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.

"I would just pretend, like in my head, like I was, you know, going through sex acts. I believe that you're either born with it, or you're not," she said.

Delores Eliades and Peter Feinstein, owners of the Sapphire Gentlemen's Club, told "20/20" what they looked for in their dancers.

"The primary thing, to be honest with you, that we look for is an entertainer that is attractive and socially capable of carrying on conversation with men. Somebody who feels comfortable in this type of setting," Feinstein said.

And the setting can be intimidating.

After watching dancers give lap dances it's easy to guess what the customer is thinking about.

But what's going through a dancer's mind while she gives such an intimate dance to a complete stranger?

For Butterfly, it is strictly business.

"Number one, I'm thinking about how I can move my body to please them and make their fantasy come true. My second thought is how much money can I get out of this person. I'm sorry, but this is my job and that's what I am here for," she said.

The most successful dancers, like Trina at the Hustler Club in San Francisco, combine the physical confidence of a runway model with the verbal skills of a used-car salesman.

Some of the dancers said the sell had to be personalized. Some said they treated all of the clientele the same.

But they all agreed that sizing up customers, to determine who the big spenders are, was critical.

A client's shoes, wristwatch, type of suit, even the type of eyeglasses are scrutinized to see whether the client has enough money to pay for the pricey champagne room, or VIP room, where dancers give one-on-one attention for as much as $300 a half-hour.

"Honestly, you look for the vulnerable ones," Jennifer said. "The really cute guy, the cocky guy -- we talk to them last, they're last pick. You want to look at the guy who probably doesn't get that much love or affection or whatever. And then you try to fulfill that need, you know? You try to make them feel better about themselves -- smarter, stronger, whatever. And then you are compensated for that."

And that compensation is earned whether the customer wants lap dances or just a pretty girl to sit and talk with him -- what they call "GFE," or Girlfriend Experience.

"The big-money customers want to come in and spend time with a beautiful girl. And they want to get to know her," said Eric Langin, president and chief executive officer of Rick's Cabaret -- a publicly traded company that owns gentlemen's clubs in cities across the country. "They want the fantasy to think, you know, 'Gee, this girl really likes me,'" he said.

And they don't have to work hard to get the attention. If they pay, they get a woman who'll sit and talk and be charming.

"A lot of times we're like psychiatrists, listening to people's problems. Over and over again, people will pay you just to sit there and listen to you," Butterfly said. She said her clients talked about everything from work to their wives to their kids.

But if the client isn't paying, Butterfly said she cut him off after two songs.

Many clubs have even more exclusive areas, often completely private rooms or booths that can cost as much as $500 an hour. And it can be incredibly lucrative for the dancers.

Between Stage Fees and Tips Dancers Can Lose Money on a Shift

But in some cities the bad nights far outweigh the good ones.

Butterfly works in Las Vegas, where the steady stream of tourists makes it relatively easy for her to support her family.

But in the rest of the country, making a decent living as a stripper is no sure thing.

Most dancers do not get paid by the club.

Instead, they're labeled independent contractors, and they earn their money from stage tips, selling one-on-one lap dances, or persuading customers to buy time in a VIP room.

And sometimes in the fiercely competitive world of a strip club -- with dancers chasing after the same customers -- some women can feel pressure to sell not just a sexual fantasy, but sex.

"The business arrangement is such that they are pressured into prostitution because otherwise they can't profit from their work," according to San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris.

But most dancers make much less, sometimes even going home with less money than they started with.

How could you lose money working?

The surprising answer is that dancers not only do not get paid any salary, but they actually pay the club anywhere from $75 to $250 a shift for what is called a stage or house fee.

Jennifer, who dances at a Chicago club, says she's lost money on occasion.

"There have been certain days where you don't make your money back, and they don't pay you. There is no compensation or anything. And you just have to suck it up and hope that the next day is better," she said.

And it's not just the stage fee that dancer's pay.

Most of these so-called independent contractors must "tip out" at the end of their shift -- which means paying money to the other people working at the club -- from bouncers to DJs to the maitre d's in the VIP rooms.

Butterfly says she can end the night shelling out $150 in tips.

On top of all that, the dancers get none of the protections or benefits, like workers' compensation and health care, that are offered to everybody else working in the club.

That bothers Butterfly.

"I have children. I believe that we should get insurance. You know medical insurance, dental insurance, vision, workers' comp. Anything, where we work -- we pay them anyway," she said.

Langin doesn't see this as an unfair setup.

"The busboy goes home with $200 a week, or $300 a week. And the dancer goes home with $3,000 to $6,000," he said.

And for the women who don't bring home $3,000 a week?

Langin said he would tell a dancer who wasn't making much money to consider other work.

"I try to encourage her to -- I call it 'broaden your career horizon a little bit' -- find something that you're good at. … This isn't it for you," he said.

Concern That Dancers Could Be Coerced Into Prostitution

The rules about how intimate the contact can be between dancer and customer can change from state to state and city to city.

At the Sapphire Club, some touching is allowed.

Clients can touch the dancers' arms and legs, Butterfly said, "and our belly if they're careful. If they start moving up, we absolutely have to have to move their hands away," she said.

And that apparently happens frequently. Butterfly said she had ended dances because a client wouldn't follow house rules.

And a new trend, started in San Francisco, could be making it more difficult for dancers to keep clients' hands at bay.

Increasingly, clubs across the country are building private booths where the dancer and customer are alone.

These booths are where dancers make the most money, but in San Francisco, the district attorney says it is also where dancers are potentially the most vulnerable.

"They're working in a booth and then the customer wants one thing or another and they feel forced to comply," Harris said.

Langin acknowledges that sex can occur in clubs, but says the clubs try to prevent it with surveillance systems.

If a client is having sex with a dancer, Langin said, "They're going to have to do it really fast. Because there's going to be somebody coming around checking on that room. And if they get interrupted they're going to be thrown out."

Like many working women, the dancers who spoke with "20/20" will tell you any kind of respect would be appreciated.

They work in a world full of scorn and moral condemnation. They have each made a choice about what is best for themselves and their families.

They show up each night because it's their job.

This story originally aired on "20/20" April 15, 2005.

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