Topless Bars Uncovered
By Jodie Gould
After a strenuous week of toiling on Wall Street, Charlie, a 28-year-0ld investment banker, and his colleague, Michael, 32, like to kick back and have a few drinks. They call their wives to say they’re going out after work, not to hold dinner, and to kiss the kids good night.
Tonight they’re trying the new place the guys at work have been buzzing about called Goldfingers. It’s just a cab ride away on Eleventh Avenue in Manhattan, where abandoned warehouses were converted into discos during the club-crazed eighties.
Men in their late twenties and thirties, sporting designer suits and silk ties, are spilling out of taxis. In pairs and in packs, the men banter excitedly as they await a nod of approval from two muscle-bound bouncers before entering.
Inside the flashy, high-tech nightclub are mirrored columns, laser lights and an oval bar that wraps around a long platform. Dancing on the platform are stunning topless women in garters and G-strings who smile broadly and perpetually. Ubiquitous tough guys in tuxedos scrutinize the crowd like presidential bodyguards, walkie-talkies pressed to their ears. They are reminders that the testosterone-charged, party-hearty atmosphere is under a heavy watch.
Charlie and Michael take seats near a statuesque brunette in a “cage” just above their table. Charlie beckons with a dollar bill, and she bends down to give him a closer look at her ample breasts. She is wearing sheer latex pasties—invisible in the dim lighting to the naked eye but required by all New York City topless bars with liquor licenses (they constitute “clothing” by law). She reels Charlie in by his tie and fastens it to a bar of her cage, where he remains fettered until her set ends.
“My wife would be upset if she knew I was here,” Charlie admits over the pounding music. “I don’t think she’d understand that I just come here to relax.”
To relax? Has he heard of fishing? “The average guy enjoys looking at beautiful women, and the average guy doesn’t get to do that very often,” explains Michael. Not that Michael doesn’t think his wife is beautiful—he does, he adds quickly, shifting like schoolboy who’s been caught smoking in the hallway. “Look, our jobs are very stressful, and we want to go somewhere to escape.”
Like Charlie and Michael, an increasing number of business-suited men are laying down big money to ogle naked women. There are approximately 1,500 strip clubs across the United States, according to experts in the industry, and several new clubs are sprouting up each week. Though only 5 percent are considered upscale, these are said to gross more than $1 billion a year.
The first mainstream strip clubs appeared in 1975, but the industry didn’t boom until ten years ago, when clubs cropped up in Texas and along the border towns of Canada. Others followed in the spring-break enclaves of Florida and Georgia, where good ol’ boys welcomed them with open wallets. Tales of the success of those clubs now have ones in New York, Minnesota, and Ohio, among other states, trolling for the pin-striped-suit crowd.
“For years, men went to seedy clubs and dilapidated theaters in less desirable parts of town to watch a strip show,” explains Howard Ruppel, Jr., executive director of The Society for the Scientific Study of Sex, a research and educational organization in Mount Vernon, Iowa. But Industry renovators have made considerable headway in demolishing the topless club’s image as a magnet for dirty old men in raincoats. Before, strippers performing in these low-rent juke joints were often barefoot, tattooed, and on the arm of a biker. Many would supplement their earnings by moonlighting as prostitutes.
Today’s upscale dancers wear tasteful makeup, sequined gowns, and lingerie that is more Victoria’s Secret than Frederick’s of Hollywood. Although laws regarding total nudity and alcohol sales vary from county to county in many sates, the sophisticated strip show remains soft-core. In upscale clubs, nude dancers are not permitted to spread their legs, fondle themselves, or display their genitals. And, as in all reputable clubs across the country, anyone who touches or harasses a stripper will be escorted by his armpits to the nearest exit.
Tom, a 30-year-old owner of a printing company in Akron, has sampled all types of strip clubs while traveling on business. Tom, who is single, says he’s pleased with the changes in the industry. “I prefer a cleaner establishment,” he says, as he dines alone at Stringfellows Presents Pure Platinum, a posh Manhattan strip club that serves its customers filet mignon and lobster. “I don’t want to sit next to six guys in leather jackets wondering if I’m going to get a bottle broken over my head.”
