I pull up the Facebook message from Joey (name changed to protect the innocent) — a small-and-spunky English gal I met shortly after moving to Buenos Aires — and exhale slowly. It’s time.
“colin, my dear friend. dont even think of leaving without arranging to see me. that is all. x.”
I know what this means. She’s hungry again, and the only thing that will satiate her is steak: a big, rare, hunk of meat that would kill a normal person. Where she puts it I don’t know, she’s a tiny gal, but despite all the wonderful things to do and see in Buenos Aires, her favorite is that she can, quote, “get steak delivered ANY TIME I WANT.”
She’s a monster. It’s indecent but awesome.
We head out to La Cabrera, a pseudo-fancy restaurant known for its cuts of Kobe, and spend an hour or so devouring two thick slabs apiece of the best steak either one of us has ever had.
We wash it all down with a bottle of Malbec and plan the night’s strategy, both a little sluggish from the meal, but still enthusiastic to keep the night rolling.
“It’s my last night in BA, we should really do something fun. Let’s go to a strip club!” I joke. We laugh and ask the waiter to recommend a good bar nearby. We go to one that I know pretty well and order some Fernet and Cokes.
After a few more drinks, we’re feeling pretty good and decide, “Okay, okay, so if Milon (a bar in Recoleta) is closed, we HAVE to go to a strip club. It will be hilarious and neither one of us has been. We have to do this.”
After walking down a few wrong streets, we finally find ourselves in front Milon, the entire entrance gated up. Stupid Sundays.
We resign ourselves to our fate and hail the next cab we can find. Joey’s Spanish is much stronger than mine, so it’s decided that she will ask the driver for the nearest strip club. We both get a long, silent look from the driver (who apparently is the only grandfatherly, non-randy taxi driver in the whole city), before he starts driving toward the Recoleta Cemetery, a major tourist attraction and a likely center point for any kind of strip club action.
There’s a fancy/sleazy looking club off to our left with a Playboy Bunny on the sign. Joey and I look at each other: yes, this place will do.
Lost In The Woods
After paying the $200 peso entry fee, we make our way up a flight of stairs to a black-light-lit bar with electronic rock music, dozens of swanky (and empty) chairs, and a double fistful of girls, unenthusiastically dancing with each other in the center of the room.
We down a few more drinks (for courage!), before choosing seats in the back next to a couple of 30-something Canadian businessmen who each have a pair of girls perched on their laps.
After a few minutes, the girls take off to the back of the bar and one of the men turns to me and says “First time?”
Ugh, I stand out. I hate that.
“Yeah,” I say. “How does this work here?”
The man grins and says, with a twinkle in his eye “Oh it’s really easy. Just find a girl you like, bring her over and then negotiate with her. She’ll say something like $200 pesos and you can say 60 or 70 and she’ll probably take it.”
I’m thinking, “This may not be such an expensive adventure after all! So cheap!”
“So then they give me a lap dance, eh? How much do you think I should offer for both of us?” I ask, gesturing at Joey who was just returning from the bathroom.
“Oh I don’t know,” he replies. “I mean, that’s not for a lap dance, it’s for a ‘private dance’ in the back room, where they jiggle around a bit and then blow you.”
As the last word leaves his mouth, one each of the girls the men were previously entertaining return from the back room and take their clients’ hands, pulling them away. Another quick wink from the Canadian and they’re gone, my jaw on the floor. I’m starting to think that this might not be a strip club after all.
Most Dangerous Game
Despite the encounter with the Canadians, Joey and I still thought we could probably get a lap dance out of one of these girls.
We changed location, moving closer to the mass of string-clad, silicon-enhanced ladies, and gestured to the first girl who danced her way toward us.
“Hello,” she said. “What are you looking for tonight?”
As I’m taking her in — curvy girl, enormous fake boobs, lip ring, dark skin, friendly smile — a women in black pants and a long black shirt comes over to us from the bar and repeats the question.
This woman stands out because she’s the only female in the room (with the exception of Joey) who doesn’t have her lady-bits hanging out all over the place. Whereas most of the girls are doing their best to radiate sexuality and submission, this woman is definitely going for business-like menace, and it’s working.
Joey explains that we’re looking to get a lap dance and are wondering how much it would cost for this girl to give us one. The woman looks at the girl and looks at us and says “$120 pesos and you take this girl back to your hotel and do what you want with her.”
Stunned, but fairly certain we had translated incorrectly, we asked for clarification.
The woman in black (who is apparently the resident pimp for the night), takes this to mean we’re looking for more options and says that we can also have a private, oral session right there in the back room, but it will cost $200 pesos.
No no no, Joey tells her. We just want her to dance. Like a lap dance, sabe?
The she-pimp gets a confused look on her face and then, clearly not understanding why we would want such a thing, or maybe not even sure what crazy kind of sex act we’re asking for, quotes us an arbitrary price “$250 pesos.”
We thank her and say we’ll think about it.
In the United States, strip clubs have become an almost innocent kind of past time. Friends, both girls and guys, go there in college to imbibe too-expensive drinks, eat bad hot wings, and have ridiculous, semi-scripted adventures that almost always result in hilarious, un-tagged Facebook photos and bonding stories that last for years.
In Argentina, things work a bit differently. The unemployment rate is incredibly high, and many people are just trying to scrounge together enough to eat and support their family.
Combine this with the overwhelming influence US culture has on Argentina and you get a sense of coveted consumerism with no means to buy the requisite consumables. Most people feel the need to live the lifestyle they see on Friends, but can’t even afford to move away from their parents’ home.
And in some cases, the result is prostitution. The same story happens everywhere around the world, sure, but it’s super-prevalent in Buenos Aires because it has the trappings of a major city and the price-point of a developing economy.
There is a very good reason this brothel was so close to a major tourist attraction and a cluster of nice hotels.
I don’t have anything against prostitution philosophically: these women should be able to do whatever they want with their bodies, and so long as they aren’t being coerced into doing something they don’t want to do.
But even so, both Joey and I walked away from that bar unblown, unlaid, and undanced-upon, because the idea of it — of sitting with this girl who in another life might have been a close friend or sister or whatever and deciding how much she costs with a scary she-pimp — was just a little too much to take.
So despite my desire to try new things, say “yes” when my first instinct is to say “no,” and mix it up with local customs, I couldn’t quite bring myself to get busy that night.
Update: November 25, 2016
I still don’t eat a whole lot of red meat, and I still hear from ‘Joey’ from time-to-time.
I’m also still not a huge fan of strip clubs. I’ve been to a few, now, always because strange circumstances warrant it, and it always makes me wildly uncomfortable.
It’s interesting seeing my thoughts on these matters from so long ago — my ideas have certainly evolved, especially as I’ve come to know and follow people who are much more informed than I am about the sex trade. I still believe everyone should have the right to do whatever they wish with their bodies, and I believe that ideally we have safety and legitimacy for those who choose to do what’s currently illegal (at least in the US).
Also notable: that I wrote about my intentionally developed reflex to say “yes” to the things that I would typically say “no” to. I still have a version of this in place, but it’s a little more intentional, now. Back then, I was mostly trying to get myself out of my bubble, even when it came to simple things like trying new foods. These days, the opposite is sometimes true, and I find I get more value and better outcomes from reining myself in selectively, rather than trying to push myself further (as I tend to be pretty far out there by default).