I have become a stripper exactly two times in my short life, and the first time was significantly cheerier than the second. I was nineteen years old and full of hope. Despite the fact that I’d been fired from my job making appointments for Philadelphia prostitutes via phone, I was sure I could find something else and whatever I did find was bound to be better than dealing with the asshole trifecta of my boss, the callers, and the brothel owners.

I stumbled into stripping almost by accident. I had discussed the idea of my trying out for a regular strip club with “Stanley,” my boyfriend, but he was uncomfortable with the idea of me giving lap dances and I was concerned about the potential for rejection in Chicago, a city that boasts only three strip clubs within its limits. Though I’d resigned myself to trying for another straight job, I wanted to return to sex work, and I wished there was a way I could give stripping a whirl without upsetting my boyfriend. Then it occurred to me… what if I worked in a peep show?

Some cursory internet research led me to discover that–beyond the two Lusty Lady locations in Seattle and San Francisco and a few little novelty places in Portland–peep shows were pretty much over; a relic of an older, more mysterious time. I certainly had no idea there was even one peep show in my city, let alone one just a short train ride away.

I was on my way to meet with my therapist when I saw the advertisement in the Red Eye, a small, free, pop-culture oriented imprint of the Chicago Tribune. It was almost like magic: there I sat on the bench of the bus shelter as a stray page of this newspaper (which I used as lining for my pet rabbit’s cage) blew towards me and wrapped around my foot. When I bent to detangle the dirty page from my boot I noticed a small ad, not even a quarter of a page. It depicted an artfully shadowed woman’s torso with the words ‘Club Paradox Gentleman’s Club’ alongside the address and a list of prices for their ‘shows.’ There was something about it that didn’t seem like a normal strip club and I was immediately curious. I made a mental note to look the place up as soon as I got home, and look it up I did.

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I was simultaneously fascinated and disturbed by the reviews. Yes, this was a peep show and therefore (in my mind at least) the holy grail of sex work, but it also seemed as if it might be a brothel, and a very, very skeezy one at that. While there’s a large and welcoming place in my heart for sleaze, this seemed as if it might be too much even for me. So I held off on applying and discussed the pros and cons of the matter with my friends. They all told me the same thing: if it was too creepy, I could always quit and, worst case scenario, it would be terrible, I wouldn’t make it through my first shift, and I would be left with an amusingly horrific story.

The most encouraging of all my friends was Natasha, who went so far as to suggest that we apply together. After our disastrous foray into shared sex work and the subsequent, somewhat strained dissolution of our apartment-sharing situation, I had harbored a small amount of resentment toward Natasha and this didn’t help matters. Here she was trying to steal my idea and co-opt the sleaze! This was not acceptable. Three days later Natasha called me excitedly to tell me about her first shift at Club Paradox.

I was livid. I had no choice. I had to work there.

I spent days agonizing over what I was going to wear, worrying that I wouldn’t be hired, and obsessively considering all the terrible things that could happen to me. Part of the reason I’d so far had such a positive experience with the sex industry was undoubtedly because I’d been my own boss; this would be the first time I had ever been both an employee and a sex worker. I was used to choosing who to see and who not to see, but there’d be no such thing at Paradox. Of course, it would only be dancing, but the reviews suggested there would be plenty of men who’d come having received more than just a dance and expecting the same. Would the management pressure me into doing extras?

After four days and as many false starts, I finally decided on what to wear: my tiniest skirt and webbiest fishnets with a leather jacket over a tank top. To pull everything together, I opted for some truly unfortunate black knee high boots that were probably from the nineties and if they weren’t, definitely looked like they were. It was March, and I will remind everyone again that I live in Chicago. We often get snow well into March and temperatures in the tens and twenties are not uncommon even as late in the year as April. I was not appropriately dressed.

Knowing what I know now (that as long as one looks presentable when going to apply at a strip club, slutwear is superfluous), my get-up only seemed of the utmost importance. I shivered my way from my house to Randolph and Halsted, convinced that the entire world could see my underwear (they probably could), petrified about both my upcoming application and the probability of my skirt blowing up, and confused as to why it was not possible to walk with one’s legs crossed.

By the time I got to the heavy black door, I was certain that my face had broken out in at least five stress pimples and that I’d aged ten years just in the freezing walk from the train. I was also concerned that my legs, and especially my knees, had turned to a bright cooked-lobster red from the cold; this last concern, at least, was completely valid. I loitered outside of the club smoking three cigarettes in rapid succession and obsessing over the frightening state of my legs before it occurred to me that there was nothing I could do to return my skin to its usual color so I might as well own it.

I stomped out my cigarette and pushed open the door. The first thing I noticed were the combined smells of stale semen and lemon cleanser. The second thing I noticed was the artwork in the lobby. There were two large boards hanging on the walls and they were covered with unpainted plaster casts of women’s disembodied breasts. I wondered briefly if perhaps the breasts belonged to the girls who worked there, but quickly decided that there were too many various boobs and that it was unlikely a bunch of strippers would choose to advertise themselves with something that so closely resembled a serial killer’s trophy board.

I was taking all this in when I heard a calm, yet slightly confused-sounding woman’s voice.

“Can I help you?” she asked.

There was a pleasant-looking older woman sitting behind a little screened counter window. She could have been someone’s grandmother! In fact, she probably was someone’s grandmother, and here she was selling tickets to see live nude girls. It was odd, and I wondered what had landed her in such an unusual position.

“Yes,” I replied, “I want to work here.”

Her face broke into a smile.

“Are you eighteen?” she asked, “Do you have your ID?”

