“Sit down and spread your legs. It’s for research.”
Those were the words that were whispered in my ear by a stripper named Roddy before he took off his shirt, placed my hands on his greased-up pecs, and gave me my first-ever lap dance.
I was at Hunk-O-Mania, one of the few revues that operates in Manhattan. The show goes off four days a week at the Copacabana —which was surprising to me. The original Copa is where my grandparents had their first date in the '50s. It's a place where Dean Martin performed. And now the name is synonymous with oiled-up male dancers with man buns.
The latest iteration of the Copacabana is placed right smack in the middle of Times Square. Unlike the city’s strip clubs featuring female dancers, which are stashed away on the relatively remote netherworld of Tenth Avenue, Hunk-O-Mania is in Times Square, arguably the most trafficked neighborhood of Manhattan, and just a stone’s throw away from Broadway and Madame Tussaud's. On my way to the show, I even passed a young child posing with Minnie Mouse.
I arrived promptly at 7:30 p.m. for the 9 p.m. showing, passed the club’s main room, and walked up a steep staircase into a smaller room. Since it was a week from Valentine’s Day, there were dozens of pink streamers, red roses arranged in ball shapes, and disco balls hanging from the ceiling. Two hundred chairs were lined up in front of a stage that reminded me of the one in my middle school gym. On stage there were four chairs, a.k.a. “hot seats,” where patrons can pay $100 at the door to get bumped and grinded on stage.
Once in the room, Roddy, a buff, bronzed, man-bunned bro, approached me and introduced himself. This is the dancer’s way of making a connection with the women in the audience, so he was extra suave. He told me he’s been a dancer for years, having danced at Chippendale’s down in Orlando before making his way to New York. “I still rock the underwear,” he’d told me, pulling up the elastic band of his boxer briefs and snapping them against his abs. I asked him how the shows differed. “I think this one gets more girls,” he said. “And we’re a lot raunchier here than at Chip’s.”
He wasn’t kidding. As Roddy grinded away, I scanned the room. All around me, women of all ages and races were shoving $20 bills down men’s jeans as payment for dances. (In the event you don’t have cash, the stripper will pull out his Square for a credit card swipe.) Denise*, one of the women I’d befriended since I was there alone, was smiling with pure elation as a huge guy in skimpy blue briefs gyrated in her face. On stage, one of the dancers had pinned a woman in a plastic bachelorette crown against the wall and was grinding up against her as her friends threw singles at him. The entire room was screaming with glee.
But as I looked around, I had one overwhelming question: Was this sexy? Here was this incredibly buff, shirtless guy paying me special attention, even flipping me over and spanking me, while two women I’d made friends with took videos and pictures of me. (Sorry, mom.) It was objectively hot, for sure. But I didn’t really know if I was sexually stimulated.
So what was the appeal of a male strip club for me? Was it a place for sexual liberation or just a campy show? Had Roddy been a guy I was dating, and we were in private, and he started giving me a lap dance like this, I’d probably start laughing. I realized that I’d felt more sexually liberated with my vibrator and some feminist porn. But, as Roddy collected the $20 from me and moved on to his next girl, who was looking up at him like he was an Adonis, I realized I might be in the minority.
Thanks to the 2012 movie Magic Mike, and its follow-up Magic Mike XXL in 2015, male strip clubs seem to be more present than ever. Hunk-O-Mania is just one such operation, and it has shows in 19 cities around the country. Another show, Thunder From Down Under, hails from Australia and has two troupes of men touring the country, as well as one permanent residency in Vegas. Then there’s Magic Men Live which begins touring in April. And these guys clean up — on any given night, Roddy told me he makes upwards of $500 in cash tips. Male strip culture is more popular than ever. And the people running these clubs are surprisingly tuned in to what women want.
The first male strip clubs started popping up in the 1970s — when the women’s lib movement really began to take root, and women were exploring their sexuality. Consciousness-raising seminars were sending women home with their mirrors to peer at their vaginas for the first time; Eve’s Garden, a sex shop owned by a woman’s rights activist, opened; and in Fear of Flying, Erica Jong pioneered the concept of the “zipless fuck.” Little was known about female sexuality — what turned them on, what didn’t — so women were often left to explore female equivalents of well-known heterosexual male stimuli. And so clubs where men stripped started cropping up across America.
Those early male strip clubs mimicked female clubs. The onus was on women to make the first move and call dancers over, according to a 1982 study that examined male strip clubs in the Urban Life journal. But the authors doubted whether women actually enjoyed being in control. According to the study, the clubs succeeded in making women equal from a financial standpoint — they were paying male dancers the same way that men pay female dancers. But the women weren’t stepping into the role of aggressor, so the male dancers had to engage with the audience more than a female dancer would with a male audience.
