In 2008, Sociology Compass published a review of sociological research on the strip club by Professor Mindy S. Bradley. According to Bradley, most research focuses on micro-level processes of interaction and strategy, examining both customers and dancers. Appeal to customers relies on strategic body language, speech, and style of dress. They also engage in strategies to avoid the stigma associated with exotic dance. Other micro-level processes of interest to scholars include identity, socialization, and motivation. Further research needs to address whether these factors vary over time and place, resulting in disparate outcomes. I summarize the rest of Bradley’s article below.
The Structure of Strip Clubs
Bradley notes that structural differences exist across strip clubs too. For example, men might choose to solicit strip clubs depending on the establishment’s policies around social practices like dress codes or tipping. For dancers, clubs vary in how they recruit and retain their performers, usually relying on friendship networks. Beyond that, dancers vary in their motivation to continue dancing. For some, they would like to make it a career to make money. Others would like to dance because it fits their party lifestyle. Still, others enjoy the power of desire they have over their customers. Organizations also have a structural variation in the way they promote the dancers as entertainers. In turn, dancers move into occupations like dancing, acting, or modeling.
The Culture and Economy of Exotic Dancers
According to Bradley, both the image and experience of exotic dance have changed over time. By the early twenty-first century, the U.S. boasted over three thousand strip clubs, a twofold increase over the late twentieth century. Nevertheless, factors like clientele bases, costs, and expectations of beauty stratify these strip clubs.
Clubs have also taken on a specific organizational style known as gentlemen’s clubs, reflecting an increase in exotic dance as a high-class activity. Historically, low-level entrepreneurs managed small strip clubs. Today, multimillion-dollar corporations invest in exotic dance and feature amenities like flat-screen TVs and expensive liquor.
The professionalization of dancing makes it a somewhat more career-oriented business. As a result, dancers tend to have higher levels of education than in the past, as dance once offered poorly educated women with few opportunities as a means to earn wages. Unfortunately, dancers tend not to consistently pursue higher education. Nevertheless, this does not necessarily translate into social acceptance.
Professionalization also enables women to feel greater satisfaction and empowerment as dancers. Regarding the club itself, dancers now see the value in institutions that regulate sexual contact through security and surveillance, protecting them from negative outcomes faced in other lines of work such as STIs in prostitution.
Bradley argues that the existence of a ‘fantasy girl’ ideal in the exotic dance industry makes the industry more competitive:
“Gentlemen’s clubs promote an image of upper-class, and predominantly white attractiveness; thus, dancers are regulated with regard to dress, music, language, and appearance so as to make them more ‘classy’ or ‘ladylike’ and fantastical in appearance and performance. Dancers must adhere to exceptionally high beauty and show expectations to maintain the image of the ‘fantasy girl’. As one reporter observed, dancers in these clubs are ‘often supernaturally attractive’ (Sherman 2007). Thus, dancers must continually manipulate their appearance to conform to this standardized ideal” (Bradley 2008: 509).
Not only do dancers face idealized body image, but they also face changes in standards at clubs including requiring references, contracts, auctions, and weigh-ins. Thus the industry itself faces increasing exclusivity. This pressures dancers to undergo body augmentation or manage eating disorders to satisfy standards. Furthermore, women have to deal with harassment and the expectation that they perform traditional gender roles, dampening their sense of empowerment. Still, dancers have some strategies of managing including playing ‘their music’ in protest.
Race and Class in the Strip Club
As standards change, sociologists must consider how women of certain races and class backgrounds cannot participate in the professionalization of the industry due to the inability to invest in new body and skill requirements. Differences also exist in sexual ideals in terms of expected physical attributes lead to women of color being less desired or excluded from certain venues. Those who can’t maintain the ‘Barbie Doll’ image have fewer opportunities.