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The Naked City

You can no longer get there from here

It was 1994, I was sixteen years old, and I was taking two trains each day to get to the remnants of a neighborhood Bostonians of a certain age still called “the Combat Zone”—the onetime red-light district, the site of my first job. At 29 Temple Place, the cheery managers just a few years our senior would gather my coworkers and me around noon, then drive us out into the suburbs—Winchester, Milton, Hyde Park, a ring around the city of Boston. Here, professors and postal workers lived, and some yards had “no soliciting” signs out front on perfectly painted black iron fences, while others were littered out back with weathered plastic remains, six-pack rings bleached white and tangled up in Stop & Shop bags.

We approached our customers cold. We weren’t paid a wage, only commission. We were supposed to start out with a request for $50 and go down from there, if necessary. After six or seven hours of this, we’d be piling back into these shitty cars, driven by guys who wore hemp necklaces and listened to “college radio.” They’d deposit us back into the awful beige den of an office upstairs at 29 Temple Place, where we’d tally our cash and share stories about the oddities of the customers: the one who wanted to show us his library, the one who offered to pour us lemonade fresh from the pitcher. It would be eleven or midnight when we’d be departing one-by-one, walking back to the T at Downtown Crossing, where the Red and Orange Lines crossed under the department stores I used to go to for first-day-of-school clothes: white socks with lace trim that folded down, pink sweatshirts that hung to my knees, thick leggings printed violet with leopard spots.

As I turned out onto Washington Street—the heart of the Combat Zone—I would stop in the dark and look up at the neon. One sign overwhelmed the edge of the building over which it hung: a left leg and a right leg descending from a point in space over my head, calves tensed and toes arched. Between the legs winked an open eye. This was the home of “the Naked i,” and for whatever reason, even though I had never been inside a strip club, never even seen one of the many “erotic” ’90s flicks that groomed stripping into a polite or even classy plot, I felt a flush of recognition.

It had not yet been taught to me that there was some thick line separating out the business transacted behind that red winking eye from what the “public interest research group” at 29 Temple Place had hired me to do: canvass the residents of the Boston metro area in order to extract $50 contributions for “the environment.” My daily ritual degradation, spending hours on my feet fake-socializing with strangers seeking to part them of their cash—whatever that was doing to me, or with me, or using me for—would be, in all likelihood, simply of a kind with whatever happened at the Naked i. Call that curiosity, childish and harmless, or call that a first pang of something sensible like solidarity. My feet hurt, too, and there were still two trains waiting for me.

Cities of Night

The years that followed would take me to many places like the Naked i, and would find me working all kinds of hustles (only one of which became journalism). But I would never get to see the place from the inside. “Redevelopment” stole it from Washington Street, along with most other traces of what had been the nation’s first post-1960s experiment in ordering commercial sex as part of city life. Few people would connect puritanical Boston to this chapter in America’s civic sexual past, but in the gap years of the 1970s, between the hippies and HIV, when federal and state obscenity laws relaxed and happy hooker memoirs and porno chic spilled into popular culture, the city decided the Combat Zone would be the spot for licensed vice.

Forget sex—or even the fantasy of sex. Today’s strip clubs are set up to manufacture a fantasy of class and belonging.

The Zone had already begun to take shape as an aftershock of “urban renewal”; the city’s original popular (and semi-pornographic) entertainment district, Scollay Square, was razed in the early 1960s to make room for Government Center, a flat expanse of windswept brick plaza and brutalist city buildings where once stood public houses, radical bookstores, burlesque theaters, hotdog stands, and tattoo parlors. Scollay Square wasn’t a red-light district of the kind you could visit in those same decades in New Orleans, Chicago, or Sandusky, Ohio, even. It was more a melting pot of urban lowbrow and lowlife, with sex as just one draw. Boston city leaders eventually sanctioned the Combat Zone to contain what withstood the wrecking balls—to prevent it from setting up shop in the rest of the new gleaming parts of town.

It’s all too fitting that the places most identified with Boston’s sexual imagination no longer exist. (The name itself is a bit of fiction; it dates to the early 1960s, when Boston newspaper reporter Jean Cole quoted a law enforcement officer saying the area “is a real combat zone,” due to his impression of the many soldiers and sailors on leave. The city’s newspapers couldn’t resist the term—something dangerous was happening, it told readers, or might happen; you never know in places like that. The name stuck.) Yet across the Combat Zone’s few blocks, topless joints and bars once packed in all kinds. (Including my mother, at least once, according to my research; and also then-mayor Kevin White, who proudly told reporters at the time, “My idea of a city has room for these places.”) But anyone under fifty, frequenting Metro Boston strip clubs today? They won’t know, not from memory anyway.

