Sunday, January 5, 2003

Tracy Quan

p. R-10

The contortionist dance of a peep show worker

Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power
Elisabeth Eaves
Alfred A. Knopf: 304 pp., $24

Working at a peep show isn't as easy as it looks. Visit the Lusty Lady in Seattle — its private dressing room along with its enclosed windowed stage (known as "the fish bowl") — and you will understand why. The dancing girls do not work long grueling shifts — their shifts may be two to five hours long with frequent 10-minute breaks — but the work itself requires extreme agility, physical and mental concentration and the unusual ability to be instantly expressive in front of a man you've never met before. A peep show dancer's performance is an elaborate exercise in skirting anti-prostitution laws while providing the maximum degree of titillation. Everything, from the saucy costumes to the gyrating and posing, must compensate for an absence of physical contact between dancer and customer. The result is an erotic niche market that is bewildering to some, profoundly enticing to others.

Between college and grad school, Elisabeth Eaves began working at the Lusty Lady. She had a living to make, and "being sexy was already something of a hobby." Why not parlay this into a job skill? "Bare" retraces the path that led Eaves into and out of sex work. She also follows the lives of four dancers she encountered at the Lusty Lady and, while dishing about her girlfriends, becomes a hard-working skeptical reporter.

Nostalgic observers of the sex industry believe that feminism has ruined commercial sex. They have a point. Some areas of the trade, domination and exotic dancing in particular, are magnets for self-conscious, jargon-spouting college girls who claim to despise the men they service. So it is downright refreshing to encounter a peep show dancer who is not a women's studies major: Before her stint at the Lusty Lady, Eaves studied Arabic in college and spent her junior year in Egypt pursuing a degree in international studies.

There are moments when Eaves comes across as an earnest grad student for whom working at the legal fringes of the sex trade is a rebellious gesture. It's easy to see this as the work of a frivolous feminist jumping on the sex-worker literati bandwagon, and her ominous subtitle, "On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power," suggests that we are in for another pro-sex feminist lecture. But there are also moments when she writes like a thoughtful humanist who just happens to have been a sex worker, giving us a pleasant vacation from the feminist drumbeat.

Whether she's discussing the nature of her orgasms during a long-distance love affair or the exact placement of her outstretched legs in the private-pleasures booth, there's a touch of nerdy precision that makes me think she must have been good at her job. Indeed, any sexual performer who avoids breaking the law for hours at a stretch has skills that many traditional prostitutes, whose work is more natural and tactile, never have to learn. A peep show dancer excludes human touch and concentrates only on her act.

The peep show dancers at the Lusty Lady are part of a surreal, highly contrived two-way performance. The dancers sound more like self-mocking contortionists — erotic clowns, perhaps — than like down-to-earth whores. These ordinary middle-class women transform themselves into scantily clad carnival-esque "creatures." Their middle-class customers are men with ordinary lives who sneak off to the Lusty Lady to act out the quaint cliche of the raincoat-wearing pervert. Call it managed seediness, for they make a sincere effort to be as seedy and sordid as possible, whether buying or selling, without breaking any laws. When you get to know the dancers and customers, you realize that civic-minded crusades against peep show establishments are actually an attack on the values of the middle class.

People may wonder why a nice girl like Eaves would work at a peep show. Sex work has long been a survival strategy for women born into poverty, but none of the women working alongside Eaves is, strictly speaking, poor. They are also educated, and the appeal of sex work for many women (including myself) is that no formal diploma is required to earn a living with your body. So why are women like Eaves attracted to the Lusty Lady? One explanation becomes screamingly apparent as you listen to Eaves and her cohorts: Peep show dancing feeds a basic desire, the desire to be rewarded for your sexuality without having to become a prostitute.

Most of these young women are the feminist version of those Marxist intellectuals who consciously worked in coal mines or on the assembly line. Their stories are an important part of the growing body of sex worker literature. They also create performance art, make edgy documentaries (such as the quirky film "Live Nude Girls Unite!") and attend their fair share of conferences. Strippers, prostitutes and porn stars appear to be united on the bookshelves, but, as with other kinds of writers, there are contentious undercurrents. These undercurrents owe a great deal to the realities of the sex trade, in which, for example, strippers look down on hookers and vice versa.

Exotic dancers aspire to be untouchable and in control, still virtuous in their own fashion. Anything more — physical contact, that is — draws fear and suspicion. At the very heart of "Bare" is an inherent anxiety about prostitution, which goes barely explored because Eaves is unwilling to question her basic assumptions about it. Perhaps because she sees hooking as a threat to her identity as a dancer, the most important part of her story is incomplete.

As pornographic as their peep show act might be, Eaves and her peers work hard not to be prostitutes. A dancer's job is to get the customer so aroused that he'll want more, but in this corner of the trade, satisfaction is not guaranteed; it's forbidden. Describing a lap dancer who has committed the cardinal sin of manually satisfying a customer, Eaves begins to sound pathologically afraid, as if this lapsed dancer's act of prostitution might contaminate her. Eaves has embraced her inner vice cop, and she's not letting go. But she uses modern psychobabble to avoid addressing the most ancient moral hang-ups.

Eaves and her peers spend a huge chunk of their working lives defining and protecting what they call their sexual and personal "boundaries." At times, these 21st century American sex workers sound like high school girls from the 1950s debating how far you can go without destroying your reputation. Psychobabble has replaced the more puritanical labels, but the intent has not changed. The liberated secular woman guards her personal boundaries in much the same way that her ancestors guarded their virtue. Some, of course, are better at it than the rest.

Zoe, for example, is a stripper who makes house calls, and she is adamant about never having sex with the men who watch. But when a repeat customer offers her $600 for real sex, it's a tempting dilemma. Because Zoe scoffs at women who have "moral issues" with stripping, outsiders to the sex trade might find her prudish hesitation mind-boggling, and so too would some insiders. A prostitute would jump at the chance to turn this man into a regular client, but Zoe can't make up her mind. The difference between prostitute and stripper is not just in the prostitute's relaxed attitude toward sex: Although a prostitute by nature focuses on the customer, Zoe turns it into a narcissistic dilemma. Zoe's story describes the way so many women — not just sex workers — conduct their lives today, declaring themselves more liberated than thou yet fearing the loss of their virtue.

In the end, Eaves renounces "all sexuality for profit." Some readers will say that she is privileged because, unlike many other women, she was able to dabble in the sex trade, then move on to her "real" career. Her renunciation of sexual commerce is reminiscent of the Magdalene houses: 19th century institutions where "fallen women" who were down on their luck could receive shelter and sustenance in exchange for their spiritual salvation. It is easy to understand why a destitute or ailing sex worker would renounce her wayward past and embrace the role of repenting sinner. It came with food, medical care and shelter. But Eaves is no victim of poverty. She has actively chosen the Victorian path of renunciation while cloaking it in the language of late 20th century feminism, and this leads us to wonder whether it is a convenient posture or a case of sexual guilt that can never be entirely washed away.

Tracy Quan is the author of the novel "Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl" and a contributor to "NYC Sex: How New York City Transformed Sex in America."

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Created: April 14, 2003
Last modified: April 14, 2003
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