I Pretend I’m Horny, You Pretend You’re A Dog: Performing Consent In The Club

by Red on August 6, 2013 · 19 comments

in Clients, Strippers

(Image via Comically Vintage)

(Image via Comically Vintage)

There was a post going around the stripper tumblrsphere about what is probably one of the most common lap dance rejections of all time:

“I would love to but I just don’t think I could control myself.”

It’s the perfect way for customers to say no; phrased as a compliment (of sorts), it expresses interest and desire, encouraging the dancer to continue her attempts to sell and thus give the customer more attention without him committing to anything. They usually deliver this excuse with a cute smile, like it’s a joke.

I recognize that they are trying to be charming—even trying to compliment me on my attractiveness!—but it’s so hard to bite my tongue and not ask, “In what world is having less self control than my chihuahua something you want to admit to?” If I’m having a good enough night and don’t need the money or energy, if I really can’t stop myself from beginning a profitless (literally and figuratively!) interaction, I’ll try to answer in a way that highlights what a stupid, embarrassing, insulting and creepy thing that is to say.

“Oh, you’re an adult, I’m sure we’ll be fine. I mean you’ve gotten this far in life!”

“No, no, you’re too hot, I wouldn’t be able to help myself.” This response is accompanied by a sad, regretful face. It is my fault that my sex appeal will make them lose control.

“Really? You have less self control than my dog?”

“Men are dogs.” Another sad, regretful face.

Even more common are the customers who, while receiving a lap dance, will announce how hard it is not to touch me, how crazy I’m making them and how they can’t believe they’re actually restraining themselves. The weird part is, most of these guys are sitting perfectly calmly, hands at their sides or gently resting on my hips; the tortured anguish of their words isn’t reflected in their tone or their face. I never know what to say to this; it seems laughable that they’d want accolades for adhering to the bare minimum of respectful behavior and abiding by fairly well-established rules, but there you go, they do. I coo at them how impressed I am and how strong they are, wondering if I’m overdoing it. But apparently, I’m not. It’s like we’re both performing our parts in a ritual: he expresses his masculinity with these protestations and I get to reaffirm it, as audience to, as well as cause of, his struggle.

It’s a question I’m increasingly preoccupied by; are these protestations sincere? To some extent it seems to be part of these men’s understanding of their role as strip club customer: they come here to relax, to let loose with some girls gone wild. They wouldn’t know how to just sit back and let me do my thing. They’re just doing their duty by moaning about how hard it is to restrain themselves. It’s the rhetoric of catcallers, of rape culture, and they take it on so easily. I want to know if this is how most men see themselves.1 Why is customer pleasure so often constructed in opposition to personal boundaries, and does it need to be?

To be fair(ish), consent looks radically different in the context of a strip club. “Looks” isn’t even the right word for it because in here consent is unspoken and invisible, thoughtlessly assumed as a given by most customers, or not thought about at all. This is deliberate, and it is integral to the smooth and profitable running of clubs. You don’t want your customers to pause for any reason, but especially not to wonder about the personal preferences of the dancers. Strip clubs are billed and understood as spaces for male leisure time, adult playgrounds where boys will be boys, and boys don’t want or need to self-police. That’s boring, not relaxing. Money is spent easiest and fastest when they aren’t thinking at all—this is a truth universally acknowledged. We keep the party atmosphere going by being pretty and pleasant and willing, no need for them to pause and ask for consent. Not being paid except on commission gives us an incentive to be pretty and pleasant, in the hopes of making a sale. The expectation of payment keeps us invested and facilitates the illusion of strippers as people whose consent is already given or unnecessary. Consent only becomes a factor when money runs out, boundaries are infringed upon, or both. It’s an unspoken compact made financially viable by the relatively small percentage of customers who who buy lap dances; in most clubs stage tips are negligible, dependant on how many girls work, how often they get on stage, and the generosity of the crowd at any given time.

It’s a complicated double bind: you have my consent and my willing participation only as long as you are able to pay for it. Conversely, most customers are only willing to pay for it as long as I maintain the illusion that I’m an enthusiastic participant, and that if there are limits placed on our interactions, those limits are imposed by the club against my desires.

This double bind is only clearly felt by the dancers, however. Most customers won’t push hard enough against my boundaries to discover that my consent is not a given, and it’s in my interest to keep that fact concealed. The ways in which dancers negotiate this, selling dances and making money while maintaining boundaries and the facade that there are no boundaries is something that really interests me. This negotiation is not unique to strippers or sex workers. Rather, it’s a reality of the service industry taken to the obvious extreme: the more invisible a worker makes their effort, the more genuine-seeming their pleasure at seeing and in serving their customers, the better their tips are.

