About two weeks ago, I went to a place called the Gallery. In case you haven’t heard of it, the Gallery is the most well-known gentleman’s club of Southern Illinois. In other words, it’s a strip club. Since I’d never been to one before, and since I have a lot of thoughts about what it was like, I thought I’d write about the experience here on my blog.
At first, I wasn’t sure if I would even write this entry. I have friends and loved ones who read this blog who either won’t approve of my behavior or will consider it Too Much Information. I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one or two people are very condemning and judgmental and don’t even read the full entry. But for a long time now, I’ve considered myself a public person. Between my radio show, my writing, and my past involvement in community groups, I’ve grown used to being in the public eye and expressing some of my innermost thoughts and feelings publicly. At times, I’ve held back from saying or doing things in the interest of avoiding conflicts or steering clear of topics that some people find offensive. But I’m tired of playing that role, and I’m definitely not going to play it here on my personal blog.
And so, I’ve written a detailed account of my experiences at the Gallery. In the interest of protecting the identities of people whose lives aren’t as public as mine, I’ve replaced any names with made-up initials. People who I’ve mentioned can feel free to reveal themselves if they so choose — but I’ll only be talking about my own experiences unless they choose to mention theirs.
The story starts a few days prior to my visit to the Gallery. My female friend, M., sent me a brief and somewhat mysterious late-night message about stilettos and poles. When we talked online the next day, she told me that she had just spent a night on stage at the Gallery and would be working there on weekends. Our mutual friend, S., had introduced her to the Gallery and would also be performing.
My response was very simple and supportive. She sounded excited about performing on stage and earning extra money. I was glad to see her trying something new and exciting, and glad that I would get to see one of my very beautiful and charming and attractive friends doing some erotic dancing. So, she told me when she’d be performing, and I told her I’d be there.
I didn’t mention anything about this online — at least not in public messages. I did, however, tell a few friends about it.
My male friend, T., had been to the Gallery a few times before and agreed to be my ride. I also invited two of my female friends, and made an open invitation to a small group of friends who I see on a regular basis. One of my female friends was potentially interested but unable to attend that weekend. The other one, R., replied to my invitation by expressing a degree of concern about the situation.
I was mildly surprised by her response. R. is pretty comfortable about sexuality and very supportive of consenting adults doing whatever brings them happiness and pleasure. But R. is also a very empathic and compassionate person who likes to look out for people, especially her friends and their loved ones. In this case, R. was worried that M. would have a bad experience in such a potentially banal and burnout-prone environment.
I assured R. that I shared these concerns, but told her that as long as M. was having a good experience at the Gallery, I would go out there and support her. I also wrote M. a somewhat lengthy message saying how much I respect and care for her, and that if she didn’t want me at the Gallery, or if she got burned out with the job, I would be there to support her in that too. M. assured me that everything was good between us, and that she would be happy to see me there.
And so, that weekend I went with my friend T. to the Gallery.
As we were walking up to the front door, T. and I were joking that it would be funny if someone recognized me and called out my name as soon as I entered the club. My friends have joked about how often I get that response whenever I’m out in the community â€“ and I stick out even more than usual at a place like the Gallery. Sure enough, as soon as we stepped onto the club floor, someone at the bar recognized me and called out my name. As it turns out, it was the partner of one of the dancers, who had never actually met me before but presumably recognized me from my online profile and their partner’s descriptions.
So even at the Gallery, there were people who knew me, or at least knew of me. I guess when you live in a relatively small town for 12 years and are one of the few tall men with long hair, a long beard, and a penchant for public ecological musings, it’s hard to remain anonymous. In addition to M. and S., a third dancer turned out to be an acquaintance of mine. We hadn’t seen each other in quite a while, but she spotted me at a distance and talked to me off and on throughout the night. I also recognized a few of M. and S.’s friends as mutual acquaintances, though we didn’t get a chance to talk.
Once T. and I got our drinks and found a table to sit at, I really started to take in my surroundings.
