Large posters of nearly naked men cover the windows of the ground floor of a building located on a side street of Moscow’s luxurious Tverskaya. The posters display a variety of Russian beaux in sexy poses. Some of these musclemen in their early twenties are wearing t-shirts saying “SEX FOR CASH”, others are completely naked, only a hand full of bath tub foam covering their intimate parts. These images are to lure by-passers in for a night at the strip-club Krasnaya Shapochka. The “Little Red Riding Hood”, as the name translates into English, is not a gay club, as one might intuitively think. It is one of Moscow’s three strip-clubs for women.
“A kind of island, where a woman will feel like a queen”
“The Little Red Riding Hood is a kind of island, where a woman will feel like a queen,” Vadim the manager explains in a business-like manner. “A place, where she will be rewarded with positive emotions, where she will get everything she wants,” the young smart man goes on.
When my companion and I inquire what the ‘everything’ includes, Vadim replies: “Women come here to have a good time with beautiful guys. Sex is not practiced here. We are all about aesthetics and beauty.” After Boris and I have entered the strip-club, we feel somewhat lost. The relatively small sized club is still almost empty, maybe fifteen small tables and some velvety sofas are put up in front of a round stage. On each table there is a bowl with Ferrero Roches chocolates and a bottle of champagne in a cooler.
On stage there is already a group of men dancing dynamically to blasting pop-techno music. We sit down at one of the tables by the side, only to be told that they were all reserved. For some time we are sheepishly standing next to the stage, when Vadim offers us finally to take a seat on a couch up on the balcony. We accept the offer, although the staircase to lead us there – a kind of latter behind the stage – seems little trustworthy.
It is dimly lit and appears shaky. As we are climbing up, not quite sure, if this is a public or a closed area, a pair of feet dangling out of a tanning bed at the top of the steps suddenly catches my eye. “One of the dancers, we are behind the scenes!” I whisper into Boris’ ear. We sit down on a messy sofa amidst filled ashtrays nearby the glowing tanning bed, confused about the blurred boundaries between public and backstage area.
Freely watching him getting dressed
The Little Red Riding Hood is after all not some sort of dump, it is one of Moscow’s most expensive clubs: While the entrance fee at 15 € for women is moderate, the cheapest alcoholic drink on the menu is a small beer for 12 €. Men may enter the club upon paying 100 € – understandably, Boris is one of very few guys here, and fortunately, we got in for free as journalists.
Meanwhile the tanning bed has opened and a naked muscular young man is putting on a tiny pair of pink panties and large black military boots. He hasn’t noticed us in the semi-darkness we are sitting. I can freely watch him getting dressed, quite enamored by my voyeuristic position. Finally he walks down to the stage, where some sort of military strip-show is unfolding.
Sailors, cowboys and Terminator-types
The club has started to fill. At the tables women are now nipping champagne, most are in their 30ies, some are older. A few surprisingly adolescent looking girls are dancing in front of the stage, on which the young men do their energetic dance performances. The difference to a generic female strip-show is striking: in contrast to the slow “seductive” dances female strippers tend to do, often centered around the notorious pole, the guys here are all about group energy. The show with its changing outfits calling upon characters like sailors, cowboys and Terminator-types resembles more a carnival than erotica.
“The difference of female and male strip-tease”
The rule of this carnival is that the guys never get completely naked. When I ask Vadim about the reason for this, he explains the disparity of the male and the female striptease is due to the “differences of female and male psychologies”. “Whereas the female strip-tease is a purely visual spectacle, here we are all about show, about disco, about drive and dynamics. In this club there is life, and this is why it is interesting.” The club’s concept has been constantly evolving over the six years it has been operating.
Yet, the underlying belief always seems to have been that women-customers are not satisfied by a purely visual spectacle. Instead, they want something Vadim terms “life”: good-looking guys that are also good at making intelligent conversation, a dance-party. And, evidently, it is assumed that women need some sort of “narrative” to indulge in to get off: the different outfits calling upon fantasy figures seem to accommodate this last point.
A final clue in this direction is provided by a sort of SM-show that several guys perform upon a young woman picked from the audience. Vadim states that there undoubtedly are some women who would like to see a guy just doing a dance on a pole. Yet, for the majority he concludes, “eroticism always arouses more than pornography”.
A strip club for women collapses the logic of looking
The only ‘pornography’ we get to see then is later, when Boris and I are having a beer at the bar, on which, by the way, dispread packs of condoms reveal that this club is more than a hub for aesthetics and beauty. We find pornography above the barman in the form of a video screen showing various men with erect penises, obviously enjoying their sensuous bodies in the shower, on the beach or in the forest. Boris believes that we are surely watching porno produced for gay men. However, nothing about this video, showing single men in a beautiful surrounding, is ‘gay’.
Here questions arouse, that have gotten me interested in visiting this strip-club for women in the first place. We usually do not conceive of women possessing the gaze at an erotic display. A strip club for women collapses the logic of looking that has been so pervasive in our culture – a culture that has brought forth an intricate gender structure in which women are usually displayed and looked at. Here, in the Little Red Riding Hood women pay to look. And men are being paid to exhibit themselves.
Can women openly enjoy to gaze?
