Why Men Really Go to Strip Clubs

Susannah Breslin spent a decade reporting on the sex industry and
discovered much about male desire in the process – as she’s revealed
in a series of extraordinary blogs. She talks to Nisha Lilia Diu

Nisha Lilia Diu

7:30AM BST 08 Apr 2012

It’s tempting, on seeing the name of Susannah Breslin’s new blog, to
think you already know what it contains: Letters from Men Who Go to
Strip Clubs.

Surely it’s just a bunch of stories about how entertaining it is to be
surrounded by naked women?

Actually, like Breslin’s acclaimed earlier projects, Letters from
Johns and Letters from Men Who Watch Pornography, it is startling.

In these anonymous emails men of all ages from all over the western
world write about feelings they’ve probably never shared with anyone
else. They are by turns tender, tragic and terrifying.

‘It’s about control,’ says one. ‘I’m on the point of entering my
thirties and I’m still a virgin,’ confesses another. One man, echoing
the sentiments of a great number of respondents, says, ‘I just want to
talk to someone.’

‘Don’t look at them!’ Breslin yells at me as she opens the front door
of her Chicago apartment a crack.

Three sets of eyes stare out into the afternoon sunlight, two of which
belong to a pair of very large, very angry Chesapeake Bay retrievers.

Breslin, in jeans, and thick socks to keep out the cold (it’s -6°C
outside), guides me into the sitting-room where her husband, a Marine
whom she met four months ago, formally introduces me to the snarling
creatures.

‘Men have these hidden lives,’ says Breslin, 43, folding her long legs
over each other. ‘And the sex industry is where those hidden lives
take place.’

Not all men, but a significant proportion: about 11 per cent of
British men admit to having visited a prostitute at least once, twice
as many are estimated to have been to a strip club, and roughly 60 per
cent make regular use of pornography.

For years Breslin reported from the sets of hardcore pornographic
films for Playboy TV’s Sexcetera. It’s a ‘rough’ industry, she says,
and being exposed to it was ‘partly responsible’ for a breakdown she
suffered in 2005.

She thinks the experience is one of the reasons she and her husband
clicked so quickly.

(They met online and, as Breslin has written in her forbes.com column,
‘We spent the weekend together. The following Tuesday he suggested we
go to Vegas for the weekend to get married. So, we did.’)

‘What you see in the porn industry is what people will do when they
are allowed to do anything at all,’ she says in her soft, girlish
voice.

The waiving of ordinary morals in war, she believes, is not a million
miles from that.

Indeed, the messages from military men are among the most shocking in
her projects. In Letters from Johns, one remembers ‘[brothels] –
especially in Asia – that not only countenanced violence, but offered
it à la carte’.

Letters from Johns was her first project, launched in 2008 after a
conversation left her marvelling at how little she and her female
friends really understood about the reasons men turn to the sex
industry.

So she posted a request for an explanation on her blog, Reverse
Cowgirl (one of Time magazine’s top 25 that year).

The letters kept coming and, for 12 months, she published what she
received. Letters from Men Who Watch Pornography followed in 2010 and
Letters from Men Who Go to Strip Clubs started last October. It is
exactly halfway through its run.

The respondents range from truck drivers to millionaires but, despite
their wildly different lives, they share a number of qualities.

‘Loneliness,’ says Breslin. That’s the emotion that comes through the
loudest. ‘And a need for intimacy.’

This is as true of the Johns, who repeatedly write about wanting ‘the
company as much as the sex’, as it is of the strip-club patrons.

‘Nobody talks to me, nobody cares what I say. I’m a 24-year-old who
wastes his days sitting at a computer reviewing spreadsheets that
don’t really matter,’ says one of the latter.

Even those who purportedly write in to say it’s just a bit of fun end
up tracing a tragic-comic path from worldly bluster (‘I know the girls
only have a relationship with my wallet, but that’s fine!’) to
vulnerability and self-delusion (‘they are genuinely interested in
me’).

‘Every guy has their reason for going to a strip club,’ a businessman explains.

‘Poor guys who want to feel powerful. You see them sweat as their
carefully hoarded banknotes dwindle. Bald guys who can’t get a date.
Insecure types who never learned how to talk to a girl.

‘Lonely guys who have nothing else to do and nowhere else to go. Why
do I end up in strip clubs? In a word: therapy. The girls there
listen.’

Many of the writers feel unable to open up to their friends and family.

As the same man continues, ‘Who else can you talk to? Your business
partner? Can’t afford to show weakness. A friend? His wife is friends
with your wife so you have to be careful. A therapist? I’ve been
trained to walk off a heart attack.’

Some are angry and resentful.

‘I’m 61 and I like to think this is my revenge for all the beautiful
women in the world whom I can’t approach, whom I can’t get. [In strip
clubs] I can have some young beauty dance and smile at me anytime I
want.’