It’s not hard to feign enthusiasm in the dance room where I’m actually getting paid, and I rarely worry that my customers can tell I’m genuinely not into it. The brief duration of most lap dances—three minutes to an hour, with a median of probably 15 minutes—means they don’t have much time to notice whether or not I’m enjoying myself, and they don’t have time to make my enthusiastic performance a chore. The hardest part is maintaining a facade of willing enthusiasm on the floor while I’m hustling, letting rejection after rejection slide off until I get a yes, getting them back to the dance room and keeping them absorbed in the moment, a moment that we can keep extending, for a price.

I tend to be fairly vague, both on the floor and in back, when I’m establishing the parameters for our dance. I promise “dirty” and “raunchy” without specifics that I don’t want to be held to, because that’s what sells at my club. I give what I think is a fairly standard lapdance. One thing that I’m personally firm on, though, is that my tits are off limits. It’s a pain in the ass, being one of the few girls at my club who doesn’t allow boob gropage, but I’m not into it. This is a problem, especially in the fairly open general lap dance area at my club where you can usually see one or another of the customers squeezing a dancer’s breasts. I don’t have a well-thought-out reason why I don’t allow this, and it’s not a hard and fast boundary—for the right price you can go to town on my breasts—but because my aversion runs fairly strong, the right price is prohibitively high for most guys.

There are moments when I wonder if I’m depriving my customers of a birthright:

“Why do you get to touch them when I can’t?”

“Uh, because they’re mine?”

One guy sulked from the time that I told him he couldn’t touch them at the beginning of the song all the way to the end. The song ended and I got dressed and stood up. Still he sat there, watching the couple across from us. I usually block clients’ view of other dancers as much as possible to keep them in the dark about what other girls offer, but as he was so clearly a lost cause I gave up the attempt to shield him along with my hopes of selling him on more dances fairly quickly. He sighed like a child unjustly deprived of candy and announced,
“I’m just gonna sit here. Watch what might have been.”

(Image via Comically Vintage)

(Image via Comically Vintage)

The good thing about dancing, especially at a high traffic club, is that there are always more customers. Walk away from the annoying ones and catch a new one, and hope for better results. I find, though, that better results come with a different construction of the sale.

So, I started experimenting with different explanations for my no-boob-touch injunction. Blaming club rules is out since anyone with eyesight can see that the other girls allow customers to grope their breasts . Sometimes I tell them my boob job is too new and delicate for contact. More often lately I take a calculated risk; I’ve largely stopped setting boundaries altogether. Rather than explicitly deny consent I subtly move away from their hands, holding them and massaging them or guiding them elsewhere. Some guys catch on, some laugh, some mind. They don’t often notice what I’m doing: if they do they put it down to bad timing, or anything rather than the notion that I might be setting limits on them. The possibility that I might be denying them access ruins the dance for many men, as if by imposing boundaries I’m reimposing reality on them as well. The existence of my boundaries conflicts with their understanding of me as willing participant, as if my willing participation wasn’t contingent on boundaries (I don’t dance for people who continuously violate them) and as if there weren’t commonly understood, culturally accepted ones. After all, “there is no sex in the champagne room” is a punchline, but I can count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number of times men have tried to negotiate for actual penetrative sex.

When I can palm responsibility for no-go zones off on the bouncer, invoking “club policy,” it keeps the reality of the transaction blurry and distant. The presence of a male enforcer takes the responsibility of following the rules off of the customer in a way that I can’t replicate. Bouncers hold weight, literally (they’re usually bulky intimidating guys) and figuratively: their presence carries the weight of the club. Invoking the bouncer gives me legitimacy. Conversely, if it becomes clear that my boundaries are personal rather than club guidelines, I lose that legitimacy. It pushes the responsibility for respecting them back onto the customer, and reminds them that this is ultimately a financial transaction. It’s unsurprising that the nights when I don’t set explicit boundaries are the nights that I sell the most dances, when guys keep going, buying more and more dances.

