The holidays are when people make the pilgrimage back to their families, to their roots and get their yearly Hallmark-ready reminder of what’s #important. For those who have no such refuge, the holidays are fraught and isolating. For men especially, loneliness has become an epidemic, and study after study has proven it to be one of the biggest health risks for men along with obesity and smoking. So where do men go during the winter seasons to experience the attention and affection they don’t find in their day-to-day lives? The strip club, a place that becomes a neon-lighted haven as Christmas draws near.

A love free from distractions or judgments, that’s the type of love you find in a strip club. I am not talking about a love that demands the body. I’m talking about a love that generates from the heart, recognizes other bodies and says, hey, you’re a human, too. There is nothing sexual about this love despite the fact that it comes from a strip club. It is a love that depends on exposing oneself in the literal and figurative sense.

Strip club love is contrived. There’s no disputing that. It depends on reciprocity–100 percent. But between stripper and client an understanding exists, one full of compassion. We let these feelings simmer like yule logs, showering warmth and good cheer on one another as though we’re all family because in many ways we are. Winter is a death that’s hard on the spirit, and strip club love can be powerful enough to get us through the end of yet another year.

At home, holidays are meant to be buoyant occasions. Carols galore, lights aglow and conifer trimmings, our holidays are packaged. No one is lonely or at least no one talks about being lonely. Like most Americans, we cover feelings with food and capitalist swindle. Our holidays live the American dream–down to the core.

However, in the strip club, the loneliest of the lonely surface–like break-your-fucking-heart type shit. We listen to their stories, and they talk about their loneliness without abandon.

Not many places can make us as vulnerable as a strip club does. The space festers with nakedness on so many levels. It’s opening hearts, taking off bras, opening wallets, removing masks–it’s stirring spirits. And no other season brings out the undercover depressed like winter. Clients come in droves. They come to escape a season that reminds them of how unfulfilling their lives are. They come to hang out so they don’t literally hang themselves. (Yes, the holidays are that dark, inspiring abysmal lows.) The holidays put our souls into question. It is the voice that says we’re not good enough, look at how happy everyone else is–it says we’ll never amount to anything. So we chase happiness the capitalist way. Affection and adoration become commodities.

So people get fucking depressed during the holidays. Sadness hangs heavy in the air at a strip club, it’s the cologne most clients wear. And we do our best to cover it up with candy cane and gingerbread body sprays. We become festivities. We slip on sexy Santa suits, jingle bells and tinsel. We climb poles to the tune of yuletide classics. We are their windows to nostalgia. We become their touchstone to a childhood they never had or one that’s long removed.

The men who flock to strips clubs around Christmas are not looking for pole tricks, fantasy outfits or seductive lap dances –they’re looking for someone to remind them that they are human. They came to be heard, to reveal heartache.

What is it about clients’ humanness that provokes strippers to such compassion? The easy answer is it lies in our own pain. And it rests in our own need to be touched. Strip clubs are ideal places to reflect on the self beyond the body, to see the reflection of ourselves in others. We are all mirrors. This is never more evident than when gazing into the walled mirror of a strip club.

Dejected souls are plenty. It’s the guy who lives with his mother. It’s the one who lost his wife and has no one left in this world. It’s the one whose only contact with women is coming into a strip club. It’s the one who’s still in the closet, the one who has a secret fetish, the one who’s unhappily partnered and not brave enough to speak up. It’s the guy who lives far from family and creates community from the strip club entourage. It’s the one who has retired and never hears from his kids anymore. It’s the one who’s lost his entire family to tragedy. It’s the one who knows no other love like the one he receives at a strip club.

Strippers are therapists and healers. We are witches who spin spells from loose strings on lingerie. Ask any stripper how she helps heal broken hearts or advises a man who, perhaps for the first time, talks about what’s really on his mind. She’ll tell you she just does. She will tell you it’s something that feels as much a part of her body as any appendage. She won’t even have a method to the madness. And she’s likely to say that strip club love is an art.