Summer took off my glasses with a swift, practiced motion, the better to wrap her breasts around the bridge of my nose. “Can you still see okay?” Her first move, it must be said, was devastating. Straddling my legs with her knees on my chair, she flicked her long blonde hair over the top of my head so that the two of us were now in a sort of dark, warm tent, eye to eye. My view of her body was foreshortened, so that her breasts, though not large, obscured most of her slim, bare torso, down to the thighs. It is a view you get in only one other context.
She made a move to kiss me, startlingly, but stopped short and put a finger to my lips. Soon her full length and weight were against me, my cheek meeting her perfumed neck, until she lowered her face past mine and worked slowly down my chest. Midway to my lap she looked up with a coy smile and said, “Hi.” It didn’t work, this little gesture—it was more Jennifer Love Hewitt than Brigitte Bardot—and some mental effort was required to keep the whole psycho-social artifice from crashing down. She tried to reel me back in by rubbing every part of her body that made sense—and a few that didn’t—against my, um, lap. Then I gave her $20 and she turned to sexually assaulting one of my friends.
The city is Las Vegas, naturally, the occasion a bachelor party, the setting a low-rise building just off the Strip with all the size and charm of an airplane hangar. Sapphire, the self-proclaimed World’s Largest Gentlemen’s Club, has taken the strip joint format and supersized it, with evident success. The main “showroom” seats 400 guests, and its attempts to win their hearts and minds fit firmly within the Rumsfeld school of overwhelming force. The lighting grid and sound system are arena quality, the waitresses are numerous and deployed in packs, and the network of catwalks and elevated stages adds a third dimension and a touch of sci-fi to the blitz.
And then there are the women. In the parlance of the place, actually, they are “entertainers” or “girls,” occasionally “ladies,” never “women.” In any case they are numerous and, with their implausible bodies and modes of dress, they are—let’s admit it, guys—intimidating. When you and your group walk in and take your seats, they appear quickly and circle in, bending low, touching arms, dropping into laps, planting kisses on flushed cheeks. “Want a dance?”
Prepared as you might think you are, there is nothing quite like this rapid tectonic shift in the well-established, subtly contoured ground of sexual relations. You and your drinking buddies are surrounded, looked over, sized up, brazenly approached and propositioned. Your level of willingness is treated as irrelevant and easily altered. If anyone is to show any doubt, any shame, any reluctance, it will have to be you. The wolves and the sheep have exchanged costumes.
One uncomfortable aspect of all this, which the women manage with varying degrees of success, is that the sensitive guy faces the rare challenge of having to reject the unwanted advance. “That’s okay,” you say, waving your hand. “I’m all set. Thanks anyway.” As though she were offering out of kindness. When you then enthusiastically accept the attentions of another but three minutes later, you might find yourself looking over at the first suitor in the hopes that she won’t catch you in the act. I know, as if she could possibly give a shit.
What you are accepting or refusing at this stage is a lap dance, the entertainer’s bread and butter and the staple of the Sapphire economy. (More money affords more time and privacy in the mysterious back rooms.) The lap dance found its way into the pages of The New Yorker by 1993, and entered the even more rarefied air of the Oxford English Dictionary in 2002. The definition—”an erotic dance or striptease performed close to, or sitting on the lap of, a paying customer”—only underscores the language’s sad inability to capture the reality of lived experience.
For $20, a Sapphire entertainer will shed her skimpy top, leaving only a very small pair of underwear, and, for the duration of one bass-thumping song, do her best to have sex with you without taking off your clothes. Her back will arch, her knees will bend, her fingers will find your neck and your hair. Special attention, and special parts, will be brought to bear on a part of you that is probably already at attention. Though the rules of engagement are not clearly delineated, your role is a passive one. There will be no kissing, of course, and the more sensitive spots are off limits to your hands. Nevertheless, Summer was bold enough, while sitting on my lap and facing away, to take my hands in hers and place them on her bare hips.
My girlfriend had said it was fine for me to get a lap dance, but it seemed she did so less out of one hundred percent comfort with the idea than out of a desire to avoid being the type who shakes a finger at you when you’re headed to Vegas for a bachelor party. After Summer finished her work, though, I wondered whether my girlfriend really knew what she had signed off on—and indeed, whether I was justified in posing the lap dance as a completely innocuous and uncomplicated act. It was an intimate experience. Public, anonymous, quick, cheap, sometimes ridiculous and boring—but also intimate, and my enjoyment of it was bound up in that.
What is being sold in the showroom of Sapphire is not a car but … what exactly? Sexual arousal? That can be had for far less with a few clicks of the remote back at the hotel. What your $20 gets you is, yes, the closer approximation of sex, the physical presence of the woman, but also, perhaps more crucially, her undivided attention. The lap dance occupies a middle ground between pornography and prostitution, and its affinity with the second lies in the fact that a kind of relationship is created, however brief and pathetic. When one of my friends was in the midst of a dance, a few feet from me, I sometimes felt I should turn away, that watching had become an indecent intrusion.
It’s a relationship built on deception, of course, but the con at its center exerts a serious, subrational pull. Summer trades on the illusion that she enjoys getting close to you in particular, that it’s you she’s after. It’s a notion you know to be delusional but half believe anyway.
Eros is famous for overpowering the most reasonable mind, but there is also a resemblance here to Las Vegas’s even more prodigious source of revenue. When you walk on to the giant gambling floors of Mandalay Bay, Caesar’s, MGM Grand, you look at all those people and think, “Every one of you is being had.” And then you find an empty seat and put some money on the green felt, because the blood in the vein on your temple is saying something else. “You,” it says. “You’re different.”