So, the challenge is to work within the rules to make the dance feel like a sexual encounter without any physical contact. It’s about creating the illusion of proximity without touching – eye contact, provocative conversation, making them believe we’re enjoying it as much as they are (sometimes we genuinely are. Sometimes we’re thinking about what to cook for dinner).
Customers are rarely drawn to strip clubs in search of actual sex. It’s not always easy to explain why regulars spend their money on strippers when an escort may charge less by the hour for sex than we charge to provoke them and drink their Champagne. Maybe it’s the suggestion of intimacy or sexual intrigue, safely circumscribed by the house rules. Maybe, because their desire isn’t consummated, it’s kept alive for longer: you can’t desire something you already have, and you can never really have a stripper within the enchanted space of the strip club.
The mysterious dynamic between strippers and their loyal customers is hard to grasp, even from within. Most encounters are one-offs, yet some complex and surprising relationships can be spun out for months or even years with their mechanisms of fantasy, friendship, companionship, affirmation, addiction or lust intact. Every dancer accumulates a wealth of odd, hilarious or macabre tales about clients, but for most, these sensational anecdotes are counterbalanced by genuine moments of rapport, friendship, and sympathy.
For others, experiences in the world of strip clubs may have soured their relationship with sex and men altogether, and galvanising their existing beliefs that most people are [c*nts]. There’s a huge amount of emotional labour involved in sex work. We are exhausted by smiling for hours, trying to please, laughing at jokes and anticipating desires. We may be fantasy technicians but we’re also ‘Care in the Community’.
Sometimes the customers are pure fantasists. Sometimes they’re under no illusions whatsoever. The stereotype of the creepy customer does exist. But for every loner with unkempt fingernails whose interests are disconcertingly gynaecological, there are also customers with integrity, charm, and kindness. In reality, it’s not easy to pigeonhole the people who frequent strip clubs or to guess their stories any more than it is to make assumptions about the dancers who work there.
Wanting You to Want Me: Stories from the Secret World of Strip Clubs by Bronwen Parker-Rhodes & Emily Dinsdale (Hardie Grant, £16.99) Photography ©Bronwen Parker-Rhodes. It’s available to purchase at Amazon.co.uk and Bookshop.org.