When it comes to sex industry work, prostitution, porno movies, and stripping, the “I need the money” explanation works less well for me than the more deep-rooted psychodrama of “I need to flaunt my sexuality because I’ve been molested, and it feels good to see men as quivering lapdogs.” Check it out: Most girls in their early twenties work nights waitressing and days in bookstores to make the rent and eat ramen noodles.
Women have just as many motives for stripping as they do for becoming lawyers, and the one that makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck is the sexual revolutionary justification: “Stripping empowers me and helps the feminist cause.” I don’t really believe that men watching women gyrate in full makeup and G-string will lead to greater understanding between the sexes, though I can’t completely negate the hope for greater sexual freedom either, or the competitive edge that clearly drives this variety of stripper. These women want power, cash, and respect. They want, like their stripper patron saint Courtney Love, to be the girls with the most cake.
Lily Burana, in her new book Strip City, takes this nudie Che Guevara route. Perky and enthusiastic, Burana heads off on a stripping tour of America with, among other supplies, thigh-high boots, a Day-Glo orange-and-black zebra-print bikini, and a gallon of fruit-scented body spray. It’s almost impossible not to get behind Burana as we see her take the stage for the first time as her alter ego, Barbie Faust, in platinum wig, hot-pink thong, clear Lucite platforms, rhinestone choker, and false eyelashes. Even a soul-obsessed minister’s daughter like myself, very in touch with her inner prude, wanted to shout out, GO GURL! She seems—at first, anyway—genuinely clueless about what underlies her urge to strip, and there’s an innocence in the early chapters that suggests a little girl playing dress up.
Burana’s journey is precipitated by a marriage proposal by her cowboy boyfriend Randy. She’s got some unfinished business—she wants to have an extended bachelor party with herself as the main attraction. The premise, in theory anyway, is exciting. A gifted writer and ex-stripper (Peepland, the Lusty Lady, the O’Farrell Theater) is going to take us with her into the world of stripping. Burana writes best about the highs of topless dancing. While performing at the Great Alaskan Bush Company in Anchorage, she invites a “blue collar Adonis” up to the rail and works it.
After giving him a shy, lingering “stripper you take home to meet mom” look, I see it happen, the change I’m working for. A sign of life. His expression shifts from curious to grateful, something alit deep within. I want to shout for joy. I rise back up on my feet, savoring this feeling so thick and rich and rare. I’m not thinking about money. Or rules. Or my body. Or the handsome man in front of me. For one small moment, I am naked and completely unafraid.
Even in this scene Burana’s sexual generosity comes off as a bit manipulative. Though to her credit she is honest about her dishonesty. While working at Aloha Glorya’s in Colorado she feigns willingness to fuck a customer after hours in order to get a hundred-dollar bill. Burana gets off not just on the naked dancing but the bad-girl playacting that goes along with being Barbie Faust. Stripping facilitates a common female fantasy, that of complete sexual access, à la The Story of O. While dancing in the Miss Topless Wyoming contest, Burana, in an ecstatic, almost religious state, slowly peels off her cowgirl outfit. In the final moments of her routine she grabs a bottle of watered-down lotion (faux sperm) and, throwing her head back, pours the liquid down the front of her body from breasts to crotch. “I stand up, loosen the strings on the sides of my thong and, to the thunderous approval of the unsuspecting crowd, drop it to the floor. As the music ends, I’m standing on the stage clothed in nothing but blue light and a brief strap of silver.” Burana’s rapture in this scene reminds me of the tableau vivant portion of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth. Another Lily, Lily Bart, raised for the vocation of beautiful object, finds complete transcendence in portraying a scantily clad figure from a painting. Of course, it’s this quality of experiencing herself from the outside-in that leads to Bart’s demise. Today’s smart-girl strippers believe that in pushing this objectification to its bursting point they sexually liberate themselves as well as help feminism. But the power I’ve seen strippers wield over men is both simplistic and ephemeral, besides usually affirming the capitalist standard of youthful cosmetic perfection. Show me the math.
Sadly, Strip City never delivers the math. Burana is not so good with her more ambivalent material. Early on in her strip tour, while dancing at the Cheetah in Las Vegas, Burana breaks her no-contact rule. She lets the men grope her while lap dancing, though the details aren’t laid out for us. It’s as if the willful disassociation Burana admits to developing has worked itself right into her narrative. Similarly, a murder at Peepland gets half a page. And at a club in Montana called Shotgun Willie’s, a dancer picking up dollars with her vagina is likened to Tigger, the energetic character in Winnie-the-Pooh.
This slick-surfaced denial of the dark side sapped the enthusiasm of my Go Gurl, though sympathy didn’t disappear completely until Burana’s foray into Tijuana nightlife. Miss Faust and her “cool” friends (i.e., those that dig strippers) peruse the clubs on Avenida de la Revolución, the main drag. They visit one club where she first notices a dancer with “deflated breasts.” Burana is not sympathetic to the aging of the female body. While working in a Soho boutique she describes the customers as “soft-bellied housewives . . . who are eager to be fawned over and dressed up in something that might recapture a husband’s eye.” And at the stripper museum in Helendale, California, the sight of older women performing naked embarrasses her. Burana is good to go when she’s the sexual focal point, but she treats other women’s sexuality with hostility and unease. In Tijuana, Burana gets up onstage with the stripper whose “hips switch angrily under her zebra print mini-dress.”Burana is put off by the “bitchy dancer” and seemingly unconscious of the fact that she’s made herself the sexual (not to mention financial) center yet again. Maybe this is what being an exhibitionist is all about, but Burana never really subjects her experience to the deep reflection she promises in the book’s introduction.
Nudity is one of the few things that make being human bearable, as is sex in all its variations. I want to hear the particulars from disciples of sadism and masochism, and if spanking is your thing, you’ve got my complete attention. But if I’m going to read a whole book about exhibitionism (separate stripping from its faux glamour and economic advantages and that’s what you get), you gotta be honest about the paradoxes, about the human fragility and longing at the center of all sexuality. You can’t just tell me, like Lily Burana does over and over, that it feels really cool.