Lace is a cozy little gentleman’s club right in the middle of Times Square. After seeing the advertisements on NYC taxis for years, I was curious to check it out. I’m disappointed to say that I found this place less entertaining than the sleazy joint in my sleepy hometown.
My friend Alex and I waltzed up to the steps of the club, assuming our cute outfits and authentic ID’s would get us through the door. I soon realized that I took the term “gentleman’s club” too lightly; even with my sexy skinny jeans and shiny, plunging gold sweater, we weren’t getting anywhere without a man to escort us inside. I gave a weird look to Alex. Do they seriously still do that? She raised her eyebrows back at me, unsure of how to go forward. Thankfully, the lovely Canadian couple behind us quickly intervened, pretending we were in the same party to get everyone inside.
The songs played at Lace weren’t so much hip hop as they were Top 40 and easy listening. I never thought stripping to Taylor Swift would be very sexy but I guess it works for some people. The room was unnecessarily dark and there were too many chairs to walk throughout the club without bumping into something. Most amusing were the dancers themselves. Ever seen a cat belly dance on its hind legs? Me neither, but that’s the best description I have for these performers. Whipping their hair and undulating their hips from side to side, the women grinded against the walls, trying to balance in their heels on stages smaller than kiddy pools. The more profitable ones rolled their hips around on sleepy middle-aged guys’ laps.
Mistaking it for the bathroom, I walked into one of the private champagne rooms in the back of the club. To my relief I didn’t catch anyone in a compromising position. But seeing the small, padded, empty room did make me think back to a comment I overheard a stripper say at Sue’s, saying that some high-end clubs (like Lace) forced dancers into prostitution. Standing alone in the back hallway, I felt a tinge of fear for the things I hadn’t seen.
After making it back to my chair I casually chatted with the Canadian tourists. The white couple was friendly—out to experience the Manhattan strip club experience versus what they knew back home. The girlfriend identified herself as pansexual. She and her boyfriend go not for her man’s pleasure, but for her own. The girlfriend stole glances while conversing with Alex and her male companion divided his attention between my monologue explaining the project and the sports game playing on the monitor above a dancer’s head.
Having graduated from college a couple hours earlier, I was feeling unusually adventurous and went for the gold—I bought my first lap dance.
Looking around the room I saw mostly slender Eastern European women, but being the racist that I am, I picked the only other black chick in the room. Lea had a figure like a young Chaka Khan. Her silky black weave landed in the middle of her back and her white halter-top and boy shorts came with a cape. Once hearing me describe the synopsis of my project, she simply started dancing, unsure of what to say. Her first instinct was to writhe on my invisible cock. Unfazed but curious to see her do more, I sat back and got quiet. Eventually I asked:
How is performing for a woman different from performing for a man?
Lea leaned her head to the left to meet my eyes. Her shoulders rested on my chest as she whined and traced her fingers on one side of my face. “Men are more visual, women are more touchy feely.” She went on to describe how women were more controlling, commanding her on which sexual acts and how to perform those acts on their husbands in the private rooms. I thought back to the Canadian couple sitting a couple seats away.
Sitting still as Lea awkwardly rubbed her cleavage on my chin, her skin smelled like makeup and baby oil. I sat gazing at Lea, gazing at what was happening in the club. But this time I didn’t feel very womanly, sexual, or even particularly empowered as a patron. I just felt like a man. This was especially because Lea’s performance was clearly designed to evoke physiological responses of arousal from men, not women—even though she has performed for women and recognizes a difference between the audiences.
Maybe Lea was having a bad night. Maybe I was having a bad night. Whatever the case, just like at Sue’s, I still felt like I had an alternate gaze—not quite the male gaze nor the oppositional gaze as explained by the brilliant bell hooks. Scholars have described a gaze where women are either embodying men’s gazes, simply accepting how men see themselves as females. Other scholars have discussed how marginalized groups critically gaze at the images presented to them in media. But it seems no one has discussed women’s reception of the visual pleasure that accompanies the embodiment of the male gaze at other female subjects in conjunction with women’s ability to be critical of their environments, themselves and of the women around them during sexual performances such as those in strip clubs.
Critic John Berger describes women taking on the male gaze as passive, one who “turns herself into an object” and becomes an “object of vision” for other men, but that description doesn’t apply to all women in all situations because I as a stripper’s patron am not the primary object to be seen. I say the female patron has a pseudo-phallic gaze, as women are seeing and receiving sexual performances geared towards men’s perspectives and desires, while also celebrating a stripper’s beauty as prescribed by patriarchal beauty standards. Simultaneously, as women, these patrons also have the ability to empathize with the sexual politics a stripper must adhere to inside and outside of the club—thereby influencing a female patron’s behavior inside the club.
This explains a lot of the things I’ve felt and experienced so far at the clubs, like feeling conflicted engaging with the culture, being hyper aware of the sex appeal of my outfits when I enter the club and how other men perceived me in club, watching the subtle ways strippers and other female patrons vie for men’s attention.
Lea moved away, readjusting her halter-top after seven minutes of what was supposed to be a ten-minute performance. I made my back way to Kat, sensing her discomfort with the Canadian lady sitting across from her. As I suspected, the girlfriend was on the prowl.
“That couple was weird,” Alex said as we made our way out of Lace’s front door and on to the next club.
“ I know, Alex,” I replied. “I know.”
The night didn’t end there. Check out “Lace and Looking Relations Or How I Celebrated My College Graduation Part II.”