Monthly column from author/activist
David Steinberg

Comes Naturally #119

Taking It All Off

"Take it off. Take it all off."
-- early commercial for Noxzema shaving cream

"The moment of truth. I roll over onto my side and straighten my legs, sending the thong flying. The lights are hot on my skin. Here I am, bare-assed at the last frontier.... I stand up and try to stay in character. I am not a reformed nerd from New Jersey walking around with no underpants on, I remind myself. I am a goddess clothed in my own power."
-- Lily Burana, Strip City

The first thing I notice about Strip City, Lily Burana's account of her odyssey of self-discovery inside the many-layered world of American striptease and lap dancing, is what it's not.

Strip City is not, thank god, an outraged expose of the horror and degradation lying in wait for vulnerable, desperate young women who slip blindly into the nether world of sex entertainment clubs. It is also anything but a gushing romanticization of stripping as some idyllic Sexual Freedom League for women to lay claim to their sexual power while making more money each night than most women earn all week. It refuses to haughtily write-off the frequently confused and sometimes pathetic men whose wallets and sexual needs fuel the multi-billion-dollar live sex entertainment industry. But neither does it idealize strip club patrons as benign embodiments of joyously uninhibited male sexual exuberance.

All the facile judgments and generalizations that monopolize both mainstream and alternative media representations of strippers, lap dancers, peep show workers, and their customers -- generally, that they are all (pick three): good, bad, glamorous, hideous, free-spirited, pathological, revolutionary, emotionally damaged, strong, or weak -- are quickly tossed out the window in Burana's autobiographical tale. As with most sex-related matters, the truth about the world of live sexual entertainment is much more complex (and interesting) than agenda-laden media moguls would have us believe. To Burana's credit, she has decided to opt for truth with Strip City, emotional and political risks notwithstanding.

What Burana offers in place of moralistic or political platitudes is a revealing, emotionally rich story of her determined attempt to understand and put to rest the powerful, contradictory feelings left spinning in her after years of exhilarating but emotionally draining experience in the sex entertainment trade. Five years after leaving the world of stripping behind, she goes back for one final, year-long, cross-country tour of strip clubs high and low, trying to settle the stripping issue for herself once and for all before marrying the rodeo cowboy she has fallen in love with -- in Cheyenne, Wyoming, of all places.

Burana is well-situated to offer more than superficial perspective on the many diverse aspects of the live sex entertainment world. Starting at 18, at virtually the bottom of the industry -- a sleazy peep show on New York's 42nd Street -- she moved on to one of the industry's more humane workplaces, San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theater, and then to one of its most elegant clubs, the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theater, also in San Francisco. She brings to her experience as a sex worker a keen eye for both humor and bullshit -- and the stabilizing, if often confounding, orientation of no-nonsense, sex-positive feminism. She also brings an ongoing willingness to call things as she sees them, to tell the truth regardless of the dangers of disapproval and of political fallout.

She is painfully aware that "any negative information [about stripping] can, and will, be used against [us]. To shut down clubs, to shame dancers, to advance a conservative agenda." But, risks aside, in the end, she opts for telling her tales with full paradoxical honesty.

"I no longer have anything to prove," Burana explains, "to myself or anyone else. I'm just here to bear witness, no illusions, no agenda, no filter of idealism. I'd lie down in front of an oncoming train to defend a woman's right to strip for a living. But that doesn't mean I grant rubber-stamp approval to the business. I am a friend to strippers and an ally to the industry, but I'm no longer an apologist. Or a shill."

On the broad spectrum of sex worker personal histories, Burana's is well over on the successful end. She was able, for most of her time as a stripper, to keep control of her work situation, rather being controlled by it. She managed to work at some of the most lucrative and least abusive clubs in the country. She avoided pouring her substantial earnings into luxury baubles (one luxurious fur coat notwithstanding) or harmful drugs. She maintained a creative and politically conscious life outside her work as a stripper, and became an important figure in a thoughtful subculture of sexual explorers that admired her for her intelligence and insight as much as for her sexual exuberance and striking physical appearance. She mounted a successful legal challenge to one of the nation's most powerful club owners, winning $2.85 million in back wages and stage-fee refunds for over 500 current and previous dancers at the club. And she had the good sense to get out of the business before age and cynicism took what she knew would be their inevitable tolls.

She was -- and still is -- smart, attractive, shrewd, politically aware, and relatively able to hold the shame and ostracism that society inflicts on sexually assertive and sexually independent women at bay. And yet, five years removed from stripping mania, she knew that before she did anything so radical as to get married, there were unresolved issues about stripping that she needed to put to rest, once and for all.

Burana's unfinished business with stripping has nothing to do with sexual morality, and goes far beyond any clear-cut issues of gender injustice. Her goal for her Grand Stripping Tour is to understand more clearly what stripping gives and takes from her and, by implication, from other women who make their living taking off their clothes and playing to the convoluted dynamics of male sexual fantasy, hunger, and confusion.

Since strippers, like other sex workers, inevitably serve as lightning rods for the accumulated sexual frustration of our sex-confused culture, she quickly remembers just how emotionally treacherous, shame-ridden, and draining stripping can be. "Stripping takes out of me things that I didn't even realize I had," she notices.

