Degrading? Never. Just good clean capitalism

As 'Showgirls' opens in Britain, John Carlin experiences the real thing in Las Vegas
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It's midnight. A PhD philosophy student is leaning against a wall alongside a row of peep-show booths at Showgirl, Las Vegas's "largest adult emporium". At least he looks like a PhD student. He has a wispy black beard, a long pony-tail, heavy-framed glasses, black T-shirt and shorts, black basketball boots and grey socks.

His name is Joel and he is the manager of Tracy West, a porno movie actress. All eight booths are locked. The men inside are peering through a glass window at Tracy, who is taking her clothes off to music inside a small amphi theatre. The men feed 25-cent coins into a slot inside the booth. That buys them a minute of Tracy. When the minute is up they slip in another 25 cents and another until Tracy has taken all her clothes off. If a customer wants Tracy to stand on her head and press her genitalia against his window he slips her a $1 bill.

Joel is giving a dissertation on the state of the business. "We've got a problem with oversaturation of the market. Two years ago we had 1,000 strippers in Las Vegas, now we have 2,000. Standards are slipping and the rates are going down."

Standards? "You see it in the videos. The fashion in the last couple of years has been for the girl-girl thing, the bondage and fetish stuff, the anal scene," he says matter-of-factly. "Last year, the business flirted with pro-ams, movies featuring a famous porn star working opposite a no- name person. But what we're starting to see is more storyline. The objective is to try and include more participation from women and couples."

Had Joel been down the road at Talk of the Town a little earlier in the evening he would have been gratified to observe a dentist and his wife being entertained to a lap-dance by a petite silicone wonder called Davia. The couple were sitting snugly next to each other gripping the edges of their seats. The rules of lap-dancing stress one thing: hands off the naked, squirming girls. The couple handed Davia a $5 bill and then she and her friend, a skinny contortionist called Erotica, tottered across the darkened room for a lap-dance a deux with an extremely obese customer. Jasmine, meanwhile, was on the dance floor receiving dollar bills between her breasts from half a dozen men, none of whom - apparently there is an unspoken etiquette here - cast even a passing glance at Fat Boy's private show.

The lap-dance was unknown to most Americans when Showgirls (opening today in Britain) was released there a few months ago. Set in Las Vegas, Showgirls is about a young woman who starts out as a lap-dancer in a grubby club and makes the leap into showbiz - meaning she dances with others on a big stage before a mixed audience and gets to keep her G-string on.

Letters of complaint poured into newspapers. Religious leaders staged protests outside cinemas. Conservative town councils from Arkansas to Oregon deemed the film offensive to "family values" and ordered theatres to stop showing it. Liberals damned the film for degrading women.

The critics are missing a few points, Joel says. Nothing in the US is more sacred than the free market, rule one of which is "if it sells, exploit it". As for degrading women, Davia, Erotica, Jasmine and Tracy, knowing capitalists all, will tell you that men are their prey, that it is they who are being paid $200-$1,000 a night to do the degrading.

At the Showgirl emporium, Tracy is coining it. She has been dancing for 20 minutes and has made $40, so far, plus tips. Joel, meanwhile, is continuing with his treatise, insisting that the industry has standards. "Only the washed-up girls venture into prostitution. The good ones are into the Coalition for Safe Sex. They don't want to take risks or to undermine their images."

The music stops. Tracy's customers spill out into the desert night. Joel keeps talking. A male emporium employee brushes past him, mop in hand, into a booth. Joel keeps talking. "Blondes are always more popular. An amazing number of brunettes bleach their hair. But my wife doesn't. I won't let her." His wife? "Yes," he says. "Tracy - Tracy is my wife. My last name is West."