“Nostalgia for the Zone,” writes Jessica Berson, a dance scholar who dug into its history for her new book The Naked Result (Oxford University Press, 2016), “is tied as strongly to the story of its loss as to its peculiar role in the city’s history.” Berson takes a tour through Boston’s recent red-light history, and visits newer strip clubs in New England and London. As a scholar, dancer, and a former stripper, she is concerned with something that should be quite uncontroversial about stripping, the kind of obvious thing that’s been obscured by the political and moral combat going on around it: the day-to-day working life in the sex trade. In our reluctance to look at sexual commerce as something with a history and a logic beyond exploitation or lust (or whatever words we’re now using as stand-ins), even self-styled experts in the field often cannot tell us how the sex trade operates. But this is the most moving contribution of Berson’s book: by examining the last forty years of stripping in the United States, she can bracket all the attendant myth and panic with a forward-looking narrative of work and pleasure. It’s the kind of re-telling I crave, one that speaks to the centrality of commercial sex to what we once would have thought of as everyday life in the American city.

Today, who even gets to have an everyday life in the city is an open question. A civic tech project will surely pop up soon mapping the locations of former strip clubs with the boutique hotels that have risen up to replace them; in Boston, Berson reports, a luxe W hotel stands in the heart of the old Zone. There, as in London’s Soho, it was the sheen of sex that first attracted anyone to the neighborhood at all, and even as the developers move in to “clean” things up by kicking out sex workers, the idea that sex was once sold here is still used to seduce the new cohort of urban-authenticity tourists, haunting the safely embalmed aura of long-tamed outposts of seediness. A coder and escort I interviewed in San Francisco two years back put it this way, as he sized up his own city’s more recent tectonic boom: “When a town is too expensive for hookers, everyone suffers.”

Ballroom Days Are Over

What strip clubs sell, for the most part, is not sex. This isn’t to denigrate sex-for-sale; Berson doesn’t engage in that kind of horizontal hostility across the sex trade, and neither do I. (Nor, for that matter, is it to play into the smoke-and-mirrors charade that is strip-club marketing copy, which coyly repurposes every variant of the “There is no sex in the champagne room” legend you’ve ever heard.) What strip clubs sell today depends on the strip club in which you are standing, argues Berson. Forget sex—it’s very likely that what’s being offered to you isn’t even the fantasy of sex. Today’s strip clubs are increasingly set up to manufacture a fantasy of class and belonging: the chance to be the kind of person who can command eroticized attention at the other end of a stack of bills in view of a contingent of bro-buddies swirling overpriced single malts so they can secret-text each other about it later.

Over the last two decades, global strip club enterprises such as Rick’s Cabaret and Spearmint Rhino have streamlined this consumable fantasy into near assembly-line precision, Berson writes. It’s a product offered with as much aspirational uniformity as the venti latte you ordered at the airport leaving for a business trip and the one you ordered at the hotel upon landing. Strip clubs, too, occupy that nowhere-space in business travel, catering to those with time and money to burn. As customers demand reliability in their travel and beverage experiences, so, too, do they seek the same predictable experiences from the woman bending in (to better hear over the music, and with just a brush of her hair) to offer a lap dance.

Strip club owners want to do this and can do this precisely because the world of commercialized leisure around them demands it. “Chain strip clubs manage their brands with the same rigor as other chain service and retail outlets,” Berson writes. “Each outpost features the same layout and decor; the same options for eating and drinking; girls who conform to the same look; prescribed choreography and costuming; and scripted conversations. A visit to Spearmint Rhino isn’t all that different from a trip to Barnes and Noble: each space leads you down carefully conceived pathways toward an object of desire, alerting you to opportunities for additional consumption along the way.”

Berson worked in some clubs, visited others as a customer and researcher, and interviewed dancer coworkers who drew on even more club experiences. She points out this isn’t the kind of ethnographic work that comes from a large sample—as though any sample of dancers could be thought of as “representative.” She’s more concerned with how the clubs sell themselves, and how clubs, rather than infiltrating and “sexualizing” the mainstream, are mainstreaming themselves through the displacement of what we would otherwise recognize as sex.

