FARGO - The curtains are closed tight in "C.C.'s" living room, so the space feels dark and womb-like.
But once a newcomer's eyes adjust, they pick out nice architectural details, like built-in bookcases flanking a fireplace. Several cats, rescued by C.C., curl up by the couch. The room is meticulously neat.
Clients sit in this unlikely environment - next to shelves displaying framed family photos, kids' DVDs and children's toys - to watch C.C. dance.
The 34-year-old married mother of two works out of her home as an exotic dancer.
During the day, while her kids are at school and her husband is at work, men come to the family's rented home in north Fargo and pay her to give them couch dances.
"I feel more comfortable in my own home. I feel more safe and in control of my environment," says C.C., who asked to remain anonymous to protect her family.
On this particular day, C.C. is in a long robe and sweatpants. She looks like any young Midwestern mom. She is short and buxom, with long, dark hair pulled back in a pony tail. Her demeanor is likable, even sweet.
"Personality is a huge thing in this business," she says. "You can be the hottest girl, and no one will talk to you if you don't have a personality."
While she speaks, C.C. checks her cellphone, which lights up frequently. As an independent dancer, her phone is the lifeline to her business.
C.C. is one of a network of independent exotic dancers who work in Fargo-Moorhead. They say their job is more lucrative than it is for a dancer at a strip club, but it also can be riskier, as they make calls to unknown surroundings like a client's home or motel.
They use phrases like "Chocolate Curves" or "Sweet and Discreet" to market their services in the "Adult Entertainment" section of The Forum's classified ads and on Craigslist's more explicit Back Page.
Still, in spite of the alluring names and provocative marketing, the real life of the exotic dancer isn't all that sexy.
Some, like C.C., are moms working to support families. Some strip to support their own or their significant other's drug habits - or use drugs to tolerate their work. And others routinely take dangerous risks, walking into situations where they could be beaten, raped or - as the Craigslist murders showed - killed.
The work can be emotionally exhausting and socially stigmatizing. All the people interviewed for this story talked longingly of leaving the business. At the same time, they felt hamstrung by a trade that allowed them to earn large amounts of money quickly.
C.C., for one, never dreamed she would someday wind up here. She was raised in a strict, Catholic home and actually wanted to be a police officer. But she was sidetracked, marrying her first boyfriend and giving birth to her first child by age 21.
The marriage didn't work out, and her ex shirked on paying child support.
The divorced mom had other costly problems. Born with scoliosis, she underwent two surgeries to straighten and fuse her spine. She was left with many medical bills and so much pain that she used the powerful opiate methadone for four years.
"When you're paying for $800 to $900 in prescriptions a month, you don't have much of a choice but to dance," C.C. says.
C.C. was hanging out at a Fargo bar when she met a young woman who introduced her to nude dancing, saying it was an easy way to make money.
Then in her early 20s, C.C. started working at strip clubs. "I'm insecure. Most dancers are. That's why we do it - for the attention," she says.
Although C.C. always swore she'd never get involved with a client, she met her future husband, "Mark," at a Fargo club. They were married eight years ago.
But C.C. grew tired of the "drugs and the drama" in the club scene. She also knew she could make more money if she worked independently, offering private dances.
Work takes its toll
C.C. now works exclusively at home, where she charges $100 for a half-hour dance. She says she can "easily" make $500 a day. The money allows her to enroll her children in private school and to buy her family what it needs.
"I get upset when people judge us," she says. "Obviously, I'm doing this so my kids can have a better life."
C.C. says she has 900 contacts on her cellphone and many regulars.
Some of her clients are simply lonely. "They just want to talk," she says. "A lot of guys just want company. Sometimes you are just a counselor."
Others want more than a dance. C.C. insists she's never let the legal activity of dancing overlap into something illegal. "I'll do a nude show. Nothing more than that," she says.
As a safety measure, C.C. says she's learned to limit the calls she'll take to Fargo numbers, regulars and older men, who she says tend to be more respectful. She's identified the numbers of past callers who seemed threatening so she can bypass their calls.
Even so, some clients frighten her.
Once, a man yanked on her hair so hard she started to worry he would hurt her. At the time, she had a beloved St. Bernard named Bailey who sat in a corner while she danced.
The giant animal, normally gentle as a kitten, stood up and growled. The man backed off immediately, but C.C. never forgot it.
Since then, she's considered getting a concealed weapon permit.
Beyond the threat of rape or assault, C.C. also worries about her job's effect on her self-worth and her family.
The longer C.C. dances, the harder she finds it to bounce back emotionally. "When I worked in the clubs, I used to drink, just to get the courage to get up there and do what I had to do," she says.
Now, C.C. adds, she has to take a day or two off if a client acts especially "gross and degrading."
"Once in a while, I'll meet the wrong guy, and he'll make me feel like (expletive), but I'll bite my tongue and do it because I know the kids need this or that," she says.
But now her daughter is 12 and getting old enough to start asking questions about her work.
C.C. admits it would be a "parent's worst nightmare" if her daughter followed in her footsteps. "I'm the strict mom. They're well-behaved, and they're good kids," she says. "I want to keep a good relationship with my kids. I know so many dancers who don't even see their kids."
