Live nude girls

Inside Sacramento’s strip clubs, men receive the pleasures of lap-dance ‘intimacy’ without any risk of real contact

Photo By Larry Dalton

She struts toward me, enormous, asymmetrical breasts swinging from an electric pink halter top like bowling balls in a cargo net. They are among the largest I have ever seen, silicone-enhanced prolate spheroids that cause her rail-thin body to list from side to side as she tightropes across the leopard-print carpet in 9-inch-high clear-plastic fuck-me pumps. She fades into the crowd of men seated in the darkness at the City Limits Showgirls strip club on Auburn Boulevard and disappears.

She’s not exactly my type, but there are plenty more where she came from.

On the stage set before us, two-dozen scantily clad young women present their wares for the next VIP special: Lap dances during the next two songs will be reduced from $60 to $30. The women range in age from 18 to 25. Skimpy tops, G-strings and platform heels are de rigueur. They fan out across the room and begin working the crowd. One girl passes close by and grazes my ear with her lips.

“You want some?” she whispers.

Her hot, moist breath smells like sweet strawberry bubble gum; her tiny hand burns the back of my neck as she draws my face toward her bosom and lightly brushes my cheek with a soft pink nipple.

“You wanna get naughty?” she smiles, her eyes deep pools of amorous possibilities.

“No, thank you,” I stammer dizzily. “I’m just watching right now.”

This scene is repeated every half-hour on the hour at City Limits on Friday and Saturday nights; similar activities can be found at any of the half-dozen strip clubs in the Sacramento area. For as little as $10, a nearly naked young woman will sit on your knee, wiggle around and chat for a few minutes; for as little as $30, she’ll escort you into a private VIP booth for a more erotic lap dance.

You’re not allowed to touch these women, but they can touch you. In the VIP booth, they’ll do just about anything you ask, short of having sex with you and bringing you to orgasm.

The lack of a climax has always put me off lap dancing, and strip clubs in general have never held much appeal, in part because they offend my own politically correct sense of moral superiority. But it’s clear that the men seated around me at City Limits hold no such qualms.

As a spinning disco ball washes the room in a kaleidoscopic red glow, the nearly naked nubiles rub and thrust and grind their bodies against grotesquely grimacing anonymous male strangers. Just as the room reaches fever pitch, the second song ends and the girls withdraw to count their loot, intercepted by clipboard-wielding floor managers intent on ensuring the club gets its cut.

I feel like an unused prop on the set of Bob Guccione’s Caligula. What do these men know that I don’t know? If there is one thing I learned during my month-long foray into Sacramento’s strip-club scene, what some of them understand is this: The women in these clubs offer a product that’s in high demand in an increasingly complex, lonely world—intimacy, with no strings attached.

Naked therapists
I do not mean to suggest that strip clubs aren’t sexist institutions that both demean and exploit women. Clearly, to a certain extent they are. Neither do I mean to imply that the intimacy for sale at such establishments is totally authentic. For one, it lacks any commitment, the blood and guts of true intimacy, from either party involved in the transaction. Generally, no sex is involved, therefore there is no risk, another characteristic of real intimacy. Nevertheless, the faux affection offered at strip clubs is not without value.

A recent study by the American Sociological Review, “Social Isolation in America,” found that men and women have become more isolated. “Many more people talk to no one about matters they consider important to them in 2004 than was the case two decades ago,” the study found. “Why is this question (and its disturbing answer) significant? Social scientists know that contacts with other people are important in both instrumental and socio-emotional domains. The closer and stronger our tie with someone, the broader the scope of their support for us and the greater the likelihood that they will provide major help in a crisis.”

It’s highly unlikely that a stripper is going to pay her client’s medical bills, but she can lend an ear and a soft pair of shoulders, in addition to other attributes. For many men, the attraction proves irresistible.

“They’re interesting establishments, the idea that you’re paying for intimacy is reasonable,” says Dan, a local professional and longtime strip-club aficionado who asked that his real name not be used since some business acquaintances might frown upon his proclivities. “A gal with little or no clothing on will sit and chat with you, her arm around you, your arm around her, for a long time. There are worse things in the world you could be doing. It’s not necessarily any more frustrating than a normal relationship. It’s certainly emotionally less damaging.”

Cassandra—not her real name—has worked strip clubs in Nevada, Arizona and California since the late 1990s; she currently dances at City Limits. Some of her best clients are plagued by loneliness.

