“A PhD in Strippernomics”

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The always thought-provoking Gary Kamiya, at Salon, posted a column this week asking whether America’s puritanism might just be waning in the wake of Spitzer, Paterson, men’s room foot-tapping, mother-daughter pole dancing, and the like. He writes:

America seems to be slowly but surely weaning itself from its addiction to shrill moral judgments. Only 10 years ago, former President Bill Clinton was almost removed from office because he fooled around with a White House intern. Ten years before that, Douglas Ginsburg lost his shot at the Supreme Court because he admitted he had smoked marijuana. But when New York Gov. David Paterson recently copped to having had extramarital affairs and doing cocaine, the public reaction was a collective yawn. Admittedly, Paterson chose the best possible time to make his public confession: after the Eliot Spitzer train wreck, he probably could have revealed that he had dabbled in necrophilia while high on smack and gotten away with it. But still, Paterson’s get-out-of-jail-free card would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

I’ve been trying to convince my journalism students of this very point, and that the media deserves the lion’s share of the credit for America’s maturation on morals issues. Exhaustively covering these issues (Religious Right, anyone?) allows America to look itself in the mirror and ask questions like: Is it really my business if Paterson and his wife took a ‘vacation’ from their marriage? No. Mr. “Morals” Spitzer’s ‘hoing? Yes. But I’m swimming upstream trying to sell them on the notion that the media is our only way of figuring out which conversations we no longer need to have.

We needed to jawbone about slavery, female suffrage, and child labor, for hundreds of years—until we didn’t need to anymore. In the process of incessantly fighting about it, we moved the conversation forward.

On the other hand, abortion, stem cells, foreign intervention—those are debates that we’ll be haranguing each other over for the foreseeable future. Bored to tears as my students are by the never ending debate over race, gender, and now sex scandals in this election, I’m doing my best to convince them that pummeling America with arcane dissections of these issues until we scream ‘enough, already!’ and achieve some sort of workable consensus is a vital media function. A conversation among 300 million people can only be dysfunctional. But train wreck that it is, you have to agree with Kamiya and me that, for better or worse, America’s getting a little French about passing judgment on public figures—let alone the neighbor kid whose Facebook hijinks they happened upon.

The Kamiya piece struck a chord with me in part because one of my journalism students surprised me with an excellent essay, a la Spitzer, about having managed an adult video store with a “special” room in the back. Talking about governors, their well-paid aides, and $5000/hour call girls is one kind of conversation. Talking about the “live models” working in the back of adult video stores…well, that’s quite another. And it’s contributions like this, just when we think we can’t stand another 1000 words on some millionaire’s sex life, that rekindles the discussion.

Case in point: “Live Models Needed,” by student TG Branfalt Jr.:

Let’s play a word game. When I say, “Two 18 year old art students, three mothers over 30, and a career stripper of Philippine descent,” you say…”Huh?”

On the surface it would seem that these women would have little in common, but when put inside a small adult video store in upstate NY, they become “live models,” “private dancers” and “outside contractors.” My experience in this area is not that I was one of these women nor was I a “client.” I was their boss.

This scheme is unknown to most people I explain my former job to. Most are familiar with “porn stores,” the seedy, inconspicuously named, oft times referred to as “book stores” spotted on main drags in a plethora of cities and neighborhoods. What most are not familiar with is what goes on behind the windows draped in black.

There are services offered called “private sessions.” A session is a private dance, in a private room by a female dancer. The session is offered at a fixed rate, or “rental fee” which was $40 for 15 minutes or $50 for a half an hour, a fee paid by the client. The girls never see this money; they’re free to charge their own, negotiable, fees. The most popular dancers were the 18 year old art students; they would usually charge $50-100 for a topless dance and fifty bucks more for fully nude. The “exotic lookin’ girl,” as she was referred to by repeat customers who wouldn’t bother to learn her name, would charge a bit less. The older women would charge less than that. There was a hierarchy. The girls that brought money were given the peak hours, between 5pm and 10pm. These were the art students. Their parents paid for all of their education expenses. The two girls lived together and loved to party.

“Mercedes” was a small, waif-girl that had a natural glow about her. She didn’t come from a broken home; she was never raped or molested. As a matter of fact she never hinted in any way that her life was anything but normal. Maybe a bit sheltered, but no major dysfunction. Her parents gave her a credit card to use while away at school. She didn’t have a drug problem, and her habit was minimal. She would sometimes come to work a little drunk on vodka, but she said it helped her get through the night. One of her clients, she told me, was a New York State Assemblyman.

I took a particular liking to Mercedes. I was only 20 or 21 at the time, single. She was talented, very bubbly, and once wrote the phrase “your words will be our anthem” in my journal that she had stolen, and returned, one night without my knowledge. One very slow Halloween night we blew a couple of lines of cocaine off of the glass store counter, locked the front door, and, her dressed as a very convincing Marilyn Monroe and I dressed as a Monroe-era gangster, went behind the building and had a quickie. We would see each other a couple of times outside of work, and I took the time to ask her why she was stripping.

Her reasons were something like; easy money, can get drunk beforehand, excitement. She could party all of the time and not have to worry about getting fired from her job. I wondered why she didn’t try and sell some of her art; it was good, after all. Like every artist I’ve ever met, she laughed off the suggestion. How much money was she making? “$600 on a slow night,” she’d say. I no longer felt bad about doing her drugs. She made more on a slow five hour shift then I made, as manager, with my sometimes fifty hour work week.

It was my job to look at this as a business, to take my own morals out of it. It was my job to interview and hire them. It was my duty to go over all of the dirty details of not only the job, but of their lives. I got to know all of the girls. Some better than others. Some I would do drugs with, others I’d sleep with, or fool around with, and some I wouldn’t even grant an interview. You could sometimes see the desperation on a woman’s face when she walked through the door. It was agonizing. Some girls would see the ad in the paper, with the misleading description of “live models needed.” These girls would come bouncing in, and their smiles would melt into terror when they saw the 4ft. dual-headed rubber penis hanging from the ceiling over the cash register. They would meekly inquire about the position, and upon hearing the “job description” they would politely whisper “no, thank you.” Aside from the stiletto race in Amsterdam, I have never seen a woman move so fast in heels.

The interview process would double as a therapy session. The candidates would sometimes offer me their life stories; for many this was a lifetime career. Their high school diploma doubled as a PhD in strippernomics and their adolescence was marred with the textbook definitions of abuse. I learned very early on the job that there are two major things it is absolutely imperative to understand about the sex business.

1. There is a huge gap between stripper and prostitute.
2. A person’s life experience can narrow and close that gap.

Personally, I never encountered this problem. Of course I had no idea what went on behind the door of the “VIP room,” there were no cameras and, barring a great disturbance, I was not allowed in that room when the door was closed. Technically for the pre-paid and pre-determined amount of time the client rented that room. It was essentially a sublet and therefore his property (there was never a female client.)

It was easy to tell which girls would drop to their knees for an extra hundred bucks and which girls wouldn’t do it for a thousand, just by talking to them. Some would itch and seem nervous for the wrong reasons. Others would have tears in their eyes because their long hard road has led them to this brink. Their eyes scream, “the fuck else am I going to do!?” And some would laugh and joke, their reasons were simple and innocent. They would say they feel empowered that they can make a living being beautiful but would prefer to be seen in front of one set of eyes as opposed to a few dozen.

And some just liked the money.


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