The following interview with Lily Burana appeared in Penthouse Forum magazine.
Lily Burana is one of the most talented writers documenting contemporary sexuality, with work appearing in The New York Times, GQ, Out and Penthouse. Most recently she has written the book Strip City (Talk Miramax Books), an account of her final year treading the boards-and working the poles-in gentlemen's clubs and go-go joints from coast to coast. Recently Burana spoke with Forum about the various forms of erotic dancing, unionizing strippers, and how some men think tits are like doughnuts.
FORUM: How long did you actually work as a dancer?
BURANA: I supported myself as a dancer on and off for six years. Then I went back to it for a year, maybe a little longer, to do the book.
FORUM: In Strip City you point out that there's a difference between being a stripper and being a go-go dancer. I always thought they were the same. What's the difference?
BURANA: It's all the same business. Exotic dancer versus stripper versus go-go dancer, it's whatever your preference is. But there is a specific difference with respect to go-go dancing, which is sort of almost exclusively a New Jersey thing. It's mostly dancing in a bikini, which is extremely rare these days. The emphasis there is more on walking the bar and not so much on private dancing, which is definitely where the rest of the industry is skewing these days.
FORUM: Which did you consider yourself?
BURANA: I'm just a stripper. Like I said, it varies. At a gentlemen's club they call the women "entertainers," and the women, who take themselves rather seriously, refer to themselves as "entertainers." I'm fine with that, but I personally don't refer to myself that way because "entertainer" just prompts another question: What kind of entertainer? I don't think people are likely to believe that I'm a birthday-party clown or I juggle flaming bowling pins. So I just say stripper. Dancers typically call each other "dancer," just as sort of an industry shorthand. My feeling is, if you can't handle being referred to by the most common vernacular form of what you do, maybe you should be doing something else. It's not a judgment. I just think you have to be able to deal with the fact that you're going to be referred to in a certain shorthand. If somebody calls me a stripper, it's like, "Yeah, what's your point?"
FORUM: I used to have the job description "Pornographer" on my business card, because I know a lot of people consider that a disparaging term, and if you use it first, then they can't use it against you.
BURANA: It's very much akin to the gay and lesbian community reappropriating the word "queer." It's like, "You can't use this against me, because I'm going to use it first." And "stripper" does tie in more with the history of exotic dancing, because that's what they were called in the forties and fifties, when it started to become a fixture in American culture. They were called strippers. They haven't turned into something else. The business has changed, but that's still what we are. Strippers.
FORUM: Though stripping doesn't involve intercourse, the way prostitution does, do you consider it "sex work"?
BURANA: Absolutely. I consider "sex work" a blanket term for anything that falls under the rubric of "adult entertainment." Phone sex doesn't involve physical sexuality, but it's a form of sex. Anytime you're working with sexuality, whether it's physical or psychological, particularly if it's based on something physical or performative like talking, I say it's sex work. I don't have a problem with that. It's definitely on the same continuum as prostitution or being in a porn film, it's just toward the tamer side. There are women who object to that, and that's fine, but personally I don't. I see it as sex work because you're working with sexuality, even though it's not the procreative act, so to speak.
FORUM: I know a lot of dominatrices get pissed off if you call what they do prostitution. Do you equate sex work with prostitution, since they're both for money?
BURANA: No. I think that prostitution is specifically trading a sexual act, involving genitals generally, for money. I don't see that as the same thing any more than you would say being a stripper is the same as being a porn star. Also, stripping isn't illegal. To me, that makes a huge difference.
FORUM: Where do you draw the line when you're working? At nude dancing, lap dances, drink hustles? Or do you do whatever the club wants?
BURANA: It depends. I never really had to hustle drinks. That's been outmoded by the table dance. In the eighties it used to exist a lot. But really since local legislation in most places has become so much more lax, the hustle is usually the table dance or the private dance, not drinks so much, although that does exist in some places. In the course of having been a stripper I've done it all. I've lap danced and worked nude. But when I was doing the book I wasn't interested in going to the furthest extreme. I didn't want to lap dance, because even since I left the business, lap dancing has become much more extreme in a lot of places. I don't want to work anyplace where I can get arrested for the way I'm performing, like a lap dance that involves the guy touching your breasts, which sometimes happens in some clubs, or anything having to do with Mister Happy. [Laughs.] When I was doing the book I just wanted to work topless and not have a lot of contact. I was doing so much work and changing environments so quickly that the burnout risk was high, and I had to pace myself. There was also whether you're going to consider how your real-life partner feels about what you're doing. Some women-and certainly I used to be this way-are like, "I'm doing what I'm doing and you can either deal with it or you can go date somebody else." But when it came to somebody that I was serious about, if he didn't want me to work in a club like Mons Venus, where it was total grindage and total wandering hands, that was fine with me. That didn't seem like too much of a sacrifice, because I knew that if I was looking at working the whole country, there were plenty of other options for me.
FORUM: Are dancers treated better in rural clubs or in urban clubs, or is there no difference?
