One night, twenty-four-year old recent Minnesota transplant Diablo Cody was walking home from her dull ad agency job when the words “Amateur Night” on a topless bar’s marquee beckoned irresistibly. Even though Cody had only once been inside a strip club – and, with her idyllic middle-class upbringing, devoted boyfriend and conspicuous lack of emotional scars, hardly fit the stereotype of a sex industry worker – one try-out as an amateur led to a year of professional hard graft as a stripper, lap dancer and peep-show performer. The equally hilarious, titillating and gruesome account of her exhausting adventure, Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper, is far more than just another stripper memoir or dispatch from the dark side: Cody’s analysis of what she found within the walls of upscale men’s clubs and sleazy sex palaces, and within herself, is shot through with a laser-like wit and punk rock sensibility likely to influence all political shades of opinion on sex jobs and raunch culture. Cody – who’s now hung up her white platforms to work as a successful screenwriter and arts editor – talked to me on the phone from Minneapolis.
– Even jaded readers will be fascinated by some of the real-life characters in your book. Like the jizz-licking guy at the peep show.
He’s the celebrity of the book! He would come crawling in and lick up as much as he could. The thing that was really fascinating about him was that he was so clean cut. He was the last guy you would ever think had a habit like that. I shudder to think about it.
– What else did you come across that fazed you?
You know, people who just had really strange fetishes. Incest would come up a lot: People who would want you to masturbate as their sister, or their mother. That was something I was not comfortable with. I tried to be pretty game, but that really freaked me out. And, you know, a lot of cross dressers. There seemed to be a lot of men who wanted to come in and talk about gay sex. To me that was really surprising, that they though of the booth as a safe haven for their fantasies, even though it was obviously straight-oriented entertainment. That was weird.
– So you became a stripper as an experiment – were you surprised to find you became addicted? And was it the money or the attention?
Honestly, I never made that much money compared with the people I worked with. So for me I think it was about the attention, but also sort of an external thing. I found it to be cathartic, a very weird, twisted form of self-expression. I think I got addicted to just how subversive and how fun it was compared to my every day life.
– And you didn’t derive any particular satisfaction from, say, when you got a promotion at the advertising agency where you worked.
Right, I didn’t at all, and it surprised me, because if I got twenty toy shows at Sex World [the porn emporium where Cody worked as one of the “dolls” who are displayed and selected for peep show performances] in a night I would feel proud.
– Is this something mainstream feminism has still failed to sufficiently acknowledge, how satisfying it can be to wield one’s sexual power in this way?
It can. I think it’s something that third-wave feminism has recognized. On the other hand the one thing people have failed to recognize is just how unsatisfying and unfulfilling the corporate world can still be for women. Because no matter how much we’ve progressed, the glass ceiling is still so much in place. And I honestly felt kind of degraded in my day-to-day life, at the white-collar jobs, because I was always being undersold. Whereas in the sex industry it was so straightforward.
– But which would you say is the more exploited group in a strip club: The girls who work, or the men who hand over the money?
Some of the needier customers, the men who were looking for an emotionally connection, were really preyed upon. They were definitely manipulated and victims in that way. But most of the time, the women were disenfranchised. It’s the societal model for a woman to be revered and worshipped as a thing of beauty, and in a strip club, it’s actually the complete opposite. You have a roomful of beautiful women, trying desperately to woo these men.
– Competing with each other.
Exactly. And it really turns the men into little emperors and the women into these sad, groveling creatures. So that was the one aspect that disturbed the heck out of me. You know, I always thought that strip clubs would be the kind of places that celebrated beauty and femininity and it’s really not the case.
– How much do the men kid themselves that it’s anything other than a financial transaction?
Funnily enough, a lot of them sexualize the financial aspect of it and find it a turn-on to be paying for a lap dance or for female companionship. There were others who were obviously in massive denial and seriously wanted to believe, “oh, this girl really cares about me, she told me her real name,” not knowing that the same girl was mocking them in the dressing room and had given them a fake real name. Every dancer I knew had an onstage name and a fake real name for when she really wanted to sucker a guy. But he would actually believe that you shared that information with him because he was so chivalrous and truly respected women. You know, “I can earn her trust.” A lot of guys just want to be the white knight, that’s the persona they assume when they walk into the club. Like they’re going to find some poor little lost girl and save her.
– What do you think about what Ariel Levy has called “the rise of raunch culture”, and the argument that the phenomenon of women visiting strip clubs is regressive rather than empowering?
I guess I’m emblematic of this raunch culture she talks about. I’m the foul-mouthed, trash-talking, salty sex worker who has a lot of fun with that stuff. And I guess I don’t read that deeply into it. I think that any time people get to reverse roles it’s empowering, and for women who get to objectify other women it’s a role reversal, it’s empowering and it feels good. There’s just no way around it. For me, from a purely hedonistic standpoint, I find women attractive, so it’s fun to go to strip clubs and it’s fun to watch porn.
– In the book you describe meeting a high school girl who’s working in a strip club, and for her it was a regular part-time job, no big deal. What does that say about American culture?
I mean, just equating material things with sexuality has become a totally mainstream concept. You hear it in the music… stripper culture is totally mainstream now, obviously. Now there’s stripper aerobics, t-shirts for girls that say “Porn Star”, all that kind of thing. And it’s not the world I come from. I came of age in the nineties, when we had Riot Grrl music and it was just a more feminist time. I know I’m being a hypocrite by saying that I don’t think a high school girl should be involved in the sex industry, but at least by the age of twenty-four or twenty-five I had lived enough to be able to make that decision for myself.
– What would you say to a woman who’s read your book, thinks it sounds like an interesting job and is going to try it?
I would say try it, slowly. And make sure that you maintain control of yourself in the situation at all times. That includes maintaining some level of sobriety. Because honestly, the people who fall down the rabbit hole are the ones who get involved with drugs.
– And the ones who cross the line into prostitution?
Exactly, yeah. You really have to know your boundaries. In a lot of cases I think that escort work and prostitution, to me that’s just another more extreme form of sex work. I don’t beat around the bush. I knew a lot of strippers who were really quick to point out the difference between them and prostitutes, but honestly I don’t see that big of a difference. It’s a controversial viewpoint, but I know that I was selling my body and selling my sexuality and I’m not really sure how much bigger a step it would have been toward becoming an escort. It’s all so closely related that it struck me as funny when girls would get extremely offended by that comparison. I would think, you’re in a peep show with a dildo up your twat and you’re asking me to show you more respect!
– So do you have any regrets?
There are times when I wish I had attempted to take it even a little more seriously than I did. Because it would have been interesting to see what it was like to get really entrenched in the lifestyle and be one of the upper echelon performers. Obviously I have a physical limitation in that regard because I don’t look like a ten.
– And you don’t want to get big fake boobs?
Exactly, I didn’t want to go that far. But at the same time part of me wondered what it would have been like if I had gotten big fake boobs and gone the whole nine yards, had that ambition that some of those girls have. Because then I really could have gained insight into what that life is like, from a purely anthropological standpoint.
– But you would never go back and do it now?
Right – I think it was pretty obvious when I was doing it that I was kind of a dilettante. I probably wouldn’t go back and do it now, but I miss it. I still feel a little twinge when I pass a strip club, and sometimes consider going in.