“There was this guy who used to fly from Oregon to Vegas just to see me,” she says. “He was a computer engineer. He was such a lonely person, so desperate for companionship, and always so polite, just such a good person. He told me there was this other dancer and he paid for her wedding. You could tell he was so desperate, he’d just put it out there, that he’d know he wasn’t going to be the one, but he just wanted to be in my life nevertheless.”

Such men often become regulars, Cassandra says, and will spend as much as $1,000 a night just to talk and cuddle and hang out at the club.

“It feels like friends,” she says. “We get a lot of people with no social life at all. I know one guy, he works a night job. He’s an engineer. He works in an office by himself. He’s really antisocial, so his only social life is at the club, and that’s it.”

Tiffany, a 25-year-old dancer at Gold Club Centerfolds, agrees that for many of her clients it’s about intimacy, not sex.

“One of my customers takes me shopping. He takes me out to lunch with his friends,” she says. “Never once has he tried to have sex with me. The customers want to feel desired, to have a hot chick that cares about them, that gives a fuck. It sucks that people don’t know this. They think it’s all about blow jobs.”

I meet Jaimez Gonzalez, 20, outside Club Fantasy on Richards Boulevard. He claims frequenting strip clubs for the past two years has turned his life around. Once a pudgy, owlish teenager, he’s blossomed into a handsome young man who regularly works out at the gym. He credits strip clubs for helping turn his life around.

“When I first went there [Club Fantasy], I was judgmental,” he says. “Who’s going to be my first dancer? There were so many. It’s an ethnic club, which I love. I finally saw one, a white lady with blond hair. She was nice. She wanted to get to know me first. They show love to you. That keeps you coming back.”

He’s disappointed that his favorite dancer, Mahogany, has left the club.

Photo Illustration By Larry Dalton and David Jayne

“She had everything,” he says. “It’s all about her body structure, her voice, her personality. She’s really smart, she has great sensitivity. I have no clue why she left. Women are like a drug, they are addictive in some cases. Strip clubs can be addictive because of the way they look at you and love you.”

Other local dancers confirm that all many men want to do is talk. Like Cassandra, they prefer to use their stage names to conceal their true identities.

“Older guys, we get back in the VIP room, and all they want to do is talk about their wives, their kids, their families, their work,” says Tatiana, a petite, raven-haired Goth girl who dances at Rick’s Showgirls.

“We’re like naked therapists,” agrees Katana, a pretty brunette with layered hair framing an oval face and almond-shaped eyes, who also dances at Rick’s. She’s a good listener, but a girl has to earn a living.

“You wanna try this?” she says, as the red lights signaling the VIP special flash on. Her skin-tight pink micro-skirt is sprayed on.

“No, thank you, I’m just watching right now.”

“OK, I’m gonna go make some money.”

Dirty dancing
“Don’t be fooled by those girls,” Cassandra warns me. “It’s an act.”

When it comes to a dancer’s income, the ability to feign intimacy may be a more important factor than looks or a hot body. Cassandra’s blessed with all three attributes, one reason she’s remained in a business with a notoriously high burnout ratio.

She’s disarmingly beautiful, medium height, long brown hair, breasts tastefully augmented. Like most of the dancers she works out at the gym often, in her case six days a week. With a shawl draped over her shoulder and a sarong wrapped around her waist, she presents a level of refinement absent in her younger cohorts. I’d hoped to have my first lap dance with her—in order to maintain journalistic detachment, of course—but she turns me down. Because I’m not really a client, she feels like it would be dishonest.

“This is not me!” she insists. Later, she elaborates on the topic further.

“It’s always something I’ve done under a pseudonym,” she says. “I go to work, I put on a different face, put on a different attitude. I turn into somebody else. A lot of the girls do that. You can be anybody you want in the club.”

“Do you find switching personas difficult?” I ask.

“No. You take off all your clothes, and your boots, and your tie-on G-strings, and put on your jeans and stick your hair up in a bun and go home with money in your pocket—go pay the bills.”

Like Cassandra, Tiffany prefers to separate the job from reality.

“I’m not Tiffany, that’s not who I am,” she says. “When I’m doing a lap dance, I don’t really think about it. I’m making a grocery list. The best compliment I get is, ‘What are you doing working here?’ ”

Detachment has its rewards. On one recent night, a single customer paid Cassandra $1,000 for a few hours of her company. She says she and other girls “routinely take home $1,500 to $2,500 per night.” In 2003, Tiffany says she pulled $12,000 a month dancing at Centerfolds.

Both women exemplify the fact that stripping is a skill and an art form that combines aesthetic attributes as well as physical and mental abilities. Many girls who are first starting out are surprised that stripping doesn’t have all that much to do with dancing on stage.