BURANA: It depends more on the management than where a club is. But I think women probably aren't being treated well in urban centers, where there are so many women trying to work. In a smaller town you can't charge women a hundred-dollar tip-out [the practice of making strippers pay the disc jockey, busboys and so on out of their own tips], because there are going to be nights where the woman won't even make that much, and she simply won't put up with it. In an urban setting, where there are more girls but also, hopefully, more customers, yeah, a lot of places are going to clip you for a hundred bucks every shift. The flip side is that there's usually much greater earning potential in a big-city club.
FORUM: I've always found it amazing that women will work in a place where they have to pay other employees out of their tips, but the owners, whose business it is and who get all the profit, don't pay anyone.
BURANA: That's a relatively new development. In the seventies and even into the eighties, it was standard to be paid either an hourly rate plus your tips or a weekly salary and your tips. Some places still do that. It's really a matter of there being so many more women willing to do the work. Stripping is a business where there's no sense of history. Most women coming into the business don't know how it used to be run, so they're not going to complain. They just see tip-outs as an inevitable opportunity cost. The cooler clubs will give you a receipt so you can deduct it from your taxes, if you pay your taxes. For instance I was in a club in north Jersey the other day where the owners were like, "Yeah, we had seventy-five girls the other night." It was a small club, and they weren't thinking, "We're only going to take twenty girls because we want them all to make money." They were like, "No, these women are paying a hundred bucks a night, so we're going to run as many girls as we can." I don't know if that's necessarily the most intelligent way to run a business, simply because a lot of your best girls are going to leave. They aren't going to try to compete with seventy-five other girls in a small club! But the owners are just thinking, "Oh, we're going to make five thousand dollars a night in stage fees!" Stripping is one of those jobs where you don't do the math on how much you're paying out, because you'll go nuts. Think about it: If you work in a club where you tip-out a hundred bucks a night and you work four days a week, that's sixteen hundred bucks a month. I'd be happy to take home that much more money.
FORUM: You were part of the labor lawsuit against the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre in San Francisco.
BURANA: I was one of the lead plaintiffs. In 1998 we won restitution of 2.85 million dollars in backstage fees and lost wages. There were a lot of lawsuits filed in San Francisco, at various clubs.
FORUM: Like the Lusty Lady.
BURANA: The Lusty Lady, and also Market Street Cinema. Typically the club owners simply found another way to get their daily payout from the girls, whether they would call it a commission or whatever.
FORUM: Are they still unionized?
BURANA: I think the Lusty is still unionized. They're the only ones, though. But the Lusty is a unique situation. It's actually a peep show, not a strip club. That's a place where the women weren't working for tips. It's harder to organize a club where the women are working for tips, because you don't know how high your tree is going to grow financially. If you know you have the possibility of making from two hundred on up to nine hundred dollars a night, you're much less likely to negotiate that away, whereas with a union shop where you're paid by the hour, you have a set amount you know you're going to get paid. It's a very different situation.
FORUM: Do you think unionization would be a good idea for strippers? Do you think they would really care?
BURANA: I'm not pro-union where the sex industry is concerned.
FORUM: Why not?
BURANA: There used to be a burlesque union, from the forties until the early eighties, called the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA). It didn't do anything. Exotic dancers paid five hundred dollars a year in dues, but they never gave you a receipt. They would just come back and say, "You didn't pay your dues," and of course you didn't have a receipt, so they just hit you up for the fee again. I'm not convinced that unionizing an outlaw business will make it any less outlaw. I feel that way about legalized prostitution. How, aside from the fact that the women don't get arrested, are their lives improved? I mean, their mobility is severely hampered.
FORUM: A brothel in Germany just became the first to apply that country's recent law authorizing employment contracts for prostitutes, and it seems pretty good. The prostitutes get a basic wage for a forty-hour work week, profit sharing, social security, health insurance and a pension. And the legal classification of their job as "immoral" was lifted too.
BURANA: If that could be achieved here, that would be great. I'm all for improving working conditions for strippers. I'm just not sure whether unions are the way to go. The whole point of the lawsuits in San Francisco was for the women to get the benefits that conventional employees have, and they haven't gotten them. It turns out that even throwing the book at strip clubs doesn't necessarily yield the results you want. That's why I'm not convinced any union would work. If you could show me a model that would be effective, I'd say, Yeah, go for it! But I don't think anybody's done it yet.
FORUM: Speaking of working conditions, is there a lot of sexual harassment in strip clubs?
BURANA: No, not really that much. But keep in mind that sexual harassment is relative. What's permitted in a club would be considered sexual harassment almost anyplace else. In my experience, managers expecting favors from girls has not been typical. I think there are some women who are more vulnerable to that than others. Five women could work in the same club, and maybe two would succumb to suggestions from the boss. The other three would just be like, "Yeah, whatever, okay, bye."
FORUM: If there were five women in that club, would all five necessarily have that suggestion made by the manager of the club?
