Working on her sociology dissertation landed Maren Scull in some strange situations — like the time she ended up alone in a motel room with a newly released ex-con. Then again, most dissertations don't involve male strippers. But Maren Scull's did. She spent 18 months studying a strip club, Dandelion's, conducting in-depth interviews with 22 male strippers. Focused on the intersection of masculinity, work and sex, the University of Colorado Denver sociology instructor's paper, recently published in the scientific journal Deviant Behavior, examines what motivates men to take off their clothes for cash — and the reasons might not be what you think.
Westword: How did you get interested in studying male strippers?
Maren Scull: The answer is pretty academic-y. I was taking a class as a graduate student at Indiana University — and there, of course, they have the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction. I was taking a class on men and masculinity, and for that class I had to write a paper on men, sex and work — it could have been about prostitution, phone sex operators — and I realized there was a ton of literature on female strippers, and not a lot on men who dance for women. I'm interested in deviance, sex work and social psychology on sex and gender, so it seemed like a good fit to do research and fieldwork and parlay it into a dissertation. So I went to the strip club — after going through the proper channels — armed with my paperwork saying that I was who I said I was, and what I was studying, and the people at the strip club said, yeah, okay, you can hang out here.
Had you hung out much around strip clubs before?
I had never been in a strip club in my entire life. It was a very educational experience for me, to be perfectly honest. I had a friend who was a former stripper who was willing to accompany me and give me info about the norms of the strip club. What was interesting was that, after a few months, it started to feel like a totally normal environment, like a second home.
That must have led to some good stories.
The best stories I have are really rooted in the respondents' answers, stories they told me. I mean, I have stories of being afraid. I have stories of people trying to pick me up and take me home. I interviewed one respondent, Matt, in a motel room by myself, and he had just gotten out of either jail or prison, I can't remember which, and he was telling me how he ended up there. Actually, I'll just read you his story from the dissertation:
"I was driving to a party that I was doing for Erotic Sensations [note: all names are fake, to protect privacy] and I was being completely out-of-control and I didn’t give a shit. We made so much money and we had so much fun. I was due to fly down to L.A. the next day to do a photo shoot for Playgirl. The day before I was supposed to do it, that's when I was driving down the highway. And the funny part was that I was dressed just like a cop, right? I remember I had a bottle of vodka in one hand and a cell phone in the other, and I was trying to drive with my knee. I was on my cell phone trying to explain to these girls why I'm an hour late to the party. The reason I was an hour late was because I was strung out on dope, and when people are strung out on dope, they don't function right. I pass by these cops, you know, they’re parked side-by-side so they can talk to each other. As soon as I shot past them, I knew they were gonna come get me. I figured I would just take off real quick and get up ahead of ‘em. While they get a chance to pull out and catch up and all, I was gonna get way ahead of them, take a quick right, pull into some residential place, park somewhere, and cut the lights. But I never made the turn. I was so wasted that I went BOOM right into a light pole. I woke up and my car was smashed, and the light pole was in the passenger’s seat. The tires were wrapped around to the front. I'm lucky I'm not dead."
Matt went on to tell what happened to him after the crash:
"I look up and the copper is looking at me. He didn't quite know what to say because all the stuff I had was cop gear. And it was authentic. I mean, I bought it at the cop shop and I looked exactly like a cop. I knew I was going to jail, and I was like, “You know occifer” [instead of officer] because I was so drunk. I was wasted and, you know, he thought it was funny. I mean it. He only wrote me up for a DUI. He could have written me up for evading the police. Then the firemen had to come up and cut me out of the car because I was completely trapped in there and it was all smashed up. That's what was so funny...I had my fireman outfit in the back of the car. So they see it and are thinking, “What? This guy has a fireman’s outfit in the back, and he’s got on a cop outfit…what the hell is going on?” Then when they cut me out of my car everything was cool, right? I went to step out of my car, and I looked down and my leg was busted. The bone was sticking out of the front of my leg. Then I just passed out from the pain. The next thing I remember was just bits and pieces of being called an ambulance."
My students usually like that one.
How did you end up in his motel room by yourself? Because I feel like if you had told anyone you were going to do that, they probably would have said, uh, that's not a good idea.
The thing is, in all honesty, it was difficult to set up the interviews. In terms of protecting the privacy of the respondents, initially my university required that I interview all the respondents away from the club, so I'd try to do it at school or libraries, places like that, but they could be very hard to coordinate. I had to be very flexible about where I interviewed them. Matt had just gotten out of jail and didn't have a stable place to stay. I had also seen him many, many times before, and he had kind of dropped off the radar, and then all of a sudden he appeared again, and so of course I wanted to talk to him. That was the only place he could do it. I didn't know at the time he had been in jail. Also, in my defense, it was during the day.
Later I was able to get that amended, and I did many of the interviews in the club upstairs. During many of the interviews the lights went out, and so I did many of the interviews in darkness, which was interesting. It was often a weird experience being a lone female researcher in a strip club, this place where alcohol is being served and there's this current of sex and aggression — female strippers aren't touched by patrons, and there's a stricter set of rules. Male dancers are touched by patrons, sometimes very aggressively.
You said earlier you were often scared. How so?
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Interviewing Matt in the motel room was a time I can definitely say I was scared, but Matt ended up earning my trust, and I learned he was a really trustworthy person. But you don't learn that until you build a rapport. Also, at the club where I did the interviews, there was a pattern where, late at night, some men who were not strippers would park in their cars just sort of on the street alone, and I'm not sure what the intent was behind that, but that always made me nervous, leaving the club at night alone. Just little things like that. It was sort of just a general constant awareness that I was by myself.
In the study, you note that male strippers don't generally earn nearly as much as their female counterparts. What keeps them stripping?
The majority of the men that I interviewed and interacted with, stripping was not their primary occupation. They did not earn a lot of money, especially compared to female dancers — in fact, one of my respondents had four jobs. I don't know if anybody had what I would call a double life — you find a lot of that kind of thing in the literature on female strippers, how they'll hide it even from people they're very close to. For the men, some of them don't tell their moms, there's some covering up, but it's much less extreme.
A lot of that is because the stigma of men showing their bodies in a sexual fashion is not nearly as severe for men as it is for women, if it exists at all. The pressure to hide it isn't as strong. In fact, men tend to get a self-esteem boost from being sexually objectified. The stigma just doesn't exist. If it did, male strippers would probably feel a lot more like female strippers typically do, like, "Man, I don't really feel good about this." Most of the men I talked to said, "Yeah, I feel great."