The Production of Identity and the Negotiation of Intimacy

in a Gentleman’s Club

Katherine Frank

Duke University


Published in Sexualities 1(2): 175-201


      In The Transformation of Intimacy, Anthony Giddens suggests that certain changes in our society today have enabled us to conceive of the possibility of the ‘pure relationship,’ a relationship that he defines as one of “sexual and emotional equality.” The pure relationship is part of a liberating, generic restructuring of intimacy, and is a social relation which is entered into “for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it” (1992: 58). Moves toward the pure relationship, he believes, have been made possible by ‘plastic sexuality,’ or sexuality which is “freed from the needs of reproduction” due to birth control and other reproductive technologies (1992: 2). They have also been made possible by women’s increasing autonomy and demands for sexual pleasure.

     Giddens is not alone in contemplating the changes in interpersonal relations in modern societies. InGigolos and Madames Bountiful: Illusions of Gender, Power, and Intimacy, Adie Nelson and Barrie Robinson write that because of the increased emphasis on gender equality and personal freedom which began in the 1960’s, heterosexual males and females are currently both encouraged to seek relationships that will meet more of their personal emotional needs:

     Within this context of emphasizing self-fulfillment, the issue now becomes one of what the ‘family’ in general, and intimate partnerships in particular, can do for the individual, and not the other way around. Intimacy has come to be defined as an, if not the most, important criterion for initiating or maintaining a relationship. Practical considerations such as political connections or a promising investments portfolio or a great pair of ancestors are supposed to pale by comparison with opportunities for meeting one’s intimacy and human-potential needs. (Nelson 1994: 62)

     “Currently,” they write, “people expect to hear all those involved in an intimate partnership of whatever form state that their ‘ties that bind’ are of a loving and romantic nature” (1994: 72). True intimacy exists as a blend of “eroticism, love, and a mutual vulnerability to yield to a relatively enduring interdependency between partners” (1994: 135).

     Emphasizing the release from traditional scripted relationships and the new kinds of struggles which modern couples face, these authors (and others) seem to suggest the possibility of “creating new forms of emotional democracy and intimacy which parallel those forged in the public sphere” (Williams and Bendelow 1996: 133). While both Giddens and Nelson and Robinson seem well-aware that structural constraints to economic parity between men and women (necessary for any of these new forms of heterosexual relationships to really take root) still exist,[i] they are looking toward new arrangements wherein decisions about heterosexual relationships can be made for personal emotional reasons rather than out of economic necessities. At the same time, however, other social changes have ever more closely fused the personal and the economic. Late capitalism has been accompanied by a surge of growth in the service sector of the economy, a turn from the production of goods to the provision of “ephemeral services in consumption” (Harvey 1990: 285). As such, many types of interpersonal interaction have become commodified and many of our everyday encounters are somehow facilitated with or mediated by money. Strivings toward a pure relationship or a ‘true’ intimacy, then, could be seen as emblematic of the tension between the highly commoditized nature of many of our everyday interactions and a desire to maintain an untainted, ‘authentic’ emotional realm.

     Giddens’s pure relationship depends upon a distinction between ‘romantic’ and ‘confluent’ love. Ideologically, romantic love has been construed as egalitarian due to the belief that such a relationship derives from the deep emotional involvement of both parties. “De facto, however,” he writes, “romantic love is thoroughly skewed in terms of power,” as women’s dreams of romantic love “have all too often led to grim domestic subjection” and a confinement to traditional gender roles. Confluent love, on the other hand, is a result of an increasing institutional reflexivity that has accompanied economic and social changes in modern societies. It is “active, contingent love” and it relies upon equality in an emotional ‘give-and-take.’ It also presumes “the disappearance of the schism between ‘respectable’ women and those who in some way lie outside the pale of orthodox social life,” as it usually develops in a society where both sexes have become sexually accomplished (1992: 63). Confluent love presumes intimacy, he writes, and if this is not accomplished either party “stands prepared to leave” (1992: 84). This pure relationship, then, is based on a rational, utilitarian calculation of costs and benefits in the emotional realm and the ability to be intensely self-reflexive about one’s needs and desires. But could the erotic imaginationever work so rationally? Is such a ‘free market’ approach to intimacy and interpersonal relationships conceivable even as an ideal type? Without denying that the utopias these authors each offer are theoretically appealing and worth a struggle, I would like to problematize the concept of ‘true’ intimacy by examining a particular commodified relationship—that between a female dancer and her male regular in a heterosexual strip club. Specifically, I focus on an upscale club in the contemporary United States. As ideas of intimacy are tied to marriage and an ideology of romantic love, and because these institutions carry different meanings across sexualities, I am only focusing here on heterosexual interactions, although other forms of commodified relationships certainly exist in the sex industry. Although many other venues also exist, offering different services and experiences, a strip club was selected because of its borderline positioning as both a legitimate (legal, in comparison to prostitution) and an illegitimate (still stigmatized in many respects) social institution in which in interpersonal relationships are commodified. I use participant observation to describe and examine the relationships developed between dancers and their ‘regular customers’ and the mutual manufacture of identities and intimacy which is involved in these relationships.

     First, I argue that an illusion of intimacy is produced within the strip club to make an interaction between a dancer and her regular seem more ‘real’ and desirable. Next, I show how even such a commodified relationship can generate a high degree of emotional involvement, using the concept of ‘emotional labor’ (Hochschild 1983) to help break down the barriers between real and manufactured intimacy. Finally, I discuss how an intimate experience draws upon private self-representations that are both real and imaginary, and upon sexual self-identities that are ideologically informed, in an attempt to show how interpersonal intimate relationships are structured within a fantasy-reality which complicates utilitarian notions of emotional engagement.

the setting—a ‘gentleman’s club’

     Utilitarian approaches to intimate relationships have long predominated in the sex industry. Without denying that sex work can be extremely difficult and exploitative for some workers (or customers) in some situations, in recent years there have been a number of works which draw on interviews with sex workers in an attempt to highlight the complexities of the work (Mattson 1995; Bell 1995; Bell 1994). In particular, some women describe satisfaction in finally being able to dictate the terms of their own objectification and in receiving financial compensation for it (Mattson 1995; Morgan 1987; Murawski 1995).