Studies suggest that women don’t necessarily want to be the ones calling the shots in heterosexual relationships. A study published in 2014 in the Violence Against Women journal found that “despite changing more of sexual behavior...most [women] said that they still wanted men to take a controlling role in initiation the dating relationship.” In the study, the researchers note that women fall into these gender roles as a kind of "test" to gauge their partner's interest in them (so if he takes control, he's interested). And while a strip club isn’t a traditional relationship in the least, that instinct is a hard one to shake.
As we’ve learned more about women’s sexuality, traditional male strip clubs (which were basically carbon-copies of female strip clubs) became passé. But the male revues of today have evolved. “Men and women are completely different when it comes to that kind of entertainment,” says Myles Hass, the founder and emcee of the forthcoming Magic Men Live. “Men are visually entertained, but women need both the mental and the visual, so that’s what we like to do.” The show at Magic Men Live includes highly-produced storylines where each guy is a character. That, Hass says, is what gets the response.
There’s research to back this up: According to a study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior in 2008, “women seem to subjectively react positively to stimuli that allow them to project themselves into the situation while men prefer stimuli enabling objectification of the actors.” What’s more is that women respond more positively when there is context given to the sexual stimuli — so storylines help.
Alex Biffin, one of the dancers for Thunder From Down Under in Las Vegas, echoes this sentiment. “Our show is fully choreographed, and it’s very interactive,” he says. “We go out into the crowd. There is that element of being sexy, but it's also a time for [the women] to laugh and be with their friends.” That's an important point to note: Not all women go to these shows for sexual titillation. Many go for the fun and the spectacle. That's something I absolutely tapped into — one of the photos my new friends took of me mid-lap dance was with my head thrown back in laughter. And while Hunk-O-mania wasn’t as choreographed as the videos I’ve seen of Thunder, they did share one major similarity — the men came out into the audience to interact with the women.
Another woman was sitting in the corner and flirting with a buff looking guy. She was wearing a skimpy dress and talking to her companion like they were old friends. Every time she got up for the bar, he followed her. Dino Campagna, one of the promoters at Hunk, told me that she was one of the regulars. “She comes in here four days a week and spends $600 on lap dances from one guy,” he told me. Campagna, who also promotes for Sapphire, a gentleman’s club in NYC, assured me that she wasn’t the only one.
Thunder has its fair share of regulars, too. And Bri Steck, the founder of VegasGirlsNightOut.com — a site that helps women book their nights out in Vegas — says that it’s the intimacy that keeps women coming back. “One of our regulars is an older woman named Franny — she might be in her 70s,” Steck says. “She comes every Tuesday. We have other regulars, too. They sent the guys Christmas gifts and cookies.”
Campagna said that, in his experience, there are more regulars at strip clubs with female dancers. Male revues tend to pull in regulars as well, but they’re the minority. “Most of our customers come to the website for birthdays, bachelorette parties, or girls' nights out,” says Steck. The night I was at Hunk, the majority of women were in large, celebratory groups.
That is likely why these clubs aren’t as prevalent as female strip clubs in cities outside of Las Vegas. The majority of women who frequent these clubs seem to lump strip shows into the same category as a Broadway play or a big-ticket concert — something they go to every so often when the occasion is right. Men, on the other hand, see a strip club as just another bar to go to after work or on a weekend to blow off steam.
But don’t discount the drawing power of these revues. Campagna says that, on busy nights, the crowd size can top 500 screaming women. “Ninety percent of our customers want to go to Thunder from Down Under,” says Steck. Hass of Magic Men Live says that he only sees the trend of male revues continuing. “The women will come out as long as the show is done right,” he says. “Both genders love sex. To try to suppress that feeling isn’t healthy.”
When I finally stumbled out of the flashing lights of Hunk-O-Mania, my hands greasy from feeling men’s abs, I felt dizzy, disoriented — and, oddly, hot. Sex, it seems, is the great equalizer — at least at this club. Women of all ages and races were shoving bills down the pants of a diverse cast of dancers, and unabashedly embracing their sexuality in the process. I actually couldn’t wait to go back and show my friends what I’d just experienced.
So as I floated down the rainy sidewalks in Times Square, near Minnie Mouse and Elmo, I whipped out my phone and sent a text message to my group of girlfriends: “Anyone want to get a lap dance next weekend?”
*Name has been changed.