Toronto
6 min

Girls! Girls! Girls!

A queer guide to ogling women

RACE TO THE POLE. Sexacious cover gal "Jamie" used to dance at Zanzibar. Find out how our intrepid reporter Sasha was treated at that infamous Yonge St club - and the four other downtown clubs - in her guide to girls watching strippers in Toronto. Credit: Paula Wilson

Fifteen years ago, when I began my distinguished career in the stripclubs of Montreal, most of them, upscale ones anyway, prohibited female patronage. When women were allowed in at all, they required a male escort. I remember table dancing for one couple and my manager calling me over halfway through to let me know I was getting too cozy with the female. He determined, applying that abstruse and unwittingly kinky Catholic logic that governs so many sexual services in la belle province, that she could stay, but I wasn’t allowed to look at her. Way to go handling that dilemma. She didn’t get turned on at all watching me strip for her lover while I was forbidden to glance her way.



This has changed. Even so, if you’ve worked in stripclubs it’s hard to imagine how unnerving they can be for women. For you, the service provider, all the mysteries and dark corners have been laid bare. You’ve watched girls yank open their labia and ass cheeks in the dressing room mirror, probing for stray toilet paper. You’ve danced for The Man and he paid you to put cigarettes out in his palm. Your roster of renowned clients includes the drummer from a one hit wonder ’80s band. Not the glittering demimonde you had first envisioned, but then, doesn’t every job lose its lustre?



Still, I’ve always known that being a stripper gave me some mystique, shabby as it was, and I’ve consistently invited the women and men I was dating or screwing to my work for a little urban foreplay. I knew stripclubs were intriguing, but I didn’t realize how intimidating they could be for dykes until I started dating one who, well, looked like a dyke. Also, I was long out of the business and had no working comrades to hang out with and validate my presence there as “one of the girls.” This happened in Montreal last year, when I took my girlfriend on a trip down mammary lane to one of my beloved dumps. While it had undergone some renovations, its seedy reputation remained conspicuously intact. This is usually a good sign: Girls are generally more queer-positive in dives, and the waitstaff often includes rowdy, tarpaper-voiced old-timers. No such luck. Not one woman approached us for a dance, we practically had to do one on the table to get a drink, and even though I had been a fixture in there for five years on and off, I felt bullied by the pimply hooligans hanging around outside afterward.



I’m saying all this because I used to think that women (dykes, to be more precise) were being willfully oversensitive about the way they were being treated in peeler bars when they went to watch a show. I realize now that I needed to maintain this opinion to deflect what felt like disdain, to validate my positive experiences with men and to defend my fellow strippers. I couldn’t be equivocal about this.



I still think, though, that many women are all too pleased to have their worst suspicions confirmed when visiting stripclubs, and are often indignant beyond reason when things don’t go well. Really, what did they think they were walking into, Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshop? Women have heightened expectations of stripclubs, both good and bad, simply because they’ve been kept out of them for so long. Of course men stare at you in this environment. Some of them have only ever seen “lesbians” on stage, poking at each other mechanically with acrylic talons.



As a female patron, it is undeniable that many things may be assumed of you, the most damning of these being that you will tip poorly for drinks, you will not buy lapdances and you will make your contempt for what you perceive as offensive male behaviour very clear. Now, the fact is that at least half of male clients are guilty of these first two charges and are still welcomed in clubs, but the remaining percentage of spenders more than make up for them. I will admit that when I was dancing and a group of well-dressed men came in I would think, “Hurrah! Expense account!” But when a group of well-dressed women came in, I thought, “Oh great, field trip.” On the whole, women don’t spend the kind of money that men do when it comes to sexual fantasy. Most women seem able to be practical with their pocketbooks even when there is a pussy fastened to their forehead. This is probably the most undesirable quality in a stripclub client: self-control. Okay, maybe that’s the second most undesirable. Lack of gullibility, that’s the worst.



I don’t say these things to discourage women, but to edify them. I want women to be more assertive in these spaces because I know they can be. I am surprised at how many women I know (horny, leering, cocksure ones at that) have never been to a stripclub, though they’ve fantasized candidly about walking through those doors for years. There are clubs in Toronto that are, if not openly solicitous, easygoing about “unsupervised” female presence. You can’t let one bad – or one amazing – experience inform your effort to vanquish or at least visit this world. It takes some practice.