The Gallery has two stages â€“ a larger main stage and a smaller side stage. At almost any given point in the night, there was a dancer on each stage. Each dancer performed for two songs, and then another pair of dancers took to the stages. In the meantime, dancers who weren’t on stage mingled with any friends in the audience, or gave private dances, or headed back to the restroom or dressing room.
On the surface, it was all very exciting. Nothing I’d seen on TV and in movies could prepare me for the excitement of being in the presence of mostly naked women doing provocative erotic dances on a stage just a few feet away from me. When you read about it or see it on TV, it all just seems like a fantasy. But when you’re there in the club, it’s undeniably real. Real women are up there dancing and performing for the audience’s pleasure, and all it takes is a few dollars to get even closer to the action. Even in a place like the Gallery, which has the more subdued atmosphere of a â€œgentleman’s clubâ€ rather than a rude and rowdy â€œtitty bar,â€ there’s still an intense sexual charge in the air.
For me, the best part of the night was definitely watching M. dance. She was still very new to the club, so she wasn’t doing any of the fancy pole tricks that one or two of the other dancers pulled off. But she was definitely very smooth and sexy in her dancing and performing, whether she was on the pole, or strutting across the stage, or crawling on all fours in her playful sexy kitty mode.
And then, there was the private dance. When I bought a private dance from her, she lead me over to a more secluded corner of the club set off from the main floor by several short walls that created half a dozen cubicles. Each cubicle had a posh leather chair and offered about as much privacy as you can manage without placing the dancers’ safety at risk through closed doors or curtained rooms. Once I’d given her my money, she started dancing for me.
Clients aren’t allowed to touch the dancers, but dancers are allowed to touch the client. And so, this turned out to be more of a full body dance than a lap dance. Without delving too far into the realm of erotica, suffice it to say that I enjoyed the dance thoroughly. And I’m pretty sure she did too. Of course, since she was in the role of performer, it’s hard to be sure. But since we’ve talked at length about life’s mysteries and hadn’t really explored that side of each other yet, I’m sure she at least appreciated the attention and positive reception.
My friend T. can testify that after my private dance, I was a bit dazed and giddy. I joked that this might be just the motivation I need to find more income so that I can afford to come back here. For better or worse, though, this would prove to be the high point of the night.
Over the course of the night, I got to watch M. and S. dance up on stage a few times each. Once or twice, I even approached the stage with a tip so that I could get some special attention from them. But as the night wore on, a couple of things started happening that wore down my appreciation of the experience.
First of all, the dual nature of my experience of this place really started to set in. On the surface, it was all excitement and glamor and a pulsing spring of sexual energy. But even early on, I began to feel something hollow about the experience. It wasn’t as bad with my friend M. because we had our closest interactions early on in the night, and I knew that at least a large part of her reason for being there was because she actually wanted to give exotic dancing a try. I knew that she appreciated my presence, and our interactions felt real and meaningful. But the place in general had a very hollow feel to it â€“ a shiny outer shell of sexuality-as-performance with an underlying emptiness where some spark of deeper meaning ought to have been.
Let me be clear about something here. My views on sexuality are radically different from what is considered mainstream in our society. I believe that sex is sacred, and that our sexuality can be one of our primary ways of connecting with the Divine, however we may understand or experience it. I also believe that social or public forms of sexuality â€“ sexually-themed clubs, erotic dancing, even orgiastic parties or rituals â€“ can in theory be a tremendously beautiful and powerful way of sharing our sexuality and divinity with each other.
The problem, though, lies in the gap between theory and practice. The Gallery, like any other gentleman’s club, isn’t quite a place where people come together to explore and share their sexuality in a mutually supportive and appreciative context. To an extent, that happens for some individuals, given the sexual nature of the place. But in the end, it’s primarily a business where women perform for the pleasure of a mostly male audience in exchange for money.
