Last week Sandy Banks, in her column, “Cheaters Run on Overdrive,” referring to the recent Tiger Woods and Jesse James sex scandals asked, “how such powerful, high-profile men could consort so carelessly with a procession of B-list porn stars, wackos and strippers. Weren’t their smart, beautiful wives enough?”
As a woman who grew up around strip clubs and is now a strip club owner, the short answer is: No. They weren’t.
But what about the long answer?
I grew up in a close-knit family. Mom was a nurse who often worked the late shift, and Dad, a former highway patrolman, began managing a strip club when I was eight years old.
In the early years my parents spoke about the club as cryptically as possible. “What do people do there, is there dancing?” I asked Dad. It was the 70’s, and I was obsessed with anything disco-related. “There is a stage where people can dance,” he looked down sheepishly while my mom stood there, frozen.
While it began as a taboo subject, it later became a source of pride for my father. Try as my parents did to shelter us, the day eventually arrived when Mom had to work, the babysitter canceled, and we had to celebrate our own version of Take Your Daughter to Work Day.
Dad laid out strict ground rules: We could tap dance on the stage, play Space Invaders in the arcade or drink Shirley Temples at the bar, but we had to stay out of sight in the back office once the doors opened.
We met dancers named Crystal, Amber and Destiny. I could swear I met one named Jello, maybe it was Pudding. But my favorite was Kelly, who looked a lot like our babysitter.
Kelly loved us like her own and made sure two young girls didn’t die of boredom while passing the hours upstairs in the back office. She asked about my cat Coco, complimented my Holly Hobbie doll. We both loved The Bionic Woman.
Dad would fill me in on the dancers’ back stories. Many were single mothers. One even had a C-section scar.
Some things you hear about stripping are true: it’s a lucrative business, and a good stripper can earn more in a night than most of my friends do in a week. Add to the formula single motherhood and limited career options, and it can start to make a lot more sense. It’s the stigma that makes it hard.
Many strippers, out of shame, go back to waiting tables or tending bar, only to walk back through the doors when the reality of putting food on the table becomes too hard to ignore.
What people don’t know about stripping is that it’s a real profession. Strippers have health insurance and 401(k) plans.
My father would often bring in medical experts to consult with strippers considering plastic surgery to further their careers. As most women in Southern California know, not all plastic surgeons are alike, and some can do a lot more harm than good.
I once asked Dad what I should tell my friends. “You can tell them the truth, honey,” he said, “I’m not ashamed.” He worked hard, made good money to support our family, and enrolled my sister and me in private Catholic School, music and dance lessons. I decided to tell them he was an investor.
Upper-middle class suburbs do that to you. As the truth about Dad’s profession slowly came to light in our cul-de-sac, the neighbors began ignoring us. Block parties were hosted, but we weren’t invited. “We thought you were out of town.”
My ballet classmates stopped talking to me. Carpools were canceled.
In my late teens, I’d visit Dad at work and watch the dancers on stage. Some were incredibly talented, trained dancers and gymnasts. I worked at Penguin’s Frozen Yogurt making $3.33 an hour and once jokingly told Dad I was considering a stripper career. He wasn’t amused. Pride in his profession only went so far.
During college, he introduced me to a stripper named Willow who was stripping to pay for law school at UCLA. Yes, yet another myth proven true. Strippers do pay their way through school. No one in her life knew how she made ends meet, and she exhibited acute fear and paranoia about it. “Please don’t tell anyone,” she once begged me. Months went by before she told me her real name.
But why should it matter?
After college, I got a job working in the legal department at Playboy, a place where I was sure I could be myself and speak openly about my life without feeling shame. Even there, a co-worker once remarked, “Strip clubs are disgusting and demeaning to women. Playboy is artistic, and the magazine has a certain tradition that has been around for many years.”
Strip clubs, like any work environment, can be disgusting and demeaning to women. But they don’t have to be.
My girlfriends, dying of curiosity, often asked me to show them what the fuss was all about.
I once accompanied 20 good guy friends to a strip club for a bachelor party. The night started off awkward, me being the only female, but after a few cocktails I took up the task of coaching them on the finer points of strip club etiquette: boundaries, how much to tip, etc. By the end of the night they were trading stories about their lap dances and high-fiving each other. My work was done. Most of them were married. I knew and worked with many of their wives.
The sky didn’t fall. No divorces ensued.
Today, pole dancing and strip aerobic classes are all the rage, and American housewives everywhere fill these classes, dying to feel sexy. If you think “decent” America is above the fray when it comes to parading their sluttier side, check out any co-ed Halloween party, and count the naughty nurses and coy Catholic school girls.
Were a male celebrity to have an affair with a female attorney, I doubt the headline would mention her career. But when it’s a stripper, forget it. The double standard persists.
It appears that some aspects of strippers are cool – the sexy part, the pole dancing part, the wet and wild part. But conversely strippers take a disproportionate amount of the blame when a billionaire’s marriage is broken (Banks lumps them interchangeably with “wackos”).
But what about the stripper who’s a mom, a daughter, a school colleague, a survivor? Who represents them?
Sandy Banks states, “Maybe the best advice I can give is the sort of old-fashioned thing my mother told me: You can judge a person by the company he keeps.”
Maybe she lived in my cul-de-sac.