I went to the strippers a few weekends ago.
Before making our way from the pub near my house to the club downtown there had been a lot of ‘we’re not actually going to the strippers, are we?’ and ‘if we don’t go now we’ll never make it happen,’ and ‘yaaaa, boobs!’ (ok, no one anyone literally said ‘ya boobs,’ but it was implied), followed by more, ‘is this actually happening?’
Before long I found myself with my arms over my head proclaiming ‘there’s so much wrong with the strippers!’ This isn’t a great argument, but when I started talking about why I saw problems with going to the strippers I found I lack anything concrete. I couldn’t really validate if it was a good or bad thing to do. Would I be adding to an already broken system of objectification, or was going and being respectful helping to empower anyone? I didn’t know.
My uncertainty on the world of exotic dance didn’t stop me from going, but it did make me want to get some clarity on where I stood and why.
I had a lot of questions left unanswered; are the women treated fairly? are we being sexual objectifiers? does their willingness to participate outweigh any threats? what are the risks? is it demeaning or can it actually be empowering? and how do they feel about their jobs? who really has the power?
I’ve since learned there are essentially two camps.
Camp 1: Keep it covered ladies
There are a number of critiques, but one of the main issues raised by this group is that exotic dancing is a form of sexual objectification that reproduces a male-centric, heterosexual power structure. The goal is to please men in hopes you get their money. Camp 1 holds issue with women having to adopt a normative performance of feminine sexuality to be successful here. It reiterates the notion that women exist for the pleasure of men, and in a way that the man decides.
There were articles that illustrated the structure of power falling clearly in the hands of the male clients and club owners. This, linked with blatant objectification left women at risk. Objectification essentially takes away a woman’s personhood and makes her an object to sell or purchase, resulting in a higher likelihood of being treated disrespectfully or derogatorily. All this together leads to the normalization of violence (due to the lack of personhood, men who objectify women are more likely to be violent towards them). (6)
In one article, a former stripper talked about the frequency male customers attempted to have sex with her, or club owners pressuring dancers to perform sex acts for clients, and if they refused they could risk of being fired. (6)
Being a stripper means having to live with hostility; it means constantly struggling for self esteem. -Sundahl (7)
Another issue, was the stereotypical beauty norms that were idealized. Strippers, feel pressure to maintain a certain standard of beauty – which is a very specific idealization of what is beauty. Further, race can play a large part in who is valued and who is not. It’s a career that demands high levels of body monitoring. Studies demonstrate that constructing self-worth based on looks can be problematic; obsessing over your looks has been tied to eating disorders, anxiety issues, lowered cognitive performance, less satisfying interpersonal relationship, and depression. (1)
Finally, women who work in the sexual entertainment industry can suffer from the stress and alienation attached to the social stigma of working in a subversive career. Fewer supportive connections can make it difficult to manage other life stresses.
Camp 2: Take it off! (if you want)
Conversely, Camp 2 takes issue with how women are portrayed as passive victims who have no agency in their choices. These advocates believe exotic dancers are able to rewrite pervious ideals of women as demure, passive participants in their sexuality to something much more powerful where women have agency. Here, women take control. One former dancer noted that having an arena to perform in was very powerful for her.
As weeks went on I found I liked being a sex object, because the context was appropriate. I resent being treated as a sex object on the street or at the office. But as an erotic dancer, that is my purpose. I perform to turn you on, and if I fail, I feel I’ve done a poor job. – Sundahl (7)
For a number of women, the financial freedom that came from being a stripper positioned them with greater power than the men who came to watch their performances. They had more control over their lives because of stripping.
Many in Camp 2 also argue that society is created in a way where women are always used for their bodies and valued for their looks so by turning around and profiting on males they are able to reverse the power imbalance. These women felt if they had to exist in this male centric structure, they may as well benefit. By creating over-the-top portrayals of a sexual ideal they were able to sell to ‘foolish’ men who were willing to pay for this fake intimacy. Though this, they were providing themselves better lives outside of work.
One author stated that eliminating strip clubs would do more harm than good as it would once again be policing female behaviours, dictating what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. This would reinforce the idea that women should be quiet, and demure sexually, dividing further the notion of ‘good’ wholesome girls and ‘bad’ deviant women who should be punished for their lifestyle choices. (6)
Camp 3: Maybe we’re all right/Maybe we’re all assholes
There were a few who also speculated that power is fluid in a strip club and perhaps it is continually shifting from one party to the next. This idea basically gives both parties the right the feel power at any given time, and was referred to as ‘mutually exploitative.’ So, essentially, maybe both parties are both benefiting and suffering. No one really wins and no one really loses.
