Making Ends Meet As a Strippers

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For their mostly male customers, strip clubs are the epitome of an adult playground, where libido and fantasy run free.

For critics, they are a depraved wasteland, where women are written off as immoral, lost souls.

For the thousands of women taking their clothes off for a living in cities across America, it is a job, and they say it is one of the toughest sales jobs on Earth.

"It's a real job. A real job pays real money. And I am able to provide for myself, my family and my children," said "Butterfly," who dances at America's largest strip club, the Sapphire Gentlemen's Club in Las Vegas.

Strippers are part of an ever-growing, multibillion-dollar industry.

But as we listened to them talk about competing against other women and avoiding abuse and exploitation, we realized their stories were echoed not just by other dancers, but by women throughout the work force.

On top of the competitiveness and sometimes threatening environment they deal with, the dancers also deal with the shame they feel from disapproving family and friends.

Butterfly, who asked "20/20" to identify her only by her stage name, said she was 22 and a recently divorced mother of two when she made the decision to strip.

"I had to make money, good money fast," she said.

Butterfly spends all day with her children, then leaves them with a baby sitter when she heads to work at night.

Nicole, who asked "20/20" to use only her stage name, is also a working mom.

She started out in the military.

"I did eight years in the Marine Corps. And I got out and I got scouted for Penthouse, and I became a Penthouse Pet. And then I started feature dancing," she said.

For her, the schedule fits well with parenting.

"I work at night. My son is in bed by the time I come to work. I am home when he wakes up," she said to "20/20."

Rachel is stripping to save the $38,000 she needs for culinary school.

Stephanie is a Midwestern college student.

"I am getting a degree in fine arts. This is, for better or worse, this is probably the best-paying job I'll ever have," she said.

Another dancer "20/20" met, Dawn, pays her way through school in Salt Lake City by dancing in Las Vegas on the weekends.

"I'll fly in Friday after school. And then I'll fly home Sunday or Monday and go back to school," she said.

Job Requires Sales Skills and a Runway Model's Confidence

The women "20/20" spoke with all followed different paths to the same career choice.

But once they made that choice, almost all of them said they had no idea what they were supposed to do.

"I'd stand against the wall and I didn't want anyone to look at me and I didn't want to say anything to anybody. Very, very scared. I didn't know what was expected of me," Butterfly said.

The women said nobody took new dancers under their wing and mentored them, or told them how to survive and how to make a lot of money.

They had to figure it out on their own.

And what they learned quickly was that the job was more complicated than just dancing topless around a pole.

To make real money, the women said, you have to work the room -- chat up the customers and persuade them to pay you for a private dance or just for your time and attention.

A one-on-one dance, or a lap dance, on the main floor costs $15 to $20 a song.

Butterfly said she got over her embarrassment by blocking out what she was doing.

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