All eyes are on the girls—even their own. The walls of Peyton’s Playpen, a “world-class cabaret” across from the Costco parking lot on Second Avenue in Sunset Park, are lined with mirrors, and while the women dance topless on the low “stages” that run the length of the narrow room, they tend to stare at themselves, like film actors oblivious to the crew ogling them.
And there’s a lot of ogling. Here’s one of the last places in New York where no one has his head buried in a phone; I didn’t see a single man answer a call, read a text, or check an email. Everybody’s looking up. But not at each other. Seated at the bar or around the stages, the crowd is male, but otherwise diverse: young and old; black, white and Latino; thuggish and bookish. Some look scary as they stare intensely; others look like three-year-olds in FAO Schwartz, eying and enjoying toys it doesn’t matter they can’t afford.
The only women are the dancers (and the bartender, whose job is to serve drinks and make change); some of them mingle in the crowd between sets, identifiable by their conspicuous lack of clothing. Some of my straight women friends wanted to come with us, but I told them no. No one’s joking here. There’s no irony, no embarrassment, no self-consciousness; no one’s coy or dissembling. The strip club is an honest place.
Too honest, maybe, at least at first. This was my first time in one, and obviously I knew what to expect. But there’s nothing in real life to prepare you for the actual experience: the unabashed transactionality, the sexual frankness. All of my social conditioning resists the strip club, but lustfully leering at women, the unbroken staring at bodies, is the whole point here. You have to unlearn so much so quickly. “As soon as you walk in the door”—when you are thoroughly frisked by a larger bouncer—”you get that feeling like when you’re a little kid and you’re doing something you’re not supposed to,” a friend warned me. “You regress pretty quickly.” You’re allowed to do at Peyton’s what you’re not allowed to do outside of Peyton’s: objectify real live women to their faces, in real time. You just have to pay them for the trouble.