Mashable Article

While most of the erotic world has hurdled into the future in recent years — with innovations like smart toysvirtual reality porn, and even high-tech condoms — one type of adult business has remained resistant to change: the strip club.

Many clubs often feel as if they’re stuck in the ‘80s or early ‘90s, both in their outdated aesthetics (think a lot of pink neon) and sensibilities. Not all, but quite a few, notes Portland-based stripper, writer, and sex educator Elle Stanger, will still only hire women who adhere to the narrow beauty standards of that era: “long hair, big boobs, and a size two or smaller.” Quite a few never even bothered to acknowledge the advent of the digital era by setting up so much as a Facebook page or website, says Dave Manack, editor of the industry trade publication Exotic Dancer Magazine.

Some of the club world’s resistance to change, Manack adds, may stems from the fact that many venues are run by now-geriatric men who may be set in their ways but who also, more importantly, never felt threatened by upheavals like the internet that rocked many other industries. Insiders maintain that clubs offer a unique form of connection between patrons and dancers, a responsive and in-person intimacy that digital offerings like porn cannot recreate. Owners have long had steady, profitable patron bases that have seemed happy with their clubs, likely never asking for changes. As such, Manack says, owners “probably figured, ‘hey, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’”

Appealing to an evolving audience

Changing times, however, have finally started to take their toll on America’s strip clubs. (At least those that feature female dancers — the world of male strip clubs is in many ways its own, separate reality that would require its own article to dissect.) Over the last year, outlets from the BBC to Playboy have reported on their declining consumer bases and profits, and the closure of a number of venues. Despite a few notable closures, Manack argues that the total number of strip clubs in America has been steady at about 2,500 for decades.

Some patrons are disappearing because they’re just getting too old to go to clubs. Some are showing up less because it is no longer acceptable for them to hold business meetings at clubs. (In 2018 Angelina Spencer of the Association of Club Executives told Bloomberg that company-expensed meetings used to make up about 10 percent of industry profits.)

Some patrons are disappearing because they’re just getting too old to go to clubs.

Younger audiences have not been keen on replacing old patrons in part because they just don’t go out as much as older generations, preferring at-home entertainment. Many people, young and old, have also found that they can get the same responsive intimacy strip clubs offer at home via cam sites. These relatively new online adult businesses thrive on performers forming intimate and individualized, albeit digital, relationships with dedicated repeat patrons.

But even younger folks who might be willing to go out for the night also seem to be put off by the old-fashioned sensibilities of clubs — because many don’t allow patrons to use their phones in-venue, or because of the decidedly dated aesthetics they impose on their dancers, or just because of the creepy-salacious vibe they give off compared to other innovation-happy sex businesses. “My millennial boyfriend would never walk into a strip club,” says Tasha Reign, a porn star and former feature dancer, precisely because of that ambiance.

In response to the relentless march of time, and the pressures that come with it, innovators from inside and outside the industry have recently started to try to overhaul the world of strip clubs. They have done so both in flashy ways, bringing high-tech concepts into the notoriously low-tech field, and in subtle ways, trying to tweak or reinvent core cultures and practices.

Their initiatives will likely lead to a massive change in what the average strip club looks and feels like in the near future. But no one is sure exactly what the industry’s new normal will resemble ten years out, or even five. Nor is anyone sure if innovations will be enough to draw in as many new patrons as strip clubs are losing.

Can VR live up to the hype?

Perhaps the most widely reported idea for updating strip clubs involves turning them into dual brick-and-mortar and virtual reality experiences. In 2016, San Francisco’s Gold Club partnered with a company called Vixen VR to create a virtual strip club experience — not just one that would allow you to strap on a headset and see a dancer gyrating in front of you, but one that would record the entirety of the space, allowing the user to move around within it. The idea was to make club customers out of those who’d rather stay home than go out for an evening of entertainment and those who might be interested, but fear actually going into strip clubs because of the stigma.

Perhaps, industry insiders thought, VR experiences could wear away at young people’s reticence about clubs and turn them into in-person consumers as well. By 2017, a number of clubs at the annual Gentlemen’s Club Expo, the industry’s only trade show (organized by Exotic Dancer Magazine) were boasting plans for VR projects. “I can tell you that there was a line to go into one booth” to try out their VR system, recalls Manack, “and people never wait in line to go to a trade show booth.”

Around the start of this year, porn company Naughty America turned its VR program (launched in 2016) towards strip clubs as well, offering perhaps the largest-scale virtual club experience to date. They also created an augmented reality program to beam dancers directly into a consumer’s apartment. Andreas Hronopoulos of Naughty America explains that the company believes there is a huge potential market for AR and VR strip club experiences because, while most people only go onto porn sites at one or two specific times of the day for as long as it takes them to get off, historically patrons have frequented strip clubs at varied hours, for longer amounts of time, using them as an erotic but not exclusively, single-minded masturbatory leisure space.

