Behind the Screen


In the gutsy black-and-white noir fable Gilda (1946), the sultry title character (Rita Hayworth), just married to a casino’s sinister owner, meets up with her old flame, Johnny Farrell, now her husband’s best friend. Two hours of plot twists later, they end up in each others’ arms. But before that, Gilda must disclose her devastating secret: she used to be a stripper in New York. She gives the audience a peek of her past by strutting onto the casino stage, peeling off first one elbow-length black satin glove, then the other. This being ’40s Hollywood, Gilda doesn’t get very far. But the camera adores her alone out there on the dark stage, catching light off her hair and her slinky black dress as she rips a diamond choker from her neck and lobs it into the audience like a grenade. It’s a vivid moment in American film, imagining a potent piece of public undressing as both our heroine’s victory and her defeat.

Today, striptease is called erotic dancing, and it’s become a sexy mainstream trend. According to a story last year in U.S. News and World Report, the number of strip clubs has roughly doubled since 1987, and Americans now spend more money annually at these clubs than they do at the theater, the opera, the ballet, and jazz and classical music concerts combined. Academics hold ultraserious conferences on the meaning of striptease, and former strippers are writing tell-all books. In the Mojave desert, there’s a museum and hall of fame devoted to striptease. And it has taken root in Hollywood and on television talk shows, as well as in the rage for literary memoir, which translates into a cry to ”take it all off.”

The trend is heating up with the evolution of online striptease, which made its first appearance several years ago and mutated into phone sex for the eye. The Internet has made it possible–for anyone who will pay around $5.99 a minute–to download ”live” women (and men), via videoconferencing, from studios in Las Vegas, Massachusetts, or Silicon Valley.

So-called adult videoconferencing boasts ”interactivity.” And at no other time have late-20th-century voyeurs actually been able to go so far, commanding the ”models” (as they are known in the business) what to take off, and how, and when. The technology is in its infancy, though, so most of these sites fall back on the humble keyboard to transmit a command. The models switch between disrobing, pounding out lewd answers to keyboard queries, and controlling the camera angle with a mouse. (Sometimes, a second person in the room acts as a kind of prompter and types their responses.) Some sites are more ambitious, using a speaker box so ”clients” can talk directly to the models, but this is about two years away from workable quality.

All this disconnected action gives online stripping the same tragicomic frenzy that Charlie Chaplin adapts when the assembly line speeds up on him in Modern Times. Now the models are typing ”I’d love to take it off,” now they’re flexing into an improbable position, now they’re flipping from pan to zoom to tilt. Half the time it’s impossible to see the picture, and if there’s sound, the words get garbled. Yet these sites are already phenomenally profitable–a rarity on the Web. One popular business called Virtual Dreams will pull in over $12 million this year.

”People like to see naked women talking to them,” says Danni Ashe, who runs one of the most popular sites, the Los Angeles–based Danni’s Hard Drive. After two and a half years in business, Ashe has a staff of 14 and expects to pull in $3 million this year. ”When the technology finally gets together,” says Ashe, ”this is going to be really big.”

But there’s more to it than naked girls. The Internet draws in people you’d never find working in the live ”sex tease” industry, as the loose network of strip clubs–strung across the nation like so much slack telephone wire–is called. The possibility of making money without leaving home attracts part-time housewives in Washington, paralegals in Malden, Massachusetts, single mothers trying to make an extra buck, college students, former IBM techies. And the callers defy the stereotype of the curious trench coat wearer, coming in from all over the world, anywhere there’s Internet access.

In fact, the trench coat wearer was always less ubiquitous than reformers claimed. From the moment striptease burst onto the scene in New York around 1900, it’s been a populist American diversion. By the Jazz Age, when modern movie star Louise Brooks publicly announced that she liked to drink and fuck, striptease attracted new immigrants, sailors on leave, working men and women, transvestites, and gay men. Yet ”high lowbrows,” as Chaplin called the sybaritic Algonquin Table crowd, also thronged to Coney Island, Second Avenue, Union Square, and, during the Depression, Broadway to devour striptease’s brassy, steaming sensuality. Striptease emerged in many unexpected places in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, from This Side of Paradise to Big Money and the last wretched moments of Studs Lonigan; from the winking thriller Lady of Burlesque to Can Can; from irresistible, hummable Pal Joey to Imogene Cocoa’s cooing nightclub acts.

#Even after the Depression closed Broadway shows, striptease remained popular as a bawdy, anarchic spirit. When the rhapsodic poet Hart Crane wrote in his mystical epic The Bridge that a Second Avenue strip joint ”wakened salads in the brain,” he meant that it overturned oppressive Victorian mores. In the ’60s, the same rebellious impulse resurfaced as a political strategy that tried to be more than one person’s erotic experience. Julian Beck, founder of the Living Theater, disrobed in front of an audience and asked them to do the same. Striptease was now radical, a countercultural act, an attempt to moon uptight ’50s conventions. Nudity could set you free.

#After that, feminism, with good reason, told us it couldn’t. And still later, political correctness agreed. Today, though, companies like Danni’s Hard Drive are riding the wave of so-called sex-positive feminism, arguing that ”adult videoconferencing” is an empowering act. ”We give dancers a chance to take advantage of their own careers and provide them with role models,” Ashe maintains, explaining that some adult videoconferencing services provide employees with a good salary and even benefits. (Virtual Dreams has paid $50,000 a year.) But others are skeptical, pointing out that some online services actually pay less to cyberstrippers than live ones. (Low-end estimates range from $7 to $10 an hour.) And, says Jane No, a member of the Exotic Dancers Union, Local 790 in San Francisco–which earlier this year successfully ratified a union contract at the Lusty Lady Peep Show–the Internet allows people to record, reuse, and even sell images without compensating the performers. ”It plagues the industry,” she says.

Then too, the Internet has made certain decisions about whom striptease’s audience will be. Once democratic, striptease on the Web is pitched to a different audience. After all, $5.99 a minute adds up. And whereas the concave screen has merits, safe sex–wise, the Web has failed to solve a great need of our times. To paraphrase a great female entertainer in a different line of work, we want to be alone, but not by ourselves.