Monday, February 18, 2013

The Odd Psychology of Strip Clubs

(Previous thoughts on the psychology of strip clubs here, and male self-deception in relationships here and here.)

The standard complaint about strip clubs is that you're paying to not get what you actually want. In other words, you hand over however much cash to get a lap dance, and you don't actually end up sexually satisfied. Having never attempted to negotiate the transaction, I can't vouch for this, but I'm pretty damn sure that short of offering literally thousands of dollars, you won't get laid. I don't even know if that would work, certainly for many strippers in the US who explicitly see their job as distinct from prostitution. The woman won't get you off (except accidentally), and you won't even be able to touch where you want to, except on their rather limited terms.

Every conversation I've had with guys who paid for a lap dance indicated, privately, that there was little risk of matters escalating to, say, the Bill Clinton level or above.

Strangely, this fact has to be elicited from them in hushed terms - they typically don't like admitting straight out that they didn't get any immediate relief for their however-many hundred dollars. Maintaining the mystique serves the interests of both the stripper and the potentially embarrassed client. As I've said before, this isn't an accident - ambiguous expectations are at the heart of the strip club experience.

So if you believe the standard complaint, men like strip clubs but end up frustrated that they don't actually get any action.

Why is this puzzling though?

The puzzle is that if you actually wanted to get some action for sure, you could have just gone to a brothel and gotten laid with probability 1. Or gone to a bar and gotten laid with probability less than 1.

Taken at face value, it indicates some sort of market failure. Surely there should be more demand for clubs that blurred the line between strip club and brothel?

One answer that I can't rule out is that this is a legality issue - strip clubs are mostly legal, brothels are mostly illegal. In the places where prostitution is legal (e.g. parts of Nevada), I don't know that there's substantial business model innovation along the lines I describe. Maybe there is.

It could also be a quality issue - maybe the type of women who are prostitutes are of a fundamentally different group than strippers, and the male preference is distinct. I dunno though - do you really think the average guy at a strip club is that picky with who he sleeps with, provided the girl is willing? It's possible, but it seems unlikely.

On the other hand, we can pretty conclusively say that it's not a cost issue. Courtesy of Steven Levitt and Sudhir Venkatesh, here's some real-world data on how much it costs to get laid in Chicago with a prostitute:

In other words, no matter who you are, the average cost for most things you want is no more than a hundred bucks. If the average lap dance customer is paying less than this, I'll be highly surprised.

So, on face we have a puzzle - many men apparently pay a lot of money for women to take off their clothes and not sleep with them, and then complain about this afterwards. They do this despite passing up the opportunity to pay less money to get laid with certainty.

If the stated preference doesn't seem to make sense, maybe we can get further by hypothesising revealed preference and see where it takes us. The standard price theory assumption here is that the market is satisfying actual customer demand.

In other words, the fact that it's very hard to get laid at the strip club is actually the feature, not the bug. Even if men won't admit it.

The most obvious explanation for this is that men go to strip clubs in groups of friends such as bachelor parties, and in any such group there's going to be a large fraction, if not a substantial majority, for whom their commitments to wives and girlfriends mean that they actually don't want to get laid that night. If this were a possibility, then they might be tempted by hyperbolic discounting to do something they'll regret the next day (or, more likely, 5 seconds after it's done). If you've got commitment problems (in both the relationship sense and the behavioral economics sense), you want to go to the place where it's very difficult to do anything beyond looking at a distance.

Not only that, but the strong prohibition serves a useful signalling mechanism to wives and girlfriends. Consider the problem of the man who actually has no intention of doing anything untoward with random ladies that night, but who may not be able to credibly signal this to his wife. If you go to the strip club, your claim to having not done anything is credible. At a brothel, you're only there if you want to get laid. Even in my hypothetical innovative strip-brothel, the expected level of misbehaviour for an external observer is larger simply because the range of bad actions has expanded. By being easier to explain to significant others (or even just to rationalise to yourself), it means that the whole group is likely to attend, rather than the group splintering off or going for some consensus alternative.

The more interesting possibility, and one that's less discussed, is that even the people getting lap dances themselves would rather be at the strip club than at the brothel. They're not dragged away from the hookers by their more conservative friends. They actually don't want that, at least in revealed preference terms.

The standard model of male desire says that what men want is some combination of a) hot chick and b) orgasm.

Far be it for me to suggest that this model has no explanatory power. It does.

But I submit that this model of the world has difficulty explaining why lots of men go to strip clubs but not many go to brothels.

A more nuanced alternative would say that men definitely want the above things, but what they also want is to be desired by hot women. They want to conquer hot women, and feel them submit to their will. They want to feel the achievement of seduction, of power, of control.

Going to a brothel will satisfy the 'penis in vagina' aspect. But it will quite definitively not satisfy any of the other parts. Quite the contrary, in fact - it will reveal, in painful relief, how far you are from all the other things you desire about the courtship process. It will reveal you as desperate. Not to the rest of the world, who probably won't know. But to yourself, which is much worse.

In his novel, God Knows, Joesph Heller describes the situation of an aging King David. He has his various courtesans, but can no longer get aroused by them. The only woman who still holds his sexual interest is his wife, Bathsheba. But Bathsheba no longer desires him - her only interest is to try to get David to make her own son, Solomon, the next king in place of his elder son, Adonijah, whom he had with another woman.

Heller describes very aptly the paradoxical situation of the absolute monarch who, due to the difficulty of male desire, cannot have what he really wants
Abishag showed him the door and petted my heaving chest until she felt my exasperation abate. Then she washed and dried herself, perfumed her wrists and armpits, and removed her robe to stand before me a moment in all her wonderful virginal nakedness before raising a leg gracefully to enter my bed on one of her biscuit-brown knees to lie down with me again. Naturally, it did no good. I got no heat then, either. I wanted my wife. I want my wife now. Bathsheba does not believe this and would not let it make a difference if she did.
“I don’t do things like that anymore,” Bathsheba responds firmly each time I ask, and, if out of sorts, adds, “I am sick of love.”
She lost her lust when she found her vocations. Her first was to be a queen. Too bad that we had no queens. The next was to be a queen mother, the first in our history, the widowed mother of a reigning sovereign. I refused to trade and I refused to grovel. I could order her into my bed with a single cursory command, of course, and she certainly would be here. But it would be begging, wouldn't it? I am David the king, and I must try not to beg. But God knows that, by one means or another, I am going to lie with her at least one more time before I give up the ghost and bring my fantastic story to an end.
Worldly absolute power does not, alas, extend to making other people actually want you on the terms that you would like.

Being the absolute monarch of the commercial transaction is no different. Paying is begging through the medium of money. The problem is otherwise the same. 

In Heller's tale, David never does get Bathsheba to sleep with him. All the courtesans of the world, no matter how beautiful, are hollow in the end.
Abishag my angel has risen from her chair and approaches without noise, wearing only a vivid scarf. Her eyes are dark as the tents of Kedar. I want my God back; and they send me a girl.
Or as the band Gomez put it:
The things that are given, not won, are the things that you want.


  1. A brilliant analysis. In Queensland, Australia, the legal brothels cost about the same as a legal private lapdance. The strip clubs sell liquor. The brothels do not. Your article explains the puzzling phenomenon. Strip clubs are a social activity. Brothels are not.

  2. Thanks! The fact that they actually cost the same in an actual brothel in QLD (not just a dirty park in Chicago street walker market) is even stronger evidence that, at a minimum, people's stated reasons for going to strip clubs make very little sense.

  3. There is no pleasure in anticipation like there is no steel in bridges. - Mark Strand

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