Saturday, February 17, 2007

Body and Society

Emotional Consumption: Mapping
Love and Masochism in an Exotic
Dance Club

The commodified relationships that occur within an exotic dance club are
sexually charged interactions between a customer who buys time, personal
contact and erotic fantasy from an exotic dancer.1 For an occasional customer,
these interactions are infrequent, titillating and entertaining – and are most often
associated with events such as a 21st birthday, a bachelor party or ‘a guys’ night
out’. These customers place demands on dancers for services and attention, but
many dancers find these men annoying, at times fun and most often harmless
(Egan, 2003; Liepe-Levinson, 2002). Interactions between dancers and customers
shift and become more complex as men move from being an occasional customer
to a regular customer. A regular customer is a man who comes to the club on a
frequent basis (at least once a week) to see a particular dancer with whom he has
formed an erotic and romantic attachment. The regular spends large amounts of
time and money (in the form of paying for her services) on a dancer. Moreover,
regulars frequently give gifts such as roses, computers, fur coats, plastic surgery
and cars to dancers with whom they are in relation (Egan, 2003).2 These relationships
are saturated with power, sexual desire and fantasy, all of which move
Body & Society © 2005 SAGE Publications (London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi),
Vol. 11(4): 87–108 DOI: 10.1177/
throughout the interactions between dancer and regular in multiple ways (Egan,
2003; Frank, 1998, 2002).

With regulars, dancers must perform emotional labor to a far greater extent
than with the occasional customer (Frank, 1998). Regulars provide sustained and
lucrative income and therefore must be made to feel good over a prolonged
period of time. Dancers develop a phenomenological bond with their regulars
and discuss the complexities and nuances of the various aspects of these men’s
lives. In the exotic dance club the relationships between dancers and regulars, not
unlike other romantic relationships, are sites where the mundaneness of everyday
life intertwines with emotional intimacy and sexual desire. Conversations about
work problems, marital dissatisfaction, misbehaving children and stress, as well
as erotic titillation and the desire for a lap dance are common facets of these interactions
(Egan, 2004; Frank, 2002; Wood, 2000). Unlike other romantic relationships,
however, the interactions between dancers and regulars are governed by
the rules of the club, which are dictated by the owners and predicated upon
monetary exchange, and stipulate acceptable types of erotic performance.3 For
example, although a dancer may perform a lap dance where she literally grinds
against the regular’s lap with various parts of her body, the customer must keep
his hands to his side at all times during this interaction.4

Dancers develop deeper engagements with regulars than other customers and
often develop feelings of care, friendship and even trust (Frank, 1998). In these
relations, regulars engage in a fantasy wherein their relationship is perceived as
one that is atypical of the commodified framework of the club and thus perceive
their relations as real. In part this is true, as dancers at times truly do enjoy the
company of their regular, but also false as these relations are squarely situated
within a commodity exchange (Egan, 2003). Regulars fetishize the performance
of emotional labor of dancers. As such, it is imperative that dancers, in order to
continue earning the money regulars provide, perform emotional labor as
authentically as possible (Rambo-Ronai, 1992). I am particularly interested in
one aspect of this relationship – love, and how regular customers discuss feelings
of love for the dancers with whom they were in relation. The love regulars
profess falls into the category of being in love, which is conceptualized as inherently
narcissistic (Verhaeghe, 2000).5 As in other modes of work which involve
emotional labor (i.e. nurses, air flight attendants, psychologists or waitresses)
dancers’ attentiveness to customers is an important aspect of their job, particularly
to get tips (Hochschild, 1983). However, unlike other emotional laborers,
dancers must fit into and reproduce the erotic fantasies of the customer, performing
the role of what one dancer described as ‘a whorish wife’.6

Regulars perceive their love for dancers as real, which produces profound
88 ¦ Body and Society Vol. 11 No. 4 feelings of both elation and despair in the regular. The primary question guiding this inquiry is why is it that men fall in love in an exotic dance club? Furthermore, what type of love is it? Lastly, how is this form of masculine love related to larger psycho-social structures? This article emerges from 18 months of ethnographic work between 1998 and 2000 in two exotic dance clubs in the New
England area, where I performed participant observation. This research was
formed from my own experiences as a researcher and a dancer, as well as from
observations and semi-formal interviews with other dancers and regular
customers. In order to illuminate the complex interactions in the club, I draw
from psychoanalytic, feminist7 and post-structural theory for the analysis of my
observations, experiences and informal conversations.

