The In-Between: Go-Go Dancing

I need cash, I like flirting, and I like being the center of attention from time to time. This will be the perfect gig,
— Damian Emba

A few years ago, the above quote danced through my mind. To be honest, I was terrified to be semi-naked in front of a bunch of strange men, but that fear also made the prospect of go-go dancing thrilling. Plus, I really did need the money. So, after some brief hesitation, I decided to face my fears and do it.

Initially, my understanding of go-go dancing was that it was entirely separate from what is usually thought of (and stigmatized) as sex work. Sure, I was going to be mostly naked and dancing around for strangers, but go-go dancing is seen as a perfectly respectable occupation for a young queer man in Los Angeles. Perhaps, this attitude is because the city is such a progressive and sex-positive place. However, during my time as a dancer I learned that there were also limits to this positivity.

Although the queer community generally celebrates and normalizes go-go dancing, other occupations within the business of sex are still relatively stigmatized. Dancing in one’s underwear at a bar, even for money, is widely seen as a harmless celebration of queer pride. Yet, performing lap dances for individuals in a quiet corner of that very same bar is a different story. And because these lap dances were generally where the money was, I quickly found myself navigating a murky middle space, somewhere between respectability and disgrace.

Sure, there are differences between a go-go dance and a lap dance. The go-go dance is less personal—the performer dances on top of a table or around the bar, offering patrons drinks in sexy underwear or a jockstrap. During this process, the dancer might flirt with a guy—seduction and a little play usually inspire the patrons to tip more generously. However, tips are always optional during this exchange, and are mainly used as an excuse for the go-go dancer to pull their underwear down a little bit, so that the patron can more easily slide whatever cash they choose inside.

The lap dance, on the other hand, is more intimate, overtly sexual, and seductive, and it requires the dancer to be much closer to the patron. Lap dances usually involve the performer grinding their body against the client’s lap while touching and caressing them, and speaking seductively. Unlike with a go-go dance, the exchange of money for a lap dance is not optional, and is at a standardized rate.

Despite these differences, however, there are also similarities between these two types of dance. First, as noted above, these two activities usually happen at the same bar, albeit in different locations within it. Moreover, many of the same individuals are often performing both types of dance. During my time in this world I quickly learned that the go-go dance was mainly useful as a means of attracting clientele. The real money wasn’t to be made simply by frolicking around in my underwear—it was in getting patrons to buy lap dances.

So, I found myself facing the stigma that is often associated with the business of sex, but only half the time. Dates typically didn’t care that I go-go danced, and in fact, for many of them, this was a source of intrigue and pride. However, these very same individuals frequently rejected me or showed disapproval for my work as a lap dancer, even though the line between these two professions is blurry at best. Looking back on this experience has made me wonder: why are certain jobs within the business of sex socially acceptable while others are not?

Currently, it seems that this line has been drawn at the point when the exchange of money for sexual services rendered is overt. Everything was fine when the fantasy of sex was only implicitly behind the exchange of money as a go-go dancer, but the second this relationship was made clearer as a lap dancer, the work became scandalous.

Let’s be honest though—sex has always been involved in business, even though most people decline to acknowledge that fact publicly. We all engage with and consume sex in many different forms, ranging from music with explicit content, to movies with erotic scenes, to art, to advertising, to straight up pornography. These examples run the gamut in terms of how socially acceptable they are, yet all are ways of using one’s sexuality and sexual agency as a means to make a profit. None should be socially stigmatized, however, because, as the attitudes surrounding some already suggest, there is nothing wrong with involving sex in one’s business.

Don’t get me wrong—not every part of my job as a go-go dancer or lap dancer was wonderful. For example, I never felt more insecure about my body than I did while doing this work. This insecurity was persistent despite the fact that I was in the best shape of my life. I felt like I had to be physically perfect in order to compete, to get the best clients and to feel confident. No matter how much I worked out, practiced my moves, and bought the cutest underwear, some of the guys still managed to make me feel shitty. Truthfully, dealing with rejection can be difficult in any case. However, some guys would even say rude or racist things to me, and on many occasions I felt dehumanized.

Of course, many of the people I encountered while doing this job were the exact opposite of this, and over all, my time as a dancer was a positive experience. Among other things, it helped me explore my sexual agency and taught me how to define clear personal boundaries. As a result, I came out of the job with a greater sense of sexual autonomy. It is now much easier for me to say “no” to pushy guys in any context. Facing my fears also enabled me to accept my body insecurities, and to better cope with rejection.

We in the LGBTI community often like to think of ourselves as more liberated and open minded than those outside of it; yet, through this experience, I discovered that there is still a lot of work for us to do on this front. Rather than being so quick to pat ourselves on the back as morally superior to straight folks because of our willingness to embrace certain expressions of sexuality, we should work to be more critical of the respectability politics that still influence us. Just like everyone else, we remain susceptible to group-think, and can also fall for double standards. The difference in social attitudes that I experienced between go-go dancing and lap dancing within the queer community is evidence of the work we still have left to do.

Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned from this experience is that the business of sex represents a wide spectrum of work that cannot be meaningfully separated into “respectable” and “abhorrent.” Instead, let’s work together to normalize all occupations related to sex, and to overcome the general sex-negativity that is still used to shame us all, regardless of our sexual orientation. Whether a man like me is dancing in his underwear at a gay club, a woman is taking her clothes off in front of a webcam or on a stage, or someone is doing something else that engages sex in some way as a part of their business, there is nothing wrong with that. So, let’s get over our puritanical hang-ups and embrace a more positive vision of human sexuality. Only then can we all be free.