The men who fish for emotional access are even more delusional. Be warned against any man who makes a point of declaring that he likes to give women pleasure. I always do a mental eye-roll at these guys: “What’s your favourite position?” “Do you like double-headed dildos?” and so on. I hate questions like this even more than I hate the inevitable “But what’s your real name?” My sexuality isn’t something I can commodify; what I can do is commodify aspects of it that are marketable and offer a variety of sexual and sexualized services for money. None of those services should involve talking about my actual personal preferences and my tolerance for these kinds of questions is low.

On the one hand I understand that the idea of an endlessly willing and pleasant pretty girl is of course more appealing than…a less willing one. Of course. Who likes to hear no? On the other hand, are you really going to sulk and argue with me because $40 doesn’t give you an all access pass to my body? How much do you think it should cost? (I sort of really want to ask this and also really don’t want to know.) And do you truly think that it’s charming to talk about how you have no self control?

I can make you feel good...for a price. (Screenshot of Rita Hayworth in "Blood and Sand")

I can make you feel good…for a price. (Screenshot of Rita Hayworth in “Blood and Sand”)

Against my better judgment I once asked a customer that. He was a bachelor and his friends were going all out trying to live up to bachelor party cliches. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see them roofie-ing each other. He was somehow more sober and sweeter than the rest of them, hyper-aware of taking part in this bizarre male bonding ritual. He apologized for their behavior and asked me if this kind of thing happens a lot. I didn’t want to be a downer but I mean, yeah, every night. That’s kind of the appeal for a large portion of customers, it’s a safe space for terrible behavior that’s acceptable exactly nowhere else.

I was heartened by his interest, however; it seemed like this might be my one chance to get to the bottom of why a grown adult would say such a thing (this was a few days after that one guy asked me why I could touch my boobs whilst he couldn’t, whomp whomp), of why they break my rules, and why they whine at me that they can’t help it. So I asked him.

And he was just like—oh god, it was so disappointingly predictable—he said, “I’m sorry some guys are jerks, I’m not like that.”

For about thirty seconds I tried to stutter out a rephrasing of my question before I realized he was essentially just doing that classic nice guy thing, being all, “Oh my God, it’s not me, I don’t do that. Don’t hate me.”

Which is missing the point so hugely that I can’t engage with it.

Of course, not all customers are like that. But I really want to have a conversation about this. What are we selling? How do we assess the market value of what we are actually selling and how do we package it to customers (my “really dirty, no boob touching” lapdances, for example) while working within the rules and standards of the club are?

And I’m dying to know, how boring is self policing exactly? Does your gendered space for the ostentatious practice/presentation of masculine leisure really require the total absence of boundaries for you to actually enjoy it? I don’t believe that’s true, but what does it mean that so many people do?

I hate that part of the ritual of stripping requires working around someone else’s sheer laziness. This isn’t nannying. Grown adults are fully able to control themselves and respect the boundaries of other people. I don’t intend to quit anytime soon, and I will continue to work around this problem, but I don’t have to like it! I want to maintain a wary and jaundiced eye on my complicity in this ongoing epic delusion.

1. (To be clear, I don’t think that men who go to strip clubs are somehow stupider, more uncouth, more uneducated, less feminist or in any way worse than the rest of the male population. I think that they are fairly representative of men in general, particularly in Portland where strip club-going is an acceptable leisure activity for absolutely everyone.)

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

gemma August 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm

I was very authoritative during my five years lap dancing, helped I am sure by the fact my first 3 years were in a very clean, strict club where the rules were stringently upheld. Dances took place in the open. Any dancer defying the no-touch rules were ejected. We made them sit, legs open (to stay open during duration, and not to try and trap out bodies between them) hands underneath their bum, sitting against the booth. Any infraction of this, we could (and I did) stop the dance. We always took money first, I would give one warning, then just walk off.

Being a lap dancer made no difference, I clearly started the terms, and the transaction was on those terms. We still got morons, but I generally didn’t bother with these (with the exception of it being a well-paying regular who was just being a drunken prat, and would behave after several tellings-off).

I found having a reputation as a ‘good’ girl, a ‘clean’ dancer went down very well with the bouncers and managers.

However working in different clubs, where dancers did break rules, was very different (and one of the reasons I left dancing, bar my heath and getting married, was the deteriorating standard of dancers, who would encourage touching and rely on ‘dirty’ dancing to make money).

I enjoy all your posts 🙂 They make me think and take me back.

Reply

Rockit Reports August 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm

I always wonder why guys like that don’t just hit up one of the many avenues for paid sexual services and get the real thing.

Then again, I wonder why guys go to strip clubs at all when you can get so much more action for so much less elsewhere.