He believes that AR and VR porn experiences could become modern-day gentlemen’s magazines, something people log into and experience casually while they’re at home, perhaps doing other things as well—which, of course, could provide further opportunities for companies like Naughty America to monetize that theoretically less constrained and longer engagement.

A few other clubs have opted, instead of investing in emerging VR technologies, to take a page from the cam site book and set up live streaming feeds of their stages and dressing rooms. Like AR and VR systems, this allows homebound or cautious young consumers to sample club spaces from the comfort of their own spaces, while netting new revenue for the venues, all without the bother of investing in AR or VR recording equipment or requiring the consumer to have an AR or VR rig.

At least one club in Las Vegas, the Legend Room, has also experimented with a Bitcoin payment system, complete with QR codes printed onto dancers that patrons can scan to tip them. Embracing cryptocurrency, some clubs believe, may attract younger patrons by reducing the need for them to secure and carry around blocks of cash to tip dancers, and by affording them more privacy about their club-going habits or than the paper trail left behind when using a card.

Other techy innovations are likely around the corner as well. Manack notes that next summer the Gentlemen’s Club Expo will focus on planning for the future, and will feature at least six slots for companies to present new tech-focused innovations that they think will be able to help clubs thrive.

Will tech ever be more than a novelty?

But most of these tech-facing solutions are still embryonic at best, pure gimmickry intended to drum up short-term publicity and traffic spikes with limited long-term potential at worst.

Most early VR projects in the industry, including Gold Club’s, appear not to have come to any great or lasting fruition. (Gold Club did not reply to a request for comment from Mashable on the state of its VR ventures, and Vixen VR’s digital presence and contact channels all seem to be defunct.) When Mashable spoke to him several months ago, Hronopoulos did note that initial reactions to Naughty America’s virtual club had been good. But it is not even a year old, so it is hard to say what its fate will be — or if people are treating it consistently differently than they do AR or VR porn — as of yet.

Some critics have noted that their pre-recorded content actually robs users of the core appeal of strip clubs: the real-time and personalized interaction with a dancer in a bespoke space. It also denies them the one form of intimacy they can’t get while interacting with cam performers: the occasional, casual physical touch — a hand on the shoulder or brush of hair on a thigh. Techno-futurists might argue that haptic technologies will eventually solve the touch issue, making it possible for someone to feel even subtle contact from a dancer, perhaps in real time, through a VR or AR rig and a body suit. However that is still a highly speculative and far-off vision of the future.

‘To all of a sudden jump in and do some of these fancy things, it seems almost contrived, forced, or desperate on some level.’ 

Few clubs have adopted cam or crypto systems either. “It’s fun to get somebody to try something once or twice” with a tech-forward gimmick, says Kassia Wosick, a sociologist who has been studying the business and culture of strip clubs for two decades. “But are they going to generate regular revenue for the dancers and the clubs? I’m skeptical on that… To all of a sudden jump in and do some of these fancy things, it seems almost contrived, forced, or desperate on some level.”

Tech-focused solutions also do nothing to address the core image and culture problems facing most clubs. In fact, the way Hronopolous talks about the potential of Naughty America’s virtual reality strip club experience only seems to reinforce some of the old-fashioned-to-regressive, hyper-masculine, and exclusionary vibes that may be driving new consumers away from these spaces. “What’s great about a strip club is that it allows a man to be a man,” he muses. “Sometimes as a guy, you just want a place where you can go [in order to] just really let your testosterone roar.”

The culture problem runs deep

There is actually more innovation in the industry today focused on tweaking venues’ cultures and images. Many old owners are either selling their clubs, or handing the reigns of management over, to younger folks with a better sense of what millennial and Gen Z individuals like and don’t like, explains Manack. They have started to introduce simple fixes, like not only allowing but encouraging patrons to use their phones in clubs — so long as they don’t invade or violate dancers’ privacy — offering discounts or free drinks for posts about the space and using that social media engagement to build a digital presence and friendly, transparent brand.

Others have done straight-ahead to-the-guts remodels to update the core aesthetics of clubs. Many have retrained their staff and dancers to shift away from gruff or seedy demeanors and towards welcoming and inclusive attitudes. (Think less hey fellas, take a look at these hot girls objectification banter, more respectful language that acknowledges and embraces that not all club patrons will be straight cis men.) Some big clubs are starting to view their mission not as a basic transactional one, offering access to flesh and scintillation for cash, but instead as an epic endeavor to put on a raucous party every night — where eroticism is a key, but not the only, draw — that anyone would want to attend.

