Social Class as Performance: Sexuality in Middle vs. Working Class Strip Clubs

Can a social class be performed? Sociologists generally agree gender is a performance, even for workers. For instance, women in the service industry not only work as women, but do so by performing a socially constructed feminity that reifies and reinforces heterosexuality, male dominance, and stereotypes about women.

In a 2005 study, sociologist Mary Nell Trautner argues dancers in strip clubs are not only sexualized but classed depending on the perceived status of male clients. Thus, gendered organizations interact with other features of stratification, resulting in a unique organizational culture1 with distinctive images of gender and sexuality for that setting. To make this argument, Trautner builds on the notion that gender is context-specific by examining how class plays a role in its construction.

Classy Or Sassy?: How Socioeconomic Status Matters in Strip Clubs

Research indicates individuals distinguish between middle- and working-class in a number of ways. Trautner focuses on organizational culture and its relation to the construction and institutionalizations of gendered sexuality in strip clubs in a manner that emphasizes social class. Trautner conducted a prolonged direct observation at four clubs in the southwestern United States. The study also included three in-depth interviews with dancers regarding the style of dancing, management involvement, interaction with customers, customer quality, and perceptions of clubs.

Trautner found that middle-class clubs charged more than working-class clubs. Additionally, the physical characteristics of the strip club itself differed by class. Ultimately, Middle-class clubs try to make it about more than sex, displaying voyeuristic sexuality while working-class clubs focus on physical pleasure and lust, a form of sexuality called cheap thrills:

I argue that these performative aspects – the appearances of the dancers and other staff, the dancing and performance styles, and the interactions that take place between dancers and customers – are as indicative of class and classed expectations as they are of sexuality (776-777)

For example, in middle-class clubs, women fix their hair, tan, wear perfume, and wear certain kinds of makeup to emphasize their heterosexuality and femininity in a manner that symbolizes middle-class status, thus reproducing and naturalize dominant cultural norms of heterosexuality. Women tended to be White, thin, possessed large breasts or implants, and wear their hair flowing because customers paid more for meeting these ideals.

Putting it All on Display?

Dancers at the working-class club had more diversity in their body type. They were also racially diverse and tended to wear make-up that accentuated their mouths. Dancers at the middle-class club tend to dress in highly stylized ways, wearing various costumes. Women at the working-class clubs wear nothing but their g-strings. By doing so, both groups give in to stereotypes with middle-class women playing the good girl and working-class women playing the bad girl. Indeed, some of their stylistic choices reflect directions by management.

Music and stage performance differs by the class status of the clubs. The middle-class club played pop music and the dancers had passive, noninteractive performances. They barely touch their breasts, focusing on playing with their hair instead. At the working-class club, dancers controlled the DJ, refusing to dance if they don’t play the music the dancer preferred. The music varied from rap songs, heavy metal, or classic rock. Dancers at the middle-class club paraded around for a voyeuristic audience. In contrast, dancers at working-class clubs were flexible and energetic, using the pole as a prop or phallic symbol. In many cases, their dances emulated sex.

Middle-class dancers also enforce voyeuristic sexuality during table dances, preferring to keep little contact between them and the client. Working-class dancers, on the other hand, accept money and perform table dances as a “cheap thrill,” offering more sexualized contact. Table dances at working-class clubs simulate sex and sexual acts including mimicking oral sex or flashing genitalia to customers.

Social Class Matters for the Staff Too

Waitresses in the middle-class clubs wear a white shirt with black shorts or pants while waitresses in the working-class club also wore bikini tops and G-strings with a mesh sarong to cover their buttocks. The bartenders also dress this way and all the women are free to give table dances, though only the strippers perform on stage. In this article, Trautner thus argues that strip clubs are both gendered and classed as ideas and presentations of gender are mediated by class position. Furthermore, this interacts with ideas about race. Sexuality is not just an individual attribute and class is not just about material location. Gender scholars must examine these intersections fully to get a better picture of gender and gender inequality in organizational settings.

  1. According to Trautner, “Organizational culture refers to the shared understandings and behaviors of a work environment as well as informal or symbolic interpersonal norms such as those that promote or prohibit particular sexual interactions and sexual behaviors.” (773)