Reply

Peter L Dworkin August 6, 2013 at 4:47 pm

The deft little Jane Austen reference and its assumption that T&S readers are sophisticated people is one of the many reasons I continue to love this site.

Reply

Caty Simon August 7, 2013 at 8:03 pm

Ummm, why is the assumption that T&S readers have read Austen even worth mentioning?

Reply

silkyvelvet August 14, 2013 at 12:11 am

That sounds rather condescending.

I was always bored with Jane Austen’s novels; in my opinion, I’ve always thought she was a bit over-rated. I’m aware it’s considered trendy to be a fan of her novels, but I found them to be tedious, long-winded, and dull.

Reply

I.N. August 7, 2013 at 4:12 pm

I cannot provide direct input to your questions, since I am not a man and I do not understand male perspective enough. Speculating about it, I wonder if there may be guilt and defensiveness regarding going to a strip club in the first place. Perhaps, a client immediately gets defensive, and this emotional raise prevents him from understanding the deeper intent of the question, producing the whole “I am not like them” discourse.

While I have likely only received 5-6 lap dances in my life, the first couple of dancers clearly stated their limits (you can do A, B, C, but not X and Y). I followed their lead and always asked after that. I did not see anything unsexy or unappealing about this explicit negotiation of boundaries – in fact, done matter of factly (no explanations or justifications at all so client has no room no maneuver) and with a smile, it conveys a very attractive confidence.

While I myself was rarely good at explicitly stating my limits in both personal and transactional sexual experiences, I had acquaintances among both dancers and escorts who were, and who found it did not reduce their business. All these experiences combined make me think that there is room for explicit negotiation of consent in lap dances. At the same time, not being a dancer, I don’t know how much room: obviously, some percentage of clients will push.

Reply

Evie August 7, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Men seek out more than lap dances at strip clubs for a variety of reasons. Because they don’t know how to access full-service escorts. Because they want to “audition” multiple women, in person, before engaging in a transaction. Because they think it will cost less (though that’s not necessarily true). Because they genuinely like strip clubs and maybe they’ll meet a dancer they’re interested in.

Yo: can we please quit it with the language of clean/dirty, at least on T&S? It’s insulting, snide, and creates a hierarchy within our community. It ignores the structural oppressions around sexual labor and instead of wanting to organize to improve working conditions for all of us, it makes me – that’s right, I’m “dirty” – want to tell you to GFY, and we’re both left no better off.

Reply

Caty Simon August 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm

I agree re: eschewing labels like “clean” and “dirty” for different boundaries re: stripping. No need for lateral whorephobia.

Reply

LoriAdorable August 7, 2013 at 9:44 pm

Don’t forget the thrill of getting a woman to do more than she’s offering to do. Because that means you’re really a stud, or some such bullshit.

Agreed on the ‘clean’/ ‘dirty’ front.

Reply

Red August 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm

the thrill! that’s exactly it. a customer explained to me once that being in the club and getting free attention feels like winning, and lapdances feel like losing, unless he can talk me down on price (he used a really unfortunate euphemism for talk down too, so charming) or get me to throw in extras. in which case he’s winning again! My eyeroll made my head hurt. you’re doing it all so wrong, buddy.

Reply

Anonymous November 29, 2013 at 10:51 pm

Late to comment, but thought I’d offer another male perspective.

As a firm believer in Occam’s Razor, my take is that the author answered her own question: “it’s the perfect way for customers to say no”. In the moment, I really don’t think it goes any deeper than that in the male mind. It’s not an admission that he’ll lose control of motor function and operate on animal impulse. When it’s a question of “let’s go to a private room”, that phrase splits all the differences you highlighted.

Also worth noting is that from the customer’s perspective, it’s a risk-free way of determining whether or not a dancer will provide extras. It lets the dancer cross the Rubicon (and mainains a fantasy, for that matter).

Reply

LoriAdorable August 7, 2013 at 9:42 pm

I’m a pro switch, not a stripper, but this article reminds me a lot of what it was like working in a house. Being pleasant + flirty while I tried to get clients to respect my boundaries was the hardest part of my job. It brought up really bad feelings around previous sexual assaults. Now that I’m working independently, it’s a lot easier to be very upfront about my limits and insist they be respected lest I end the session. Having fun within clearly set limits really makes the session better for both of us, as there’s no need for clients to work to ‘convince’ me of anything, and they don’t spend the whole time wondering if they’re missing out on something. They can just relax and enjoy. You touched on a lot of the factors that make this sort of thing so hard in a house/club atmosphere: clients aren’t coming for *you* + your boundaries in particular and could choose another girl at any time, there’s very limited time to negotiate, and there’s the pressure of paying out the house or covering your contractor fees. I wonder what if anything could be modified about these workspaces to improve the consent situation and make workers feel safer.