BURANA: No. There are some clubs that are totally clean. Look at it from this point of view: If you work in a bakery, you get really sick of doughnuts. There are a lot of club managers who are like, "Yeah, pretty girl in a bikini. Whatever." They get burned out too. That's something that's not talked about very much. People are much more infatuated with, Why is the girl there? What is she doing? They don't think about what it's like for the manager to see boobies day in and day out. They're just fried, so they may have no interest in the women sexually. But some do. Some clubs are notorious for the boss trying to make a pass at you. Typically, you can just blow them off. It's like, "If you want me to work here, you have to screw off. Or I'm going to go work someplace else." The people in this business, especially on the production side or the management side, are way more into the money than the sex. So if it comes down to choosing whether to try to screw the pretty girl and risk having her leave, costing you the money she would have brought your club, you're likely to leave her alone. So I haven't seen that there's a whole lot of sexual harassment. I mean, there's always the horny DJ who's like, "Oh, a new girl! I'm going to be really flirty with her." That's just a cultural flattery. What seems flirty and egregious in a corporate setting is business as usual in stripping. If somebody says, "Wow, you've got an awesome pussy," it's not over the line.
FORUM: Did you know Susan Walsh? [Writer-stripper Susan Walsh disappeared in 1996 after penning an article about what she said were Russian-mob-controlled New Jersey strip clubs. The case has never been solved.]
BURANA: I met her, but I didn't know her personally.
FORUM: She hated stripping, she hated the guys who went to the clubs, and she hated the guys who ran them. I knew her, and liked her a lot, but I always wondered why she kept dancing if she hated it all so much.
BURANA: It's such a sad story. I think that, relatively speaking, she would have been working in a tame environment with New Jersey go-go. Especially with the bikini, you know? You're not even lap dancing or having guys look at your privates or whatever. She probably felt trapped in the way that a lot of people who hate their jobs but like the money feel trapped. And when you're working with something that's as personal as your sexuality, it really, really gets under your skin.
FORUM: Is Susan's sentiment commonly held? What do dancers think of the guys who go to see them?
BURANA: There's a range of ways women feel about the customers. In my own career, it's changed so much. At the beginning I was working at Peepland. It was like a really hard-core place, super-grungy, and there were a lot of really weird guys-stereotypical, Charles Bukowski-looking guys in the corner. Sort of fungal, you know? And I really hated them. I thought they were complete and total losers. As I worked my way up to nicer clubs, where the dancers were treated better and the clubs were physically cleaner and the guys were more willing to treat me like an individual, I could in turn do that to them. San Francisco has a lot of sort of politically correct platitudes about sex, which can be sort of nauseating. But one thing really did make sense to me, and still does. My friend Carol Queen, who used to be a peep-show girl and is now a Ph.D., said you have to look at it as an even exchange. The customer is giving you money for a specific service. It's not like he's taking everything that you have. So what does it benefit you to be disrespectful to him? Regardless of what you think about him personally, whether you like him or approve of him, isn't courtesy the better part of not only sportsmanship but business? I've met a lot of men in clubs, and while very few became friends-our having met in strip clubs, after all!-as a general rule, if they're polite, I have no problem with them. But there's a sort of minority guy who is wildly obnoxious and hugely judgmental and wants to be the stud duck in the pond. And you know what? It's not just the women who hate him. The other customers hate him too. One time I had an obnoxious customer, you know, and this other guy looked at him, then looked at me and said, "I don't know how you can not hate men in this business. When I'm here, even I hate men." So contempt for the obnoxious customer isn't exclusive to the dancers. I think the other guys are like, "You know, you're not helping our case here."
FORUM: If someone were to ask you whether they should get into the business, as opposed to how to get into it, what would you say?
BURANA: It depends on their life circumstances. In most women's cases, I would ask what their goals are. I would say, "Why don't you take the energy you would use to strip to work as hard as you can for the next six months to try to achieve whatever goal you have? That means getting enrolled in school, or out of debt, or away from an abusive relationship, or whatever. Then see how you feel." Because a lot of women, myself included, have said, "No, no, no, I'll never strip. No, no, never." Then they make a split-second decision to do it, and within two days they're doing it. I would just ask for a longer lead time. The longer women have to contemplate what stripping may or may not do for them, the better a decision they will eventually make, hopefully. If you pick the right club, it's not a physically dangerous business, but it is emotionally risky. There are a lot of girls who start out with the best of intentions and end up partying all the time or feeling like they gave too much of themselves away. They get down on themselves. And you know what? It's only money. I really lost sight of that. I thought, I have to make as much money as I can as fast as I can, because boy, this train is leaving the station and it's going to leave fast. And when I got out for a while it was like, No, it's only money! Which doesn't mean that I won't go back sometime. I probably will. But it's different, you know, when you achieve major life goals. It looks different every time you go back.
FORUM: Have you ever stripped for a boyfriend, just for fun?
BURANA: Oh yeah, definitely! At their request-I don't foist it on them, you know? It's like if a guy's a chef, we can't assume his girlfriend wants, oh, chicken livers wrapped in bacon every night, but if there's the slightest hint of interest. . . . That's one of the perks of dating a stripper. You can't deny a man his pleasure, you know? I had a big dream that I never got. It was to have a go-go pole installed in the house. Now that would have been the ultimate sign of acceptance!
For more about Lily and Strip City, visit her website, www.lilyburana.com.