There's something deeply surreal about sitting on a couch watching a porn video with the person in that video sitting right beside you.
I've known since I met her that Sasha works as a stripper and has aspirations to do girl-girl video work. For her, it's a simple economic decision. She's intelligent, but she hasn't got a college degree. And she has the looks and body and utter lack of self-consciousness requisite to work as a stripper.
Before she did stripping full-time, she worked as a tech support rep for a local telecom company. After she quit that job, she told me, "Tech support made me feel far more degraded than taking my clothes off in front of strangers does. I got yelled at and cursed by customers all the time. I absolutely hated humanity when I left that job at the end of the day ... and I didn't make that much money. After I started stripping, it was no contest which one I'd rather do."
On a bad night of stripping, she tells me, she makes around $300. Good nights have netted her over $1000, generally when a guy with a lot of money to burn rounds up two or three dancers for long private dancing sessions in the Champagne Room. On her best night two weeks ago, she came home with $1500 in fat, sweaty rolls of ones and fives and tens stuffed in her denim overalls. Not bad for an Ohio woman with a high school diploma.
But all that was totally peripheral as I got to know her. I'd met her husband first through an online horror writers' board -- and ironically he and Sasha turned out to live in my apartment complex, less than fifty yards from my own door. So I'd go over to their apartment or vice versa and we'd talk about writing and comics. We'd all watch science fiction movies and Farscape and old Twilight Zone episodes. Sasha would putter around the house in jeans or sweats, herding cats or baking cookies.
So I never really saw her as a stripper -- I saw her as a fellow geek. She doesn't have a boob job, doesn't tan, doesn't bleach her hair, and isn't an alcoholic or a druggie. She isn't a flirt, and she doesn't wear especially revealing clothes when she's not onstage.
She doesn't take any stupid risks, which is why she will only do solo or girl-girl work onstage or on videos. She always has her husband pick her up and drop her off, and he carries a taser (which unfortunately he's had to use). Her husband accompanies her to any private dances or photo shoots. And she is most especially not a hooker.
It also isn't an easy job. The dancing is physically demanding, and too often the patrons are on their absolute worst behavior. Curses, derogatory comments, and having to endure overwhelmingly foul body odor are not uncommon. She's also been licked, slapped and bitten.
Sasha once told me, "If engaged women could see how their husbands-to-be act in here toward women during bachelor parties, a lot of future divorces could be avoided, because those marriages just wouldn't happen."
However, she notes that bisexual women are often grabbier than men during a lapdance. "Bi girls who come in with their boyfriends seem to think that, because they're female, it's okay to touch us. And it isn't." By contrast, she says that butch-seeming lesbian customers are typically the best-behaved and most likely to keep their hands to themselves.
Sasha says she has a few regulars who are her favorite customers. "These guys just want someone to keep them company while they drink. One of my regulars might give me $50-$100 in tips to sit and talk to him for a while; he never asks for lapdances, and he never tries to get me to drink alcohol."
The club has a complex payment system, and in order to avoid getting cheated by the house, a dancer has to pay attention and have a reasonably good business sense. Strippers are not employees of the club per se -- they are all treated as independent contractors. That means they have to take care of their own health insurance and federal deductions for income tax and social security (of course, this leaves them a lot of leeway on what they decide to declare as income).
At the end of each night, the dancer owes a certain percentage of her money (based on the number of dances she's logged) as tips to the bouncers, DJs, and to the "house mom". A dancer may also owe fines for breaking certain house rules. For instance, at Sasha's club, if a dancer chooses not to go out and work the floor during "up time" (a sort of "happy hour" for lapdances in the club's main room) she gets fined $10, which goes partly to the DJ and partly to the house.
There are also lots of pitfalls to avoid. Club managers will often encourage young dancers to participate in "after hours" private parties, where drugs and alcohol will flow freely and the dancers will be pressured to have sex, whether onstage or with patrons, for money.
She fully agrees that there's a lot of truth to the widely-accepted stereotypes about strippers. She's told me that a lot of the girls who've worked at the clubs she's worked are stripping because they lack the intelligence or discipline to get into or stay in college. Also, so many of the other girls have children out of wedlock that she says her customers often don't believe her when she tells them she doesn't have kids.
A pair of her coworkers she describes only as "The Twins" hew most perniciously to the stereotype. The Twins are 20-year-old high school dropouts who were abandoned by their mother when they were 14. Left to fend for themselves, one got pregnant at 15, the other at 17. Between them they already have 3 children and they're not even old enough to drink. But drink they do, and copiously. They found they needed a little "Dutch courage" to get out there on that stage, and soon they started doing cocaine and whatever else people were willing to sell them in the alleyway behind the club. Most recently, they got into trouble at a paid topless outing at a private golf club when they got drunk and mooned a passing school bus full of third graders. Classy.
By the time the Twins are 25, they're going to look 30. At thirty, they won't look a day past 40. If they don't get themselves killed, they'll probably be relegated to dancing at the sleazier clubs in town -- the places where the "girls" with the boob job scars and wrinkles and sallow alcoholic faces end up. They still make more than the waitresses at Denny's.
The club where Sasha and the Twins work is widely agreed to be the classiest strip joint in town and is the one most often visted by celebrities. Sasha met Keanu Reeves there and got to do dances for a very well-known actor (she got his signature on a Champagne Room cocktail napkin, which she promptly framed).
Her working at the club also got her involved with Playboy Video's "Strip Search" series. Talent scouts for Playboy came to the club last year and recruited Sasha and several other girls to do a video shoot in a full-nude club in Dayton.
As a result of the Playboy videos, I finally saw Sasha do her thing. Her husband cued up the first tape, and I and several mutual friends watched in rapt embarassment as Sasha was interviewed with another girl. Sasha seemed to have lost about 30 IQ points. The vacuous, vampy, vinyl-clad being on the screen surely wasn't the same girl sitting beside me, was she?
Then video-Sasha and the other girl were on a bed, kissing, spanking, biting.
"She hit me really hard, there," Sasha noted as the other girl waled on her bare derriere with a leather paddle. "I had a bruise for a week."
Her husband put in the second tape. Video-Sasha strutted down the catwalk in a slinky black vinyl dress and a pair of nasty boots, then proceeded to divest herself of said accoutrements. I wondered, as she writhed naked on the stage floor, if she ever had the urge to rub her entire body down in hand sanitizer after she got off work.
(Side note update: I asked, and she does in fact have a mega supersize pump bottle of hand sanitizer that she keeps in her locker at the club. Apparently, more than one guy has decided it was fully appropriate to try to give her a tongue bath during a lapdance.)
Video-Sasha continued to writhe and grind for the hooting frat boy types seated near her. The cameraman went in for the close-up of her pink bits. My face was probably several shades pinker, but I was trying to maintain my composure.
Sasha sat up, leaning toward the screen at her vulva.
"Huh," she said. "I never knew I had a mole there."
Indeed, stripping has been a true journey of self-discovery.