Behind the Glass 

Peep Shows Revealed in The Last of the Live Nude Girls

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Insider takes on sex work are old hat at this point, from Diablo Cody's stripper memoir to Annie Sprinkle's autobiography about prostitution, porn, and showing off her cervix. With The Last of the Live Nude Girls, Sheila McClear tackles New York City's peep shows, a once-thriving part of Times Square's grimy subculture that's now nearly extinct—and to McClear's great credit, she finds new ground not only in the specificity of her subject matter, but in the strength of her account of just how easily she drifted into a life she neither asked for nor expected.

As she describes the months she spent in her mid-20s, stripping for men who paid $20 or $30 for a five-minute session, her prose is affectless, sometimes disconcertingly so—she reports on her feelings and experiences as though she's very, very far away from the bored girl half-heartedly rubbing her nipples behind a glass peep-show window. But as she herself notes, an occupational hazard of working in the sex industry is the tendency to shut down, to withdraw emotionally from the mean commerce of renting one's body for $30 a pop. "Things like sex and nudity... meant nothing," she writes, "or rather, I realize now, they became something to be negotiated, and I became nothing—little more than a dress-up doll for them to project their narratives onto."

The distance in McClear's prose reflects her distance from her experiencs at that time, lending the book a value beyond mere prurience. The real accomplishment of Live Nude Girls isn't the descriptions of the underwear McClear wore, or the racial dynamics of the sex industry, or even the history of the peep show in New York City, as interesting and well reported as all of that is. The most compelling aspect of The Last of the Live Nude Girls is that it illustrates just how easily one can wind up living a life outside the margins. One chapter's epigraph, from Samuel R. Delany's Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, sums it up perfectly: "Like many young people, I'd assumed the world—the physical reality of stores, restaurant locations, apartment buildings, and movie theaters and the kind of people who lived in this or that neighborhood—was far more stable than it was."

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