge, I was so lost in thought I almost forgot that I was staring at Jake’s new girlfriend.

But I don’t hate her. Randi is charming, fun and quick-witted—the sort of girl I’d want to hang out with at a party. And I see what Jake sees in her. She’s sexy, but not just because she’s pretty. She isn’t bleached or artificially sculpted. She’s the well-endowed girl-next-door, with the pleasing hint of a Nebraska lilt. Outward appearances aside, we have a lot in common. We’re both hard working and ambitious, both writers and actresses. We share a love of documentaries and the original “Beverly Hills, 90210.” And of course we both fell for Jake.

Randi’s been stripping for seven years. She averages $2,000-$3,000 a week. That’s five times what I pull in during my restaurant’s busiest season. “It’s better than many of the ‘normal’ jobs I’ve had,” she says.

At Rick’s, Randi is an independent contractor, which means she makes her own schedule. If she wants to fly off to South Africa or Berlin for a month, or even spend the weekend catching up on laundry, she doesn’t need to ask permission. At my restaurant, when I take time off, I’m usually punished with bad shifts the following week. And I have to beg, often unsuccessfully, to get the days I want to myself. Sure, every job has its frustrations, but when I ask Randi about the worst part of hers, she has to think for a moment. “My feet end up hurting at the end of the day,” she says. Ah, another thing we have in common! Only that’s so not the worst part of my job.

Randi, like Elena, is more confident in her decision to strip than I am in my decision to waitress. Her upcoming book is memoir-meets-business guide. And, as she points out, there would be no book had she never started stripping. Her forthcoming book is already guaranteed to be a success. It has what sociologists call “deviance points.”

“We’re biologically programmed to be interested in sex. Some of it is very cultural, but we’re fascinated by sexuality, whether we see it as spiritual or sexy or raunchy. And we’re titillated when we go past taboos.”

“You earn the right to be deviant by other things you do. For example, if I write the great book on American history and then I go strip, I still wrote the great book on American history. So now I’m an eccentric historian, as opposed to a stripper with pretensions,” says Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Washington and author of “Prime, Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years.”

“We’re biologically programmed to be interested in sex,” she says. “Some of it is very cultural, but we’re fascinated by sexuality, whether we see it as spiritual or sexy or raunchy. And we’re titillated when we go past taboos. Strippers can alternately be seen as sexy or boring or sad or powerful, depending on where you want to come from. But putting them on the pages of the New York Timesis new and therefore fascinating. It’s testing the boundaries of a lot of things at once.”

But the danger when sex and sexiness are up for sale and only one person is footing the bill is that you lose the vendor’s voice. In “Female Chauvinist Pigs,” Levy explains that while she doesn’t think there’s “anything inherently wrong with stripping (or porn for that matter),” our focus on it is “testament to what’s still missing from our understanding of human sexuality with all its complexity and power.” In other words, the idea of using sex appeal may very well be encoded in our DNA, but the way we go about it has everything to do with the images our culture is throwing in our faces. By selling our sexuality short we women sell our potential short—period.

– Lily Blau