WARNING: Adult situations and sexual themes are discussed at...er...length. This blog includes details about my encounters with male strippers! Readers' discretion is advised!
Strip clubs often get associated with raucous, raunchy fun. Male strippers in particular have had a banner year in 2012 with films like Magic Mike and TV's Amazing Race featuring a pair of Chippendales. A recent boys night out led me to Flash, a "members only" male strip club on Church Street in downtown Toronto. Although I've had several experiences with rival club Remingtons, Flash was completely new to me. It would also be my first foray into a strip club in several years.
Upon entering Flash, we paid our cover charges and gave the required signatures. In some senses we really didn't know what we were signing up for. Katy Perry's "E.T." blared from the sound system as we sauntered in. "Boy, you're an alien...your touch so foreign." The lyrics never felt more appropriate. Overall, the music was a gay man's wet dream with Top 40 Divas and pounding house anthems underscoring the hunks taking it all off. I practically wanted to jump on stage myself and swing around on a pole when I heard some of those tracks. Adult films played on screens at the bar and the atmosphere was almost like a regular gay haunt, with a slightly seedier feel.
The dancers ranged from mildly enthused to subtly traumatized. One dancer performed to LMFAO's "Sexy & I Know It" with slow, artful poses and a distant look in his eyes. It was quite a contrast to the sleazy, enthusiastic hedonism the song is known for. When I'm hoping for a sexy performance, it gets awkward when you can tell how much a guy doesn't want to be there. My mind then drifts into everything I learned in school about desire and commerce. It's an atmosphere selling sex and fantasy, yet the fourth wall is constantly being broken.
Some dancers were more skilled than others. One highlight was a guy who looked like a juiced up version of Joey from Friends. He impressively swung himself around the pole on stage right before throwing around his own impressive pole at the end of his number. I also caught him laughing and joking with other dancers off stage and it gave me flashes of what a gay take on Magic Mike would look like.
As the parade of men continued, one dancer in particular caught my eye. He was a cross between Jersey Shore's Vinnie and Channing Tatum. (In fact, he nailed Tatum's relentless "erotic death stare.") He was very good looking, but slightly less built than some of the others. It made him more "real" and I liked that. When he stripped to his Diesel underwear, I made a crack about whether or not he would run out of gas during his performance. By the end, though, my motor was revved up enough to seek out a dance or two with him.
Going into the private booth with VinTatum was a heart pounding, harrowing experience. Everything you think you know goes out the window when you try to acclimate yourself to an environment with both real and artificial elements. We immediately tried to suss out our respective characteristics to see how much we would "put out" for each other. His interest was cold hard cash and my interest was fleeting physical lust. Each step became a bizarre negotiation to test how far things would go. I tried to laugh and be personable, while he never broke character as the cocky sex god he was born to play.
He climbed onto me and his cologne was heavenly. I told him he smelled really good, to which he replied, "I know." I became Grabby McBeal a bit too quickly, prematurely reaching for hidden treasures. I thought I had ruined everything when he remarked, "It would be nice if you asked before touching." After apologizing, I paused for permission and he smiled his approval for me to continue feeling my way around the situation. At one point he was pressing up against me so aggressively that my glasses were twisted sideways on my face. He also got pretty forceful in pulling my hair and moving my head around. A gold cross adorned his neck, which felt like a glittery symbol of the guilt we shared. Our monetized animalistic behaviour was like a wrestling match to see who could take more advantage of the other. Would either of us emerge victorious? I was almost down for the count, being high off of the machismo he exuded.
Soon I was on the edge of glory seeing his manhood on full display, but unlike Lady Gaga, I didn't have a great poker face. My eyes popped out like a cartoon character and my flushed expression exposed that I was really into him. Yet, I had vowed to stay for a max of three dances and was sticking to it. That's when the negotiations resumed and he played another angle. "You're here with your friends having a good time, right? You don't go out that much, do you? What's a few more dances?" Hearing "you don't go out that much" was almost like a record needle being scraped across a piece of vinyl. In my mind, I was all, "Whaaaaat? Excuuuuuse me? What makes me look like I don't go out that much???"
But indignation aside, he was more or less right. The last few years, I've been more obsessed with staying up late tracking my TV reception than being out at bars. But I also saw how quickly things changed when he knew I was actually calling it quits. Suddenly, he grasped at anything to get me to stay, even if it meant clumsily pegging who he thought I was to entice me to spend more. I was just as guilty of judging him as a seductive hustler who was there solely for my objectification. Our dance really was done. Underwear slid back on and he gave one last tantalizing grab of his Diesel clad package towards my watchful gaze. It was the final lure before he zipped up his jeans and buckled his belt.
Money was exchanged, we hugged, and then he was off to work the crowd of patrons again. My pulse was still racing as I came back to breathlessly describe the details to my friends. But as the high started to wane, I wasn't sure how comfortable I felt with treating another human being like a piece of meat. Or, in turn, how comfortable I felt knowing the dancers were attracted to the size of my wallet more than me. During the dance I volleyed between being aroused and feeling like a cold fish. When I thought too much about the reality, it took me right out of the fantasy. What should have been the hottest moment - experiencing the dancer's "excitement" first hand - was precisely when I started wondering if he enjoyed any part of what he was doing. The physical proof was there, as he was literally hard up for cash. But the gleam on his face seemed to come from knowing it could translate into a bigger payday, which brought a chill to my engagement with the whole thing.
Sometimes, my mind trails off wondering about the real lives of these dancers. As in, do they have artistic aspirations? Siblings that look up to them? Boyfriends? Girlfriends? Weird geeky passions? Big dreams that a temporary cash infusion would help propel? Rival bar Remingtons spells it right out on their main web page with the somewhat hilarious cattle call, "Always hiring new male dancers. Don't be shy, come on in for an audition. Earn great cash to pay your rent, cell phone, school or anything you desire."
There's that word again - desire. Desire fuels the market and the market's open for you to sell yourself to pay for life's essentials. But even desire without a fee attached can lead to an intimidating set of negotiations. Rich Juzwiak wrote a compelling piece on how the hookup app Grindr can simultaneously be thrilling, addictive and awkward. Sexuality in general seems to be one of the great vices we can't escape. We are always selling ourselves in some way, even if money isn't involved. The strip clubs, the dancers, or any of the modern ways that we package and consume sex are not inherently bad. The real dilemma come from the lack of communicating our desires in a way that benefits all parties involved.
A place like Flash makes it even more apparent that so many of us are literally dancing around what we really want. Our desires never quite fit as neatly into our lives as they should. Paying money to satisfy some of those cravings should theoretically make things easier, but it doesn't. I think back to Katy Perry singing, "Boy, you're an alien...your touch so foreign..." More than a few folks inside the bar on and off stage probably feel like outsiders. People crave connection, but it's hard to connect when two different desires clash. When a guy lets you paw him intimately, but he's really just there to pay his rent, it suddenly feels a lot less intimate.
Then again, I'm also a giant hypocrite because as much as I can delve into the psychology behind my experience at Flash, I totally want to go back. (I'd also love to send a note to my former English professor and let him know that I can't even enjoy a lap dance without thinking critically about it...) I made a joke to my friends before I went off for my dances that it was like gambling. As long as I played within my limits, I'd be okay. We all take on gambles and risks to make the most out of our lives. Erotic dancing is another means to an end for some people and depending on the dancer, probably isn't any worse than a lot of other jobs out there. In fact, someone in retail could be just as much of a hustler and be putting on their own brand of performance. They might do it with a few more pieces of clothing on, but in life we're all trying to find ways to make ends meet. Sometimes that goal comes with a little more Flash and sizzle than you'd expect...