I do not understand, nor have I ever understood, the appeal of a lapdance. I know how to give what I’ve been told is an excellent lapdance, but I don’t really see how one case of blue balls is much better than another.

Failure to understand the appeal of my merchandise was part of what made my first night in a real strip club somewhat difficult. It reminded me of when I was ten years old and trying to sell Girl Scout cookies.

Despite the fact that Girl Scout cookies basically sell themselves, I always came in in the bottom few sellers for the troop. Part of this may have had to do with the fact that I only ever really liked Samoas, Tagalongs, and the weird fake peanut butter filling of the Do-Si-Dos and felt the need to vocally warn people about the horrors of the boring cookies like Trefoils and the underwhelming qualities of whatever nonsense they were trying to pass off as a healthier option that year. I’ve always been too honest to be really good at selling things.

Anyway, it took me almost forty-five minutes to sell my first lapdance.

I was horrified at the time (I was the new girl! Shouldn’t that have given me a boost?) but I later learned that forty-five minutes was actually pretty good for a new girl. The guys at Heavenly Creatures mostly weren’t very into buying dances and the few who were there for more than absurdly cheap drinks usually had particular strippers they preferred. My looks were also working against me, since most of the customers who were actually spending money were bros who couldn’t see the appeal of a pale, skinny,
tattooed girl like me. I appeal mainly to hipsters and old men and this crowd didn’t have much of either.

My sales pitch was also working against me.

“Hey fella,” I’d say, “I’m so new I’m still breaking in my shoes. What do you say to breaking me in?”

It was incredibly obvious that I wasn’t going to get anywhere on my looks and I hadn’t yet figured out how to talk my way into a dance, so I felt I might as well try humor. Unfortunately none of the patrons seemed to think I was even somewhat funny and I can’t say I blame them.

Finally, I managed to talk an Armenian gentleman into buying a dance, a difficult task that only worked because I was new and he flat-out refused to believe that I was not Armenian myself.

I led him into the back of the club and sat on his knee while we waited for to stop wailing about how he had a feeling tonight was going to be a good night and for some other unfortunate song choice to start up.

Since my customer (let’s call him Rabo Karabekian) was under the impression that I was an Armenian too, I attempted to make jokes about Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, but he didn’t seem to have any idea what I was talking about. It was incredibly awkward, but I refused to stoop to the level of something less esoteric but still Armenian-centric like Kardashian jokes.

Finally the next song started. I stood up and flung a leg over Rabo’s lap. I was nervous, though knew I had no reason to be, and very, very confused as to why this guy wanted to pay $25 for six minutes of dry humping.

I put Rabo’s hands on my waist, the one place where Heavenly Creatures not only allowed, but also encouraged, touching, and started to grind along to the rhythm of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer.” I couldn’t really believe this was happening, it was just too ridiculous, a man paying money to sit in an uncomfortable chair while a girl young enough to be his daughter straddles him, removes her bra, and gyrates to terrible music. There are no orgasms. There are other people doing the same thing mere feet away. What is sexy about that? The more I thought about it, the closer I came to laughing.

But then, halfway through the first song Rabo moved one of his hands from my waist. I expected him to grab a boob or worse, try to stick his hands down my underwear, but he did neither. He reached up and touched my cheek.

This was very strange, and only became stranger when he slid his hand behind my head, running his fingers through my hair and pulling my forehead against his. Suddenly I understood the point of lapdances. They are not exactly about sex, though sex is certainly a factor.

Primarily lapdances are about intimacy; they are almost like rambunctious cuddling for those who have no one to cuddle.

This is not to say that there aren’t guys who wear sweatpants and basketball shorts to strip clubs in an effort to actually get off during a dance. Those guys totally exist and I have never met a stripper who doesn’t take great satisfaction from giving such men “air dances”, the term for a lapdance that doesn’t so much take place on the lap as a few inches above it. The look of frustration on a rude patron’s face combined with his total inability to say anything is entirely worth the muscle pains and occasional leg cramps that frequently accompany air dances.

The polite customers, though, just want to be close to a pretty girl for a while.

While I found a desire for intimacy in my clients when I was a prostitute, it was infinitely stronger in the men who frequented the strip club. The surest way to sell a dance was to act as if I cared about these men’s boring lives and problems far removed from my sphere of experience. The surest way to get a man to go from a two song to a five song package or from a five song package to the champagne room was to talk to him during the dance and make him feel valued. The best way to keep him in the champagne room was to share tiny bits of yourself: this is my favorite band, this is my “real name”, this is what I do in my spare time, these are my hobbies. See, I’m a person just like you, I care enough about you to show you more than my plastic Hot Girl exterior, I’m not stuck up, let’s talk about Iron Man, let’s talk about your kids, let’s talk about the things we want from life.

In stripping, the orgasm is, or at least should be, entirely removed from the experience and so the closeness of at least partially clothed bodies becomes the important thing. On one level, a lapdance between a polite customer and an upstanding stripper is strangely innocent–not so different from the unsophisticated mating dances of middle school children–but on another level there is a great deal of power play. I, the stripper, may be nearly naked and vulnerable, but I sit astride a man who is paying me not to fuck him.

I encountered more submissive customers as a stripper than in any other line of sex work (excepting my brief stint as a dominatrix). There were guys who just wanted a lapdance while I told them how unworthy they were, there were guys who wanted to suck my sweaty toes (stripper feet get really, really gross), and then there were guys who wanted to literally be walked on.

The sensuality-slathered, but ultimately sexless nature of a strip club invites this; strip clubs are not palaces of female degradation and male perversion, they are places where women take on the traditionally male roles of pursuer and seducer, while simultaneously presenting themselves in a manner so traditionally feminine that it borders on drag.

As a sex worker, I talk about my real life versus my work life. This is partly a joke, it isn’t as if my work is somehow not real of course, but it’s also entirely serious. Strip clubs are not ‘real life’ as we understand it. They have their own bizarre rules and idiosyncrasies, and their power structure is nothing like most of the rest of the world. At Paradox I found that the world inside the club was different, at Heavenly Creatures I had only just begun to realize how different strip clubs could be.

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.