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What it's like when sex is a job

Elizabeth Eaves isn't a journalist who went undercover as a stripper, nor a writer who interviewed a group of women who stripped for a living. No, for years she stripped for the money, plain and simple, not with an eye on an eventual book contract. Only later, after she'd become a professional journalist with a B.A. in International Studies, a Columbia University graduate degree, and experience working for Reuters in Jerusalem and London, did she revisit her past in the industry. (Her writing -- cold and clinical -- has the dispassion of both the professional international journalist and the jaded stripper -- she's a walking double whammy of two types who've seen it all.) The passing years had deepened her fascination with society's attitudes about strippers. Unable to answer her own questions about why she chose sex work, she hunted down former colleagues, left New York for a Seattle strip job, and began what would become Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power.

In her first run as a stripper, a curious Eaves answered a newspaper ad asking for strippers, did a naughty practice run with her then-boyfriend, and ended up employed by Seattle's Lusty Lady, a female-run operation whose employees were famously well-treated. During her job interview, she was asked to watch the dancing women through a coin-operated slot that opened a view through a one-way mirror. There, the statuesque "Korina," wearing only a pair of white go-go boots, danced her way over to the mirror, turned around, spread her legs, and bent over. Eaves was stunned by such a blatant display of the private recesses of the female body, but she was also mesmerized by Korina's boldness, by the dancer's utter lack of restraint, and by the sheer liberation of seeing sexual power exercised with such boldness. "It wasn't that I wanted Korina," she writes. "I wanted to be Korina."

She enters her muse's world soon enough, paid a paltry $10 an hour to start, and the glimpses of life as a stripper begin. One enterprising peep-show co-worker uses a speculum to charge customers for a look at her cervix. Eaves never speculates about why a gynecologically close-up view of the vagina holds such appeal to the clientele, though she does make it clear that it's a popular item on the menu. Throughout the book, compelling tidbits like this are casually dropped, and the lack of her professional opinion as both journalist and former sex worker makes Bare more hollow and less substantial than Eaves' insider commentary might have made it. But if we get nothing but facts, well, they're fascinating facts about a world that holds an undeniable dark appeal.

Popular culture abounds with the notions that strippers "have" to strip and lack viable job options, that they're drug addicts, that they're less intelligent than workers outside the sex industry, that they're abused, amoral, or in need of rescue. Unfocused or not, Eaves' attempt at showing the reality of the modern stripper as independent woman captaining her own six-figure destiny blows the lid off any number of movie and TV stereotypes readers deserve to be rid of. The book can be seen as a methodical gathering of evidence attempting to prove that sex work can be just a job, that there is no shame in it, and that it offers significant financial reward to those young, smart, beautiful and strong enough to survive its unique demands.

If the book has a theme, it's the exploration of limits. OK, you strip behind a one-way mirror, but do you do a peep show with a man you can see and talk to? OK, you do the peep show, but do you do a lap dance? OK, you do a lap dance, but do you do bachelor parties (where it's just you, another 110-pound woman, and 10 drunken, horny men -- alone in a house together)? OK, you do bachelor parties, but do you have sex for pay (when, say, the money is good and the man is disease-free and nice to you)? In Bare, Eaves explores successive strata of paid sexual transgressions, discovers her own boundaries, and reports on others' as well.

Eaves' approach is unusual: her work isn't a memoir, as she spends much of the book detailing anecdotes and engrossing glimpses of the lives of her many former co-workers thrown in.

Bare, like a trip to a strip bar, lets you feel a few shameless thrills, allows your darker desires to rise to the occasion, gives you an objective and brutally deconstructed view of male-female interactions, and sends you home smarter about the freakish and endlessly fascinating world of sex.

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