I’ve never liked fancy strip clubs. I go to peep shows not to relax or to talk to women because I can’t comfortably talk to them elsewhere. I go first and foremost to get off, and that just doesn’t happen at expensive “gentlemen’s” clubs, at least not without a whole lot more money than I’ve got to spend. The fancy clubs are all about tips, and I’ve never had the cash for that, either. Plus, if a man tips at a fancy club, a dancer will dance for him and talk to him even if she’s repulsed by him he’s a paying customer, after all and the inherent artificiality of that transaction is more than my suspension of disbelief can handle.
At contemporary peeps, unlike the Times Square shows of my youth, there’s no tipping, and no touching the dancers. And while it’s still an undoubtedly commercial interaction, the balance of power is a little more to my liking. I’m a sort of captive in my little cage-like booth: the dancer can choose to come over to my window or not, and once there she’s not bound or influenced by money; she can stay and dance for me until I’m done, or she can just walk away. It allows me to feel that, as improbable as this may sound, once in the bluest of blue moons a dancer may actually, conceivably enjoy our wordless interaction. Part of me wants to believe that if I can make even the tiniest connection with a woman in this most wretchedly sexist and commodified environment, I can somehow be forgiven for my eternal objectifying and wanton lust. Eye contact from a stripper can be sexually satisfying, and even spiritually fulfilling, in a way that cannot be duplicated outside that unique controlled space.
On the floor of the peep-show booth: Other men’s semen, with its eerily clean, bleachy smell. Tissues. Quarters that men have dropped and weren’t about to pick up. Condoms, some from couples who have sex in the booths, but also, I think, from men who jerk off into them. (Which just seems depressing; why would anyone jerk off into a condom?)
Once, there was a semen-stained twenty-dollar bill down in the muck, and I concocted a story for how it got there: I imagined a khakied yuppie, laughing nervously at the way-too-real-looking women on the other side of the glass. (This is a quarter peep show, after all, not Larry Flynt’s posh Hustler Club next door.) He laughs because it’s too much to handle otherwise. I pictured him jerking off even though the dancers don’t even vaguely resemble Pamela Anderson. (Dude, I’m here, why the hell not?) Then after he’s done, he realizes he has nothing to clean himself up with, and, again chuckling, he pulls out a bill, which chafes a bit, but does the job well enough that he can stick his dick back in his Dockers. He laughs a third time as he imagines some poor little immigrant who won’t be able to resist picking up the gooey twenty: his cum on another man’s hands.
This story gives me solace: I’m not nearly so bad as my imagined yuppie, I think, tugging at my own member, looking back up through the thick glass at a fine, round ass, a pair of swaying hips. I’m a very different kind of man, indeed. I’m more like the women I’m jerking off to than I am like him. And then, just as I’m about to let go, I think, Hey, did I drop that bill?
In the months leading up to the benefit at which I was to read my work, I had been frequenting San Francisco’s famed Lusty Lady two or three times a week. I had my own “Nadja,” a stripper whose stage name was Sassafras. I knew her schedule and planned my visits accordingly. She was small, maybe five-three, with auburn hair down to her shoulders, full breasts, a freckled, catlike face, and smoldering cat eyes that were somehow simultaneously sultry and kind. But it wasn’t so much the way she looked that did it for me peep shows are filled with women I find physically attractive. It was the way she looked at me that made her perfect.
As soon as I shut the door and slipped my first quarter into the slot, she would come right over, say a soft, smiling hello, and begin to dance for me. Eventually she would kneel down, to be at my eye level, and just look at me and hold her breasts in her hands and faintly hum. Through the glass, I could never make out what she was humming, just that it wasn’t the Jane’s Addiction or Prince song playing through the PA. I was never sure if she knew I could hear her, but the humming was just the sweetest, sexiest thing to me. And best of all, she looked at me as if she were actually seeing me, as if she inherently knew and was happy to give me what I needed: acceptance, forgiveness, release. I had found my ideal confessor.
One day I went to the Lusty Lady, and Sass (as I liked to think of her; “Sassafras” didn’t remotely do her justice) was dancing at another window. I found myself enjoying watching her dance for another man, without her knowing I was there. It’s kind of ridiculous to feel voyeuristic at a peep show, but that’s the way it felt, as if I were actually peeping. From time to time I could see the man’s face through the window. He was a small, elderly Asian man, and he craned his neck to look up at her, his eyes wide. Then she turned her back to him and faced me, and when I saw her face, I could tell she wasn’t humming. Soon the other man left, and Sass came over with her usual warm, mischievous smile. This time she didn’t dance for me at all, just immediately got down on her knees, brought her face right up to the window and started to sway and hum and hum and hum.
The names of radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin were familiar to me even as a preteen from eavesdropping on my mom’s women’s group. Sitting at the top of the stairs in my pajamas, I learned that thousands of years of patriarchy, with its literal and metaphorical sexual slavery, had done women an incalculable injustice. I also learned that men started wars and were the source of violence, greed, hate, murder, rape, and just about everything else that’s awful in the world.
The seventies was a hyperbolic time for the women’s movement, and while I now know that my mother didn’t intend to teach me that men were evil, per se, that was the lesson I absorbed. I came to think of penetration as an inherently violent act. As I grew older, I began to see myself as oppressor-by-default and though it may seem melodramatic and hyperpolitically correct today my penis as a weapon of that oppression. Let me tell you, it put a real crimp in my enjoyment of sex (not to mention my performance), but it added immensely to the rush (and, afterward, the shame) of indulging in pornography and strippers.