I spent my 26th birthday in a topless bar.

Me, a women’s studies minor, self-proclaimed feminist, lesbian. Me, who’s spent many an hour in heated debate with the “unenlightened” over “the wrongs of the adult entertainment industry.” In college, I was the girl on campus wearing the “Ball-busting Feminazi Bitch From Hell” button on my backpack, and my Ford Bronco sported a bumper sticker that read “God Is Coming–and She’s Pissed.”

Never in a million years did I think that there I’d sit, taking a Buttery Nipple shot from the cleavage of a 20-something woman in hot pants and stilettos. But I did.

After seeing two women “perform” at a party for my two closest friends, I found myself intrigued enough to include a trip to a Gentleman’s Club in my own birthday celebrations. I looked at this as an educational trip, a learning experience that would either dispel or reinforce my preconceived notions.

The outside of the club was clean and well manicured. It easily could have passed as a department store or hospital. But the lack of windows was a tipoff to the naughtiness within. The heavily painted woman who greeted us in the lobby and collected our $10 cover charge didn’t bat a lash at our motley crew: five dykes and a 6-foot-4-inch queen.

After finding a few of our own over-stuffed velvet chairs to occupy, we began to evaluate our surroundings. On the main stage, women emerged one at a time from a platform, then walked ever-so-delicately down a set of stairs to the stage below. They were of various heights, ages and breast sizes, although silicone was abundant. Each one had a different approach to “dancing,” but the style of choice seemed to be a seductive walk mixed with frequent hair tossing. The more adventurous gals made good use of the brass hand rails around the staircases that led down to the customer floor.

I tipped two dancers. The first was a tall, dark-haired woman with all her own God-given attributes, wearing a pair of stylish, dark glasses. The other was one of the two who’d performed at my friend’s party. She, too, was beautiful and natural, a fabulous dancer whose performance would have been amazing had she been wearing a turtleneck and sweatpants. I had to remind myself, however, that it was highly unlikely anyone was there simply to see her dance. A sad thought–and it made me wonder if a true talent were going to waste.

As I left that night, I knew chances were slim that I would return. It wasn’t because I’d had a bad time. They knew how to make a decent Cosmo, and the atmosphere was far more upscale than I had imagined. The male clientele, although obviously intrigued, did not treat us disrespectfully. And the women who worked there were as “gracious” with us, if not more so, than they were with the straight male customers.

I’d also be lying if I said that I didn’t enjoy seeing all those toned bodies. But as someone who believes a woman’s value goes far deeper than her cup size, the whole experience was eye-opening in more ways than one.