"The near-nudity isn't the problem, or the physical vulnerability, or working well outside the margins of acceptable female behavior. It's the damned neediness: Angry men scowling at me like they can buy me for a dollar, lonely men professing love after a ten-minute chat with the specter of femininity that wafts before them, and confused and desperate men convinced that if only they could get a girl to do what they ask, however outlandish, things will be better somehow."

On the other hand, since strippers, as sexual outlaws, get to act out blatant sexual power and desirability in a way that is forbidden to their more proper sisters, the work can also be exquisitely heady, exciting, and liberatory. Dancing at an up-scale club in Los Angeles, Burana falls into an erotic, theatrical rush that makes it impossible for her to deny the aspect of stripping she truly adores.

"I stalk the stage, pacing and twisting, then smiling serenely at a bunch of customers clustered at the corner of the stage. One by one, the seats along the runway fill up. I walk deliberately to the end of the runway and kick my legs up over and head and catch my ankles around the pole. I put my hands on the stage and just hold the headstand, my long blonde hair trailing on the floor. I nod my head as I listen to the music. Whatever compulsion I've got that makes me love stripping, this is what it sounds like. I don't know if it's skill, comfort, risk, dissociation, or a combination of them all that, in rare moments, makes stripping seem like a borderline ecstatic state. But I know I'm having one of those moments now. When it feels just right. Righteous. At times like this, I can believe that I have all the hearts in the room gathered into the palm of my hand. I will never get old. I will never know harm. As long as I stay on this stage under the benevolent auspices of darkness, everything will be okay... It's indescribable bliss resting on the blade of a knife, the most strange and foreign place I was ever meant to be. I would be helpless to try to explain it, but if you had ever known that sensation, you'd never want to leave that warm, wet spot on the lip of the maw."

Strip City is, predictably, a delightful hodge podge of intriguing stories, fascinating characters, and backstage glimpses of clubs ranging from the elegant to the tawdry. We meet the man who, within minutes of meeting her, is slipping Burana (Barbie Faust, if you please) hundred dollar bills in the hope that she'll consider becoming his mistress; the arthritic pianist and popular radio host who regularly visits a New York peep show just so he can watch Burana's naked body inches from his face; the Hasidic bottom who dutifully intones "Tank you, my dahlink mistress" during her brief foray as a New York dominatrix. And we are introduced to Pillow, Dixie Evans, and Scarlet Fever, seasoned strippers who paint elaborate pictures for Burana of what stripping was like before anyone had imagined lap dancing, when being a stripper actually meant knowing how to dance.

But any sex work memoir is going to be full of delightfully exotic tales to titillate the erotic imaginations of readers whose lives have been organized around issues other than sex. What makes Strip City exceptional is Burana's willingness to go beyond exotic storytelling and allow the reader to see the complexity of who she is beneath the various stripper roles and personae she adopts.

Thus, Burana speaks tenderly of the process of falling in love with the man who becomes her fiance, about his feelings about her decision to take one last stripping odyssey before they get married, about growing up outside the net in suburban New Jersey, about how her confidence quickly disintegrates on nights when no one wants her lap dancing company, about how she deals with both the skepticism and the support she receives from her family about her work, about her love-hate conflicts about stripping and all that it represents. For the most part, she presents her dilemmas and confusions in all their unresolved glory, rather than trying to wrap them up in a series of overly tidy, falsely reassuring conclusions.

She lets us see both her nervousness and her strength, her uncertainty and her determination, her moments of despair as well as her moments of triumph. She is clearly neither a vulnerable naif nor a dynamic sexual superhero. Maybe she is both. Maybe she is something in between.

We watch Burana wrestle with her stripping demon, watch her flirt longingly with its temptation to return to that particular excitement and challenge, tinged ever so deliciously with danger and the potential for psychological disaster. We wait to see how deeply her odyssey of closure is going to reach inside her, to overturn the previously unquestioned premises of her increasingly domestic life. What starts as an amusing, if self-reflective, journey gains a surprising element of suspense. Perhaps some demons are better left on the shelf. As we witness her inner workings, the reality of the woman behind the stripper facade takes on complexity and depth, loosening the hold of whatever stereotyping notions we may have had to begin with.

Strip City is engaging, not only because we all want to get the true dirt on the exotic world of stripping, but also because Burana's issues transcend the specifics of stripping, even transcend the issues of sexual expression in all its forms. Something more universal is at stake here. Aren't we all familiar with the demons of burning desire -- with the complexities of balancing passionate pursuits, sexual and otherwise, with our parallel hunger for safety and stability? How do we go about mapping our way between the two poles of such a fundamental existential dilemma?

For Burana, it's a matter of going face-to-face with desire, looking closely at what's really going on, and testing whether it's her or her desire that's really running the show, that she wants to be running the show. In one triumphant moment (after being named first runner-up in a Miss Topless Wyoming contest), she summarizes what this journey is all about.

"Normally when I dance, I careen between states of liberation and despair, of excitement and tedium, of serenity and self-hatred, lust, repulsion, sadness, inspiration, joy, and fatigue -- often within the course of a single night. Everything used to end up entwined in a giant tangle of feelings, lodged in my guts like some vile emotional hairball. But now, after six months of careful consideration and diligent inner watch, things are falling into place. I feel like I'm gaining command of a wily, evasive force. So I'm not just enjoying the exhilaration of an unexpected win, but also the cumulative effect of forging order from chaos."

May we all do as well at opening ourselves to our deepest passions, and dealing productively with the consequences.

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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