This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
Girl Flexxx thrusts her muscular thighs into the air, twisting them to the tune of “Make It Rain,” as dollar bills flit around her, some touching her orange glittery cape before they float to the ground. Women surround her in the Detroit club: Black, white, Latino, queer, straight, and everything in between. Of the crew of exotic dancers they’ve come to see, Flexxx is the lone woman.
“I started dancing at a male strip club, so I was the only female that worked as a ‘male’ stripper,” Flexxx says. “This broke some barriers, really opened up some doors, and I created my own lane.” Clients fly Flexxx and her cape across the country to perform at bachelorette parties, divorce parties, birthday parties, or just for fun, oftentimes with a group of male strippers. In May and June alone, she performed in Maryland, Nevada, Michigan, Virginia, and Ohio.
Flexxx is one of dozens of “dom strippers” (short for “dominant”) across the country, nearly all of them women of color like Flexxx, who is Black. “There’s a lot of us. It’s a very big world,” she says. These women thrust and gyrate in Baltimore, Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia, and other cities—and, like Flexxx, several of the dom dancers perform with men. (Tyler Perry even made a fictional TV series on the subject). Flexxx, who identifies as a lesbian, and the other doms are pioneering a new style of exotic dance: masculinized lesbian stripping that appeals both to the LGBTQ community and to a straight female crowd—the type who generally show up to more mainstream and much whiter male strip shows like those by the Chippendales. “We’re women [who] dance in a masculine way. … We’re aggressive dancers. We don’t mind pulling girls on stage,” Flexxx says.
When Flexxx first became a dom dancer, she didn’t even know other dancers like her existed. But soon she found others on the internet and realized she wasn’t alone. Next came the name, inspired by a lyric to the R. Kelly song “Bump N’ Grind”: “Girl, flex, time to have sex.”
There’s a weird and exciting synergy between dom dancers and the straight men they dance with: Both dance for women, both are macho, but the dom dancers are more subversive. By merely existing side by side with men for a mostly straight female audience, dom dancers thrust and pop their way through stereotypical gender roles and sexual identification. Every week Flexxx hears the same thing from a “straight” audience member who’s just watched her perform: “I think I might be gay.” “It’s kind of flattering,” she says.
Being told that you’ve turned an audience member gay is “like a badge of honor,” says Cristina Khan, an assistant professor of women’s studies at SUNY–Stony Brook who’s done research on the dom scene. She recalled that one dancer told her she loved her job because of all the “try-sexuals” in the audience—women who say they would try anything sexual.
Dom dancers probably emerged sometime in the 1990s, says Khan. When exactly dom dancers started performing with men is unknown. 12 Play, an Atlanta male stripper who performed with Girl Flexxx last week, says he started dancing with doms in 2011, at a birthday show for a Black and Native American dancer. “I had a lot of detractors,” he says. “I know guys who don’t like it. … They feel [women] should have their own lane.” But he didn’t listen to them. “I’m a visionary.”
When Flexxx is dancing in a show with guys, she bills herself as one of them, and the guys think of her as their peer. “She did a better job than a majority of the guys. She had more stage presence,” 12 Play says about a recent performance. She thrusts and struts and preens just like the male dancers. She mimes cunnilingus on the audience members as the men do, although the men aren’t doing backflips clad in iridescent sports bras. On a good night she can make $7,000 in tips.
Flexxx isn’t just a great dancer; she’s a full-on show woman, giving off a sexy WWE wrestler vibe in her many different looks. A favorite consists of a black cowboy hat with iridescent jade piping, a matching formfitting jacket complete with dangling fringe and a glittering suit tail, and green sparkling thong underwear layered over a sports bra emblazoned on both sides with “Girl Flexxx.” “Costumes are such a big part of the culture,” says Khan. “You know how long someone has been a dom dancer based on whether they have a seamstress-made outfit on or not. There were newer dancers who would show up and dance in a sports bra and boxers. And that was [considered] very lowbrow.”
Flexxx has her own regular show in Detroit; every Friday she rents out an event space, and the fans she’s acquired over her years in the business come flocking to her. Some of her oldest fans are in their 60s. Her fan base is so large and rabid that her parents even get recognized by them in Detroit. Both of her parents have seen her perform (though she doesn’t allow men in the audience, she made an exception for her dad). She told me about a regular who has been coming every Friday to her show for the past three years. “I’ve never touched [the fan], never felt on them, they never felt on me,” she says, but still the woman pays her $300 to $400 each time she sees her. Flexxx views her fans as “a blessing.”