A reported 10 million men—age 21 to 61 –- go to strip clubs anywhere from once a year to once a day. About half are married. But the slick new clubs specifically want the businessman crowd, so topless bars are marketing themselves as the in place for deal making. Ads for Stringfellows bill it as the spot “where business and pleasure do mix”; a promotional flyer for the Gold Club in Atlanta calls it “perfect for business entertainment”; and Scores, a New York City topless sports bar, provides its customers with a fax, a laptop computer, and a secretary. (No, there are no laptop secretaries.)
When you factor in cover charges of up to $15, pricey liquor, and tips, an evening at a go-go bar can wind up costing an obscene amount of money. Last year, an engineer at Conoco, a Houston-based oil company, racked up a tab of $22,664 on his corporate credit card for one night with clients at Houston’s Paradise Club. (The executive has since left the company.) Conoco spokesman Tom DeCola says the amount of the charge, not the venue, was in dispute. He insists that a male or female employee can indeed take a client to an exotic dance club “if there is a business reason for it.”
Of course, if a man’s company doesn’t take such a progressive view, strip-club visits can be easily camouflaged. Cabaret Royale in Dallas, for example, uses “Prive” as its corporate moniker. A receipt from The Gold Club in Atlanta will innocently read ESI, and Solid Gold in Minneapolis is discreetly called the SG Restaurant and Club. (These codes can help keep a wife in the dark, too.)
But Wendy Reid Crisp, director of the National Association for Female Executives, says companies that do business in a strip club may be vulnerable to charges of sexual harassment. “There’s an unnecessary risk of a lawsuit and bad publicity for a company to allow any business to take place in these establishments,” Crisp warns. “A woman can make an argument that she missed out from negotiating a contract because these men went into a place where she would feel excluded or offended.”
Indeed, some men admit to preferring the all-male audience. “It’s a bonding thing between men,” explains Allen, a 32-year-old antiques dealer from Atlanta. “I go to the Cheetah or Gold Club about six times a year, when I have someone from out of town to entertain on business or I’m out with a couple of buddies for a beer. It helps break the ice and allows us to have something in common. My wife doesn’t care as long as I come home.”
Not everyone buys that this is all benign boy bonding. “It reminds me of the backlash of the nineteenth century where a lot of bourgeois men were threatened by the development of the first wave of feminism,” says Susan Faludi, author of Backlash. “Women were becoming more independent, so men retreated to these upscale bordellos where women ministered to their need. These new topless clubs come from a desire to make a profit off simmering male anger and fear about women’s demands.”
Michael Kimmel, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and author of Men Confront Pornography, agrees. “A lot of men feel defensive around women now. So if you go to a bar where women are bare-breasted, no one there is going to criticize you for being a macho lout.”
Others point out that the boys-will-be-boys camaraderie formed in executive harems doesn’t end at the strip-club door. “These men have influence over the hiring and firing of women in the workplace,” says 30-year-old actor Michael David Gordon, member of The New York Anti-Sexist Men’s Action Network. “I’m not sure you can separate what you do in your private life, under the guise of play, from what you do in your business life. As men, we don’t know what it’s like to be objectified on a day-to-day basis and how that affects our relationships with the women in our lives.”
All Looking and No Touching?
Of course, plenty of women don’t care about the politics of the debate. What they want to know is if strip clubs prime a man for infidelity. “I don’t think so,” says Judith Seifer, R.N., Ph.D., spokeswoman for the American Association of Sex Educators and Therapists. “If a husband wants to fool around, he’s going to do it whether he goes to a strip club or to a singles bar.” Or the office or the supermarket, she might add. “Since it’s a lot riskier to have anonymous sexual encounters today, we’re going to have to rely more heavily on these kinds of fantasy settings to keep monogamy vital.”
Nina Hartley, a 31-year-old porn star who headlines in clubs across the country, puts it more colorfully. “Women have to understand that men need some kind of visual variety. It doesn’t matter where he gets his appetite, as long as he comes home to eat.”
But Brittany, 24, a former dancer at Cheetah in Atlanta, believes many of the men who frequent the club are also cheating on their wives. “Men are such snakes,” she says. “Guys would tell me stuff like, `You’re so beautiful, I wish my wife were like you.’”