Sociological literature on exotic dance (see Barton, 2002; Bruckert, 2002;
Erikson and Tewksbury, 2000; Forsyth and Deshotels, 1997; Liepe-Levinson,
2002; Murphy, 2003; Rambo-Ronai, 1992, 1993; Wesley, 2003) has, for the most
part, focused on the experiences of exotic dancers themselves, or only on the
cursory customer (for exceptions see Brewster, 2003; Frank, 2002). For example,
Carol Rambo-Ronai (1992) explores the performance of feigned authenticity as
part of the emotional labor performed by exotic dancers and the challenges this
produces for the dancer. Customers desire ‘the real thing’ with a dancer, so
dancers must feign authenticity in multiple and often emotionally tiring ways
(Rambo-Ronai, 1992). Craig Forsyth and Tina Deshotels (1997) examine the ways
in which women give meaning to their work, and the symbolic interactions with
customers and management which form dancers’ experiences of their work.
Katherine Liepe-Levinson (2002) investigates the performance of self of male and
female exotic dancers, and the ways in which these performances are subject to
the objectifying gaze of the customer and how dancers resist these gazes.
Moreover, through her research she finds that exotic dance is not simply a site of
exploitation of women and men, but is a site of agency and resistance. The importance
of understanding the labor of women who work as exotic dancers is crucial
to a further enumeration of women’s work and emotional labor in multiple
settings. However, to comprehensively understand exotic dance as a site of investigation,
it is also sociologically imperative to understand the meanings and experiences
of its consumers. To this end, emotional consumption also needs to be an
area of sociological study.

Emotional Consumption

The sociology of consumption has most often focused on large-scale consumption
patterns of populations (Bourdieu, 1984; Emmison, 2003; Schor, 1998), the
Emotional Consumption ¦ 89 semiotics of consumption via advertising (Goldman and Papson, 1996, 1998; Goldman et al., 2003), the environmental degradation of consumption (Schor, 1998) or the ways in which consumption can culturally reinscribe the intentions of producers (Koptyoff, 1986). This research is most often based on inanimate objects and the desires, alienating effects or resistive possibilities of consumerism. This focus is due to the way in which commodities themselves have been theorized. Marx (1971) theorized commodities as objects imbued with use value, which can be exchanged in discrete economic transactions. Marx viewed this as an endemic aspect of capitalism and part and parcel of a system which alienates its populations from their own labor and the goods they produce. However, as anthropologists have shown, the exchange of objects is a facet of all cultures in one-way or another (Koptyoff, 1986). Culture inscribes meaning onto commodities and thus infuses economic transactions with moral and cultural estimations which in turn affects which objects fall into acceptable sites of economicexchange (Durkheim and Mauss, 1963; Ewick, 1993; Koptyoff, 1986). Moreover, what becomes acceptable as a commodity shifts over time and is usually designated as such due to its cultural status – as infinitely interchangeable; whereas objects that are deemed unique or sacred (in the Durkheimian sense) are not viewed as acceptable commodity objects (Durkheim and Mauss, 1963).

A guiding theme in this literature is a one-way relationship between the
consumer and the object that he or she consumes – for example, a type of
clothing might offer someone a particular identity (i.e. cool, rebellious or
professional). This formation of self is due to the cultural meaning attached to
the object (which is formed by the producer and marketed via advertising)
thereby assuming de facto the ontology of the object as inert or passive. Cultures
can inscribe different meanings onto an object, so that, for example, what a water
heater means in Boston (a necessity) is very different from what a water heater
means in Antigua, Guatemala (a luxury item found in very few homes). However,
the assumption is that what makes a commodity shift meaning is a culture; the
object itself has no part in this process.

