You wouldn't think at first glance that I'm the type to apply for, much less enjoy, a job that requires me to hang out naked behind a glass window talking to men while they wack off. I certainly don't look like a live nude girl today, 12 years after working at San Francisco's Lusty Lady Theatre. Most days I look more like a librarian.But, then, do you really think you can spot the sex worker in the crowd just by looking?
I felt like a virgin on my first day of work at the Lusty Lady, but in many ways it was a workplace like any other. To get backstage you had to punch a time card. If you did your job well you got a raise. If you had to miss a shift, you were required to find a replacement with the same hair and skin colour as yours, since the visual mix onstage was something management worked to perfect.
Customers could complain or praise by means of a form they picked up at the front desk. But at the Lusty Lady, "customer service" could mean a lot of things.
I had lots of time to deconstruct the minutiae of erotic attraction, or at least its performance, during my four- to six-hour shifts -- usually, in the Private Pleasures booth, talking out fantasies and putting on shows. A guy would come in and put money through a slot, which would make the intercom come on and the lights shine brighter. Then we'd figure out what he wanted to talk about or see.
We were expected to impersonate friendly girls-next-door, minus most of our clothes. The management had determined that was what most customers wanted, and they were probably right. So butch dykes and punk rock girls, biker babes and women's studies majors all turned into cuddly, kittenish coquettes, with the occasional haughty ice princess thrown into the mix.
I loved the wild girls I worked with, whether they were working on philosophy degrees, zines or putting their kids through school.
I loved many of the customers, too, because I was hungry for secret information about sex. I occupied my peep-show booth like a hunter's blind.
I'd begun work on my doctorate in sexology. To me, my booth was a red-plush and mirrored lab course in erotic variation, voyeurism and fantasy.
I liked the unusual ones the best. Sure, a few of my young colleagues would say, "Ewwww!" when I said I'd seen the guy who liked to do unusual things with a lit candle. But to me he was a revelation -- proof that Mom was wrong and men do not only want one thing.
Ditto for the men with the seamed black stockings under their business suits, the guys who carried a honeymoon's worth of sex toys in their briefcases, the ones who wanted to spin elaborate fantasies, sand castles of the erotic imagination, up and up and up until the wave came -- you know the one I mean -- to knock it down. Then they'd zip up abruptly, straighten their ties (I used to love it that they threw their ties over their shoulders, like they were sitting down to eat soup) and head back into reality. Sitting on a red bordello cushion in the Private Pleasures booth, I was the pause that refreshes.
Every guy was different. Some became my regulars, and often even they wanted something different each time. Stockbrokers, bus drivers, house painters, mortgage bankers... even a guy who came in wearing the yellow slicker and boots of a deep-sea fisherman.
I learned all men are not alike. They don't all masturbate the same way, and they don't think about or desire the same things. Women don't learn much about the inner lives of men, partly because it's not common in this culture to find out the truth about it.
So, especially at first, almost every vulnerability or yearning came as a surprise to me. Some men could negotiate the little details of complicated fantasies, while others could barely ask if it was appropriate to pull down their zippers. "Men" turned into a complex species for me, not an aggregate whose sexuality revolved around one common denominator.
Ensconced in my booth, I watched them from behind a pane of glass in which I could see my own reflection, put on shows for them, spin fantasies with them or for them. I wanted them to confess to me like I was a priestess, and they did.
Over 10 years later, I still miss the place sometimes, partly because the usually hidden rules of engagement were there so blatantly evident -- unzipped, if you will. Beneath them surged a sea of testosterone, commodified lust, loneliness alleviated by a fleeting smile and the occasional heart connection, always so out-of-the-blue when it happens with a stranger. I learned more about desire and fantasy there than I ever did in my Ph.D. program. I learned that everyone has a story, and sometimes more than one.