Although the dancers might make a few dollars during their brief time on stage, their performance is just an appetizer for the main course, technically known as a table dance, but often delivered on the lap--as the new NC-17 film "Showgirls" makes clear. For $20, a man can get three to four minutes of personalized shimmying, which usually grows more intimate in proportion to the amount of money he is willing to spend.
During peak hours, the effect can be decidedly orgiastic, with dozens of dancers simultaneously slipping off their slinky cocktail gowns and gyrating in glittery G-strings. For men, groping is strictly prohibited, so most either leer carnivorously or slump into their chairs with a sheepish grin.
"Let's face it, some of these women are very sensuous--and very astute about getting you to reach for your wallet," said Anthony Osso, a Houston attorney who has represented several local club owners and their dancers.
Prostitution, at least in the traditional sense of paying for an explicit sex act, is considered taboo by the tonier establishments, which say they have too much invested to risk crossing that line. But Houston vice officers still frequently make undercover raids, arresting the dancers for public lewdness whenever the contact--known in the vernacular as "body slides" and "butt grinds"--grows too intense.
Despite the occasional infraction, most gentlemen's clubs insist that what they sell is not sex, but attention--for the shy and the lonely, the bored and the misunderstood, who for a few minutes can feel like they're king of the world. And if anyone is exploited, say the dancers who cater to them, it is not the woman, but the man--whose vulnerability is ultimately what gets milked.
"I'm here to tease them, not to please them," said Paulita Romero, a 26-year-old dancer at Rick's, who has parlayed her shapely physique into a gig as a Miller Lite model. Like many of the dancers, she has also worked her way through college, earning a psychology degree from a local Christian university.
"Women who think this is degrading don't have the power or confidence or courage to come do it," she said, sipping a bottle of Evian water before stripping off her black, leather-trimmed bustier and skirt. "I'm in control of the man sitting there. He's spending his money. I'm making it."
Whether that formula will prove lucrative enough to attract investors remains to be seen. Few of the stockbrokers who attended last month's reception at Rick's came away enthused about the offering, which most viewed as highly speculative, even at just $3 a share.
They listened politely as Watters made his pitch, describing the club's computerized accounting system, its closed-circuit surveillance network and its commitment to raising about $5 million for future expansion, possibly in New Orleans, Phoenix or Atlanta. But when he was done, their focus reverted to more immediate concerns, namely the women leading them into bare-breasted bliss by yanking at the ends of their ties.
"As a business investment, I don't know," said Richard Bruce, 46, a money specialist from suburban Houston, who was making his first visit to Rick's. "But it's definitely one of the best dog-and-pony shows I've ever seen."