     In “Sex and the Logic of Late Capitalism,” Linda Singer argues that the mass-marketing of sexual products and services helps integrate sexuality into a capitalist market system. She writes:

     One of the linking figures which helps to accomplish this social suturing is that of power, which is easily transferred from the economic to the sexual realm and back again. It is the very strategic versatility of this figure that allows those who pay for sex to feel empowered in that gesture: one can always get some sex by paying for it, one can be in control of the conditions for satisfying one’s needs, desires, and thereby be less vulnerable. Those who receive payment also feel as though they have the upper hand precisely because they are in the position of benefiting in a clearly marked social way from this transaction, and hence are less vulnerable. The irony here is in the way that the mediation by the economic, specifically the monetary, is linked or recoded in the currency of personal control and autonomy. (1993: 48)

     Power and autonomy are configured, on the one hand (and for the woman, in this case), in the freedom to profit from sexuality that is often appropriated for free (women are earning money for their objectification), and conversely, on the other hand (for the man), as the power to purchase a particular kind of woman who will act in a predetermined manner, with no hassles, no commitments, and no obligations. Certainly there are different social positionings that situate a particular woman such that she chooses to labor in the sex industry and a man such that he has the financial means to procure her services. Within the individual transactions, however, many women who work in the sex industry do claim to enjoy the fact that their commodified relationships can be entered into and terminated at will.[ii] Although the sex industry in the United States is large and encompasses many different forms of work and leisure, the strip club is perhaps one of the most ubiquitous and visible venues. In an article written in 1971, Marilyn Salutin described burlesque entertainment, or striptease, as sex “made impersonal.” She writes that the dancers “show no affection or emotional response towards the audience” and that their customers are “indistinguishable from one another” (1971: 14). Salutin’s article highlights a world quite different from that of contemporary ‘gentleman’s clubs,’ however. Although only 25 years have passed, the fairly recent advent of upscale gentleman’s clubs—many of which trace their genealogy to the famous Rick’s Cabaret in Houston or Scores in New York City—has led to a highly stratified and normalized hierarchical arrangement of strip clubs in terms of classiness. Strip clubs are no longer only found in ‘red-light districts,’ as there has been a concerted effort to legitimate some of them and make them a more respectable form of business. If consumption is figured as “a process of communication,” or a “social orientation” (Bourdieu 1984: 466), the upscale strip club can be seen as offering a fantasy of distinction for some customers, as well as for the women who work there. The stratification of strip clubs in terms of ‘classiness’ means that there are now a variety of services available to customers at an upscale gentleman’s club—fine-dining, charity events, conference rooms, a distinguished atmosphere. The cheap “champagne hustle” (Bildstein 1995), done by the dancer who blatantly shows interest only in the monetary aspect of the exchange, is not typically found in such clubs. In fact, one of the most significant services available in some of these clubs is extended personal interaction with an individual dancer who may not even take off her clothes.

     During the summer of 1996, I conducted preliminary fieldwork in a highly-rated ‘gentleman’s club’ in a large midwestern city. There was a five-star steakhouse on the premises with an extensive wine list and cigar menu, along with a lavishly furnished, members-only VIP room. Twenty to thirty dancers a night could be observed as they rotated sets around six different stages, and private ‘table dances’ were available for twenty dollars (plus tip) per song. The club also had an extremely popular policy termed ‘off-the-list’—an opportunity for a man to buy a dancer off of the stage rotation for a hundred dollars an hour. During that hour, the dancer was only required to talk, or, if the customer desired, she could accompany him to dinner in the steakhouse for the same hourly rate.

     The structure of the club thus meant that personal interaction with the customers was necessary in order to make money, especially as dancers were required to sell a given number of private dances per night. Personal interaction was also desirable to most of the dancers as well; it was far easier to be ‘off-the-list’ eating dinner than to be dancing in high heels for the entire evening. Most dancers relied quite heavily on ‘regulars’ for a consistent source of income, and as these relationships with particular men develop over time a processual negotiation of intimacy, a certain prolonged performance of authenticity, is involved. Indeed, dancers often had standing dates with their regulars—Darien had dinner every Friday night at eight o’clock, for example, with a man who sent flowers and a love letter to the dressing room beforehand. Kirsten had been seeing a man four nights a week for over five years, since her first night on the job. After two months on the job I had nine regulars—some of whom I saw nearly every night, others who came in once or twice a week. Regulars, of course, are different from those customers who visit a strip club only occasionally. They are, however, a relatively important and consistent feature in this segment of the sexual marketplace and as such, these relationships have a significance for any discussion of the contemporary United States strip club. My data was gathered mainly through participant observation, a traditional anthropological fieldwork technique. During the time I was a participant observer, I worked at the club four to five nights a week as a topless entertainer. Nightly, I recorded my observations of that evening’s events, paying particular attention to my interactions with customers, my thoughts and emotions while dancing, and my observations and conversations with other dancers and employees. Recording immediately during the drive home not only helped me to decompress from the night’s work but also provided a rich material to reflect upon later. In an article entitled “The Reflexive Self Through Narrative,” Carol Ronai makes her own experience as a dancer/researcher the object of study. As she admits, there are multiple levels of absorption that a researcher will experience during participant observation, and “the various role conflicts” involved “cannot be described in terms of a place on a two-dimensional continuum markedresearcher at one end and native at the other” (1992: 122). Certainly, different events and pieces of information become salient every time that I return to my fieldnotes or reflect upon my experiences. Some of the events that I recorded seemed to stem from the orientation of a researcher (such as immediate theoretical reflections on the homosociality of a bachelor party) and others seemed to reflect my concerns with being a good dancer (wanting to earn more money, worrying about my tan lines). Nevertheless, these two aspects of self are never completely separate, and each identity affects the other. Ronai writes that the participant observer role was “never clearly separated from that of being a dancer, a wife, or the other roles” that she enacted (1992: 104). This was true for me both in my original recordings and the later perusal of my fieldnotes, and in my on-going interactions with my customers. The fact that I was interested in my customers for academic reasons, for example, affected the way that I was perceived as a dancer—I asked a lot of questions and my regulars often commented that I seemed exceptionally attentive, talkative, and interested InSymbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research, Robert Prus writes:

     Although the practice of describing and analyzing one’s own experiences has often been dismissed as ‘biased’ or ‘subjective’ by those who think that researchers should distance themselves from their subject matters, the participant-observer role allows the researcher to get infinitely closer to the lived experiences of the participants than does straight observation. Their experiences as participants may afford researchers with invaluable vantage points for appreciating certain aspects of particular life-worlds. (1996: 19)

     Interactions between dancers and their customers are semi-private; the noise of the club and the physical proximity of the participants are such that their conversations would not be accessible to a mere observer. In this respect, working as a dancer and recording my own interactions was essential. Certainly the men reacted differently to me as a dancer than they would have if I had approached them as a researcher. However, it was through our continued interactions that I began to appreciate the complexity of these relationships and to note the importance of my own emotional reactions to my customers.