Power is not a zero-sum game, but that one person can exercise power, or feel empowered, at the same time and without taking that power away from another [Foucault theorized] (6)
So where does that leave us?
It’s tricky because I think both sides raise valid arguments. One former stripper demonstrates this well,
The unglamorous truth about my experience as an adult entertainer is that I felt empowered–as a woman, as a feminist, and as a human being–by the money I made, not by the work I did. The performances I gave didn’t change anyones ideas about women. On the contrary, I was in the business of reinforcing the same old sexist misinformation….I wasn’t “owning” or “subverting” anything other than my own working-class status. Bending over to Warrant’s “Cherry Pie” didn’t make me a better feminist. It just made me a feminist who could afford her own rent. (4)
In her article she talked a lot about how she saw poverty, a state she was in prior to becoming an exotic dancing, as far more demeaning than stripping ever was. So for her, while she did struggle with her identity as a stripper, it ultimately gave her the room and freedom to become an author that she would not have otherwise been able to achieve working her former job.
The notion of choice was also raised, that these women aren’t coerced into this job, they chose to do it, so why shouldn’t they? Its a valid argument and it gives women agency, but I think its problematic. While I am certain that money is not the sole motivator, it can be a powerful manipulator. (We used to employ children in dangerous jobs and let people work ridiculous overtime – and they wanted to do it – because there was a profit in it). So we need to look at how safe the job is and who is benefiting from their participation.
One of the most comprehensive articles I read on the matter concluded with this:
Through interviewing female strippers at different stages in their stripping careers, Barton found that those who expressed feelings of ‘empowerment’ deriving from stripping were likely to be novices, and that ‘women move from feeling empowered to feeling oppressed’ after a few years in the trade (2002, 599). This usefully highlights that at certain key stages women may be able to contest heterosexual power relations through stripping, but that such feelings of empowerment are temporary. Moreover, perhaps even more damagingly, a stripper’s relative power in the club, has little transference to ‘“legitimate” arenas’, as it does not ‘elevate their status or influence in political, social, and economic realms that shape power relations’ (Wesely 487). (6)
So, empowering, but not empowering. There’s some positives, but a lot of negatives.
After all that
I do think it’s great to give women an arena to express their sexuality. It should mean eliminating stigma and rewriting that role of the passive, demure women. But, in this case, it’s problematic that it is focused solely on the pleasure of men. Whatever freedom is earned, financially, has been done through a man.
If we do want to make it to be an empowering medium for women, it should be less taboo and safer for a wider variety of body types and sexual expressions. I just don’t see strip clubs ever being a place with that level of freedom or acceptance.
So, I’m at an impasse. Telling women what to do with their bodies is the last thing we need, but encouraging them to enter a career where personal risks run high and old patriarchy is law also doesn’t sound great either.
Perhaps its a broken system that if we demanded it be better, it might actually be? But that’ll only ever happen if we stopped shaming it and started talking about it.
The things I read before I wrote this:
- Downs, M.D., James, S., & Cowan, G. (2006). Body objectification, self-esteem, and relationship satisfaction: Comparison of exotic dancers and college women. Sex Roles. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11199-006-9042-y
- Fredrickson, B, & Roberts, T. (2006). Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks. Psychology of Women Quarterly. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1997.tb00108.x/abstract
- Levy, A. (2005). Female chauvinist pigs: Women and the rise of raunch culture.
- Lewis, S. K. (2007). Is stripping a feminist act? http://www.alternet.org/story/51408/is_stripping_a_feminist_act
- Paradise, N. (2015). Sexual objectification creates gender inequality. Golden Gate Express. http://goldengatexpress.org/2015/02/24/sexual-objectification-gender-inequality/
- Pilcher, K. (2009). Empowering, degrading or a “mutually exploitative’ exchange for women?: Characterizing the power relations of the strip club. Journal of International Women’s Studies. http://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1254&context=jiws
- Sundahl, D. (1987). Stripper. In Sex work: Writings by women in the sex industry.
- Zeisler, A. (2008). Feminism and pop culture.