“A lot of people in general don’t know, they think that someone hires you to dance nude on the stage, and that’s how you make your living,” Cassandra says. “What happens is, you go into a club. You sort of get hired, because they make you audition. But on the other hand, you’re not really getting hired, they’re just saying you can work there, and they’ll do a contract with you. They call you an independent contractor, so basically you’re working for yourself. You’re in charge of making your own money. You have to be completely self-motivated.”

Self-motivation is key, because in the catty world of striptease, collegiality often takes second seat to competitive instinct. An older dancer might take a newcomer under wing, but they’re just as likely to shove them out of the nest.

Natalia, another one of the dancers at Rick’s, is fed up with prima donnas.

“They’ll tell you your act stinks!” she fumes. Harley Davidson wings are tattooed on her shoulders and there’s a five-pointed star on her neck. She’s been dancing several years and her stage act doesn’t stink. But dancing on stage benefits the clubs more than it does the dancers, who are paid in single dollar bills by the customers bellied up to the tip rail.

“Most dancers don’t get it: Sometimes it takes several days, sometimes several weeks,” Cassandra says. “The first time I did a lap dance, I danced like three feet away from the guy. He said, ‘Oh, that’s really great.’ Nobody tells you that you make all your money doing lap dances, that it’s not about being on stage. That’s just for the club’s benefit.”

The stage act benefits the club by providing the imprimatur of legality. In Sacramento, anyone who “exposes his or her private body parts or buttocks or employs any device or covering which is intended to simulate the private part or pubic hair while participating in any live act, demonstration, or exhibition in any public place, place open to the public, or place open to public view” is guilty of a misdemeanor, according to Section 9.44.030 of the county code. However, the previous section, 9.44.020, specifically exempts theaters, defined as “a building, playhouse, room, hall or other place having a permanent stage upon which movable scenery and theatrical or vaudeville or similar performances are given and permanently affixed seats so arranged that a body of spectators can have an unobstructed view of the stage.”

Strip clubs fit the legal description. The theater exemption provides so-called juice bars (strip clubs that don’t serve alcoholic beverages and are thus less heavily regulated) a way around county prohibitions against depictions of simulated intercourse, oral copulation, anal intercourse, cunnilingus, fellatio and sapphism, each of which I’ve recently observed at local juice bars such as City Limits, Rick’s Showgirls, Club Fantasy and Gold Club Centerfolds, as well as The Body Shop, a topless bar that serves alcohol.

At juice bars, the girls are required to wear a thong during lap dances. However, when dancing on stage, total nudity is permitted. Absolutely nothing is left to the imagination—the only way you’re likely to see a live woman who is not your wife or girlfriend in more detail is by sitting in on a gynecological examination. Sometimes, when a dancer is less than inspired, watching a stage dance can feel that clinical. However, when the performance is spirited, the result can be erotically mesmerizing.

Photo Illustration By Larry Dalton and David Jayne

At Centerfolds one night, Aris, a gorgeous, lithe Asian girl with Chinese characters tattooed down her spine, slinks out on stage in a red-vinyl devil costume, complete with pointed tail. She plays suggestively with the tail as she strips raw. An incredibly limber contortionist, she performs the full splits and lays supine on the floor, providing the hypnotized men at the tip rail a panoramic view of her shaved perineum. She beams at them from between her legs, then suddenly straightens her legs out, slamming her 8-inch-high plastic platforms so loudly on the dance floor it startles some of the onlookers.

Later, Aris tell me that the characters down her back symbolize the sun, beauty, the moon, respect, heaven and prosperity. The 21-year-old got into stripping two years ago out of curiosity. “I’m really shy in real life, but at the club I’m more open because I don’t know anyone,” she says. “But if I know you, I can’t even dance in front of you.”

Dan appreciates women who can dance well.

“It’s awfully difficult to be doing anything at all wearing 9-inch platforms strutting around in G-strings, much less getting up on stage and working on the pole, really learning how to dance,” he says. “Frankly, a lot of girls could care less.”

The pole, a required feature at most clubs, thrusts up out of the stage and penetrates the ceiling like a golden phallus. It can separate the women from the girls.

At City Limits one night, a dancer takes a run at the pole, slips in her high heels and barely catches the pole with one hand. Centrifugal force hurls her to the floor, where she lands in a heap, plastic stage shoes clattering like hooves.