intimacy in the strip club

     The emphasis on intimacy in heterosexual relationships has an historically specific importance, and a number of theorists have traced developments and changes in the emotional involvement and expectations of intimate partners over time (Giddens 1992; Coontz 1992; Nelson and Robinson 1994; Lasch 1977; others). All of these arguments would be impossible to reproduce here, yet the historical importance of the ideology of romantic love is frequently emphasized throughout the literature. Giddens writes that “romantic love raises the question of intimacy” from its earliest origins because “it presumes a psychic communication, a meeting of souls which is reparative in character” (1992: 45). Nelson and Robinson note that with changes in family organization over time, marriage has changed from a ‘functional partnership’ (motivated by economics and politics) to a ‘romantic relationship’:

     It was during the transition from the institutional to the companionate family that love and romance became socially defined as essential ingredients for the formation and continuation of intimate relationships. Neither love nor romance was absent in earlier times, but they were not considered to be as important or predominant as they are today. (1994: 62)

     Relationship patterns and expectations are not static, and individuals even now are grappling with new forms of intimate partnerships and exchanges—Giddens’s idea of self-reflexive confluent love, for example, derives from an attempt to make sense of such changes. While intimacy as a concept remains nebulous in the literature, it appears to have several fairly important, interrelated components which are fairly consistently emphasized—emotional (in the sense of positive affect, caring, etc.), spatial (involving bodily interaction and physical proximity, sexual or otherwise), psychological (involving intersubjectivity at some level), and social (involving situated knowledges, verbal sharing, etc.). As intimacy has now been studied from many different disciplinary perspectives and the term is a part of most people’s everyday vocabularies, numerous definitions have been proposed ranging from ‘bodily contact’ between two persons to ‘relationships between loving persons whose lives are deeply intertwined’ (Perlman and Fehr 1987). Can relationships which are developed between dancers and their regulars in the context of the strip club be defined as ‘intimate’ in any sense of the word? Sexual contact, of course, is merely the physical aspect of intimacy, and a fleeting transaction between a dancer and her customer may not be comparable to the intimacy developed over the course of a long-term partnership between two committed individuals. Some commodified transactions, however, do involve what could be considered an ‘intimate’ exchange. In fact, these relationships themselves range from mere commercialized “bodily contact” between two people to those “between loving persons whose lives are deeply intertwined." The relationships between dancers and their regulars in the gentleman’s club are premised upon the commodification of three interrelated things—bodies, identities, and the production of a particular form of intimacy. Certainly, the club is a place where women’s bodies are displayed and commodified, and dancers were only selected who fit the club’s particular marketed image. The interactions which take place inside the club become quite complicated, however, as the dancers are also selling particular versions of their ‘selves’—their personalities, their attentions, their conversation. Falling somewhere between fact and fiction, composed of a mix of truth and lies, a dancer’s fabricated identities will form the basis of her relationships with her customers. There is a level of consistency and authenticity that must be created and maintained, however, if an interaction is going to be profitable, especially if that relationship is to continue on a regular basis. A man will not return again and again to see a dancer that he perceives to be a ‘hustler,’ and thus the ‘realness’ of a dancer’s performance becomes incredibly important for the success of the transaction and the durability of the relationship.

     As relationships with regulars develop over time, they often involve a deepening degree of trust and emotional engagement for both parties. Drawing on a definition of intimacy offered by Georg Simmel, Norman Denzin writes:

     Intimacy refers exclusively to what each of two participants in a dyad give or show only to the other person and to no one else (Simmel 1950: 126-127). What is given includes secrets, self-revelations, personal gratitude, intense emotional understanding, subordination, abandon, love, and perhaps sexuality. Intimacy is a gendered production, involving the exchange of sexual self-identities, often drawn from the body of understandings that operate in the culture at large. (1990: 92).

     Although it can be argued that much of the intimacy given by a dancer to her customers in a strip club is a simulation, this is not always so with regulars. On a busy Saturday night, a dancer might genuinely be glad to be drinking champagne in the VIP room with one of her regulars and not hustling the crowd. She might be excited to see him when he gets to the club. She may offer him secrets, self-revelations, emotional understanding, and even love over time; likewise, he may offer the same.

     Some authors have elucidated the notion of ‘counterfeit intimacy’ to discuss the interaction in a strip club (Boles and Garbin 1974), even suggesting that both the dancer and the customer are aware of the inauthenticity of the interaction and the deception involved at some level (Prewitt 1989; Enck and Preston 1988). Boles and Garbin argue that while there is an appearance of intimacy that is indicated by the body postures of dancers and their customers—in terms of physical proximity, the sexual situation, touching, and the nature of the conversation that ensues—the “apparent intimacy actually conceals exploitation” (1974: 141). The situation is deemed exploitative because the dancers are primarily interested in the financial aspect of the transaction while the men are motivated by a number of possible concerns—viewing nude female bodies, having someone attractive listen to their problems, or a slight hope of actually acquiring a sexual encounter. The counterfeiting of intimacy, Boles and Garbin argue, leads to feelings of alienation in both the dancer and the customer because of the “mutual perception of inauthentic relationships” (1974: 143). Here there is an assumption that ‘real’ intimacy necessitates complementary goals in order to be non-exploitative. But is this necessarily the case? While their analysis might be accurate for the short encounter—a three-minute table dance or a brief conversation around the stage—in describing the relationships that the women develop with regulars it is too simplistic, however. Even Boles and Garbin recognize, in passing, that relationships with regulars may disrupt their model.

     Acitelli and Duck (1987) consider intimacy as both a state and a process, involving both static and dynamic elements. “The mediating factor,” they write, “is the perspective on it that is taken by the participants, particularly their judgments about the level of intimacy appropriate for a given situation or occasion” (1987: 301). The intimacy that a dancer and her regular experience is constantly negotiated in repeated interaction. Often, their interaction will be comfortable and consistent—the dancer will be asked to provide the same type of companionship as she has in the past and there will be no hassle when it comes time for payment. The regular might know her real name, where she lives and the names of her children; he might buy her dresses and presents. On the other hand, he might also have no idea that she is married, or involved in a long-term relationship with another woman. In comparison to other relationships in the club, however, the level of intimacy developed with a regular may seem quite high and may be emotionally intense—with impassioned fights and warm reunions. Although it is rare, a very few of these relationships develop into serious friendships or affairs outside of the club.

     Why would men possibly visit a strip club in the pursuit of intimacy? And even though intimacy is involved, are these men even looking for ‘intimacy’ as we commonly understand the word? Some researchers believe that the desire for interpersonal intimacy for both sexes is increasing in American society at the same time that people become less able to attain it (Perlman and Fehr 1987). This particular argument is hardly new. As Christopher Lasch wrote in Haven in a Heartless World:

     As business, politics, and diplomacy grow more savage and warlike, men seek a haven in private life, in personal relations, above all in the family—the last refuge of love and decency. Domestic life, however, seems increasingly incapable of providing these comforts. (1977: xiii).

