So, here are some excerpts from a paper I wrote for school about stripping. It's not as finessed or put-together as I'd hoped it would be, but it's sort of my first theoretical engagement with the topic - be gentle!
It was mid-June, and my first day of work as a stripper. I had just finished my audition and was told I could start work that very day. After the DJ explained to me the rules of dancing at the club, he asked me where I was from. “India,” I told him. He told me that he would have “either guessed South American or Middle Eastern” for me, and that the club had never had an Indian girl before. “You’re going to do well. You’re exotic, and that’s going to be an asset for the club.”
This was perhaps my first racialized experience as a stripper, and that it happened within minutes of being hired is no accident. Almost two years later, I am keenly aware that working in strip clubs is not simply a form of sex work; it is a form of race work. Indeed, race figures prominently in my daily experiences in the club. In fact, the space of the gentlemen’s club is not only gendered, it is deeply racialized and classed. Frank argues that “part of the way race becomes real is through the organization and meaning given to particular spaces, through the ways those spaces are experienced, perceived, and imagined” (2002; 58).
In this paper, I explore the racial organization and meaning of the space of the strip club based upon my experiences in two New York City strip clubs over two years. It is my contention that race is a critical dimension of how the strip club is experienced by dancers and customers; much of the literature on gentlemen’s clubs examines the racialized terrain of the strip club as auxiliary, secondary to its gendered and classed dimensions, doing injustice to theories of intersectionality. By bringing race to the center of my analysis, I hope to demonstrate the ways it is impossible to isolate any of the intersectional variables in a spatial analysis of power.
The strip club is a place where both strippers and customers display and assess symbolic and social capital (Wood, 2000). In my experience, much of this capital has rested visibly along race lines, with race fetishization, exoticism, racism, and a concern with racial authenticity being among the critical components of how this capital is appraised. A stripper who presents herself as the girl-next-door, for instance, is constructing a normative identity that not only summons up notions of “Americanness,” innocence, approachability, and middle-class identity, but also whiteness.
Anthropology of the body and embodiment are theoretically important foundations for this paper. Complicating the Cartesian mind-body duality is essential for understanding the work that strippers do, no less so when interrogating the role of race in this work. It is only through the fallacy of disembedding the body from its sociopolitical realities that the simplistic statement of strippers “selling their body” can be made. The body is always already discursive, politicized, and social. There is, Csordas says, a distinction between the body as an object to be studied and the body as a subject of culture (Csordas, 1990). In this paper, embodiment takes a central role as I ask about the racial subjectivities of dancers and customers, and the ensuing perceptions and performances that take place.
Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu are two important thinkers for understanding embodiment (Csordas, 1990). Merleau-Ponty’s concern is with the domain of perception, the complicated duality of body-as-subject and body-as-object. He emphasizes the need to understand the experience of perception, as perception is a critical starting point in how we understand objects. He says that it is “as false to place ourselves in society as an object among other objects, as it is to place society within ourselves as an object of thought, and in both cases the mistake lies in treating the social as an object. We must return to the social with which we are in contact by the mere fact of existing, and which we carry about inseparably with us before any objectification” (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). Thus, Merleau-Ponty suggests that what he calls the “preobjective” is deeply concerned with the ways humans take up and inhabit the sociocultural world. For Bourdieu, it is habitus – a set of dispositions which both collectively and unconsciously structure both practice and representation – that is critical to understanding embodiment. Bourdieu’s discussion of aesthetics, for instance, is an example of this (Bourdieu, 1984). While we may think of taste as bodily, it is certainly social, cultural, and political.
For Appadurai, objects that enter exchange relations have social lives (Appadurai, 1988); this may seem like a foregone conclusion when the exchanged ‘objects’ are social beings. Yet, if we understand the social life of things being exchanged, what does it mean to buy and sell deeply social experiences and services? What sort of commodity is a stripper selling? In a commercial setting like the strip club, it seems that the body, the social self and personhood are imbricated in particular ways.