I was and I did. As I slid my ID into the slot under the window, she asked when I could start.

“Tomorrow night?” I asked.

Apparently they did indeed need a new girl, as they tried to always have four girls to a shift. She opened the door that led to the dressing room and ushered me into the office. I chose a name (Lemon, like Chelios’ girlfriend in the ridiculous and awesome Crank movies) set up my schedule to work the next three nights. She led me into the dressing room where my new coworkers sat smoking cigarettes and sleeping.

The dressing room was about the size of a spacious closet and nearly half of it was taken up with a counter that ran from one end of the room to the other. I was unimpressed until I saw the stages; then my feelings changed dramatically.

This, this was the sleazy hole-in-the-wall I had been searching for all along. There was no curtain or metal shutter to come up; instead there were two-way mirrors that went transparent when the woman at the front flipped a switch, prompting the stage lights and turning off the others in the booths. The stage looked cheaper and more vulgar than anything I had ever seen: there was a rickety-looking brass pole in the center, a scuffed linoleum floor of the kind most commonly seen in church basements, and a back wall painted an uneven red and draped with a piece of sparkling mirror cloth. At one end of the stage, there was a small door leading to the VIP booth–meaning that a girl who was called to VIP would have to cross the stage, whether or not one of her co-workers was doing a show.

I was enchanted by the whole ramshackle set-up and I hadn’t even seen the so-called “windowless” room with its half-glass and shelf of assorted baby oils and lubricants yet.

I was excited for my first shift, and still more excited when I was called for the first show of the evening; in the VIP booth, no less. I hurried across the stage on the same Jell-O legs I knew so well from my days of prostitution and took my place in the pitch-dark little glass box. When the lights came on, I was shocked to see that the man on the other side of the glass had unzipped his pants… and pulled out his cock. While I realized peep shows were essentially live pornography (and therefore masturbation fodder), I hadn’t really connected the dots until that moment. Basically, my job was to watch guys jerk off while I removed my clothes. As the man on the other side of the glass boxed with his bishop and fed ten dollar bills into the slot, I found myself wondering where exactly to look. Morbid curiosity tempted me to stare at his junk, but at the same time some sense of oddly placed propriety made me feel that it would be somehow rude.

Fortunately, my dilemma was solved for me. As I finally decided that I should avert my eyes, opting to stare at the ceiling rather than hazard eye contact, the man rapped on the glass with his free hand, pointing at his dick with the other. He wanted me to watch him jerk off. I was confused, wasn’t I supposed to be the one exhibiting?

I did not yet know it, but this was very, very common.

As a prostitute, I saw clearly that most patrons of sex workers are searching for intimacy (and, above all, acceptance) from their whores. In the peep show, the quest for acceptance became even more overt: their cocks became symbols, not only of their masculinity but of their very selves. “Love me,” they seemed to say, “Look at this, my most secret appendage, the most private body part, admire it, and love me.”

Some of them didn’t seem to want acceptance so much as they wanted praise: they’d whip it out and look up with expectant, ‘Mommy, look what I did’ expressions as if they wanted me to congratulate them for having one X and one Y chromosome and the genitalia generally accompanying that particular piece of genetic code. It was strange to me, the self-satisfaction these men seemed to feel regarding their anatomy. I wondered if this was unique to the patrons of peep shows, if the format lent itself to exhibitionism, or if all men are given to patting themselves on the back because they have a penis.

When I think about it, even the men I have known outside of the sex industry seem inordinately proud of their downstairs plumbing: the size, the uses, the very existence of this somewhat silly tube of flesh that dangles between their legs. But I have never known a woman to be so proud of any of her sexual characteristics, primary or secondary. Little girls, sure–I can’t imagine that my sister and I were the only girl-children to proudly announce that each of us was the owner of a ‘buh-gina’–but grown women? No. Every so often one encounters a woman who goes out of her way to show the world that her pride in her cunt is equal to or greater than any man’s pride in his cock, but it seems forced and affected, not something springing organically from her.

I have to wonder if pride in our genetalia is something we grow out of or something that is socialized out of us. If it’s socialization, one could easily argue that it’s a bad or sexist thing, but is the end result so terrible? It would be ridiculous to congratulate oneself for having two arms, a set of toes, or a heart. Why is it somehow less ridiculous to pat yourself on the back because of whatever is between your legs?

But congratulate themselves they did. They would rap on the glass and point, they would yell questions about the attractiveness or relative size of their equipment, and some of them would at least try to do tricks, such as holding their hands above their heads and using their pelvic floor muscles to make their dicks dance. Sometimes it was funny, other times, such as if they weren’t tipping, it was maddening. If then, I would raise an eyebrow and hold up my thumb and forefinger in the universal gesture for ‘tiny’. It never got me any tips, but the looks on their faces were worth it anyway.

The ways that the universal human quest for intimacy manifests itself in the sex industry are always interesting, but my experiences at the peep show were the most by far. In the nearly wordless environment of the stage and VIP booths, the search for acceptance boiled down to a desire for the illusion of mutual genital appreciation: I like yours, please like mine. It was so hollow, so superficial, but it seemed to mean so much.

And so we all nodded and smiled and spread eagled and gyrated and went back to the dressing room when the lights flicked off and laughed about the ridiculous behavior of our latest customer, sometimes letting the sound vibrate through the paper-thin walls of the dressing room before we even heard the electronic chime of the front door.

Cathryn Berarovich is something of a renaissance sex worker; she’s currently employed as a stripper (and writer) but has held numerous interesting jobs in the industry. Each week, she shares her stories in Harlotry.