Craig Seymour is funny, precise, and egoless: the perfect combination for a good sex worker memoirist. In All I Could Bare, he details his experiences as a customer-turned-dancer at DC’s strip club scene in the 1990s, a period when gay establishments flourished. Marion Barry was mayor, Bill Clinton was president, and “Wiggle It” was everyone’s favorite club anthem. Life was sweet.
Seymour’s biggest strength lies in his crisp turns of phrase and the self-deprecating wit for which so many urban gay men are celebrated. (He describes his first strip club as sounding like “a gospel diva trapped in a washing machine” and smelling “like Clorox and crotch.”) He’s adept at integrating DC’s gay history into his own story without switching into a stiff educational voice, no mean feat given his extensive background in academia both as a student and a teacher.
Yet it may be at attempt to overcompensate for this academic past that leads to the creation of a style at times overly conversational and avoidant of substantive moments. Lily Burana’s memoir, Strip City, was eminently readable, full of rich details and good dialogue, yet anchored by honest meditations on the ways her strip work affected her boyfriend, her family, and herself. Seymour glosses over his breakup with his long time boyfriend and never discusses coming out to his parents as a stripper or gay man. (Maybe he waited for the book to do both for him?) His determination to keep the work light hearted sometimes makes it glib. He reports without much reflection.
Inadvertently, however, he provides some insight into how differently male and female sex workers are regarded in the public eye, and therefore, how they regard themselves. Since our society expects a man to be sexually resilient, there’s no indication here that any of the dancers believe they’re irrevocably harming their bodies, reputations, or souls by getting naked in front of strangers. Although one customer delivers a nasty spiel about male dancers coming from “broken homes”, Seymour encounters more discrimination due to his race than to pathologizing of male sex workers. Nor is there any evidence of public crusades to “save” the dancers by placing them in other jobs.
The book’s ending disintegrates into anecdotes about meeting Janet Jackson and Mariah Carey on behalf of Vibe and The Washington Post, the inclusion of which is justified by relating his interview habits to the skills he acquired while conversing with club customers. While this is an entirely plausible circumstance, it doesn’t need to be reiterated as many times as it is. These run-ins with celebrities obviously meant a lot to Seymour, but they lack the energy of the earlier chapters on stripping. Strangely enough, his entrance into the “straight” workplace as a journalist causes him to lose the candor that makes him a compelling narrator, and he begins to sound insincere and forced, like he’s catering to the conventions of made-for-TV movie: “Just a little more than a year before, I was selling dick feels for a buck. What made me think I could be a big-time cover story writer?”
Ultimately, All I Could Bare is laudable for its humor and honesty about a scene that, sadly, no longer exists. (At least not in DC.) Although Seymour, like all human beings, still struggles with what his past means, he manages to come to something of a conclusion about his confusion: “The very idea of what a stripper is exists only in our minds. It’s a fantasy. That’s the point”