Written by Jessie Sage, originally published in Pittsburgh City Paper.
Several weeks ago, I found myself in a conversation with a group of Pittsburgh-based strippers who were sharing the nitty-gritty frustrations of customer interactions. It seems important for people to know this stuff, so I decided to reach out to three current and former full-time dancers — Eden, Sheena, and Iris — asking them what their male patrons could do to make their jobs better. Their responses fit into a few broad themes: tipping, groping, gossiping, and judging.
Sitting at the stage/tipping
Strippers do not make an hourly wage, and generally have to pay “stage fees” just to work on any given night. So, if you’re at a club, you’re expected to tip the dancers just as you’re expected to tip a waiter at a restaurant. “If you like what you are seeing, you should tip (and not be on your phone!)” Sheena says. “You can clap or give compliments, but tipping should be the first thing.”
Iris also adds, “I think what is very annoying is when people come in and they just watch, when they don’t really intend on spending money.”
“There are some guys who would grab my ass when I walked by, actively groping me, but who were not planning to buy a dance,” Eden recounts, calling this a form of shoplifting. “I am using my body as a form of service, you don’t get to touch it without asking or paying.”
Iris feels similarly, saying if you have spent all of the money you have intended to spend for the night, it is better for you to go home and “not stay for the petting-zoo option.”
All three dancers talked about how uncomfortable they feel when customers try to get them to engage in gossip about other dancers. “There were times when guys would start making fun of other dancers for being a bad dancer or sometimes it was racial, but, frequently, it would be about someone’s weight,” Eden says.
Iris says some customers would also dig for drama: “I hate it when they ask if we have beef with each other.” Sheena speculates that this behavior is an attempt at negative bonding, but that it really isn’t welcome, adding that she isn’t interested in “creating your real-life reality TV stripper show.”
Judging the job
Sex workers have to deal with a lot of judgment and this is particularly frustrating when it comes from our own customers. “If you can’t really wrap your mind around giving someone your money to entertain you, then it’s better if you just don’t come to the club,” says Iris. Sheena suggests, “It is important that you can respect dancers generally, you should know that this is a job, and it isn’t going to tell you anything more about us than that.” Eden adds that it is disrespectful to question a dancer about her reasons for doing the work. She often had customers tell her she is too smart for the job. She characterizes these comments as “disrespect[ing] the choices I have made, framing the work I am doing as a failure as opposed to a strategically chosen plan.”
Doing it Right
Sheena, Iris, and Eden all said that it is relatively easy to be a good customer in a strip club: Openly communicate what you want, respect the dancers (including their choices and their boundaries), pay and tip generously for the interactions, and don’t try to push for interactions outside the club. These boundaries help dancers feel safe, respected, and able to really engage customers, creating the best interactions for everyone. “Good customers are willing to engage in the fun fantasy play of what the experience can be, they are there to create a piece of performance art; and we can both enjoy that in the moment,” says Eden.
Check out next week’s columns, where I continue this conversation with Eden, Iris, and Sheena, focusing on how women and couples can be good customers and have positive experiences in strip clubs.
Jessie Sage is a sex worker and writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. She’s also the co-founder of Peepshow Magazine and the co-host of the Peepshow Podcast. Her words can be found in the Washington Post, VICE’s Motherboard, Hustler Magazine, Men’s Health, BuzzFeed, and more. She’s currently writing a book on sex work, motherhood, and illness called An Unexpected Place (forthcoming on West Virginia University Press).