The study of consumption becomes more complicated when the product
being sold is another human being’s services in live interaction. This shift makes
consumption and the interactions between consumer and commodity a dynamic
interaction wherein a consumer may engage in a process of emotional attachment
– and thus emotional consumption. In such cases, pure economic exchange
begins to merge with a sense of relationality. Emotional labor requires service
providers ‘to offer emotion as part of the service itself’ (Hochschild, 1983: 5),
which produces non-reciprocal meanings for customers and laborers. Customers
project a form of relationality that is typically found in non-commodified
90 ¦ Body and Society Vol. 11 No. 4 relations onto a commodified context. Obviously, this is a skewed perception and often times one not shared by both parties. However, to understand service in a more complex fashion we need to attend to the ways in which various people are subject to and subvert forms of emotional labor, as well as examine how the consumer may blur the distinctions between economic exchange and feelings of

Emotional consumption, then, is the other side of emotional labor. It is a
function of the interaction between two people – a consumer and a service
provider. Although one might argue that men fall in love with their cars and
women love their clothes, this differs from emotional consumption in a service
industry. A car might be beautiful and run like a gem, but it is not involved in a
dialectic relation where it speaks, reassures, encourages or discourages the owner.
Emotional consumption involves an affective relation that emerges within social
interaction. A woman may project meaning onto her favorite leather jacket, but
the jacket itself has no part in either reaffirming or dissuading her projection –
although her friends who see her on Saturday night can tell her that she looks
great or that her jacket does not work. Owning an object and consuming service
labor differ significantly in that you can own an object but you cannot own the
person providing the service. Therefore, in the service economy property itself is
displaced in the transaction. Moreover, the difference between the salesperson
selling a car and the person selling a service is that it is emotion itself that is being
consumed which is transitory and thus, does not last after the exchange is over
(Hochschild, 1983).

Transference provides the framework for understanding the consumption of
service labor as a dynamic and intersubjective experience. Psychoanalysts use the
term transference to understand the patient’s relationship and projections onto
the therapeutic process and the analyst (Egan, 2005). Transference involves the
displacement of affect from one idea (or one person) to another (Lacan, 1977a).
Patients displace the affect they feel in one context onto the interactions between
themselves and the clinician (the service provider) (Lacan, 1977a). Transference
is an effect of the dialectical interactions that take place between an analyst and
an analysand. Although, one could argue that part of consuming Nike sneakers
is also consuming the male (e.g. Michael Jordan) or female (e.g. Mia Ham) athlete
who promotes the products, consuming a service wherein a person interacts,
touches and dances for you further complicates the psycho-social dynamic.
Attending to the affective components of consuming another person illuminates
production and consumption as a polyvalent interaction wherein both participants
continuously reframe, reinscribe and project meaning onto commodified
interactions. By reconceptualizing consumption, we can shift the focus from a
Emotional Consumption ¦ 9 one-sided relation (that is projected onto all forms of consumption) to a dynamic experience that is influenced by both the emotional labor of the worker and the emotional investments of the consumer.

In viewing emotional consumption as dynamic and intersubjective we see that
consumption involves both social interactive and psychic investments on the part
of both parties. Emotional consumption produces a phenomenological givenness
or intelligibility between the consumer and the person performing
emotional labor. Additionally, emotional consumption involves projection,
transference and identification wherein the consumer projects fantasies onto the
commodity which have little to do with the person providing the service being
consumed, and which have both compassionate and violent possibilities.8 Therefore,
emotional consumption can be thought of as a social psychoanalytic
phenomenon, thus opening a sociological investigation into how, for example, a
consumer could fall in love with the human whose service they are buying. Male
regulars’ emotional consumption is anything but static and involves both social
and psychic complexities which create the emotional attachments they feel in
their interactions with female dancers.


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