Lonely Business

14 Years on the Stripping Circuit

By Holly Pretsky; illustrations by Lukey Walden

In November of 1990, in an Alaskan strip club called Sands North, Sandy was sexually assaulted in a corner of the dark room. She was 17 years old, and it was her first day working as a dancer. She was good at dancing. Once, in 1989, she had performed with the Minnesota Vikings cheerleaders. But, as she puts it, she was “shaking like a little leaf” on her first day in the club.

Her assaulter “put his fingers where they did not belong,” and when the waitress came by with drinks, Sandy didn’t say anything, though she was terrified. Afterwards, he paid her $500. She left the money in the dressing room with the other dancers while she went to turn in her drink tickets. When she returned, it had been stolen.   

Sandy grew up in New York and Minnesota in a series of foster homes. Her parents were drug addicts. She moved to Alaska in 1990 with her boyfriend Mick, hoping to be a housewife while he worked on an oilrig. A week after they arrived together in Anchorage, Mick and Sandy fought over a $14 check Sandy refused to hand over. Mick ended up in the hospital. Sandy was left with two black eyes and nowhere to live. Desperate, she found herself staying with three men she barely knew. She started dating one, a single dad named Kevin. When she needed money, Kevin suggested she strip. The thought had entered her mind once before, when Mick had brought her to a club.

She thinks back to that first day at Sands North.

“When you get there and you’re 18 and you don’t know diddly-squat, and the manager says your job is to make men happy, keep a smile on your face and do not make a scene, that’s what I believed. You keep your mouth shut.” According to Sandy, there is no training, no mentorship, no orientation for dancing. She speaks curtly, as if giving orders.

“Nobody is there to protect you. Those girls are not your friends.”

That first day, Sandy learned the rules she would live by for the next 14 years of dancing: “Don’t trust the men, and don’t trust the girls.” Over and over again she insists, “This is a lonely business.”

I first met Sandy at Déjà Vu in Colorado Springs. The club is windowless, dark. There is a round stage in the center, lit from below and surrounded by low tables and chairs. There are three silver poles on the stage. They’re “clunky,” one dancer tells me—not very easy to dance on because of their size. Along the walls, there are booths with high privacy screens between them. The dancers take turns on stage, one song at a time.

The men in Déjà Vu that afternoon arrived alone. There weren’t many of them; the afternoons are usually slow. They stood as far apart from one another as the space allowed, and they watched. There was no self-consciousness to their gaze, no impatience, no scrutiny. Wherever they were, they leaned back against things, faces tilted upward slightly in the blue light. Between numbers, Greg, the waiter, took the stage and sprayed the poles down with disinfectant. He left the spray bottles and rags on the illuminated stage floor.

Déjà Vu’s website reads, “Colorado Springs’s only 18 and over Gentlemen’s Club where the party never ends! We strive to give you an atmosphere that is fun and exciting.” The afternoon I met Sandy at the club, the dancers seemed downright jovial. They winked across the room, they laughed with each other, they hugged the customers, they joked about their Facebook profiles. One dancer wore what looked like a school uniform.

According to Sandy, the cheer, however insincere, is just as much part of the business as the dancing itself. “It’s an act. We’re not happy. Men, when they come in there, they’re leaving their unhappiness at the door. They want a beautiful, happy, funny, sexy girl on their lap. That’s what makes money. Otherwise they’ll stay home with their miserable wives. You have to leave it at the door, you can’t tell them how unhappy you are.”

When I ask if someone could actually feel fulfilled working as a stripper, Sandy is incredulous.

“Guys groping on you, wanting you to hump on them, cumming in their pants? I don’t know one dancer that’s really absolutely happy with it.”

The dancers’ emotions, she says, are false, and their bodies are frequently artificial as well. In order to be successful in the business, investment in cosmetic surgery is almost always necessary. “Pretty much almost everybody has boobs,” she says. Before she got breast implants, men made fun of her small breasts. “‘I got a bigger chest than you. You got mosquito bites. Look at those flat tires.’ Oh it’s horrible,” she says. “Men are very, very mean, very mean.”

Sandy has met and danced for thousands of these men in her 14 years as a dancer. But she cares about making the men feel wanted because, in many ways, she feels sorry for them. She has conflicting feelings. She says she feels sorry for some men who come into the club because “their wives don’t ask them how their day was, they start nagging right away. They’re really sad,” she says, “because they have no control over their members. It’s not as easy for them.”  She takes pride in how she treats them and gets frustrated when other women seem burnt out.

“Some of those girls, they don’t even make eye contact with you. Not at all. I do. It’s important to me. It’s also important to remember [the men’s] names. They want you to remember their names cause they feel special.” Sandy also gets frustrated when the other women don’t seem to exercise. She spends two hours in the gym each day, and her body shows it.

“I care about my body,” she says.  “My mother was always obese.”