     Similarly, Boles and Garbin argue that it is perhaps “because our society fosters isolation and loneliness that such institutions as strip clubs fulfill the important function of providing intimacy at cost” (1974: 143). Another reason that men might visit strip clubs in the pursuit of intimacy, however, lies in the institution of masculinity itself. Many studies of intimate relations delineate differences between men and women in terms of the desire for, and the ability to attain, intimacy, noting that men have more difficulty forming intimate relationships because of the emphasis placed on masculine independence (Brooks 1995; Giddens 1992; Keen 1991). Brooks suggests that male socialization leads to what he terms ‘the Centerfold Syndrome’ in men. The Centerfold Syndrome is premised on voyeurism, the objectification of female bodies, the need for validation, trophyism, and ‘the fear of true intimacy’ (1995: 2). He argues that the fear of intimacy results in young men when they “learn to wall themselves off from too much emotional intimacy in sex” and simultaneously are “taught to sexualize all feelings of emotional and physical closeness.” Men may thus be prone to “seek distance through fantasy and emotional withdrawal,” seeking sex when they really want “emotional intimacy, sensual pleasure, or physical comforting” (1995: 11). The Centerfold Syndrome, he argues, is an obstacle to healthy relationships because it “prevents real intimacy, mature discourse, and honest interpersonal connection” (1995: 12). A man may believe that he is returning over and over to see a particular dancer, then, because of what he perceives to be his sexual desire for her. In doing so, he may completely misrecognize the way that she is fulfilling many of his other needs as well. Brooks’s model highlights the fact that what is sought in interpersonal relationships is a complex mix of emotional, sexual, social, material, and psychological needs. Here I do not want to suggest that the majority of regular customers were suffering from a psychological pathology. After all, many of these ‘regulars’ did have a number of outside relationships, even long-term marriages. Most of them had successful white-collar careers. The millions of dollars spent each year in the U.S. on commercialized sexual relationships, however, suggest that there are many social and ideological factors at work in how ‘sex’ and ‘intimacy’ are configured in our society that are worth exploring. Indeed, these interactions can tell us something important about the various meanings of intimacy in general.

the commodification of intimacy

     At first it might seem as if a commercialized relationship could not possibly be intimate as wecommonly understand the term. Arlie Hochschild’s groundbreaking work on emotional labor, however, is useful in examining the effects on the laborer who is asked to provide a particular ‘feeling’ along with a service. In this way, one’s labor can affect one’s deepest sense of self. In The Managed Heart, Hochschild distinguishes between the emotion work that we do privately (such as trying to enjoy a party) and that which we do as part of a job (such as summoning up a sympathetic smile for an irate customer). When human feeling becomes commercialized and organized within the workplace, a certain transmutation must take place, according to Hochschild. As social beings, we learn to manage our feelings in many different situations—by ‘trying to remain calm’ when angry, for example, or by ‘letting ourselves feel sad.’ What Hochschild means by the ‘transmutation of an emotional system,’ however, is that “what it is that we do privately, often unconsciously, to feelings that nowadays often fall under the sway of large organizations, social engineering, and the profit motive” (1983: 19). Seeming to love their job, for flight attendants and other workers who perform emotional labor, has become part of that job, and actually trying to love the job—trying to make that smile real—makes the work easier. For employees who are subject to the tipping system, like dancers, censure for failing to achieve the correct presentation of self will come not only from the management but directly from the customers as well. Ronai, for example, has noted that striptease dancers must ‘act right,’ or control their emotional displays, in order to do their job well, and that this usually means stifling negative emotions for their customers (1992: 110). Emotional labor differs from physical labor, according to Hochschild, by the fact that it requires one to coordinate mind and feeling, to draw on a deep source of self, in order to produce a particular state of mind in others. There is a similarity to physical labor, however, in that there remains the possibility that the worker can become alienated from the aspect of self used to perform the work. When a man’s arm is used like a piece of machinery to produce an object, that arm is being used as an instrument from which he might become alienated. In the same way, when one’s ‘self’ is used to produce a service, an individual may become estranged from that self—feeling a tension between the ‘real’ and the ‘on-stage’ selves. This is partly a defense, a means of avoiding stress and burnout, but it can also cause problems, especially in the sense that the more a worker’s true self is offered up for sale, “the more that self risks seeming false to the individual worker, and the more difficult it becomes for him or her to know which territory of self to claim” (1983: 196). While Hochschild acknowledges that “the negative effects of emotional labor may be more severe for some workers than others,” the job-related stress that emotional labor can engender is quite generally seen by researchers as having potential ‘negative social-psychological consequences” (Wharton 1993: 209). The study of emotion management, then, blurs the line between public and private, between ‘real’ and manufactured intimacy in general. As Ronai writes about her customers in the strip club: “They are always inside me...They are in me because I have feelings about them” (1992: 119).

     Sandra Lee Bartky distinguishes between emotional involvement in commercial caregiving from that which occurs in intimate relationships, writing:

[T]he flight attendant, like the good wife, must feed egos and heal wounds...But the one relationship is casual and brief, the other more enduring and profound. Intimate relationships require more complex sensitivities and engage more aspects of the self (1990: 105).

     This distinction might seem adequate for the flight attendant who is providing a particular service along with her emotional support or for the dancer who is simply engaging with a particular man for a brief table dance. However, the service provided by the dancer to her regulars is an on-going performance of a relationship, coupled with a visual access to her body that is often deemed appropriate for only the most private situations. Recently, some researchers have noted that workers’ relationships with regular customers in the service industry can be as emotionally involving and fulfilling (or disturbing) as other close relationships (Tolich 1995). The performance given by the dancer to her regulars, whether through bodily display or conversation, is thus both intimate (given that it is more involving than the relationships that she has with other men in the club) and illusory (given the fact that she may have an outside partner or many regulars). Moreover, as these relationships may be long-term, they may engage more and more aspect of both parties’ selves over time. The customer is often not unaware when the pleasantries of an interaction have been purchased. Relationships with regulars in the strip club are thus always threatened by a fundamental, possibly explosive, contradiction rooted in common ideologies surrounding intimacy and companionship. Intimacy is supposed to be ‘real,’ love and friendship are not supposed to be bought with money. True relationships are not supposed to be based on lies or performances. The idea that there are some things that should not be sold is quite powerful ideologically—as many feminist theorists have pointed out, the figure of the female prostitute who would sell her sexual services to men needs to be debased so that “the appropriation of women’s services without compensatory benefit can be sold to women in the name of their own autonomy, dignity” (Singer 1993: 49). Our cultural imaginary insists that there be outrage at the woman who accepts an “indecent proposal,” who throws away a chance at real love for money. Corresponding to this is the notion that there are still some things that just cannot be bought as well—money can buy you a lot of things, but it cannot buy love, friendship or happiness.