Reply

Kelly August 10, 2013 at 4:25 pm

As someone who identifies as both a male and a feminist, I want to believe that the “lack of self control” is just another aspect of the temporarily-constructed fantasy and a way of escalating the sexuality of the situation, and in turn increasing the gratification. It’s not necessarily an actual comment about self-policing, but more about acknowledging the extreme level of attraction (real or fake). It’s the mega-sexualized version of the “I can’t keep my mind/eyes/hands off of you” that most men are conditioned to think is a compliment.

Really, though, dudes are mostly scumbags and this is just more of “boys being boys”.

And I know this is not a forum for me, but since there were a couple queries regarding the male perspective on this behavior, I thought I’d contribute one dude’s perspective on that particular topic. Back to just reading…

Reply

gemma August 11, 2013 at 4:56 pm

I must point out that I have worked in UK only, very different from USA, in the UK there is no bump and grind, no touching at ALL.

Here “clean” is used routinely to describe absolutely no touching, no sexual contact, zero drug tolerance, and in many clubs, no alcohol consumption by dancers. Also means sticking to the council-imposed regulations. A short-hand used amongst dancers, and more importantly easily translated to punters. Whilst I understand that many sex workers find the term ‘clean’ offensive, it is not whorephobic to use it in this way, to describe myself., and I resent the word being thrown around.

I have worked in less strict clubs, and that is fine, as long as dancers know how they operate before agreeing to work there, informed consent.

My original point was, because the clubs were so stringent, it was easy for me to assert my strict boundaries with both customers and security. Grey areas vastly reduced. Very few customers asking for “extras” or trying to push my boundaries. Security reacted quickly if anything out of the ordinary occurred. I understand with contact dancing and sex work those areas become much more grey and blurred. I felt extremely safe and had a great 5 year experience.

And I agree with comment by Kelly above, as a feminist and former dancer, the not “understanding” the rules in a lap club, or not being able to “control” themselves is a dangerous nonsense.

The good girl/whore dichotomy is (sadly) alive in clubs and the clients psyche.

Reply

Amanda August 13, 2013 at 9:36 am

I found by simply stating at the beginning of a dance that touching my breasts cost an extra $, the vast majority of men would keep their hands to themselves because they’re cheap. You mentioned using this tactic already and it works. Doesn’t address all the boundary issues though. Normally, I would tell guys that they should let me do all the touching. I never minded touching them pretty much anywhere (within legal reason).

It’s funny, whenever I’ve talked to men and mentioned that my years of stripping gave me insight into all men, they would quickly argue that not all men go to strip clubs and my observations are skewed. I’ve never felt that because I always assumed assinine male behavior is the same, only some do it for free and others pay for the right in a strip club. Pretty much what you and Kelly have said.

Reply

Lissie November 2, 2013 at 2:08 am

Super late to comment but I had a recent strip club experience that blew my mind. It was in the greater San Juan (Puerto Rico) metropolitan area; I dragged a female and male friend into celebrating my birthday at a “gentleman’s” club (I’m a bi cis lady). As far as we learned with regard to what was presented to us, the ladies there didn’t seem bound to a strict stage rotation, and they weren’t going around asking for tip-outs afterwards (or before). Rather, someone may or may not be onstage, there are ladies milling around, and some ladies would hit up some customers for lapdances seemingly as the mood struck them. At some point our guy friend was left alone when the rest of us were at the tip rail, and the dancer that he paid for a lapdance beckoned a bouncer over. The bouncer then whispered in his ear that in addition to lapdances, they offered private dances AND full service.

I could be wrong, but I am under the impression that anything other than lapdances are at the discretion of the dancer, and only offered through a bouncer. Whether that means that the club has a steep take of anything extra to a lapdance *almost* pales in comparison to the fact that full service seems to be offered at the dancer’s discretion, and under the appearance of the dancer’s safety. I could be wrong on some of these impressions, but I think I’m right on the core observation that full service is at the dancer’s discretion.

Reply

Ras January 15, 2016 at 1:37 pm

I’m curious to know if you ever got a satisfactory answer to the questions you ask in this piece, Red.

Reply

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: