Lessons by day, lap dances by night for students

"If you're a pretty girl and you don't get drunk and mess around, you will make the money."

-- Cheetahs Las Vegas employee

It doesn't take a college education to understand that sex sells. Like it or not, UNLV students are surrounded by the temptations of Sin City and its lights, lust and liquor.

And if sex sells, then stripping can surely pay the bills.

For one University of Nevada, Las Vegas student, stripping not only pays the bills, it pays tuition. Las Vegan Malyssa Hiroko Essex, 21, knew that stripping was profitable. But she, like many, didn't consider it to be a realistic option until a local stripper paid a visit to her sex, dance and entertainment class. This UNLV course explores the sexual side of dance and satisfies the fine arts general education requirement.

"Stripping has always been a joke to me," Essex said. After hearing the stripper's presentation, however, she reconsidered. "I realized that I like being not broke, so I might as well try it," she said.

After picking up an application to be a waitress at Little Darlings Las Vegas, Essex drove past Sheri's Cabaret, a fully nude strip club. She talked to a manager and was told to start the next day.

Essex was nervous, but luckily a co-worker showed her some moves on the pole.

Business at Sheri's Cabaret was too slow for her to make the money she needed. Essex returned to Little Darlings for amateur night and won a $300 prize. The next day she was hired by a manager.

"It's not like a real job. There is no application," Essex explained. "They look at you and if you have ovaries and look semi-OK half-naked you will be hired."

An experienced employee at Cheetahs strip club in Las Vegas, who declined to give his name, said that his club employs a variety of women. He added that the economic climate has driven female doctors, lawyers and college students to apply.

"Some do it for ... giggles," he said. "It is what it is. They make the money they need. End of story."

As a women's studies major and self-proclaimed feminist, Essex understands that her job is controversial. What's important to her, however, is integrity, which she defines as staying true to herself despite what others may think.

"I appreciate that my boyfriend is supportive of my job, but if he wasn't I would do it anyway. It is my body and nobody owns my body or the right to view it," Essex said.

Although she makes her money now by parading naked in front of strangers, she has other work experience. For instance, last summer Essex interned for Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Capitol Hill.

"I didn't want to strip when I was there. I don't find it shameful but I didn't want to give the senator a bad name because I was there to represent him," Essex said.

But she did compete at a local strip club's amateur night while in Washington, D.C. She won $1,000.

As a feminist and future career professional, Essex knows that her work as a stripper will always follow her.

"(Some believe) a woman's expression of sexuality determines her morality, which is bull," Essex said.

Henderson Municipal Judge Diana Hampton understands that value judgment well. In her 20s, Hampton worked as a topless dancer at Cheetahs.

"I figured I might as well do something while I was doing nothing," Hampton said.

Hampton started taking classes at the former Community College of Southern Nevada. After receiving several credits, she transferred to UNLV to pursue a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. She funded her undergraduate school by dancing at Cheetahs.

While in the UNLV bookstore, Hampton stumbled across an LSAT practice book.

"It was one of those flashes that hit me," Hampton said. She enrolled at California Western School of Law in San Diego.

Hampton worked at Cheetahs for seven years, but said she danced there for only two years. Her work at Cheetahs became an issue before the Henderson Municipal Court elections in 2005. Despite the controversy, she won the election.

Hampton recognizes the double standard at play. Her ex-boyfriend and former Cheetahs employee went on to become a doctor and was able to leave his past behind him.

"No one brings up the fact that he worked at a strip club," Hampton said. "It is something that will always be on the back burner even though it was only a short part of my life and never did define me."

As a feminist and assistant professor of women's studies at UNLV, Lynn Comella makes her living by analyzing the unique role of women in a patriarchal society. Comella views Las Vegas as a town driven by the service and leisure industries. Comella considers stripping to be just like any other part-time job in Las Vegas. The flexible hours and rapid flow of cash are appealing, especially to students.

"There is an umbrella over the sex industry that makes it seem different, but is it really?" Comella said. "You clock in and go to work. Some nights it's fun, and some nights I'm sure it's not. Just like any other job."

Comella is cautious of using the word "empowerment" to describe stripping because the work of female doctors, lawyers and nurses isn't defined in that way. She said she believes that stripping is a job, and not a definition of one's character.

"We don't ask doctors, lawyers and nurses to justify their work," Comella said. "Why is stripping any different?"

A woman can spend her days in the classroom and her nights on the pole. Those in the industry say the morality issue aside, it is a job, and as long as there are people willing to pay, strippers will take their clothes off.

Tomi Lahren is a student at UNLV.