On another night at Club Fantasy, Peaches, a red-headed pixy with a whimsical dragon tattooed on the back of her thigh, shinnies up the brass pole with simian agility. She performs a complex, acrobatic routine, shedding her skimpy outfit in mid-air, and later surprises me when she says she’s only danced for the past six months.

“I got fired from my job and had to make rent,” she explains. “I’m not going to get up there on stage and look bad. I’m going to do my best.” Her 2-year-old daughter waits with the babysitter for mommy to come home.

Nasty business
Acts such as Peaches’ are captivating, but, as Cassandra points out, stage dancing is merely the window dressing that legitimizes the strip club’s operation. Lap dancing is the club’s real money-maker. Nowhere is this edict more on display than at City Limits, where every half-hour the stage lights flash red and an army of strippers descends into the crowd to entice schoolboys, working stiffs and sugar daddies alike to part with their hard-earned cash in exchange for a few up-close and personal moments in the VIP room with a pretty, scantily clad woman.

It’s not an easy skill to learn, says Cassandra.

“Generally, it’s not just about how you dance, it’s about how you talk,” she says. “It usually takes dancers a good six months before they start making real money. You learn little tricks like what to say, how to dance, how to look at people. Most girls when they first start will go around and they’ll be like, ‘You wanna dance?’ and the guy will say no. Then they’ll go on to the next guy and say, ‘You wanna dance?’ and the guy will say no.

“Some girls when they first start will sit and talk to someone for 30 minutes before they ask them to dance, and the guy will say no,” she continues. “That’s 30 minutes wasted. Basically, you have to maximize your time. You have to make the person feel like they know you in as small as time as possible, like, say, one to two minutes. You have to be able to tell whether the person is going to be committed to spending some money or not.”

When Gonzalez decided to branch out from Club Fantasy and give Gold Club Centerfolds a try, he budgeted in advance.

“My goal was to go twice,” he says. “The second time I paid $600 there to dance with seven different ladies, a total of 15 lap dances. My best dancer was a Latin woman. She had this nice back and forth movement, slow and easy. She shows love when she does it, like she wants it.”

Gonzalez estimates that he’s spent $8,000 on lap dances over the past two years.

“I could have paid for a laptop or a motorcycle with that money, or put it in savings,” he says. “I don’t think I’m going to go back, but I have no regrets. It’s not a waste of money at all.”

Dan knows plenty of guys who willingly part with $1,000 a night at strip clubs. He goes out to clubs in Sacramento a half-dozen times a year, almost always to visit with dancers he already knows. On these excursions, he’ll often pay two of his favorites $500 each to spend several hours together with him.

“At Rick’s, usually I do two-on-one stuff,” he says. “Which means there’s always someone moving around, shielding the bouncer.” That allows for heavier petting, but he insists it’s not about sex. “Tease goes a long way. Everybody’s had situations in regular relationships where the tease was a lot more fun than getting down to it.”

Dancers depend upon regular customers like Dan both for their largess and also their sophistication. Many customers, at least half according to the dancers I’ve talked to, are not so well-behaved.

“I like a guy who understands I’m not here to perform sexual favors,” Aris says. “I’m just here to do my job. Some guys, they look at us like we’re a different species, a different kind of being.”

It takes a thick skin to stay in the business, Cassandra notes.

“I remember my first year, the stuff guys would say to me, like, ‘Show me your little girl,’ ” she says. “It kind of disgusted of me. They have some weird things that they say, things I wish I could forget. Sometimes they just want to talk dirty, and they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I’m inside you right now, I’m sliding my blah blah blah inside your blah blah blah.’ That kind of makes me feel like a whore.”

She says such incidents have become more frequent since clubs such as City Limits and Rick’s created a new fee structure for VIP dances during the past year. Formerly, all dances at the clubs were $20 each, all of which the dancers got to keep. Now the fee for regular dances has been lowered to $10, and VIP dances in the newly curtained-off booths are sold for $30 each. The club takes $5 from each VIP dance, which means the girls are only making $5 more than before for a dance that costs customers $10 more and is billed as extra special.

“The guys don’t feel like it’s enough for the money,” she says. “They’ll bite you, they’ll grab you. What are you going to do? Are you going to throw them out? Are you going to chastise them? It’s a really tough situation, because they’re doing all this stuff. You can’t say fuck this and not get your money. There’s no real extras. It’s not really that private, it’s not really like a VIP room, it’s just a line of guys behind a curtain. It’s not really the club that’s offering extra, it’s the dancers who have to offer something extra.”