Wosick likens this process to the transformation over the last couple of decades of sex shops. Long viewed as dubious dens of vice, full of tacky, explicit, and low-quality toys and novelties, many successful stores overhauled their designs, staff, and product lines to become sleek and accessible spaces where one could come to speak safely to knowledgeable, diverse, and friendly staff about their sexual life and needs, get good advice, and purchase aesthetically pleasing, quality products.

Manack and other industry insiders believe that these core cultural tweaks are having a real effect, especially when it comes to drawing in women as patrons. Until relatively recently, Wosick notes, most clubs did not allow women in if they were not dancers; they were exclusively male spaces, catering egregiously to the male gaze and using sometimes demeaning language for women. Drawing in women as regular patrons, either to appreciate dancers as performers or the club as a party space or pure novelty, helps to replace old male customers, explains Manack. It also helps young men feel like it is more acceptable, or just less seedy, for them to go to a strip club as well. Manack adds that when he goes to the big clubs in Tampa, Florida, where he lives, these days on a Friday night there will be about as many women in attendance as there are men. On a recent visit to a strip club in Fargo, North Dakota, Wosick noticed that about a third of the clientele were women.

Successful models for change and innovation that draw in younger and more diverse crowds in place of declining old patron bases are slowly spreading through the industry. The emergence and diffusion of best practices may actually be accelerating thanks to the emergence of a few big strip club conglomerates, like RCI Hospitality Holdings, Inc., that make their fortunes by buying up small clubs nationwide and overhauling to align with lessons learned from successful operations.

Clubs still have a long way to go when it comes to opening themselves up to fully diverse audiences.

Yet for all the cultural and conceptual innovations emerging in the industry, insiders like Stanger argues that clubs still have a long way to go when it comes to opening themselves up to fully diverse audiences. Many clubs still have a blind spot, she argues, when it comes to hiring racially, sexually, or gender diverse dancers. That translates over, more often than not, into cultures and language that may not be welcoming to vast swathes of diverse potential patrons.

The fight for the future

It is also still unclear if any mixture of physical and cultural overhauls and tech-y gimmicks will be enough to proof strip clubs against wider cultural changes. Although Manack fervently believes that the appeal of in-person connections with dancers will never fully fade, he admits that he’s not sure anyone truly knows how to contend with young consumers’ increasing shift away from live and in-person entertainment and outings and towards digitally-mediated connections and at-home experiences.

Only time will tell if clubs can widen their appeal enough to offset the loss of their traditional male consumer base to that trend. Or if the new patrons they attract will become devout regulars, who Wosick notes have historically been the core moneymakers for clubs and dancers. Getting people in the door at least once will not matter if they cannot either maintain a solid flow of new clientele in perpetuity, or turn a fair fraction of new visitors into diehards (read: cash cows).

“There are the realities of a 2019 economy,” Wosick adds, “and how people spend their money, and where they spend it,” that are still emerging for clubs to figure out how to contend with. They may not fully be able to contend with it, forcing the industry to compress to an unknown extent.

Strip clubs are also facing a host of challenges beyond changing consumer habits and demands and the need to innovate to meet them. Viewing strip clubs (whether rightly or wrongly) as noxious businesses that may engender crime or depress property values, many states, municipalities, and landlords have slowly enacted laws that tightly restrict how and where clubs can operate, shoving all but legacy operations into out-of-the-way parts of town and at times denying them the ability to serve alcohol, long a key money-maker, or interact with patrons in this or that way. Some have also created massive operating license fees and sin taxes that can put a real crunch on business. Many clubs even have trouble finding banks, much less tech firms, willing to work with them.

A series of lawsuits and labor board decisions about the employment status of dancers, a tricky issue within the industry, has also led to major upheavals in recent years around compensation, worker’s rights and safety, and unionization. Increasing awareness of issues surrounding dancer safety and agency has also cast a pall over the industry.

Reign cautions against overly simplistic readings of these issues, noting she loved dancing and found it empowering, but also experienced many instances of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of patrons and staff with too little robust reaction from club owners and dancer organizations and agencies for her to feel safe and comfortable working in the industry.

These issues lead to fundamental questions about how clubs should relate to their dancers — what their core business models should be. Until those issues are resolved in some way, shape, or form, the future of clubs overall will remain in a degree of doubt.

Still, it seems clear that major shake-ups and innovations are finally kicking off and spreading through this long sclerotic wing of the erotic world. The strip club industry will likely be in flux for years to come. But the club spaces that come out on the other side will no doubt look radically different than the conception of clubs most of us have in mind today.