There is a fascinating letter from a gay man whose objectivity makes
his visits ‘profoundly uncomfortable’.

On a stag night he notices the groom being ‘far too admiring and his
apathy toward his current relationship was suddenly and vividly
apparent’.

Unclouded by lust, he also observes the women in a way the other
writers do not. ‘One stripper was very keen for private performances,
clearly needing the higher payout with some sense of urgency.’

Although (almost) all mention the women’s nudity, it is the women’s
attention they revel in the most.

‘Women hit on you all night,’ says one. ‘Everything is reversed. You,
the guy, are pursued,’ says a married father of two.

Many writers, smarting from years of spurned advances, describe the
clubs as ‘refuges’ where they are freed from the burden of making the
first move – and from the fear of rejection.

Breslin admits, ‘I certainly can’t claim with any authority that [the
letters] are all true. But the ones I’ve published are specific,
self-indicting and complicated. I trust my gut.’

Some, she says, are ‘obviously fake. They talk about how the hooker
really enjoyed it’ – a laugh escapes her – ‘and returned the money at
the end.’

Breslin is the daughter of literary parents: her father was a
professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley and her
mother taught English at nearby St Mary’s College.

‘Books and writers were certainly revered. Intellect was revered above
all else,’ she says.

Breslin took a masters in creative writing before setting up a
website, The Post-Feminist Playground, in 1997 back when most people
had just got the hang of email.

‘Berkeley was a very liberal place to grow up and freedom was prized.’
She took to the internet immediately because ‘I could do whatever I
wanted’.

She interviewed the porn star Jenna Jameson for the site, ‘and her
publicist said, “If you’re ever in LA come to a movie set.”’

Breslin duly did. (The film was called Flashpoint.) About that time
she got the Playboy TV job and went on to visit more than 50
pornographic film sets.

What drew her to the sex industry?

‘I wanted to immerse myself in an extreme culture. It was either that
or hang out with gang members [Breslin had taught a course about gangs
and drugs at an arts college in Illinois].

‘And I thought if I hung out on porn sets I was less likely to get shot.’

Initially, she says, it was ‘fascinating’.

But, over time, ‘you would notice that the girl had been crying. Or
you would see somebody be rough with somebody.

‘The porn industry is very competitive’ – ever more so with pirated
online content hitting profits – ‘so the directors started doing
increasingly extreme stuff.

‘And the directors can be manipulative in terms of getting you to do
what you don’t want to do. You know, I might wonder, “How am I going
to negotiate my Forbes contract?”

‘This is a whole different ballpark. You’re naked, you’re in the
middle of this half-circle of men, there’s cameras pointed at you.’

Was it ever sexy?

‘There is a certain kind of porn star that actually likes it,’ Breslin
says. ‘And those are the women you see giving interviews on TV.

‘But there’s a whole huge group of women who are young and high and
conflicted. Maybe they have a s— boyfriend or are trying to support
their kids.’

In the end Breslin decided ‘it was not great for me to see that kind
of unhappiness repeatedly’.

She left for New Orleans, where she was living when Hurricane Katrina
hit (part of the roof was ripped off her home), then Virginia, then
Austin, now Chicago. ‘I like reinventing myself,’ she says.

Some of the letters are disturbing.

There is a Frenchman in Letters from Johns who specifically seeks out
trafficked girls (‘I enjoy seeing them fake they enjoy it, knowing
they don’t like me’). There is one whose prostitute smokes crack
throughout their assignation.

And there are several who are stunningly indifferent towards the sex
workers they encounter (‘She’d just had a baby and volunteered that
she wasn’t on drugs – I really didn’t care’).

Many more are just socially awkward, unattractive and desperate for
human contact. It’s hard not to be touched by the cerebral palsy
sufferer whose occasional brothel visits ‘are the only time I feel
like a real man’.

‘That’s what I love,’ says Breslin of the Letters projects. ‘You see
their vulnerability, how needy they can be for these simple, human
things: wanting to be touched, wanting to be listened to.

‘I see them as more similar to women than we might think.’

As Breslin intimates, women can be ugly, lonely, and disabled, too,
yet – perhaps because conventional femininity is less about desiring
than being desired – no sex industry exists for them.

‘There are two female Johns,’ she reminds me.

It’s true. One is about to turn 50 when she discovers her husband of
28 years is having an affair.

‘I was crushed,’ she writes. ‘I needed to know that I could be naked
in front of another man and enjoy the experience.’ On a work trip to
New York, ‘inspired by the movie The Wedding Date’, she hires an
escort.

‘It turned out to be the best $2,000 I ever spent. He undressed me
and, for the first time in years, I felt truly sexy and desirable.’

In the end she goes back to her husband. ‘Knowing that I had other
choices and that I wasn’t acting out of fear, I was able to commit to
a reconciliation. I had to discreetly teach my husband several of the
tricks I had learned.’

Maybe Breslin’s next project will be Letters from Janes.