     For the customers, then, an emphasis on developing a ‘real’ relationship may also help mitigate the psychological dissonance caused by the commodification of interpersonal interaction. Presents thus come to take on an importance in relationships with regulars, and gifts were constantly being given to dancers by these men—clothes, vacations, flowers, and even cars. These things mediated andpersonalized the relationships, simply because they were not in the form of money. Many of the regulars (purposefully?) bought the dancers useless gifts that could not be exchanged, and frequently a dancer would complain in the locker room, saying that she wished he had just given her the money instead. Gifts, then, could serve as “the props of a love affair,” symbols of a romantic love. Because there is no way to actually determine “the sincerity of a gesture within an intimate relationship,” intrinsically symbolic gifts, like flowers, could also be emotionally empty gestures (Nelson 1994: 146). As symbols, however, their very ambiguity can function as a means of legitimation. Darien’s regular could send her a dozen red roses on Friday in anticipation of their ‘date’ at the same time as he remained married to his wife. Inside the club, the roses functioned as a multi-dimensional symbol—of passion, of possession, of an ‘other’-worldly fantasy—to stabilize the interaction.

     The payment of money thus has the potential to unsettle an interaction because its symbolic value is one that is ideologically incommensurable with romantic love or true friendship. Herein lies an important contradiction—if a dancer’s performance is believable enough, the relationship between the dancer and her regular seems genuine; an exchange of money during the interaction, then, undermines that authenticity. It is the exchange of money, however, which always facilitated the interaction in the first place. Regulars were invaluable in that they were nearly always prepared to pay—it was an accepted (and, certainly at some level, a desired) aspect of the relationship. Nevertheless, it could still be disruptive and with some customers, a system of payment could be negotiated such that it did not intrude too much on the conversation. I had regulars who paid me up front, for example, so that neither of us would then need to think about the monetary aspect of the interaction again. This made it easier for me to concentrate on the situation at hand, and meant that when our time was up the man could leave without being reminded of the fact that he had purchased my time. On the other hand, the payment of money could also serve to stabilize an interaction and serve to redress any possible power imbalances brought out by the interaction. First of all, it could offer an easy escape if the intimacy became too intense. After all, a man simply had to leave the club (or stop paying) to be free of his obligations. Secondly, to be able to pay highly for an intangible service is, to some extent, a mark of wealth and esteem and in some cases payment reflected a particular desirable class status. After all, men who wanted to be listened to, who wanted to avail themselves of the dancer’s time and attention, needed to pay highly for that privilege. The hundred dollars an hour fee (plus tip) was too steep for many men. On a slow night, less affluent men might be able to sit with a woman between her sets; on a weekend night, however, it could be painfully obvious which men had money and which men did not (and this information was also shared amongst the women in the dressing room). Further, as regulars needed to resist the stigma which is associated with someone who needs to pay for companionship on a recurrent basis, the large sums of money that they gave to the dancers over time could somehow prove that the money was irrelevant to them. If money is unimportant or irrelevant, the payment of money does not then disrupt the illusion of authentic intimacy that binds the relationship.

fantasy-reality and the dual production of identity

     Relationships in the strip club between dancers and their regulars take place within a larger gendered and heterosexualized network of power relations. Further, these relationships are based on “an exchange of sexual self-identities,” and as such, involve a complex entanglement of fantasy and reality that can complicate our understandings of intimate relationships in general. They must be interpreted, then, within a framework which allows fantasy and reality to be conceptualized as irrevocably intertwined. For this framework, I am drawing on Zizek’s Lacanian conception of fantasy as that which “gives consistency to what we call reality” (Zizek 1989: 44). Intimate relationships in a strip club seem to evolve as a result of a mutual manufacturing of fantasy and identity. In a strip club, a man will most likely be denied sexual access to the women. A fantasy of sexual possibility, identity, and interpersonal intimacy is cultivated, however, and the combination of these elements may make it an attractive atmosphere for some customers. The illusory nature of the interaction between a dancer and her regular is never seamless. Indeed, the suspension of the ‘real’ seems to underlie the very existence of a strip club. My regulars gave me many reasons behind their presence in the club which implied that the illusion of intimacy provided by the interaction was more desirable than an outside relationship—in the club, they were granted safety from the struggle to attract ‘real’ women, from the necessity to form ‘real’ commitments and from the demands of those ‘real’ women on their time and emotions. Further, behaviors that were unacceptable in the ‘real’ world, such as an obvious appraisal of women’s bodies, were allowed in the club, even encouraged by the women themselves (Want to buy a table dance?).

     This notion of the ‘real’ needs to be problematized, however. Clearly, one of the verbalized goals of a customer who frequents a strip club is escape from the ‘real’ world. This may mean several different things, however. There are, of course, regulars in the club who do have commitments with women outside the club, women who are making demands on their time and emotions and for whom the club provides an ‘escape from.’ There were many other men, however, who were actively seeking an ‘escape to,’ searching for an intimacy that was clearly not available to them in that outside world—men who were recently divorced, who had few social skills, who had physical handicaps. Repeatedly, I listened to men who claimed that they “didn’t know how to talk to women,” “had difficulty meeting people,” or just “didn’t have the time to develop a relationship.” These men, then, paid the dancers to listen to their work stories, laugh at their jokes, and eat dinner with them. In my experience in the strip club, ‘realness’ was thus more highly valued, or at least more realistically expected, than what was actually ‘real.’ Denzin writes: “Desire stands at the center of any intimate relationship, for what is desired is self-realized through the intimacy offered by the other” (1990: 92). There is thus a fetishization that underlies the provision of sexual services. In Nightwork, Anne Allison writes that in paying money for a sexual service:

men are not only buying a commodity but putting themselves into the commodity too. That is, there is a fetishization of subject (man) as much as of object (woman), and the customer is not only purchasing one thing or an other but is also paying to become one other as well. He seeks to be relieved of his everyday persona—the one to which various expectations are attached—and given a new script in which he plays a different role. (1994: 22)

     Thus, while the man might know that it is a fantasy persona, its ‘realness’ makes it all the more desirable. Here we can see the multiple commodification of bodies, identities, and intimacy at work, and there are several ‘imaginary’ relationships involved in the transaction. The dancer, as an employee of the club in which she works, is produced as a particular commodity, a body that can be viewed upon demand. The special lighting, the costumes, and the make-up all combine to make her very body imaginary, something that would not be exactly reproducible outside of the club or in a different venue. Through the physical presence of the dancer, the customer is visible as a heterosexual ‘man’ who desires women. This is a specular image; the other dancers and customers are witnesses to the transaction (this witnessing is a crucial element—if a man was not looking for a public encounter he most likely would not have chosen a strip club). Further, while the dancer herself is also manufacturing or presenting a particular identity, a public image, in her interaction with the customer, she is simultaneously involved in the production of a particular malesubjectivity, that of “being a male who can pay a female to service him” (Allison 1994: 204). The man’s private image, his self-representation, is thus also involved.