Sandy says she was “chased out of Alaska.” She found herself caught between the drug dealers and the cops, both of whom frequented Sands North. One night, she returned to her tiny apartment and found bullets lined up on her coffee table, a message to let her know she’d crossed a line. She was no longer welcome in Anchorage. Sandy returned to Minnesota in 1993 and found out she was pregnant. The father of her child was a man named Gary. It became clear that Gary would not be involved with her or their child’s life, and Sandy turned to dancing again to support herself. She met a woman at her birthing class who said she was making $550 a night at Club O in Hammond, Indiana. Sandy left her son in the care of her mother in Minnesota and moved there to dance.

A couple of months later, when she returned for her baby, she found an empty house. Her mother and sisters were gone. She was 21. Dancing changed after that.

The next seven years were the most difficult of Sandy’s life. Her voice lowers to a whisper as she says, “I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t care what happened. I started doing cocaine and I tried to kill myself. I lost all respect for myself. And I let men do whatever they wanted to me.” She did what’s called “the circuit,” working in different clubs in different states for a week at a time.

In the club, Sandy is admired, even adored, but in the real world, she’s frequently treated as something dirty, especially by the families of the men she is involved with. “They want you,” she says, “but when it comes to reality, and they’re home with their wives and their son brings home a stripper, they’re like ‘Oh no! Oh no, oh no.’” She met her ex-husband, Matt, at Club O in Harvey Illinois in 2002. “He came in regularly” she says coyly. “He actually liked another girl, and I took him from her.” When Sandy and Matt got married, she stopped dancing, and enrolled in horticulture school. She cleaned houses to make money, and spent a lot of time driving her husband around after he lost his license.

Matt’s parents had trouble accepting Sandy’s past. “I’m Puerto Rican,” she says, “and I came from the Bronx, my parents are crackheads, and I’m a dancer, so I have a great resume as a daughter-in-law.” Her mother-in-law declined lunch date invitations, but insisted that Sandy go with her to church on Sundays. Eventually, she was baptized.

After she and Matt had been married for several years, Sandy needed another surgery on her breasts. Her initial surgery was done poorly, and resulted in life-threatening complications.

“When I got them done twenty years ago, and they put them in, they cut them open, and they didn’t make the socket big enough. So he shoved it in there, which caused impaction. And scar tissue forms around the bags, and, eventually, they pop.”  The surgery would cost $11,500—the price of breast reconstruction and a tummy tuck combined. When Matt refused to help her pay, she turned, again, to dancing.

At the club, Sandy entered into a relationship with a millionaire she met there named Thomas. Thomas began picking her up and taking her out to dinner when Matt thought she was going to work. He paid her the same amount she would have made at the club to spend the evening with him. Eventually, he bought her a car and enrolled her full-time in school. Sandy’s relationship with Thomas ended when Matt found out and called Thomas’ wife. Sandy was devastated. She and Matt divorced. He is getting remarried and expecting a baby.

Americans spend more money at strip clubs than they do at the opera, the ballet, jazz and classical musical performances and Broadway theatre combined. More than 250,000 women work as dancers in the United States. According to Catherine M. Roach, a University of Alabama professor of Women’s Studies, stripping is the single most lucrative job available to women without a college degree. Despite its prevalence, it’s an occupation still largely shrouded in shame and stigma. Sandy tears up as she tries to explain how it feels to be judged for her job. She feels like she has to lie to men she meets online, telling them she cleans houses for a living. Much of her frustration is clear in the way she talks about her customers’ wives. She calls them “miserable.” Sandy is in her 40s now and dreams of being a housewife.

“I want to cook, I want to clean. I want to make sure the house is clean, groceries bought, bills are paid. I want to be a housewife. I’d love to be a housewife. I’d love to garden. I mean if I wasn’t a dancer, and I could be someone’s wife, I’d be ecstatic, absolutely ecstatic.”

I asked Sandy what she would do if she could do anything to improve our society. Without hesitation, she said, “Don’t close down the strip clubs. Because if you ever close those down there’s going to be a lot more crime out there. Without the strip clubs men can’t relieve their stress of sexual wants and needs. So let’s say the pedophiles that come into the strip club—they go after the youngest girls—if there’s no strip club, where are they going to go? They’re going to go after the kids.” To Sandy, strip clubs play a crucial role in society, absorbing negative, even violent impulses inherent in men that otherwise may have been vented elsewhere. “We really do a service.”

Sandy’s story is not universal. Many women dance because it pays well, most because they want to. Sandy’s lost a lot to the industry. The business has hurt her, undoubtedly, but it has also sustained her. She lives in a gated community with her dog and two hairless cats. Her spacious and well-lit apartment was paid for by one of her customers. The furniture—brand new and oversized—was paid for by another. She gets $50 a week from a customer for food.

I wonder how Sandy’s life would have been different if she hadn’t faced so much discrimination for her profession, or if she had been able to do her work without feeling like she was in danger. If Sandy could do anything, she says she’d want to be able to finish horticulture school. She loves plants and has a collection of them in her apartment. In giant pots, they have leaves the size of oven mitts. As she tells me her story, they stretch up behind her toward the window, each bathed in bright Colorado sun.