You may find stripclubs tedious and predictable. You may find one to make your home away from home. Visits may add an entirely new dimension to your personal, or shared, sex life. Whatever the case, you won’t know until taking the plunge.



Here are a few spots you may have been curious about:



Filmores. That marquee! Could anything be more festive, more “come on in and kick up your heels,” than a tilted neon martini glass? Though the location is dismal, a lot of dykes have discovered that this place is a gold mine of queer dancers, or at least extremely queer-friendly dancers. When we were rehearsing Neon Nightz, the play I wrote about my days in the biz, we went here for business meetings. One night we ended up on the stage getting hot new pole dancing tips from an out of town feature dancer, who earlier had invited a big ol’ butch onstage to play. The butch returned the favour by whipping out her packer and trying to hump the dancer, frankly, the most disgraceful behaviour I have seen in a stripclub to date. Despite the relentless black lighting (very bad for dykes: your darker clothes look like a meadow of cat hair), Filmores has a relaxed, almost folksy vibe, with patrons who don’t usually gape at fellow enthusiasts who are female. There is a terrific variety of dancers, in size, race and style, too. (212 Dundas St E; 416-921-2191.)



The Brass Rail. I worked there for about two weeks six years ago, got totally shitfaced with this couple, and by the end of the night the woman was wearing my Louise Brooks wig and little else, and dancing for me and her boyfriend. This did not go over well with the other girls, though judging by what I saw at that time, they had little reason to look down their noses at me. Still, I would advise against this kind of unbridled bacchanalia. Because the tables are so close together, this is one place where you may get a lot of fellows leaning over to ask, “So what you ladies are doing here?” Take a page out of my friend Beever’s book, lean over yourself and yell, “Because I like pussy, too!” I have had excellent lapdances from enthusiastic and diverse women, though at times you will be overlooked. Women have told me they’ve had better reception in the afternoons here, and I wouldn’t disagree with this. (701 Yonge St; 416-924-1241.)



Jilly’s. Of all the queer girl friendly spots in Toronto, I would place Jilly’s at the top. I have had nothing but a positive reception from all staff at this club – waitresses, dancers and doormen alike. Though I suspect it is a bit of a haven for Simone de Beavers (women’s studies majors writing personal meditations on the sex trade. Being on the vanguard, of course this trend galls me), this is another place in which many women seem to feel right at ease. Again, a great mix of dancers, and a playful, open vibe: Women approach you readily for dances, and they are comfortable with female couples. (106 Broadview Ave; 416-466-8756.)



Zanzibar. Although this is based on a single visit, it’s pretty obvious that the staff at Zanzibar are not interested in hosting a female clientele. No big deal – they do a brisk business without us. During a visit with seven smiling gals primed to spend, our waitress could not have been more aggrieved to serve us and accept our generous tips. And not one dancer approached our table. We were delighted to be ushered out at the end of our stay to one client’s stentorian refrain of, “The lezzies are leaving!” You’re goddamn right we are. (359 Yonge St; 416-977-4642.)



For Your Eyes Only. I am a bit sentimental about this club because I worked here, and have some fond memories both of fellow dancers and clients (mind you the bitch who stole my entire bag of MAC make-up and Lejaby bra from the dressing room will burn in stripper hell). I add this venue because it is one place that women in wheelchairs can patronize, as there are no stairs to the main room, a very wide ramp at the entrance and an accessible bathroom. The stage is visible from all spots in the bar, though some women might find the atmosphere a little highbrow for a first night out. The women are considered the best looking in the city here, though in my opinion, there is beauty to be found everywhere. (563 King St W; 416-585-9200.)



* Sasha and her burlesque troupe The Scandelles have a fun-sounding cabaret coming up called Free To Be… The Scandelles on Thu, Jun 24 at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre (12 Alexander St); they also perform at the Sat, Jun 26 Savour party at Andy Poolhall (489 College St) and Sasha DJs at the Fri, Jun 25 Synchro party at Andy Poolhall, too.