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Strip Clubs: Returning the Gaze, Returning the Benefit


     “I really do stare, like I look, and I look, and I look so it’s returning the audience’s gaze” says a cabaret performer, Dainty Smith, in response to a University professor's question about the strategies she uses to feel safe and find balance while being sexualized at a vulnerable nude state. Sharing many similarities with theatre, cabarets and strip clubs are all about trade as the audience pays something to receive a mesmerizing fantasy that empties their mind of daily life concerns. The other side of the business is actors/performers creating that fantasy in return, putting their bodies on display for money. As Dainty explains, the eye interactions between the audience and performers tie them together as two parts of one whole.



      In the case of the strip club, where this relationship could get more intimate, talented individual dancers hired by a company allow men to oversexualize them to receive some financial benefit for themselves and the company. This makes the club compatible with the concept of meta theatre, where the fourth wall (the hypothetical wall between the audience and performers) is obscured, and the performers and audience merge.


     Men could get visually and, to some extent, sexually satisfied while the club and its staff benefit too, but the question is who is benefiting more and who is using whom. Sex workers offer much more than sex; they provide professional dancing, personal therapy, and friendship to their clients while promoting the name of the company, which makes the business unfair. The gaze might be returned, but the benefit is not.   


      As the Canadian theatre actress and writer Alexandra Tigchelaar has demonstrated in Neon Nightz, even a lesbian strip club’s environment is patriarchal. Men come in to watch lesbians in front of whom they can be open about their exotic fetishes without getting judged. Some of them get attached to the strippers, like Neil to Sasha, denying the fact that they are there only to do their job. The whole business is beneficial to men mostly as they are the ones running these strip clubs behind the scenes, and they are the primary audience as well. Strippers are used by men to please other men.


     They take risks by getting naked in closure to male strangers who are not even always strangers, listening to their rantings about their women, and smiling at them to make them feel desirable. Their duty is more energy-consuming and scary at times than stripping or performing at cabarets, though they still get paid as low as an employee at retail work. In spite of the unfairness they face, it is essential to acknowledge the strength and resilience of the strippers within the industry. They find ways to support and uplift each other, forming a united front in a challenging environment. Opposing exploitation, they maintain their dignity as human beings.


      In summary, strip clubs operate within a power dynamic where desires are exchanged. Dainty Smith's words emphasize the connection between performers and the audience's gaze. In theatre, audiences pay for fantasy, while actors reveal their bodies for money. Strip clubs blur the lines further, with dancers satisfying men in exchange for income. However, the industry is unfair, as dancers offer more than just sex yet receive inadequate compensation. The environment is patriarchal, catering to men's exotic fetishes and emotional attachments, while dancers take risks and put in emotional labour. The gaze may be returned, but benefits are unevenly distributed.




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