Book Review of Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work

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Sex work is finding itself raging in contemporary debates – should it should be legalized, and if so, how it should be regulated. Rather than plunging into the oh so typical debate of legalization of sex work, Kim Price-Glynn takes a different angle in her ethnography, Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work, looking at the organizational structure of the institutions that house most of the United States sex work, the strip club. Sex work relates to “the exchange of sexual service, performances, or products for material compensation. It includes activities of direct physical contact between buyers and sellers as well as indirect sexual stimulation.”[1] Price-Glynn does not offer a clear definition of what she understands sex work to include other than stripping, prostitution, and pornographic films. In order to gain a better understanding of sex work and explore the issues of gender and power related to sex work, Price-Glynn took an interest in studying a strip club in Railton, a small, rural, northeastern town. For fourteen months, Price-Glynn fully emerged herself in her research by working in “The Lion’s Den” as a cocktail waitress, enabling her ability to observe, conduct research and analyze a strip club from an inside position. During her time at the club she conducted interviews and observed the organization in order to either prove or disprove her theory. Although the United States has several other institutions dealing in sex work, Price-Glynn specifically chose a strip club because she felt that there was a lot to uncover about what drives women to becoming sex workers and what attracts sex patrons to strip clubs, and that by uncovering these answers, we can gain a better understanding of the gendered, organizational, and economic benefits for strip clubs and their sex workers.

Price-Glynn situates herself in an outsider/insider approach, one that she adopts from Eleanor Miller and Wendy Chapkis. Eleanor Miller produced the study, Street Women in 1968, which studied prostitution and other forms of street hustling. Miller, an outsider, by means of a bar job, interviews, and courthouse visitations, gained access to the street women of Chicago. By connecting on a personal level, Miller was able to view the prostitutes’ lifestyles in ways more than just illegal activity. Later in 1997, Wendy Chapkis brought a new approach to researching sex work by participating as both an insider and an outsider. She collected reports and conducted interviews of multiple sex workers in the United States and abroad to shed more light on the “sex wars” debate. She later participated in a co-taught sexual massage class and even used the techniques learned on other women. By acting as both an outsider and an insider, Chapkis brought a radically different approach to sex work research. Inspired by both Chapkis and Miller, Price-Glynn acted as both an outsider and an insider in her research. As an insider she was a waitress in the strip club. As an outsider she keep a professional relationship with those she interviews and met in the club. Although her research method is adopted, Price-Glynn distinguishes herself from previous sex-work research because she looks at how the strippers are marginalized by the organizational structure of the club rather than by the work itself or by the gender inequality in the work. With her research, Price-Glynn, is opening a new door to the way sex work could be mitigated in order to benefit the workers.

Fourteen months of working at “The Lion’s Den” provided Price-Glynn with a vast amount of research and observations. Not only was she constantly observing the environment and the actions within the strip club by means of her waitressing job, she also collected information through interviews of nearly every person involved in the business: waitresses, strippers, doormen, patrons, business owner, etc. From the beginning, she had a goal of ameliorating the professional lives of sex workers saying, “it is my hope that what emerges from studying a strip club as an organization is an intimate portrait of life and work in the strip club”[2]. She planned to use this work as a platform to offer proposed changes in order to improve the work life of those involved in sex work. She found, as she had assumed, that the strip club was organized in a way that benefits male employees and patrons who visit the club. This intense masculine culture is responsible for marginalizing the strippers. Price-Glynn’s objective however is not to demonstrate that sex work contributes to the gender inequality problem in America, but rather to propose that it is actually the organizational structure of a strip club business itself that is responsible for marginalizing the strippers. This research eventually led her to the conclusion that the working environment for sex workers, specifically the strip club, must be improved. This improvement must stem from a reorganization of the strip club institution itself in order to allow women to feel empowered rather than enslaved by the work they are doing.

By immersing herself into the club scene, Price-Glynn gets about as naturalistic a view as she can get about the lives of sex workers, without actually becoming one herself. Her job as a cocktail waitress allows her to analyze and examine what truly goes on between patrons and the strippers, between the strippers and the boss, and even between strippers and other strippers. This insight allows for a more complete depiction of the strip club life, which unfortunately does not reflect positively of the current strip club life. While working there, Price-Glynn had the unpleasant task of listening to the horror stories and the emotional pain that strippers are subjected to every day and night. Some strippers told stories of how they had been digitally raped while performing on stage, others spoke of how they were expected to perform oral sex (even when touching is explicitly prohibited on the job), some even vocalized their feelings of abandonment when bouncers turned their heads when patrons touched and groped them. But one story that almost every stripper shared was their desire to keep their work life completely separate from their real life, and how complicated and tiresome the struggle was to do so. One stripper recounted that she refuses to touch or be near her partner until she showers saying, “I don’t feel clean, and I don’t feel like I want to touch him or I want him to touch me.”[3] Another described the importance of showering, describing her routine in detail…

“First, I suds up from head to toe and rinse the foreign touches, foul odors, sweat, and grime from my body. After I consider myself squeaky clean, I make the water as hot as I can stand, and rotate slowly under the shower, making the temperature hotter still. The burn is purifying.”[4]

In addition to the interviews with the strippers, Price-Glynn collected information about the strip club’s business structure such as the way things operated during the day and the way wages were calculated. She found that security and safety were compromised regularly because the success of the club was valued more than the safety of the strippers. For instance, the intense masculine culture in a strip club causes the desire for physical boundaries to be broken, and if patrons want or think that physical contact is a possibility, then the club will be more successful with more customers and customers spending more on average. The collateral damage of the club’s success is the strippers’ safety and comfort. She also discovered the way wages were divided in a strip club. The strippers do not actually receive any money other than the money that patrons placed on their bodies while performing. But not only do they not receive a fixed wage, they must pay the strip club in order to gain the “right” to perform there.

The information gathered by means of truly working and integrating into the life of an employee of a strip club immensely validates the accuracy of her research and her conclusion of the organizational structure of a strip club needing reform because it is currently an unsafe place for women. The women who work in the strip club industry are extremely susceptible to psychological, emotional, and in some cases physical harm due to the way the structure marginalizes them. In order for stripping to become a safe type of sex work for women, Price-Glynn advocates for a restructuring of the organization of all strip clubs in order to empower the women rather than continuing the suppress them.

[1] Sex for Sale: Prostitution, Pornography, and the Sex Industry, edited by Ronald Weitzer, Routledge, 2000.

[2] Price-Glynn, Kim, Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work. (New York, 2010), 3

[3] Price-Glynn, 134.

[4] Price-Glynn, 135.