As I glance at the naked Adonis-like body in a niche, painted in gold standing still like a Greek statue, yet trembling slightly, I am wondering: Can women openly enjoy to gaze at an erotic body on display, can they be taught to? And the other way around: Are men capable of enjoying the exhibitionist position that is normally ascribed to women? Can we take the Krasnaya Shapochka after all as something like a feminist project: an erotic education program for women, where a reversal of the gaze – always linked to social power – is practiced?
“There are mostly wealthy women here, no feminists”
Svetlana, a client in her early 30ies, reacts confused when we are approaching her with the question if she is a feminist or knows any feminists here. “There are mostly wealthy women here, no feminists,” she replies. Svetlana works in the advertisement department for a big newspaper and she is taking evening-classes in psychology and psychoanalysis. As I am digging deeper, Svetlana states that in her opinion feminists are people that had problems in their childhood or they have had a bad experience with a guy and then they projected this experience on all men. “Normally a woman thinks that she needs a man as her support. A feminist doesn’t find this. She thinks she is better than a man.”
Svetlana has come to this club for the first time, but she has heard about it often. She has been to female strip-shows several times, quite enjoys them and she is even taking strip-dance classes herself, she tells us. “In Moscow this is now quite fashionable,” she explains. “It used to be Latino-dances, Salsa, now women are learning striptease dance-moves.”
A guy would feel very uncomfortable looking at men
Svetlana has her own theories of gender and striptease: She sees a fundamental difference between the female and the male strip and their audiences, which, in her view, has to do with the different psychological set-up of men and women. According to Svetlana “women strive for perfection”. To her, this is why a woman likes to accompany a man into a strip-club. “The woman will attentively watch the dancer and try to imitate the way the stripper moves her body. A woman tries to learn from the female stripper to attract men herself. A guy, on the other hand, who would come here to the Little Red Riding Hood would feel very uncomfortable looking at men that are likely to be better looking than him.”
Besides giving us an insight into Russian interpretations of gender-relations, Svetlana also informs us that sex can be bought in the Little Red Riding Hood. Even though, sex is not on the official menu, along such items as “private striptease” or “massage in the Jacuzzi”, some of the guys will be ready to have sex for money. “Everybody knows that,” she says. Svetlana, in addition, knows that not all of the dancers chose to work at this job for money. She is acquainted with one of the guys, who has very rich parents and doesn’t need the pay. “He just likes to be looked at by women,” Svetlana elucidates.
After all the psychology-talk, with both Vadim and Svetlana manifesting something like essential mental differences between “Man” and “Woman”, this last remark finally creates an opening in the conventional conception. If Vladimir, Dmitri and Sasha here enjoy being looked at, something that in the past has been fundamentally “female” in our culture has changed. John Berger famously wrote in his work Ways of Seeing in 1972:
“A woman is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room, or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually.”
De-gendering the erotic gaze?
Here, yet, doesn’t gazing become de-gendered after all? It is clear that only one of the dancers himself can give us answers to these questions. Vadim has forbidden us to talk to them on the pretext that we would interrupt their work; yet, probably he is concerned they could accidentally reveal to us information that was not agreed upon beforehand.
As I am wandering through the now crowded club, many dancers are chatting to women on the sofas. A slow song comes on and some start to dance with the customers. A likeable young man is crossing my way, and I am able to steal him away to the little massage-room, in which we can conduct an interview. Sergei has been working at the club for three months, after starting his stripping career at another Moscow club called Egoistka (“selfish women”).
“A woman does not come here to conquer, she comes here to be chosen for her money”
Like all guys there, he has a cutout built body. His hair is short and dark blond, his eyes are green and friendly. To my and Boris’ surprise he used to be an army officer and studied at the military academy. At 23 years, Sergei seems to know more about “women” than most guys at that age. “A woman doesn’t come here in order to conquer, as men do in strip-clubs,” Sergei states. “She comes here to chat, to be seduced, to be chosen by a man. It’s a slight paradox, she comes here to be chosen for her money.”
There seems to be a basic distinction between the male and the female strip-club, as they are contemporarily working in Moscow. Sergei maintains that most of the female customers want the guy to be “in charge of the situation”. What, then, does change for the women, who chose to come here spending 500-5000€ a night? “Women here,” he informs us “are able to take the initiative to address a guy they find attractive. On the street this is impossible in Russia.” True, in Russian public the notorious pick-up line “Mozhno poznokomitsia?” seems pretty much restricted to men.
He enjoys being exposed to women
As Sergei is already heading out, where the chorus of some dance-song is going “I want you, I want you to want, too…” he admits that he enjoys being exposed to women, being in the center of attention of women. Then the door of the massage-room shuts.
“Sex for cash” has become an option for Moscow’s new wealthy league of business- women, a group that, by the way, is larger than in most other European countries. As money enters the game, traditional gender roles are being transgressed and new options do arrive. Yet, some of the established rules of the heterosexual love-game still apply, further configuring its actors along the lines of “maleness” and “femaleness”. After all, the Little Red Riding Hood is not some sort of feminist project but a capitalist one, flourishing within Eastern Europe’s capital of money. For strip-clubs like this one to exist, according to Vadim, a certain “mentality” is needed. A mentality that he defines as “the desire of women to party among women, the desire to watch a show, to look at beautiful guys as dancers and behind the bar, the desire to spend money.” And yet, here we go again: the female eroticized gaze is part of this capitalist project.
Interviews by Isabella Willinger & Boris Schumatsky