Why go to a strip club? It's a deceptively simple question--so simple, in fact, that it is often ignored by the legions of writers who trudge in the musky thicket of human sexuality. Search for books on the politics of pornography--a term infinitely more difficult to define than "stripping"--and you'll find a library's worth of impassioned arguments and real-life horror stories. Look up the history and psychology of erotic dancing, however, and you'll be lucky to fill a shelf--and most of these are either recollections of long-dead burlesque shows or the exaggerated experiences of strippers who were more famous as porn stars.
Maybe everybody just thinks they've got it all so figured out that no study is necessary. Maybe, after decades of identically-scripted celebrity scandals and (locally) puritanical nudity ordinances, the message has been irrevocably ground into strip-ignorant America's collective brains: Men, and almost exclusively men, go to strip clubs to get trashed, to get wild and to unapologetically leer at the boobs they spend all day pretending they're not thinking about. Period.
And to be sure, that's part of it. On the right night in the right club, it may be all. But in the Treasure Valley's small handful of gentleman's clubs, far more is on display than just skin and testosterone. Somewhere between the stage and the lap, these long-reviled hangouts are appealing to local psyches in a way that some unexpected demographics are finding hard to resist.
THE LONELY MALE PROLETARIAT
According to the rap-video imagery crashing inland from America's coastal metropolises, gentlemen's clubs are a kind of church of misogyny. Large congregations of identically minded men--be they bachelor party participants, playas or just The Guys--strut into a room en masse, eager to raise their voices in exaltation and find places to cram dollar bills. In Idaho, however, that image is only half the story.
Francesca, a longtime dancer and bartender at a local bikini bar, estimates that 50 percent of her customers are men who arrive alone, sit alone and leave the bar alone. They slink in after work, often still in their dirty occupational garb, order a drink and camp silently along the side of the stage. If they move, it is only to lay a dollar or two on the stage, beckoning a nearby dancer.
These men rarely, if ever, talk to one another, usually choosing to sit with a buffer of at least one empty chair between them. Indeed, the only time they open their mouths, other than to order another round, is to awkwardly spill the unglamorous niceties of their workaday lives to the girls dancing on their laps.
"We're really like psychologists in bikinis," Francesca says with the giggle of someone who has made the joke countless times before. "We're always listening to their problems with the friends, the job, the family ... we find wedding rings on the floor all the time."
Every girl has to learn to laugh knowingly, albeit silently, at cases like these. They are what Lucinda Jarrett, author of Stripping in Time: A History of Erotic Dancing, calls "the lonely male proletariat," and while they may not tip like the boisterous posse, their quiet persistence has kept the erotic dance industry alive throughout the economic fluctuations of the last century.
Never paid your therapist by the song, you say? Allow me to set the scene of a recent Friday afternoon at Francesca's bar: On the west side of the rectangular stage, a longhaired feller with two pints already down the hatch closes his eyes and grins blissfully for minutes on end while a dancer does nothing more than cradle his head in her arms and drape her hair over his face. Along the south, a heavyset, middle-aged man, his pants still shining with the remnants of a house-painting job, stands rigid while a dancer grabs a pull-up bar attached to the ceiling, lays her thighs on his shoulders and quietly holds his gaze with all the eerie intensity of a mother gazing at an infant. Up north, still another man gently folds two dollars on the side of the stage and then watches as a smiling girl in a black bra and panties puts on his baseball cap and shares a cigarette with him while he sits beneath her.
So much affectionate, almost girlfriend-like staring and cuddling, so little jiggling and hooting ... sure, these may be only half of the customers, but witnessing the affectations of connubial tenderness being dished out in exchange for crumpled singles is nonetheless an unforeseen revelation to a relative newcomer like myself. Luckily, on this particular afternoon I am able to grab the cigarette-sharing boy on the way back from the bathroom to get the surprisingly contrite lowdown.
"They're just lonely guys," he says matter-of-factly, unapologetically, staring at the floor and sipping a Coke through a straw. "They want to get away from their home life or from work. At my job, I stand around for six to 10 hours a day ... I just want to get something ... somewhere with entertainment and drinks, and I know some of the girls here. They're really nice." That's right, ladies: the men of America go to strip clubs in search of the nice girls.
GIRLS GONE STAG-WILD
In his seven years as co-owner of Miss Sally's Gentlemen's Club in Nyssa, Oregon, Mike Reed has learned a lot about the lusty side of Boiseans. His club, the only fully nude review within 250 miles of Boise, has long thrived almost exclusively on our seemingly endless supply of businessmen and horny college students. But recently, the audience his ladies have drawn has surprised even Reed.
"I'd say," he says, pausing to do the numbers, "probably 10 times more women come in now than when we opened. We get couples, but now even whole groups of women are coming in. A lot watch for a while but some ... they really get into it."
Jessica, another dancer at Francesca's club, estimates that 20 percent of her expensive "private dances" are currently being purchased by couples and groups of women--even bachelorette parties--but she describes the females slightly differently than Reed. "They're insane," she says. "Worse than the men. They think just because they're women they can touch you."
The nationwide influx of women into these most male of fantasylands has been fairly well documented in recent years, but mostly in large markets like Atlanta and Los Angeles. There, the scene is often portrayed as one of willful reclamation: women smoking cigars, drinking bourbon and lounging after work, embracing the sensual escapism long reserved for their hubbies. However, according to Chris Price, a longtime DJ at The Torch, Erotic City and Meridian's Kit Kat Klub, the overriding sentiment in Boise clubs is one of innocent titillation and awakening curiosity.
"I see it all the time," he says. "They have this certain look: a little smiley and giddy, a little turned on by all the attention. Believe it or not, they really just like the way a woman looks unclothed better than a man."
So is this the turning of a sexual tide in Boise, or just a momentary trend? In strip clubs, the philosophy is not to ask. Just sit back and watch the singles pile up. "All kinds of people want a nice cool place to hang out," Price says. "Why not do that in a place where beautiful half naked woman are dancing?" It's a question that Boiseans are finding more and more difficult to answer.
Note: Nicholas Collias' three-part series on Boise's adult entertainment scene concludes next week with a look at the business of adult entertainment in Boise.