Although Flexxx has ample opportunities to hook up with fans, she says she’d never do it. “My job is to create a fantasy for you with my entertainment, not fulfill the fantasy,” she says. “If you fulfill the fantasy you lose out on money. … A person will keep spending money because they trying to get to the goal.”
While many of Flexxx’s fans are respectful of her boundaries, not all of them are. “You got the women who take it too far who try to touch you places they ain’t got no business [touching you],” she says. “I only let people touch my butt. I don’t let them touch nothing else.” Still, some women stick their hands down her pants or grope her inappropriately. “It happens every time I dance,” Flexxx says. Khan, who worked as a cocktail waitress in a strip club for women staffed with dom dancers as part of her research, had a similar experience. Her first night cocktail waitressing at a dom strip club she got sexually harassed and groped more than she had during her years working at a strip club for men.
“It was incredibly shocking,” she says. “It’s harder to make a big deal about a woman touching you. When you’re at a gentlemen’s club, there are rules around touching. But in the spaces that I was working in there weren’t those kind of rules. … There was an assumption that … we’re so unlike those other spaces [that] we don’t have to implement these rules. I think that assumption … is actually incredibly toxic.”
About 1,190 miles southwest from Flexxx, in Dallas, is a dom stripper who goes by the name Kaution or Sex Toy, depending on which one the venue books or which persona she’s feeling that day. She’s a muscular military brat with red-tipped hair; tatted arms, stomach, and neck; and black gauges in her ears. Each of her personas has a different vibe. “Sex Toy is more sensual and soft,” she says. “You might have see-through underwear on with Sex Toy. You gonna have pants on for sure with Kaution.”
She got her start five years ago in Arkansas soon after graduating from college, when she was working in sales for a beer company. She was hanging out with her friend at “one of the major LGBT clubs in Arkansas that is really popular for the Black communities,” she says. “Me and my friend did a little lip-sync thing, and I took off my shirt off and all the money started coming in. I was like, ‘Oh shit. Here we go. I’ve found a new way.’ ”
Soon, like Flexxx, she was being flown across the country; first stop, Houston. She didn’t have a routine, but she did have something that helped her: a background in gymnastics. So she did handstands and backflips to gauge what the reaction would be. And the all-woman crowd was wowed. Since the first show, she’s moved to Dallas and risen up in the ranks of dom strippers. Now, like Flexxx, she employs a seamstress who makes her custom outfits, like the green sparkly jacket and matching assless chaps she wears when she’s in her “Kaution” persona. “Kaution is a daredevil,” she says. “He’s really aggressive. He might get tied up a little bit, anything that’s in the BDSM lifestyle, that’s what Kaution is.” Kaution usually wields a whip and commands the stage with swaggering steps and hip thrusts.
It is always Kaution who shows up when she dances with men, which she only started doing this year. According to Khan, this is a sign that she has achieved a measure of success. “It was seen as a competitive thing to be noticed enough that you were invited to perform with a male review show, and it evidenced one’s capacity to be taken seriously as a dancer.”
But Kaution’s first experience didn’t go well. Ironically, the beefed-up, muscled male strippers were intimidated by her sexuality. “Some men are threatened by lesbian dancers or are threatened by lesbians period. And it shouldn’t be that way because we’re in our own world. We’re not bothering anybody,” she says.
But in mid-June in Atlanta, Kaution decided to try dancing with men again, this time with 12 Play and some other respected male strippers. “I was nervous, because I had a bad experience [with men],” she says. When she landed at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, she felt a different vibe immediately as one of the male dancers met her there. “I’ve been hearing a lot about you,” he says. “You’ve been buzzing.” Later in the day he treated her like a colleague—which of course she was—offering her tips for dancing for the crowd. “Being a baby in the game … I was taking it all in like a sponge.”
In the Atlanta banquet hall, the 90 or so all-female audience members looked on, the DJ queued up some sexy music, and Kaution took the stage, looking dapper in his blue plaid pants and a matching vest layered on top of a transparent mesh long-sleeved shirt. He killed it at the show, in front of the mostly straight female audience members who’d paid $35. (Most of her gay fans didn’t attend. “My [gay] fans don’t want to be in the same room with guys with their junk out,” she says.)
After the show, the dancers came up to her, praising her and offering her more mentorship. “I’ve been in the game [a long time] and this is my favorite move,” she remembers one telling her. 12 Play says he loves having dom dancers at his shows because “it brings another element to these shows” and “dom performers have great personalities and talent.”
Yet in spite of the pioneering work these dom dancers are doing, the subculture remains little known outside of its insular community. But if performers like Flexx and Kaution keep wowing audiences, more and more women may soon find themselves getting “dommed”—and loving it.