     As any individual in the club can be provided with such a service, however, as long as he can afford it, a ‘genuine’ interaction, no matter how brief, becomes a mark of distinction. Insofar as all interactions in the club are mediated by money, these interactions are thus also always open to the suspicion of being false. In her interactions with a regular, then, a dancer is also trying to produce for him the subjectivity of a man who is worth being listened to regardless of the money that he pays her. This subjectivity may already be experienced by the man as a ‘real’ one, however, in which case it becomes the ‘realness’ of the dancer’s identity and the (phantasmatic?) intimacy that they mutually manufacture which sutures the relationship. Peggy Phelan, using psychoanalytic theory to discuss performance, writes:

      As a representation of the real the image is always, partially, phantasmatic. In doubting the authenticity of the image, one questions as well the veracity of she who makes and describes it. To doubt the subject seized by the eye is to doubt the subjectivity of the seeing “I.” (1993: 1)

      Self-identity, according to Phelan, fails to secure belief because our own origins are both real and imagined. Identity needs to be “continually reproduced and reassured,” because we prefer to see ourselves as “more or less securely situated,” our beliefs as secure and coherent (1993: 5).

     In a discussion of ‘realness’ in performance,[iii] Judith Butler writes that ‘realness’ is a standard used to judge any given performance, “yet what determines the effect of realness is the ability to compel belief, to produce the naturalized effect.” The performance that works, then, is that which effects realness such that “what appears and what it means coincide” (1993: 129). All the while, however, this ‘passing’ is the effect of a realness based on the performance of a recognizably impossible ideal. The club in which I did my fieldwork was marketing an image of class, specializing in providing the customer with a particular (not found in every club) yet interchangeable type of dancer (any dancer will do—they are all ‘beautiful,’ they are all composed, they will all take off their dresses). In such a situation, the only differences between the women becomes their own images which are created within the club and how they appeal to different men in distinct and ‘private’ interaction. The dancers in the club, then, as mentioned earlier, were selling their ‘selves,’ their identities. Certain elements of these selves were continually created and recreated in order to generate and sustain different male desires—a dancer might act like a serious, hard-working student with a much older man, for example, while performing quite differently for a bachelor party. Nevertheless, each dancer also used a variety of strategies to solidify the ‘realness’ of her own working identity. This realness was not important so much for its details or its truth value, but more for its ability to ‘compel belief’ in the entire interaction, and in the man’s fantasized identities. Nearly every dancer used a fake name, and this was expected by the customers. Stage names, however, were carefully chosen to be ‘revealing,’ to fit the woman’s image—Chloe sounded elegant, Kim sounded like the girl-next-door. The management would not allow names that were obviously fake—Serrana and Peaches, for example, were told that they needed to choose new stage names when they came to work at the club. Men often attempted to find out a dancer’s ‘real name,’ though, and this becomes part of the performance. Finding out things about a dancer, to a certain extent, made her more real. As it was not the ‘truth’ that was significant so much as the discovery, I found that when I danced under my real name and shared this with my customers they seemed disappointed. Therefore, I continued to use my real name as my stage name and made up a fake-real name to give them when they asked for it. This seemed to please them—they believed they found out something about me as a person and something about me that possibly few other people in the room knew. My disclosure, then, worked to ‘compel belief’ in the interaction. Certainly, there are very real reasons why dancers do not like to provide their customers with much information. Many dancers attract stalkers, prank-callers, or obsessive individuals, and for this reason they were usually advised by the management not to use their own name and to fabricate a life-story. Even in the dressing rooms, real names were reserved only for dancers who were close friends. The danger of providing customers with too much personal information was openly acknowledged, and in fact provided an alibi when a dancer became caught in a lie. “Well I had to lie about where I lived when I first met you,” I found myself explaining when I accidentally mixed up stories, “because I’ve had men try to follow me home before. But, of course, I know that you’re different now.” In fact, this type of gradual disclosure itself fostered a kind of intimacy and trust. Over time, a dancer might quite willingly share more and more of her actual history with her regulars. One man laughed as he told me about his experiences with a dancer who called herself Andie. “First she told me it was her real name, then her middle name. Then she told me that her middle name was Julie and that everyone calls her that at home in Alabama. Later, though, she admitted that Julie was the name she used when she worked in Texas and that her real name was Jackie.” Nevertheless, the rest of her story was consistent enough that he did not question her home state as Alabama or the truth of her experience working as a dancer in Houston. He returned to see her often and spent thousands of dollars on her inside the club. As the name is usually the first disclosure in a relationship, a lie is expected. Later disclosures, however, had to be more carefully presented as ‘truths.’ If a customer did not believe that a dancer was genuine in her attentions, he would not become a regular. Developing a network of regulars, then, depends upon a certain consistency in one’s stories and identity, both for practical reasons (How old am I tonight? What is my name?) and for the consistent production of authenticity. One way in which I learned to present an ‘authentic’ performance of identity in interaction with my regulars was through the control of information about my life and my ‘self.’ As a commodity—a thing, a body—one’s image is relatively stable, as height, weight, and bone structure are not easily changed. Having red hair and freckles, always wearing white, and dancing very reservedly made my body and my appearance a certain kind of commodity that would only appeal to particular men. The services that I provided to individual men, however, were different in each interaction—sometimes I merely listened to their stories and sometimes I talked. When I talked, I talked about different parts of my ‘history,’ mixing truth and story—sometimes I talked about the college I went to (a lie); sometimes I talked about not being able to find a man I liked enough to date (a lie); sometimes I talked about my interests in rock-climbing or hiking (the truth); about my family or my dog (the truth).