The unidirectional, non-reciprocal nature of the experience felt strange and alienating. It was strange, too, to have several feelings and experiences simultaneously: the excitement of being surrounded by these women and their performances; the delight of experiencing a taste of my friend’s sexuality; the alienation at having my time in the presence of these women being defined by money rather than affection or attraction; the political and philosophical analysis of the situation; and the knowledge that most of the men (and women) in the audience were probably just enjoying the outer shell of excitement without giving any thought to the rest of it.
If I’d had more than one drink that night, I might have just gone with it too, and not had much thought about the complexities of it all until later. But since I was sober, I had a very nuanced and complex and mixed experience of the place. It was still exciting, but with an undercurrent of restlessness and alienation.
As my experience of the place was shifting from mostly excited to mostly reflective, I noticed that M.’s mood seemed to be taking a turn for the worse. Given the context, I wasn’t able to talk to her about it at the time, which added to the overall alienation of the experience. Eventually, when T. and I were both ready to go, I just said goodbye to her, gave her a hug, and wished her good luck with the rest of the night.
With all of that said, I hardly know where to sum up this entry. Maybe there’s no grand conclusion; maybe life is complex, and we can’t always make any clear sense of it. I feel like I want to say at least a few words in conclusion though.
First of all, I’m glad I went to the Gallery. I was there to experience this part of my friend’s life, and I was there to push past my own boundaries and have a new and exciting experience. I definitely did both.
Second, I won’t deny that it was an exciting experience. Even though the context had its flaws, there’s simply something amazing about watching a group of beautiful, attractive, alluring, mostly-naked women get up on stage and do some erotic and provocative dancing. It would be absurd to deny the sheer pleasure of such an experience.
Third, I won’t deny that it was also alienating. Once the excitement wore off, the experience left me feeling hollow and restless. I like the thought of being able to go to a club and have a sensual and erotic experience — but I’d like it to be more mutual, and more focused on celebrating the ecstatic dimensions of human experience rather than being defined by a financial transaction.
This hard-to-quantify feeling of alienation made me realize that the genuineness of the affection and attention that I receive really is important to me. It also made me realize that one of the things I miss most as a single person is not the opportunity to receive affection, but the opportunity to show it. I’m a very affectionate person, with a lot of love in my heart, and a strong desire to show that love through various forms of affection. I think more than anything, I want to hold someone in my arms, and look them in the eye, and tell them that I love them, and know that they fully feel and accept and appreciate this love. And on an emotional and spiritual level, going to a strip club is about the exact opposite of that experience.
Finally, my trip to the Gallery left me with plenty of food for thought about gender, sexuality, politics, economics, and beyond. I think that strip clubs and gentleman’s clubs, at least in the current social context, serve on the whole to contribute to a sexual culture of objectification and alienation. Individual customers and dancers can have experiences which are unique, and meaningful, and personal, and maybe even thoroughly satisfying to them on a personal or social or political or spiritual level. But the context as a whole is sorely flawed, and serves to perpetuate a lot of problematic issues related to gender and sexuality and beyond. I want to love the open and rebellious sexual nature of such places, but I also want to fix the power dynamics and other flaws before I give it my full endorsement.
So, it was a complex experience. On the whole, I enjoyed myself; on the whole, I’m glad I went; at the same time, I really wish that there were contexts in our community and society in which people could share their sensuality and sexuality in an open and social way without so much baggage and potential for dysfunction and negative power dynamics. As it is, most people seem to either see sexuality as sinful/objectifying, or go off and lead a sex-positive life in private without really challenging any of the negative aspects of the broader society’s attitudes and practices toward sexuality.
That’s what I’ve got for the time being. As always, your responses are greatly appreciated, so long as they remain respectful. If you have anything more suited for a private rather than public discussion, feel free to contact me in private, online or offline, and I’ll see what I can do.
I look forward to hearing other people’s feedback on my experiences, or even other people sharing their own experiences. In the meantime, I’m off in pursuit of other adventures.