Like other forms of erotica, adult clubs should be kept within the confines of a relationship, says Helen Singer Kaplan, M.D., Ph.D., director of the human-sexuality program at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. “If the couple go together and make love afterward, that’s fine. But for men alone, it’s having sexual pleasure away from your spouse. What is he going to do with all that arousal? I’d kill my husband if he went without me.”
Indeed, there is evidence that a small but growing number of women are accompanying their husbands to the more female-friendly strip clubs. Lisa, a 24-year-old graduate student, and her husband, Dan, dropped into Stringfellows on East 21st Street while driving through the ritzy Gramercy Park neighborhood one Saturday night. “We’ve been to a lot of strip clubs,” says Lisa. “We’re always trying to find a place that’s classy.” It is an experience they take to bed with them at night. “I love looking at the women,” Lisa confides. Does it turn them both on? “Yes, definitely,” she says.
Lynn, a 33-year-old mother of two, also went willingly with her husband to Solid Gold in Minneapolis. “It’s like a Las Vegas show,” says Lynn, who helps manage her husband’s contracting business. Does she feel threatened knowing that he’s ogling all these gorgeous women? “I trust him,” Lynn says. “I wouldn’t mind if he came here by himself.”
And in fact, that’s what most do. Although Michael often takes refuge in a topless bar, he says he has no desire to cheat on his wife. “What I have at home is real,” he says earnestly. “I wouldn’t give my wife up for anyone in here.”
For $5 to $20, depending on the club, a dancer will do a three-minute “private” strip tease near or on a man’s table. Such table dances are a stripper’s bread and butter, since many of the country’s 60,000 dancers are nonsalaried employees. (Cash tips from table and stage dances can add up to as much as $1,500 a night in the top clubs and, except for small payments to the house, the women keep most of what they wiggle out of customers.) Table dances should not be confused with “lap dances,” in which strippers sit and gyrate in the customer’s lap (an act that no doubt produces more than just inflated gratuities). The loftier clubs usually leave these to their downscale cousins.
As part of her act at Cheetah, Georgia, a 25-year-old dancer with long blonde hair, wears a white lab coat over her T-back bikini and a stethoscope around her neck. She chats briefly with a man named Randy before stepping onto his table. Randy, a divorced 35-year-old insurance manager, has met several coworkers here at 4:30 one recent Friday afternoon. He has enjoyed a discussion about politics over beers, within clear view of 50 topless dancers in a chorus line atop the surrounding bars. Before picking Georgia, he passed on offers from several other dancers who strolled by the table and cheerfully asked, “Would y’all like table dance?”
“I don’t go looking for sexual fulfillment,” explains Randy. “But I do like to see beautiful, naked women.” Not that these two things are unrelated. “What men really want when these doors close at night,” he says, “is for their wives to be just like this.”
Many women agree—and that’s why they’d like to keep their husbands out of the topless clubs. “I think the clubs provide men with an outlet they don’t deserve,” says Mary Brownlee Presley, a 35-year-old Atlanta flight attendant whose boyfriend goes despite her objections. “Strippers fawn all over them and make them feel special. Then they come home and expect the same treatment from their wives. Men forget they’re paying for this.”
Except for the occasional bachelor party, New York City bank vice president Kathryn Gardner says her husband has not set foot in a topless bar. If he did, she would not take it lightly. “I think it’s juvenile and degrading to women,” 30-year-old Gardner says.
Boys Will Be Boys
Either not enough women agree with Gardner—or not enough know, because the crowds are always healthy in yuppie strip clubs. One night at Stringfellows, three attractive men in their late twenties sit transfixed as a buxom blonde struts across the stage. Bob, an advertising executive, is frustrated by the erotic display. “All you can do is look,” Bob says with a sigh. “You have to enjoy them like a work of art.”
So men admit to getting turned on? Three single doctors spending a midweek happy hour at Goldfingers in New York say yes. “I wouldn’t come back otherwise,” says 25-year-old Manny, who, like his colleagues, requested anonymity. “Why not come here and relax with your friends after work instead of going to a regular bar? Sure, we go to Mets games, too, but there are no naked women there. We come here every couple of months just to see the girls.”
Only time will tell if this flesh-dancing phenomenon will continue. Meanwhile, some of us may prefer to take the advice of Katie, a 25-year-old Cheetah dancer: “Even if you don’t go to a club, do it for your husband. Give him a stack of dollar bills and get up on the kitchen table.”