“Dancing at Diamonds,” Berson recalls, “was all about the metaphor, but not metaphors for sex—rather, sex was deployed as a metaphor for consumption.” The display of sexuality in strip clubs works both ways; customers are not passive recipients. “At Diamonds and other corporate strip clubs,” she writes, “dancers and customers perform a demographically designated brand that shapes erotic desire in much the same way that Starbucks inculcated a global taste for frothy espresso drinks.” At work and as work, Berson “lived and moved its upper middle class, middle brow, white, ‘lite’ brand of sexuality.” What’s in need of critical examination here isn’t anything pornographic, but rather its sterile replacement.

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine

This kind of club experience is a world away from the Naked i and the clubs like it today that remain on the outskirts of the city. Here there are no neighbors, no all-night cafes—no anything, except a bit of neon signifying something still recognizable against a suburban highway. Dancers may have worked for wages back in the days of the Zone; today they are working for tips, and in many cases, they are paying management to work—“tipping out” sometimes hundreds of dollars per shift. Regarding dancers as independent contractors may have been legit in the pre-chain era, when dancers could just hop from club to club without being fined, could choose a costume without worrying if it violated a dubious workplace contract forbidding anything not “classy,” could select their own music, could leave a shift if the club was dead. Clubs save—which is to say, make—loads more money when they are just skimming it off of dancers’ tips, bossing them around like employees while denying them a wage.

It is precisely because a club chain like Rick’s had placed so many restrictions on dancers’ work that it lost lawsuit after lawsuit brought by dancers, over employee misclassification and tip theft. As clubs have tried to go more legit, they’ve just systematized the kinds of tactics we see clearly now in the Uber age, as they skirt their duties as employers. Strippers have faced this kind of “it’s not a job, it’s just a platform” stuff for a lot longer than other recruits to the so-called “sharing economy.” It’s not a coincidence that Shannon Liss-Riordan, the plaintiff’s attorney who filed the class action Uber suit in California was, years ago, taking the same kinds of cases from dancers.

Rick’s Cabaret has elevated this spectacle—the “high-end,” “luxury,” “upscale” interchangeable erotic performer executing a script within a clean, well-lit corporate environment—into a global brand and a publicly traded company. “Rick’s inverted the very pretense of the traditional club model,” Berson writes. “Rather than performing specific class identities in order to watch naked girls, at Rick’s one watched naked girls in order to perform class.” When they arrived in what was left of midtown Manhattan’s sexual entertainment district, there was nothing in Rick’s to offend even Rudy Giuliani. “Rick’s had shed the taint of illicit eroticism that had incited the city’s ire, and had adopted the cleanliness, order, and spirit of commercial enterprise that Giuliani’s—and perhaps to an even greater extent, Mayor Bloomberg’s—New York championed.”

Berson spends plenty of time on the indie clubs that remain, too, without veering into any pat claims about their virtues. She sidesteps stripper-academic clichés (“I didn’t strip for the Academy;” she writes, “I stripped for the unenlightened purpose of making money”), while also sharing stories about the times the stigma of stripping has led others to dismiss her work, seeking from her a simplistic read on whether or not that wild thing she did that time was “exploitative” or “empowering.” Likewise, she doesn’t dismiss stripper memoirs—and there are lots of them; the most recent one to land on my desk is Jacqueline Frances’s epic The Beaver Show—but she doesn’t write one here. She plays with the striptease of (perhaps some) readers’ expectations of a book about sex work. She implies: you came here looking for this (my stripper journey), but I’m going to give you this (sex and work under neoliberalism, sorry not sorry).

I was a rare kid to get to see some of the luminous places Berson recalls, even when sexual expression and desire had little to do with their attraction for me. Under its few still-lit beacons, the Combat Zone’s remains were just my city, a thing I could dwell in unnoticed because I thought no one could see what I was sure I could see. These districts don’t spell sex or even money, just a dimming and necessary freedom—to move, to be seen, to come into contact, to leave a trace. Not independence, but embodiment.

To remember the turned-out red lights as they were, signaling against the pale and tame places that have replaced them, isn’t a call to nostalgia, or some better time before the brandscape. All that would be to surrender to a different kind of eros, a harder sell under neon but a commodity all the same.

In these places, something has been displaced, and no memory can recover it. The sex is gone, and the bodies, too, but also what passes between them: possibility.