Last Saturday night, I took a trip to The Kitchen Café Gentleman’s Club in Newington, Conn. My fellow strip-club-goers included Argus News Editor Olivia Horton, my roommate Francesca Moree, and my two friends, Jake Schneider and Leo Liu.
One of my favorite websites, that I will plug until the end of time, is called nerve.com. And one of my favorite sections of nerve.com, from which I will pull anecdotes from until the end of time, is called “I Did It For Science.” The premise is that intrepid writers do interesting sexual things—from bartending at a swinger’s club to selling time with their feet to foot fetishists on craigslist—“for science” and then write about it. I headed to the strip club for similar reasons.
At about 10 p.m. the five of us walked across the dark parking lot toward the awning, where four hefty men stood staring at us. As the initiator of this little expedition, I was elected to head the group. We walked past the men standing at the door, exchanging “good evenings” as we passed. Upon entering the building, we found ourselves in a dim foyer, faced with two doors. I found out later that the one on the right was the bar side with strictly topless dancers. For no particular reason, I chose the left door.
The room was smaller than I expected, and there was a shiny black-tiled stage jutting out from a mirrored wall. The stage included two stripper poles and, though it was not raised, was surrounded on two sides by a counter. There were 10 poofy, low-sitting red velvet swivel chairs lined up along the counter, four of which were filled. Two paunchy, bearded men in baseball caps sat on the side of the stage nearest the door, watching with blank faces a blond, tanned woman with huge breasts that were hanging out of her blue mesh dress. She danced slowly in front of them, brushing their faces with her chest as we paid the $10 cash-only cover charge and were told that drinks (from the non-alcoholic bar adjacent to the stage) were mandatory.
After buying our $5 water bottles (and getting our change all in ones), we took our red velvet-covered seats at the stage’s counter just as the blonde woman walked off stage and another woman with long strands of pearls swinging across her bare chest entered.
I now understood that we were in the nude side of the club, rather than the topless side. The two bearded men sitting next to us and the two younger guys sitting across the stage from us placed one dollar bills on the counter as the girl danced toward them and sat in front of them on the bar. By the time the next girl, this one with straight brown hair and a black bandeau bra and matching underwear, walked on stage, I understood the process. She removed her bra, and I placed a dollar bill on the counter. She looked at me and the dollar and walked over in her high, plastic platform heels. As she sat down on the bar, she leaned down to me and said, in an amused voice tinged with an eastern-European accent, “Girls!” She then proceeded to pull my head toward her bare chest and rub her breasts lightly against my face. She swiveled, still sitting on the bar, and spread her legs in front of me, moving her black thong aside to give me a view of her bare vulva, stroking it in a way that I assume was meant to come off as sexy to an ordinary patron.
Writing this, I have to admit that my description sounds a bit like soft-core porn. But for me, it was a succession of nice, but definitely non-sexual sensations. Her breasts were soft against my cheek and she smelled like flowery body spray—a welcome contrast to the vaguely foul-smelling, smoky room. But I felt awkward staring right at her naked vulva and rude looking away. Would she be offended if I didn’t look? If I shrunk from her nude body? Should I say thank you? I decided to pull out another dollar, which she kindly helped me to put in her g-string before she slid off the counter and walked away to tend to another customer.
I ended up talking to several people at the club that night, all of whom were surprisingly willing to answer my bumbling questions, even after they found out that I was writing an article for my college newspaper. Layla, the bartender, a slim, blond 25-year-old, told me that, in her experience, three kinds of girls worked at the club: those paying for school, those with drug habits, and those who were single parents like her. Though she said that she had only started working there (as both a bartender and dancer) recently, she was already making good money—over two hundred dollars in tips on the previous night alone.
When I asked about the patrons, she said that the clientele was mixed. Though some act inappropriately, she said, a lot are regulars that she thinks are disenchanted with their marriages and come for what amounts to a part-time relationship with the girls. Heidi, a dark-haired 20-year-old with tattoos across her chest and knuckles and a mouthful of shiny silver braces, confirmed that something like friendship forms between the regulars and the dancers. Before she danced for me, I had seen her greet the bearded men sitting next to us at the stage with a friendly look of recognition before she crawled onto the bar and brushed her bare hips against their faces.
Most interestingly in my opinion, Heidi was there with her boyfriend, Chad, 19, for whom she had also danced. I asked Chad if he got jealous when Heidi danced for other men. He said that, though he’d been uncomfortable with her dancing at the beginning of their relationship—to such and extent that she stopped for a while—once he saw her dance he said that he was okay with it but still did not particularly enjoy watching her on stage.
I also sat down to talk with two younger guys, Andrew, 24 and Steve, 21, who seemed eager to tell me that they had only been to strip clubs two or three times, even though they were several years out from the minimum age of 18. As Steve not-so-subtly tried to brush my knee with his elbow, Andrew laughingly told me, “The girls here are nasty.” I looked at the beautiful, slim, platinum blond, tattooed girl strutting on the stage as Andrew questioned the cleanliness of the dancers. He proceeded to ask, “Who even knows what they have?”
This is what worried me most about the strip club. Though the regulars appear to have some kind of relationship with the dancers, Andrew and Steve’s attitude toward the girls suggest a disheartening lack of respect on the part of the patrons. Though, as a feminist, I am all for women taking off their clothes when and where they want, stripping in this incarnation didn’t feel like feminism. The tattooed blonde, who talked to Francesca as she danced for her, was the only one who said that she had fun when she danced. In fact, Layla the bartender told me that a lot of the girls had to get high or drunk to feel comfortable dancing. Heidi, even as she stroked her vulva with a forefinger six inches from my face, looked nearly comatose. Sex was on display, but it was not remotely sexy. It was downright solemn.
Solemn. That’s the word that my friends and I came away with that night. On the car ride home, we discussed feeling incredibly desensitized after only a short period of nudity. Labia flashed in our faces were at most startling, at least just another patch of bare skin, showed to whoever was willing to put out a single dollar bill. Patrons did not whoop with pleasure and barely even smiled—the only signs of pleasure were nods of appreciation and another dollar slid onto the bar.
I won’t say that The Kitchen Café Gentleman’s Club felt morally depraved or even depressing—it was just strange and fascinating. It was sexuality at its least sensual and most staged. The dancers are surprisingly young, beautiful, and fascinating and the men seem surprisingly unexcited by them. Frankly, I want to go back. Why, I can’t quite articulate—maybe it’s the sex columnist or the potential anthropology major in me. Perhaps it’s the fact that, though I’ve seen every inch of these women’s bodies, I know next to nothing about who they are and very much want to.
In a strip club, after all, anonymity is everything.