At City Limits, a dancer pays $50 base rent for the right to use the facility for each shift. She’s also required to sell a certain number of soft drinks at $10 a pop. At the end of the night, with the money she’s earned from dancing, she tips out the bouncers, the deejay and the managers before taking her cut, which she must then pay federal and state income taxes on. Cassandra says she made more money with less hassle under the previous fee arrangement.

“It’s a whole lot easier to sell 10 dances at $20 each than it is to sell dances at $30 each,” she says.

Photo Illustration By Larry Dalton and David Jayne

Lap dance of luxury
Nevertheless, Cassandra, who is married with one child, has made and continues to make good money stripping. She’ll soon earn her bachelor’s degree from a local university. For women with the looks, the skills and a thick skin, shedding your clothing for a living can be extremely lucrative.

“My friends who do this for a living, pretty much without exception, have an awful lot on the ball,” Dan says. “They’re really pragmatic. They’re good looking gals. They can make a ton of money. Their schedules are flexible. These are gals in their early to mid-20s who’ve bought houses, put themselves through school, have other jobs that they view as their real job, but when things get tight, and they want to buy a new car or something, they put in a couple of shifts.”

It’s not like that for everybody. At Rick’s, Katana, Natalia and Tatiana tell me that business has been slow. Tatiana, who dances regularly in several legitimate Sacramento night clubs, made $400 one night “doing $10 table dances. I busted my ass!” Katana says one of the bouncers told her it’s been slow “because it’s football season.” Natalia, who has a job at a local salon, is thinking about taking a third job at a cosmetics counter. She has a young daughter to feed at home.

“It’s been really slow,” Tiffany says, who’s working on an exit strategy after nearly seven years in the business. “This is a luxury, and when the economy slows down, guys stop coming.”

I have a strong impulse to help these girls out, although I can’t help wondering if their neediness is part of the act. The majority of the women I talk to at Sacramento’s strip clubs claim to be single mothers who have been abandoned by their baby’s father. Belle, a 21-year-old dancer at City Limits, is no exception to this rule.

She’s a cute little sprite, 5-foot-1-inch if she’s lucky, with shoulder-length ash-blond hair parted on the side over an elfin face. We make eye contact as she works a couple of businessmen at the table next to me, and she walks over in white platform pumps and a black and white striped micro-mini skirt.

“Hi, I’m Belle,” she says, and she sits right down.

There’s no hard sell, just easy conversation. She tells me about her toddler son, about how she’s been dancing for a couple of years. I ask her why she sat down at my table.

“You seem nice,” she says sincerely. “Some of these guys, they just tell you no before you can get a word out.”

We chat a little more and I decide I like her. I like her a lot. I ask her if she’ll dance with me at the next VIP special. When the red lights signaling the next VIP special come on, she runs over, grabs me by the hand and exuberantly tugs me behind the curtain. It’s more private than I expect, like an opium den, with a curved, overstuffed couch. She takes off my ball cap, tosses it to the side, gently shoves me down onto the couch and kicks my legs apart with a laugh.

“Spread ’em!” she says mischievously.

“You like saying that too much,” I reply.

She strips off her skirt, revealing a metallic-white thong that matches her skimpy bikini top. She doffs the top and cups her breasts. Small, natural, with the slightest bit of sag, they barely spill over her tiny hands. Perfect.

“Mommy breasts!” she says proudly, giving them a squeeze, circling quarter-sized pink nipples with her index fingers.

She leans into me, cheek to cheek, and blows in my ear. Her breath is hot, sweet, that same strawberry bubble-gum flavor all the girls seem to have. Raising up and arching her back, she gently brushes those perfect little breasts against my face, my lips.

I had worried about becoming aroused in such a public situation.

It is not a problem.

She rides me for a while, then slides down between my legs, hugging me close. Then she stands up and begins slowly gyrating her tiny hips, turning her backside toward me.

“Show me,” I say.

She gives me a little peek.

Then she stretches out luxuriously across my lap like a small pet and looks deep into my eyes with what seems like great affection.

“I just love dancing!” she purrs.

My head spins with pleasure as this dear sweet creature smiles up at me. I am soothed, satiated; an orgasm is the last thing on my mind. The buzz lasts into the next day. Like Dan says, a little tease goes a long way.

The dance ends and I hand over $30. It’s worth every penny.

“You want to go again?” she asks.

“I’m not sure I could handle it,” I answer dizzily.

Later, I see Belle grinding away on another guy, and we make eye contact again. She gives me a big smile, like I’m special. I’m not jealous in the slightest.

It’s intimacy, a form of it anyway, with no strings attached.