To look at the body as an object, as objectified, and the mind as the locus of subjectivity overlooks the myriad ways strippers explicitly use their physical bodies to portray subjectivities around age, race, class, and other crucial dimensions. The commodified setting of the strip club often leads people to (inaccurately) assume that strippers are (simply) commodifying their bodies. This overlooks the ways the body itself carries racial, political, social, and gendered identities; this assumption ignores the ways the body is discursive and politicized. What, then, does it mean to present one’s body as a commodity? What does the body signify? How do strippers present their bodies in ways that are both objective and subjective? How is the so-called objectification of one’s own body rooted in sociopolitical realities? Ethnographically, how do dancers bring to life or make explicit the social and political dimensions of their bodies in their everyday practices? How are body and mind imbricated in the presentation of the (racialized) body as commodity?
My interest in the strip club as a particular site for this investigation (after all, our daily experiences everywhere are racialized) stems from the fact that the strip clubs specifically – as are several types of sex work in general – are at once intimate and fantastic settings. Racialized performance, perception, and embodiment in strip clubs rest in a terrain that is explicitly commodified, sexualized, and exotic. Frank’s trope of “touristic practices,” for instance, suggests that the strip club is a peculiar site in the way it is perceived by patrons (and, I would add employees) who “desire to have a particular kind of experience rooted in the complex network of relations between home, work, and away” (2002; 90).
In the pages that follow, I will use autoethnographic analysis of my experiences as a stripper to address the following concerns. I examine my experiences to understand the role that race plays in the strip club in shaping the perceptions of dancers and customers. I also explore the way racial performativity is an everyday practice in my work at the clubs. I examine my experiences at the club that suggest certain assumptions about racial categories and authenticity. I end with a discussion about why theoretical and ethnographic analysis of race in strip clubs is worthy of analysis.
Each of these stories, in different ways, speaks to the way racial perceptions operate in a strip club. The club itself is an important site for understanding how these perceptions work. First, those inside the club seem to have some sense of communitas; in the case of the strippers commenting on my body shape, my very presence in the club separates me from those “skinny” Indian girls in their imaginary and brings me into a dialogue with them. For Ricardo, my nudity separates me from the “covered up” Indian women he sees on the city streets. Being a stripper, then, brings me into an intimate social environment in which people can see and comment on my body and racial identity in ways that might not be possible outside such a space.
The anecdotes provided here are but a short sampling of instances in which I was perceived in accordance with, or in exception to, some preconceived notions of what an Indian/Muslim/South Asian woman is expected to be. Very rarely does a day go by at work where I am not drawn closer to a customer because of a perceived racial alliance (i.e. with a Muslim man, a South Asian, an Arabic speaker, or even a white man who backpacked across India in college). Often, these encounters bring with them explicitly racialized statements about what other strippers are like and how I am different from them. The site of the strip club is significant, for it is only in a place like the strip club that an independently wealthy man can spend an afternoon dancing with naked women from Brazil or the Bronx; the emotional, mental, and physical intimacy of the space is intertwined with the racial contours of the club.
In other words, the racial discourse within the strip club reveals unique nuances that general conversations about race (in other settings) do not. In the club, these conversations rest explicitly along sexualized and classed lines. In few other instances would an older Turkish man have the opportunity to express to a young, South Asian woman his ideas about promiscuity, Islam, and marriage. Outside of the club, I do not sit patiently and sip champagne while talking to a married conservative man about how the Republican party can revitalize itself.
The body itself is brought into discourse as the foundation for these racial perceptions. The construction of race as a biological fact is perpetuated by this discourse. For several of my customers, my race indicates that I am free of HIV or any other STI. I have been assumed to be a virgin by several customers. Dancers have asked me if I had “butt implants” because my body did not seem to them to be truly Indian. Wall Street hedge fund workers have praised me for educational capacity rare among other dancers, and credited my Indian background for it.
In this way, my investigation is a deeply spatial one; the spatial confines of the strip club may actually reveal and conceal in particular, telling ways. “The clubs,” says Frank, “offer a fantasy space where the demands and limitations of the everyday could be escaped or transformed” (2002; 33). Understanding the club as a fantasy space, and yet an intimate one, allows us to understand the peculiar racial discourse that is expressed inside its walls. Communitas forms between separate people; connections that are otherwise not possible become commonplace; intimacies form that are fleeting yet telling.