C.C. says her husband doesn't mind her work, although he sometimes gets jealous if they go out and other men recognize her from her club days.
Despite the consequences of her work, C.C., a high school graduate, is reluctant to take a job that would pay a fraction of what she makes now. She doesn't know how her family could make it on that.
In fact, even now, she says, they haven't saved much.
"I don't even want to know how much I make," she says. "It kind of sucks because I work all the time, and we don't have much to show for it."
Life of violence, trauma
"Morgan" is 30, tall and slim, with dark-blond hair.
When asked about her life, the words pour out in cathartic waves.
"I can tell you this is not the happy life that I would like to have," says Morgan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We put ourselves out there, and it's hard. It takes a toll on someone. Maybe this isn't a real job, but it's a job. I'm just doing this until I can get back on my feet."
Studies show that many young women who work in the sex industry have a childhood history of abuse, and Morgan's story reinforces that.
She says her father was mentally ill, alcoholic and violent. "He actually beat us kids when we were younger," she says.
Morgan had various learning disabilities, which made school a struggle. "When I was a little kid, I used to wish to have someone else's life, just to be in a normal family," she says.
By 16, Morgan could no longer stand living with her parents and planned to run away. An aunt invited Morgan to move in with her, which brought Morgan from Idaho to a small town in Minnesota.
But Morgan says her new home was tiny and clique-ish, and she didn't fit in. She got pregnant, which made her a target for bullies. Then she dropped out of school.
A series of events, worthy of a Lifetime movie, followed. She married and divorced. She had several abusive relationships. She eventually had a second child, a girl.
And in 2007, she says she was kidnapped by an acquaintance who raped her and held her captive for 10 hours until she convinced him to let her go.
Morgan says she was so traumatized by the event that she moved closer to her mother, who had relocated to Fargo.
She got involved with stripping because her younger sister was doing it.
"I'm a high school drop-out; I don't really have very much in my life," she says. "I found it intriguing for quite some time. Automatically, I saw what my sister had. She had a whole new wardrobe and everything else. I heard how many people were dancing, and I saw all the luxury. I wondered if I would be able to do something like that."
But after her first time on stage, the glamour quickly tarnished. "It was not what I thought it would be," she says. "I just kind of block it out. I close my eyes and pretend like I'm somewhere else."
Morgan says she frequently receives texts and calls from clients who ask if she provides "full service" - stripper code for "sex." She insists she doesn't and says she will walk out of a call if they push for more.
"I do not get any callbacks," she says. "I don't get tipped because I don't do anything on calls other than my shows. I think in the long run I'm in charge of the call."
Dreams of college
Like C.C., Morgan started doing private dances because it seemed more lucrative. On her own, she can make $140 for a half-hour show.
But unlike C.C., she does "out" calls, which means she works in unfamiliar settings, such as motels. "You just never know what you're walking into," she says.
Morgan also books many of her appointments through Sinful Desires, a Fargo company run by Steve Helm.
Morgan and Helm were once in a relationship, but she says she still works with him because she trusts him implicitly.
"He barely needs to talk to (clients) and he can tell if it's a good call or a bad call. I think he reads people like a picture book," she says.
Helm, who says he works with five to 20 "subcontractors" at a time, says his ability to ferret out dangerous clients over the phone means none of his dancers have been physically harmed in his 10 years in business.
He also says he will help out dancers in dangerous situations. For instance, he once called the police on a couple of men who refused to let a dancer out of their semi unless she provided sex.
And he insists he is not exploiting women. "I tell the girls I don't expect them to have sex or do anything they're not comfortable with," he says. "I won't put them in that situation."
Of course, he also takes a healthy percentage for his services. Recently, Helm sent two women to dance at a bachelor party. They made $500 each but paid "$250 to $300" (total) to him.
Yet Helm seems conflicted about his work.
"I don't know what this does to some people in the long haul," says the 32-year-old Minot, N.D., native. "I really despise it. From a religious standpoint, it really goes against the grain. At this point in my life, I'd like to do something with some merit."
As for Morgan, she envisions someday becoming a cosmetologist, an artist or a caretaker of exotic animals. But she also knows she has much work to do to reach that point.
She hasn't saved enough money to buy a car or a house. She has talked of pursuing her GED for years, but hasn't gotten around to it. She doesn't have custody of her kids, although she does get to see them.
"I know I did the right thing (in having others raise them) because I can't even take care of myself," she says.
Yet Morgan insists she has worked on her self worth and "grown stronger" through the years.
"I feel people underestimate me just because I'm a dancer. That doesn't mean I'm a prostitute. It doesn't mean I sell myself to a client," she says. "I'm comfortable with myself."
Well, to a point. Morgan says she will be ready to retire after she's saved enough money for Lasik surgery and breast implants. "I think that will boost my confidence just a little bit," she says, with a hopeful smile.
C.C., the once-aspiring police officer, speaks of going back to school to earn a criminal justice degree this fall. Her goal is to help at-risk youth.
In her 30s, she shares concerns about aging in a world that values cosmetically enhanced femininity and eternal youth.
"I don't want to get older and still be doing this," she says. "It would make me feel better if I had a regular job, too."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525