Sexy Ladies Sexing Ladies: Women as Consumers in Strip Clubs

Article excerpt

The sex industry, which includes strip clubs, is controlled by and primarily intended for satisfying the sexual desires of heterosexual men. As the industry continues to commodify sex through print, live bodies, and Internet technology, however, the consumer population is also expanding (Egan, 2006). Gay and female-centered pornography, female-friendly sex shops, and male exotic dance clubs provide an opportunity for men and women of various sexual orientations to participate as consumers in the sex industry (Montemurro, 2001; Smith, 2002). Women with same-sex attractions who are interested in participating as consumers in male-oriented strip clubs pose a unique challenge for such establishments to meet the needs of their "new" and diversified customers (Clements, 2003; Yancey, 2003).

Most strip clubs that feature female exotic dancers allow both male and female patrons to enter, although the majority of customers are men (Thompson & Harred, 1992). Previous studies consequently have focused on male customers, although research has noted the presence of women in strip clubs by including a brief sentence in reference to a woman present in the audience during field research (e.g., Ronai & Cross, 1998). While several have researched female patrons in clubs with male dancers (Dressel & Petersen, 1982; Liepe-Levinson, 2002; Montemurro, Bloom, & Madell, 2003), a recent shift in the consumer base of strip clubs featuring female dancers has involved women attending in larger numbers. Contemporary researchers have yet to fully assess the experience of the female patron in male-oriented strip clubs. As more women frequent strip clubs, how do dancers and clubs integrate them into a sexualized space traditionally targeted to male customers? How do interactions within the strip club facilitate or inhibit the erotic experience for female patrons?

The majority of research on strip clubs has focused on the strippers themselves: how strippers manage stigma (Thompson & Harred, 1992), who strips and why (Skipper & McCaghy, 1970), and how strippers negotiate their interactions with clients and customers (Boles & Garbin, 1974; Enck & Preston, 1988; Forsyth & Deshotels, 1997). Research also has focused on the emotional labor involved in sex work, how exotic dancers construct their narratives, and what is entailed in the performance of eroticism (Barton, 2002; Bell & Sloan, 1998; Chapkis, 1997). Given that most studies involve male customers by default, our research attempts to align itself with a diversifying sex industry that has a growing female consumer base.

This study examines the negotiation of female customers in a space designed for male sexual subjectivity and consumption. Data were gathered through ethnographic methods at four strip clubs and in-depth interviews with eight exotic dancers. Drawing on Goffman's (1959) dramaturgical analysis to probe the interactional dimensions between dancers and customers, we find that dancers interact with female patrons through passing over and sidestaging rather than recognizing them as viable customer marks. We argue that only when a dancer tailors a lap dance to fit the needs of a female patron is the woman able to engage as an active customer in the strip club. We also consider how the strip club may foster an environment conducive to women exploring same-sex desires through eroticism and play.

Is It All About the Money? Generating Profit by Qualifying Viable Marks in Strip Clubs

Since strip clubs are profit-oriented businesses like restaurants and other retail establishments, the objective of both owners and dancers is to make money (Brewster, 2003; Erickson & Tewksbury, 2000; Pasko, 2002). Dancers make most of their profit from giving lap dances or VIP dances (Barton, 2002; Ronai & Ellis, 1989). The dancers must therefore continually interact with the customers in the club by walking around and attempting to solicit drinks and lap dances, usually scanning the floor of a club to find the best (i. …