With these cases, we see race being performed by dancers, management and customers. We see the strip club as a place where racial pretenses are presented, where race itself is constructed. Playing reggaeton and rap might pigeonhole the club as a “black” club, or a less classy establishment, as might a girl “booty-dancing” on stage. Requesting music that constructs my own ethnic identity as authentically Indian or Asian has been financially lucrative for me, as illustrated by the Bengali economist anecdote. In other words, symbolic capital is critical for the way the club itself, as well as individual dancers at the club, are perceived. Egan explores the use of music as a type of resistance, a way to build intimacy and romance, and a way to exercise creative license in the strip club (Egan, 2006). For myself and other women I have worked with, music selections and dancing styles are a clear way to indicate a race and class identity.
The deliberate presentation of this capital has, for me, been conflicted terrain. While strippers find themselves on what Barton (2006) calls a “Mobius strip” in terms of gender power (at once contesting and perpetuating heteronormative, patriarchal regimes) , the conflicting relationship to power and subordination has been explicit along racial lines, too. When customers praise me in comparison to “ghetto” girls who work at the club, or make offensive statements about other dancers’ English competency, it becomes financially lucrative for me to use my cultural capital in the club along those very racialized and classed dimensions. By fulfilling a customer’s fantasy by playing the part of a virginal Indian girl, a Muslim woman rebelling against the repressed sexuality of her childhood, or the “intellectual” with an exhibitionist streak, I at once reinforce stereotypes about myself and the other strippers from whom I am differentiated by accepting and performing these roles. At the same time, however, by playing these parts, I am able to make sums of money unimaginable in any other part-time job. It is at once a disturbing and rewarding performance.
The daily scene in the dressing room is explicitly racialized, as well, as girls flatiron their curls, put on wigs, use body makeup to cover “ghetto” tattoos and stretchmarks. Conversations about “nappy” and “good” hair abound. Management enforces these internalized desires, as certain women are encouraged to wear wigs and body makeup. A sign in my club’s dressing room reads: “TASTEFUL JEWELRY ONLY. NO ‘BLING.’ NO GHETTO GOLD. NO BAMBOO-STYLE EARRINGS.”
The bodies we commodify are not simply bodies; they are embedded in material realities and salient social constructs. The dancers, management, and customers work to perpetuate these constructs in everyday decisions. The music, dancing styles, attire, and accessories are all deliberately chosen to create an image of a particular type of club, a specific sort of femininity, ethnicity, or class.
While popular understandings of strip club culture often suggest a vulgar, visual objectification of women by male customers, the literature suggests that customers are often in search of something radically different from a place where women’s bodies are ogled (Frank, 2002; Wood, 2000). Strip club customers are usually not just in search of a sexual experience or even visual stimulation from the presentation of women’s bodies. In Frank’s work, the strip clubs she studied contained a “social geography, a landscape that was raced, classed, and gendered, populated with a variety of Others who lent an air of excitement or danger to the men’s experiences” (74). Strippers, then, become black, Latina, white, gothic, innocent, or vampy to produce this social geography.
The examples above suggest that the dynamics in the strip club anticipate a particular type of essentialized racial purity, conformity, and authenticity based on these perceived categories. In our interactions at the club, we “allow the customer to imagine the personality and history of the dancer who is attending to him” (Wood, 10). While Wood’s major assertion is that these imagined personas that are created by dancers and customers alike often “affirm cultural notions of masculinity” and gender (18), my observations suggest that they often affirm essentialized notions of race, culture, and ethnicity.
