monthly column from author/activist
Carol Queen

The Royal Treatment

Strip City

I met Lily Burana almost twelve years ago, at the very dawn of the 1990s. She was Lily Braindrop then, a latter-day punk chick who was already writing for Maximum RocknRoll and fixing to start her own 'zine. Like almost all the other friends I made at the Lusty Lady Theater, where we both worked then, we were naked when we met, or nearly. I'm not saying being able to see how a woman grooms her puss hair is a way to assay her character or get close quickly -- but the women at the LL dropped a lot of artifice for each other, in spite of the fact that we could only talk in snippets during our staggered backstage breaks.

I'm sure the LL is today inhabited by great, feisty women, but back in the day, before stripping was a career pretty much any comely college student could aspire to, it was the freaks and the queers who most readily moonlighted as naked ladies. In fact, when we got to the LL it was in a bit of a crisis because management had recently decreed that its workforce had to remind men of the Girl Next Door -- this was no problem for a fraction of us, but everyone else had to creatively shred their garb to cover piercings and full-sleeve tattoos while still showing pink, in fact dancing nearly naked; and plenty of the hairdos back then came off our shaved -- or in any case non-girly -- heads after our shifts and were stuffed into our lockers until the next day. When the going got tough, the tough got jobs stripping, and of course "tough" wasn't the image the LL management wanted to project. Rather, guys were supposed to be able to fantasize that ordinary women were dying to show off their coochies.

Lily actually came off more like a Girl Next Door visually than many -- at least she had her own hair -- but her fierce punk sensibility and big attitude meant the guys as often as not were treated to a snarly display of untouchable sexuality. There were no ordinary women at the LL in those days, not really, and Lily's full measure of extraordinariness was finally put down on paper when she introduced herself to the world via her 'zine, Taste of Latex. She later sold it to a publisher that watered its content down to almost nothing, but in its heyday ToL was a true phenomenon: intelligent, uncompromising, angry, passionate and radical. It was also pansexual, though always very queer, and Lily became the queen of a paper salon that brought together all that was hot and smart about sexual culture in the early '90s.

(If I do say so myself! I was a regular contributor to ToL, and in many ways it launched me into the writing work I do now.)

I stayed pretty close to Lily even after she left the LL to make bigger bucks at the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater, a venue where she was destined to also make bigger waves: She was one of the women who brought the class-action suit against the Mitchell Brothers (or, by then, Brother) to get the company to pay wages and benefits to its dancers. She also became the editor of the ill-fated glossy FutureSex, which was born with a silver spoon in its mouth but which couldn't sustain itself when the money people who'd founded it realized that (Hef, Flynt, and Guccione excepted) you don't publish sex mags for money.

You do it for love, and for the spirit of talking back to the culture. You do it because you think sex is fabulous, or important, or especially problematic, or all of the above.

In that spirit, Lily kept writing.

The Post-Braindrop Years

Lily left San Francisco for New York in the mid-'90s. She began to freelance for substantial magazines, but the whole time she was trying to sell a book. I talked to her several times during the next few years about her frustration with the process of finding the right agent and publisher: Lily knew, out of a deep San Francisco-forged sense of sexual politics, that her story was significant. Clueless New York publishers at first didn't get it -- they barely realized that Rudy Giuliani was overseeing the destruction of the publicly-visible sex industry right under their noses, including Peepland, the crucible that heated the very young Lily into the smart and snarly punk she was when I met her. Still, she continued to write while she tried to scale the walls of an industry that more often than not met her queries with "Oh, we've already got a sex book this year."

Then something amazing happened. On the road to do a story, Lily happened into a Wyoming bar and met the man of her dreams -- a cowboy.

Now we're talking something the publishing industry can relate to.

So Lily finally sold her book, though it wasn't exactly the book she had set out to write. It comes out next month, when everyone will begin to get to know Lily -- and the state of American stripping -- for one of the elements that moves her narrative along is a long US tour of strip clubs as Lily, newly affianced to the cowboy, sows her wild oats one last time. Strip City is also a love story and a memoir, thick with detail and Lily's trenchant opinion of the flesh biz and its denizens.

Any reader who's interested in the state of sex and erotic entertainment in today's America, who works in, is a patron of, or is simply curious about the sex industry, has to read this book. It's far from a comprehensive text -- Lily has strong feelings about her experiences, and aims to articulate them more than to explain to outsiders what the industry is all about -- but it's full of lively detail, beautifully given to us by a very experienced and savvy insider. Nothing that's been written about strip club culture touches it for either journalistic detail or smart and thoughtful opinion. Lily visits a strip club school and ExoticWorld Museum to give us (and herself) some background for her own trek; she interviews old-timers about the biz and how it's changed. She illustrates the diverse world of Strip City: goofy little working-class joints, über-Las Vegas big businesses, gentleman's clubs full of money clips and Rolexes.

For me, who's known Lily for over a decade, the most moving part of the book is Lily's ambivalence. This is almost certainly what got her book sold in the first place, and what will allow ordinary people to find it accessible once it hits the bookstores. Strip City is going to make quite a splash -- published by Talk/Miramax, excerpted in Talk magazine next month, book launches around the nation -- and its subtext, "What's a nice, smart girl like me doing in a business like this?", preempts the question non-sex community readers will be asking. I've been having this conversation with readers and audiences for the last decade myself; I know that one element that keeps the sex industry shrouded in a certain mystery is peoples' inability to grok the answers to the most basic square query: "How could you do that?" Even in my booth at the Lusty Lady, where I masturbated and talked my way through 1990, customers themselves would often exclaim, "But you're smart!"

I have mixed feelings about Lily's mixed feelings. She doesn't call me "St. Francis of the Lusty Lady" for nothing -- if anyone has ever gone into a peep booth with more willingness than I had to bless the people who came to see her there, I want to meet her. So hearing that my fierce punk friend of ten-plus years ago, or the sophisticated writer I know now, has struggled with her choices and the impact of her sex work on her family and her own soul is hurtful. St. Francis says: In a perfect world, erotic dance and performance would be a sacred, exhilarating thing. Doing it would never make us feel lower than other people -- either in our own hearts or in others' eyes. And we'd never have to look at our own bodies critically, wondering if they measure up.

And Lily would likely say: Yeah, but this world ain't perfect.

Strip City is not a downer -- it is simply laced with a bittersweet fact of life for many, perhaps most strippers: The stigma isn't pretty, especially when it's internalized. And yet, as I noted above, if Lily were not able to articulate this, her book would give outsiders no easy entry into the world of the exotic dancer. Perhaps the most radical effect of her ability to do this will be to show off some pretty dang smart strippers, not least Lily herself -- and so perhaps the ultimate effect of Strip City will be to erode, at least a little, the mountain of assumptions which layer on the stigma all sex workers face or flout.

And did I mention it's a damned engaging read? Oh, sure, I'm biased, but I'd say all this even if she hadn't given me a cute-as-shit nickname. Strip City is one important book. Let's see if the culture can stand to see so many illusions stripped away.

Strip City: A Stripper'sFarewell Journey Across America, by Lily Burana (Talk/Miramax, 2001. ISBN: 0786867906. hardcover, 328 pages, $23.95)

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