     There is a concatenation, then, of lies, truths, and partial truths which underlie relationships between dancers and their regulars, and thus the interactions become more complicated as time passes. Just as a dancer’s identity needs to ‘compel belief,’ so must the relationship itself. One of the complications lies in the fact that despite appearing as a ‘real’ woman (who might really desire a man like him) a dancer must also remain a fantasy to her customers. While most of the dancers were involved in relationships with men or women outside of the club, these were rarely disclosed to the regulars. Further, men expressed disinterest in dancers who complained too much about financial problems, kids, or difficulties at work. Dancers admitted that if the relationships ever did lead to contact outside the club they were almost guaranteed to lose the man as a regular customer. Personally, I found it beneficial to speak very carefully of my life outside the club. While men would often ask many questions about me, I found that even telling them too much about my friends or activities would tend to upset the balance of our interaction. If I had such a good social life, was I maybe lying about being single? (Which could lead to: But all these women say that they are single. Are they all lying about everything?) If I simply said that my social life was severely curtailed because I worked all of the time, however, it left intact the possibility of the mutual construction of an on-going fantasy relationship. Maybe we could go to dinner together, go dancing or horseback riding someday. The creation of possibility, then, was essential at the outset. When it became obvious that the possibility of an outside relationship would never be realized, as it did in some cases, the man might terminate the relationship by simply not returning.

     There were other men who seemed to recognize, however, consciously or unconsciously, that it was really the possibility that was important. These men would not ask me to see them outside of the club often, and when they did ask it was often already impossible for me to say yes—a pilot continually asked me to go on fantastic but infeasible last-minute vacations, for example, while another man would take me off the list for hours to discuss the possibility of ‘living together.’ He did not want to hear my practical excuses about returning to North Carolina in a few months; rather, I found that he was thrilled by my fictitious excuse that I did not believe in living together before marriage. In the on-going relationships developed with regulars, the dancers become distinct from the other women in the club and the men become distinct from the other customers—if only in the immediacy of the interaction. “You’re different from all of the other girls here,” one of my regulars would tell me. Did he tell this to other dancers on nights that I was not working? To dancers at other clubs? But he knew that I liked red wine, the name of my dog, and where my parents lived. He would tell me that he ‘needed me’ and would pay for hours of my time. I found myself jealous when I came to work unexpectedly one night and found that he had taken another dancer off-the-list. Was this mutual emotion ‘simulated’? Was it part of the transmutation that Hochschild is referring to in her concept of emotional labor? Where does real intimacy begin and end after all?

power and gender

     In Gigolos and Madames Bountiful, Nelson and Robinson argue that while these relationships between wealthy women and their ‘kept’ men are quite complicated, it is the heterosexual ‘intimacy script’ which exists in our society that lends a basic framework to the interactions. Nelson and Robinson support the idea that when intimacy is commodified, however, or explicitly facilitated with money, the power differentials in the transaction become too great for ‘true’ intimacy. The relationship between the gigolo and the woman, they argue, is thus an illusion, a masquerade. Real ‘intimacy,’ then, should accompany real, desirable, legitimate relationships, and other types of arrangements are socially devalued. Indeed, the authors noted that women who supported gigolos were often seen by their friends as having been ‘duped’ or fooled. As Pat Califia writes:

One of the dominant myths of our culture is that everybody longs to participate in romantic heterosexual love; that it is romance which gives life meaning and purpose; and that sex is better when you do it with somebody you love. We are also taught to assume that romance and money are mutually exclusive, even though the heroes of romance novels and neogothics are almost always as wealthy as they are handsome. (1994: 243)

     The idea of ‘true’ intimacy as something which is ultimately desirable and which cannot be found in commodified relationships, then, is held by many individuals at a deep, unreflective level. As this heterosexual intimacy script is always dependent upon gender roles which exist within a power matrix, how is ‘true’ intimacy ever achieved? For years, women have been configured as the caretakers of heterosexual ‘relationships,’ as caregivers to men, as the guardians of intimacy. In the field of personal intimate relationships, women take primary responsibility for the management of emotion, adjusting their behavior and emotional display to provide emotional support to their male companions (Hochschild 1983; Duncombe and Marsden 1993; Bartky 1990). It is recognized in the literature that men and women approach intimate relationships differently, whether this is seen as an outcome of some essential psychology or socialization into particular gender roles (Brooks 1995; Perlman and Fehr 1987; Bartky 1990). Men and women bring different resources, desires, and emotional knowledges to intimate relationships, with women often expected to provide more nurturing interactions, convincing men of the value of their projects and identities. There are various positions taken in the literature on the exact nature of this transaction—some conservative theorists argue that while the emotional contributions of men and women to intimacy certainly differ, a balance is achieved in that he provides economic support while she provides emotional support through her nurturance; on the other hand some feminist theorists write that this bargain is inherently unequal because economic dependence is disempowering in itself (Bartky 1990: 102). When women offer comfort and assurance, or feed a man’s self-esteem, without receiving such support in return, such provision “can be understood as a conferral of status, a paying of homage by the female to the male” (Bartky 1990: 109). This private provision of emotional sustenance by women to men, in turn, actually works to shore up the dominant social order. This inequality may be masked, however, as women learn to identify with such nurturing behavior.

     Of course, these comments can be said to rest on stereotypes of masculine and feminine behavior. Indeed, Craib has criticized Duncombe and Marsden (1993) for mistaking a “well established stereotype for reality” when they discuss differences in the emotional life of men and women. He argues that men and women do not behave in such stereotypical ways, citing colleagues and patients “who could be stereotypically masculine and could also talk with sensitivity and insight about their own feelings, engage in comforting and supporting others and take part in all the routine emotional interchanges” in group psychotherapy settings (1995: 155). Nonetheless, stereotyped behavior can indeed create problems in intimate personal relationships (Duncombe and Marsden 1996: 155), and an analysis of such behavior has led to many a popular self-help guide. As Williams and Bendelow suggest, these emotional stereotypes:

still exert a powerful and pervasive impact on our lives, particularly through the media and marketing, and amongst certain segments of the socio-cultural order who remain firmly wedded to traditional beliefs and values about ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles and duties. Indeed, it is clear that, despite a general growth in social reflexivity in late modernity, not all men are ‘in touch’ with their emotions. In this respect, there are still marked, albeit less clear-cut, gender differences in emotionality. (1996: 149).