In my experience, assumptions of racial essence and purity are explicit and abundant at strip clubs. On numerous occasions, being able to speak Hindi, Urdu, Arabic, or “standard” English has been instrumental in establishing a long-term, lucrative connection with a regular customer. Linguistic skills were proof that I was a particular type of immigrant woman, separate from the many Brazilian and Russian women who often lacked legal documentation for work in the U.S. or had limited English proficiency. Several times, customers have told me that even the way I introduced myself “gave away” my race and class identity within seconds. Linguistics is not the only way I am perceived and perform a racialized identity. My status as a graduate student often came into question by customers. One man, himself a university professor, said that several girls lied and pretended to be graduate students, but “it’s clear that they’re not actually in school, and it’s clear that you’re some sort of graduate student.” In fact, the “Indian emphasis” on higher learning has come up several times by customers with whom I discuss my career and schooling.
On numerous occasions, customers have asked me for information about my family life. Do my parents try to arrange my marriage? Aren’t they really strict? Are they accepting of my choice to be in graduate school? Several of these questions reflect assumptions about what my people are expected to be like; my responses to these questions are part of the racial performance that I argue is a critical component of the social geography of the strip club.
The autoethnographic examples above are part of my attempt to begin to understand the myriad ways race impacts the social geography of the strip club. By looking at racial performance, perceptions, and assumptions, I hope to draw attention to the ways strippers (particularly those who are women of color ) navigate an overtly racialized terrain. The hiring process, the daily act of getting dressed, and the ways we choose to introduce ourselves to customers all suggest careful calculations about race and ethnicity.
The strip club as a site for investigations about race seems to be a compelling one. In very few sites do racial and gendered performances work so closely together for the purpose of commodification. It is also a site in which extremely disparate people (in terms of race, age, class, and national origin) are put together in extremely close, even intimate, settings. Crack dealers and graduate students get dressed in cramped spaces and help each other with make-up; investment bankers get drunk while talking to Brazilian immigrants about their marriage; married men with children talk to me in a single conversation about their sexual fetishes and their experience of immigration. These unusual scenes suggest that the social intimacies in the strip club allow atypical scenarios to emerge, enable unexpected contacts and social scripts.
In Barton’s work, she finds that strippers view race as “less a site of stigma than just another distinguishing characteristic that enabled her to make either more or less money on a given night” (2006; 13). Several dancers Barton interviews find race inconsequential or secondary to their ability to negotiate with customers, their physical features, or their level of education. Barton, however, contextualizes these views with the views of other dancers, for whom race is not thought of as irrelevant. “Racial images permeate our culture. Representations of the “Asian Flower,” “Hoochie Mama,” and “Blonde Playmate” color the expectations of customers. Dancers understand this. In the strip club, in which every interaction is a market transaction, dancers may deliberately perform customers’ fantasies to extract more money from them. These fantasies include other racialized fantasies, such as the subservient lotus blossom, and fantasies that have nothing to do with race, for example, the dominatrix or schoolgirl” (14). Barton approximates my experience best when she says that the successful dancer “swiftly learns to read customer desires and perform his gendered and racial fantasies” (15). Reading the customer’s socioeconomic and racial preferences has been as critical in my work as a stripper, if not more, than understanding the customer’s sexual preferences.
Understanding stripping as exposing one’s body and using nudity for commercial purposes does an injustice to the politics of embodiment. After all, a body is never simply a physical entity to be used, bought, or sold; it exists in a complex constellation of social realities, power dynamics, and material bases that construct it as a commodity. My discussion of race above suggests that not only is stripping about gendered practices, it is fundamentally a racial practice as well. As strippers, we not only present our feminine bodies to (mostly) male customers in a commodified setting, we present our whiteness, brownness, blackness, Americanness, and foreignness.
I find it empowering to use a framework of embodiment to understand the work I do. The separation of mind and body, and the consequent association of mind with sociality/politics and the body with biology/nature does a great injustice to the social subjectivities of sex workers. As Csordas says, “that the body might be understood as a seat of subjectivity is one source of challenge to theories of culture in which mind/subject/culture are deployed in parallel with and in contrast to body/object/biology” (1995; 9).
To understand our very bodies as discursive and political allows us to look at the ways we inhabit our bodies and use them in the work we do. Our bodies are powerful symbols, instruments of daily experience shaped by our very understanding of these symbols. Our bodies are not separate from our minds, from politics, from our social subjectivities. In spaces of commercial intimacy, it is never just a body that is bought or sold.