Beyond the mirrorballs and the shining poles a strip club is also a reflection of the world outside it. The changes within it respond to those without, and if you set the wider politics aside then you have an excellent place to observe the shifting dynamics of desire. The nature of the interaction and look of the girls might seem superficial and rooted in fantasy (as much of male sexual thinking is) but the details are keys to a deeper understanding of how we see each other and ourselves.
The most obvious shift I’ve seen since I first danced is the gradual morphing of the girls themselves - their bodies and their looks - towards a generic paradigm – which is a convoluted way of saying that everybody looks the same. Can you guess what the paradigm is? I’m sure you can, you’re reading this on a computer, you’re no more than a couple of clicks away from a Technicolor world of sexualized women looking more or less identical. In the age of Internet pornography “natural” has become a niche market, a specific kink in a landscape of surgical curves, and the clubs, sadly, have gone the same way.
When I started dancing fifteen years ago surgery was a rarity, now it’s the rule. Around eighty percent of the girls I see now have had some kind of conspicuous cosmetic procedure – lips (both sets), breasts, buttocks, Botox. If it can be tweaked twisted or enlarged then the thinking now is ‘go with it.’ I work with girls as young as 20 who are having liposuction, and girls with just fantastic bodies – women that would stop you dead in the street – who are going in for surgery because they think they should, that this will keep them working and earning. The pressure to conform is just enormous – as are most of the implants. And despite that somewhat obvious innuendo this is not, I think, some harmless Benny Hill fantasyland in which the world is gradually mutating into a seaside postcard. The homogenization of the stripper is good news for no one (except the surgeons perhaps). It’s a risk to the girls and, like all things driven via advertising and other imagery towards an archetype - a crude manipulation of people’s idea of what they want. If this happened to anything else on the spectrum of male desire, cars for instance – they’d be up in arms.
Another thing you notice on the frontlines is that most of this work is poorly done. We see all kinds here and the results are often shocking, one nipple goes one way, the other another. A lot of girls don’t take the time to recover. These things need time to heal and girls come back to work too early and start back on the pole, spending half the day defying gravity which misshapes everything. But when you’ve spent three grand on the procedure the pressure’s on to earn again.
And for all that, a lot of guys don’t even like it. I don’t have the ‘best’ tits, but the relief on some punter’s faces when they can see they’re at least my own is substantial. They’ll tell you as much. I reckon I’ve seen four or five hundred boob jobs over the years, and I’ve seen two (pairs) that looked really good. There’s a strange militancy that goes along with it sometimes too. Some girls that get into it get really into it. When the PIP implants thing happened not a single girl I knew who had them stopped working or considered having them removed. The thinking was ‘mine are OK – so what’s the problem?’ which is pretty astonishing to me. If it were me – they’d have been straight out – but then I never managed to convince myself to put them in. Decisions of that magnitude can be hard to retreat from, no matter how much danger you’re in.
The peripheral downside to all this is the lack of diversity about the business itself, you’d get girls working in the old days (by which I mean late 90’s – early 2000’s) who just couldn’t get a gig now because they’d be perceived as being too ‘far out’. Ironically one who springs to mind from back then was known as Rikki Tits, and she was a pioneer of plastic surgery, an early adopter. But she had an edge about her too as a person, the way she acted with the punters, her whole vibe was a thing in itself. And aside from the physical homogenization these days it seems like a lot of the personalities are being lost as well. Everyone’s a cardboard cut out. The curvaceous the appearance gives masks a more one dimensional reality.
Rikki was so crude, she would even be shocking me in the changing room. Her boobs were like these big blow up things attached to this tiny figure, she had tattoos from her youth that she’d only half removed, but within all that she was herself completely. She wasn’t trying to look like anyone else in the club, on TV or in any magazine - there was scope for that then and some men seemed to like it. She made good money. It worked. Since then it’s like men’s imaginations and the girls sense of themselves has been hoodwinked or kidnapped somehow.
Rikki though had a damaged background, she’d had a tough upbringing and I think those extremities helped her to focus. She’d open her mouth and it was complete trash. She’d bend over, naked, literally right in your face and say, ‘do you think I need my fanny clipped? Do you think I need surgery?’ You’d tell her it looked all right just to get rid of her – but that was like normality for her. It wasn’t an act. She’d be doing it to the customers, bent in half asking if she should have surgery, ‘do you think I need it?’ ‘Should I get my bum hole bleached?’ Stuff that you’d kind of keep separate from the customers – while you’re trying not to ruin that illusion - she’s full on, telling them everything, her nights out at S&M clubs which she was very keen on, talking to presentable suits, they’re going – ‘what’s a gimp?’ But she rocked some people’s world, she’d take the customers out to these clubs if they’d never been. You don’t see that same mixing up of scenes so much anymore. She was really out her own. Cheek implants, lip implants, she couldn’t move her face in the end. But I was talking to someone the other day and apparently now she’s gone the other way – no plastic surgery, won’t even dye her hair, won’t shave her legs. A true extremist, and there’s no scope for that in the not so brave new world.
So that’s what’s happened. As to why, well there’s any number of arguments. A very significant factor though is the rise of pornography. Younger men coming into the club now have grown up with that, and they have an expectation, far more than the older men, that this is what women ought to look like. Or at least the women they like to fantasize about.
In the treatment room it’s a different story. When my male patients are talking about the women they actually want to be with it’s clear that men want something else from women, and are quickly bored when everything is invested on the superficial level, a physical refraction of the abundant imagery soon reveals itself to be just as one dimensional. Like a lot of people who seek out therapy they sense on some level that the desires they were encouraged to follow have bought them little happiness. The phrase I’ve heard the most from men around women's obsession with being slim is, "men just want someone they can cuddle". Which would be sweet, were there not so much time, energy emotion and money caught up in convincing us that this was not so.
It is men who are driving this shift, but what is it about the pneumatic archetype that renders them so susceptible to it? Well, how long have you got? You can invoke Freud and the Oedipus complex, or lay the blame with Dr Spock, the 50’s childcare writer who inspired a generation of mum’s to limit their offspring’s access to their breasts. I asked a male friend of mine with a preference for the larger cup size where he thought his obsession lay and he said, succinctly, that he liked larger breasts. “because you’d be mad not to.” There’s not much you can say to that but there’s a minor tragedy unfolding here beneath all such ‘banter’ it seems to me. Even in the divisive world of the sex trade, where fake emotion has considerable currency, it seems a pity that that it has become standard on both sides of the transaction to keep everything unreal.