     A lot of the work that a dancer does for her customers is that which women have traditionally been expected to do in relationships outside of the club—listening to his stories, boosting his ego, entertaining him with light conversation, and looking attractive for him. Many men who frequent strip clubs are ‘firmly wedded to traditional beliefs and values about masculine and feminine roles and duties,’ and even if they are not, the interactions in the club often suggest these beliefs. The women’s bodies, in all of their ‘difference,’ are clearly visible. Further, the women are all willing to please, whether by taking off their clothes or conversing on topics that the man chooses. In the gentleman’s club, almost any man who can afford it can receive this kind of attention from nearly any woman he chooses, and as long as the financial compensation is immediate and generous enough, the women are as happy to sit with unattractive men as they are with men that they find attractive. In the case of a marriage or a long-term partnership, this bargain—the provision of emotional support for economic benefit—might be implicit; in the relationship between a dancer and a regular this bargain is normative and explicit—one of the things that dancers often note that they appreciate about the work. In the strip club there is a slippage between public and private that takes place: What is supposed to be private—nudity, sexual desire, intimacy—suddenly becomes publicly and financially negotiated. The idea that a relationship between a dancer and her regular is indeed authentically intimate in some way can serve to legitimate a relationship that might be belittled in other social arenas, but which nonetheless provides some deep satisfactions and feelings of power and autonomy. Interpretations of power and autonomy, however, are linked to our self-representations, our personal mythologies. Many couples in satisfying intimate relationships, after all, would most likely say that the power differentials within their own relationship do not mirror those of society. Regardless of the truth or falsity of this statement, power imbalances may once again be recoded in terms of personal choice or autonomy. Intimate relationships bring together the personal and the cultural, self and other, the image and the imaginary. “Memory, sight, love,” Phelan writes. “All require a witness, imaginary or real” (1993: 5). The fantasy that underlies self-identity may mean that the notion of an individual maximizing his or her costs and benefits in an intimate relationship is too simple of a construction. Many people, however, myself included, believe that there is indeed something more involved in ‘real,’ ‘true’ intimacy, whether or not it can be proven, defined, or observed. Yet, the phantasmatic and the real can be intricately intertwined; that is, “images are (already) reality, and the real is (also) imaginary” (Allison 1996: xvii). In this way, relationships in the strip club may also be satisfying a man’s desire for self-realization by providing him with an interaction that compels belief in his imagined self. “[L]ove,” Peggy Phelan writes, (like the ‘real’ self), “is always an interrogation—a series of questions about the self and the other.” It is “a question, occasionally an imperative, hardly ever an assurance;” it is, in effect, a “doubt” (1993: 121). The commodified intimate relationship can both assuage ‘doubt’ and redouble it.


     In relationships between dancers and their regulars in the strip club, there is a multiple commodification of bodies, identities, and intimacy. To deny the fact that these relationships are intimate brings us to the idea that somehow it is only that which is free of any economic constraints or commodification that is genuine, and the tendency to categorize one type of relationship (uncommodified) as more ‘real’ than another (commodified) is a product of deeply entrenched cultural ideology. Granted, these relationships are often different; to value one over another, however, may lead us to miss the many diverse ways that people arrange to fill their economic, emotional, and sexual needs.

     As I mentioned earlier, the men who frequent strip clubs do so for many diverse and complicated reasons. While some profess ‘love’ for a particular dancer, others are just there for an experience which is different or exciting. Whether they are escaping ‘to’ a world in which masculinity, companionship, and the spectacle of female bodies can be purchased, or escaping ‘from’ a world where their other responsibilities and relationships are becoming burdensome, these men are perfectly willing to pay for the fantasy exchanges. Certainly, as dancers, we performed during these exchanges. Sometimes, for example, I stifled my political views with a particular regular; not wanting to lose his business, I pretended to agree with whatever he said, pretended to enjoy his company. Sometimes the dancers laughed in the dressing room at the shallowness of their own performances—how does Keith really think Sarah would date him? How can Tom say he loves me when he doesn’t even know my real name? The men, though, performed as well. Most claimed to be single or divorced, but how would we have known? One man insisted that I was his ‘favorite’ dancer, and that I was different from all of the other dancers in the club. I knew, though, that on nights I was not working he took Tiffany off the list for hours. While we were always performing, however, we were not always pretending. After all, I cannot say that the intimacy I developed with my regulars in the strip club was really false, for sometimes our mutual performances were also authentic. There was positive affect involved; I sometimes held their hands or kissed them on the cheek; I listened with interest (sometimes) to their stories; I missed them when I returned to North Carolina for school. I became familiar with their idiosyncrasies in conversation and the multiple ways that they reacted to my talk and my body. Would I have listened if they hadn’t been paying me? Maybe. Maybe not.

     In this paper I have attempted to illuminate the fantasy-reality which structures interpersonal intimate relationships. There is a joke about the ‘Lacanian’ valentine which reads: “Love is giving something you don’t have to someone who doesn’t exist.” I do not want to claim that intersubjectivity and intimacy are not ever possible, however. What is important here, perhaps, is the realization that rational, utilitarian notions of relationships—such as ‘counterfeit intimacy,’ or the ‘pure relationship’—are too simplistic. Even these relationships—while seemingly based on rational calculation of an individual’s wants and needs—contain a remarkable element of fantasy. Further, they call into question the very possibility of intimacy outside of fantasy. Not just ‘sexual’ fantasy, but a fantasy of self-identity. As such, the hope for a conscious ability to calculate the costs and benefits of personal relationships in market terms may be unfounded.


[i] There are also psychological and cultural barriers which prohibit the development of new forms of relationships for these authors. Giddens, for example, admits that the pure relationship is an ideal type, and that “deep psychological, as well as economic, differences between the sexes stand in the way” of its actual realization (1992: 188). Likewise, Nelson and Robinson note the intractability of traditional gender roles and the differential cultural value placed on male and female ‘lovestyles’—caregiving, for example, is still devalued and associated with the feminine (1994: 305).

[ii] Again, sex work is not always experienced as enjoyable or liberating. Many of these books written by and for sex workers have attempted to acknowledge this complexity (Bell 1994; Pheterson 1989; Delacoste and Alexander 1987). In Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body, Shannon Bell examines the discourse of prostitute rights groups to show “two oppositional constructions of the prostitute [sex worker] as a site of politicized resistance and as a site of oppression: empowerment/exploitation.” She also examines the work of six North American prostitute performance artists to point out how individuals can “hold both sides of the dichotomy in their own body,” thus destablizing such a binary division of experience and identity (1994: 137). The experiences that I draw on in this paper are very particular to a specific upper-class gentleman’s club in the contemporary United States, and cannot stand in for experiences at different strata of clubs or in different types of sex work. Further, as the meanings of sex work are extremely variable in different places and different times, caution is necessary when generalizing. My own emotional experiences as a dancer were both positive and negative, and I would not be able to categorize sex work as either wholly liberating or wholly exploitative.

[iii] Here I am using Butler’s reading of ‘realness’ in order to discuss performance, and not using these strip club performances to discuss her theory of performativity.

Reproduced by permission of Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi, from Editor, Title, Copyright (© Sage Publications Ltd 1998))