While Sydney witnessed the most flamboyant same sex parade of the year on Saturday night, I was stuck in a Queensland strip club with a rum and coke and a guilty conscience. My Saturday night couldn’t have been more outrageously upended had I been stuffed in an overhead locker and sent to Uganda.
I’d found myself in an argument with a topless barwoman who thought she deserved the $5 change from the twenty I’d slid across for my drinks. I hadn’t planned on a debate about the actual economic utility of tipping in an industry not at all geared for my benefit but sometimes these things crop up when they’re least expected.
I hate strip clubs. Partly because boobs to me serve the same erotic function as elbows do (and no, I don’t have a secret elbow fetish) but mostly because there’s something about the power imbalance of leering, animalistic men that makes me feel uncomfortable. Rightly or wrongly, the breakdown in previously civilised human beings at the sight of a pair of boobs disturbs me.
It just does.
But, to counter that, I’ve never suffered from the type of rescue complex that leads me to believe every woman who takes her clothes off for the entertainment of others needs to be saved.
My weekend started with a conversation. My friend had, like almost every other person on the planet, just finished reading How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran. “It completely changed the way I think about strip clubs,” she told me. “The women in those clubs, the vast majority of them come from abusive backgrounds.”
Well didn’t I feel bad. I knew a trip was likely the very next night for the buck’s party I was attending. The next evening I ran into another friend at dinner, one of the most staunchly outspoken feminists I know, where she not only implored us to take our friend to a strip club but then gave recommendations as well, like a Lonely Planet guide for mammaries.
Confused? Yup. I’d have more luck assembling the pieces of an actual puzzle in a wind storm. For what it’s worth, here’s a summary of Caitlin’s view:
“Porn is fine, she likes porn – it’s the porn industry that’s the problem, being “offensive, sclerotic, depressing, emotionally bankrupt” and entirely geared to men. ‘Ban it? Feminism doesn’t need to start BANNING pornography. It needs to start MAKING it’. Lap-dancing is not fine, but pole-dancing and burlesque are.”
But what of the women who make it their choice, devoid of the ‘homogenous stripper tragedy‘ that many love to say has driven them there? This one question is what led me into a conversation with the female manager of the strip club about the politics of feminism in flesh industries on the night I should have been burrowing under a barrier fence to find Kylie Minogue at Mardi Gras. As you do.
So I asked her. Is every girl on a pole an oppressed husk of her former self, shedding items of clothing like she longs to shed her invariably horrible past? Lo and behold, some of them are. Some of them are not. Fancy that, it’s complicated!
“I used to dance,” she tells me. “My husband broke his back and our daughter was a new born and we really needed the money, so I danced and I hated every moment of it. But I’m thankful I could get the cash. As soon as he was OK, I stopped and now I manage the girls here and at two other places. Some of them genuinely love it. People always talk about power, but sometimes they have it. They love the sexual power of it. It’s their body and look at the reactions they get. Others hate it. They feel trapped. If you try and say there is just one type of girl, you’re kidding yourself.”
And then there are those who I assume have given it as much thought as strip club Joe with his tongue in his scotch: none. Another close friend is a topless waitress. I once asked her why she did it. She couldn’t believe more people didn’t. Her eyes narrowed to quizzical little holes. None of it made sense to her, you see, because asking whether the feminist in her had been extinguished by naked bar service was as ludicrous a proposition to her as asking whether a prior career in accounting had done the same.
Accounting, she reliably informed me, was worse.
So, help me out. Where do you stand on strip clubs and women in the sex industry? Feminist choice or oppressed fate?