"I HAVE A CRAZY obsession with Donna Reed," admits the slim, well-spoken girl with the sleek magenta bob, by way of explaining her chosen stage name. "She's from the Midwest, she was a hard worker, and, you know, I'm a hard worker, I'm from the Midwest. People eat that shit up!" she laughs. Right now, "Donna" wears a pop-art patterned Lycra top and skirt, her arms snaked with brightly colored fishnet, her ankles wrapped into black-ribboned pumps; within the hour, though, she'll be naked behind a glass partition, alongside her rotating cast of co-workers.
It's Play Day at the Lusty Lady, when the dancers come out from behind the glass-walled rooms they inhabit the other 360-something days of the year (no Lust on Christmas) and join their customers in the hallways, booths, and even changing rooms of the small, darkly lit establishment. It's not all for the customers' benefit, however; employees owe no money to the house today, and the girls split the pot evenly between them.
It's just past noon, and up front, a busty blonde in black pants and lam頢ikini top patiently explains the day's process to the steady stream of men trekking through the doors. Most are utterly ordinary, the science teachers, accountants, and deliverymen of the world; only a handful emanate the furtive trench-coat creepiness of strip-joint clich鮠The hostess is remarkably professional, soothing the jittery and the unsure, luring them further inside with off-the-cuff jokes and easy geniality. If it weren't for the bikini, which strains to contain some seriously ample assets, she could be a real-estate agent at an open house, or a particularly good-tempered flight attendant. "It's Play Day!" she hoots to each new recruit. "Naked women take over the world! A dollar on each side"—she gestures to her chest—"gets you everything inside."
"Inside" usually means only the glass-walled stage, with its old-fashioned pay-by-the-minute slide-down peep windows, "Private Pleasures" fantasy and talk booths, and small cubbyholes for private movie watching. Today, though, the girls stream through the hallways and mingle, clothed for the one and only time in their Lusty work lives, and obviously enjoying it. They gesture men toward the temporary dungeon in the back ("usually our smoke-break room," says one tiny girl in full leather) for private lap dances. One lucky man has paid $20 per song to sit in a chair on stage, watching the girls gyrate and twirl around him—he's grinning like he's just won the Lotto. The girls tell me he's been up there all day. One leads an eager-looking man through the dressing room doorway where the girls lounge in various stages of undress, fixing their lipstick and applying lotion to tired feet. The man sits gingerly on a nearby bench, clearly speechless to be surrounded by so much behind-the-scenes femininity.
Back out in the hallway, more men wander. "Someone asked me one time," Donna continues, "'Don't you feel like you just contribute to men seeing you as an object?' And I said, 'I'm sure a lot of the men who come into work see me as an object, but I also think that a lot of women that I pass by on the street see me as an object as well. It's not just because I'm onstage and I'm naked.'" She thinks for a moment, then goes on: "Also, I think that I describe myself as someone who is sex positive; I don't think sex is bad. I think there's a lot of sexual energy, and it's totally OK to express that, and this is a place where people can come and express it. It's consensual, they're not harming anyone, and we don't have a lot of room for that in our culture."
She pulls me into a booth, where for a dollar, the blinds furl up and reveal a diorama of naked flesh, as otherwise-nude girls—making nods to accessorizing with jauntily tied scarves or finger-length schoolgirl skirts—bend, shimmy, and preen. They smile and wave their fingers at their co-worker; Donna grins and waves back. "People who say, oh, you spread your legs for a quarter, you're a whore, they don't understand. I mean, this is a complex thing, but in so many ways this is so much better than my last three jobs: at a university, an art school, and as a salesgirl at Nordstrom. Having to be nice to people you don't like and tell them things you don't mean, to me that's like whoring. This just feels more honest."