April 10, 2013

IconLesbian strip clubs: a feminist dream or a degrading nightmare?

Strip clubs? I’ll be honest with you. I haven’t been so torn on an issue since I was asked who I fancied more – Tegan or Sara. The truth is I can’t tell the difference, but that’s another story for another day.

Things I think, part one: women should be able to earn a living however they want, free from judgement. Showing off your body and expressing your sexuality, in the right circumstances, can be an extremely empowering experience and it isn’t right for me to moralise about how someone else pays their bills.

Who am I to tell anyone how to earn a living, especially from a position of privilege? So what if it’s not something I‘d choose for myself? My worst nightmare is standing in my pants in a crowded room of strangers, but I think that says more about me (or my pants) than anything else. Whether stripping is a choice of desire, need or circumstance, it’s still a choice, and it’s still valid.

Things I think, part two: objectification of women’s bodies makes me feel uncomfortable. Sure, I’ve been known to steal a glance or two at Jessie J‘s cleavage, but I question the motive and rationale of a person whose idea of a great night out is cheering on strangers taking off their clothes. I struggle to understand, that as a society, as women, we are really comfortable being reduced to nothing more than how we look, and how we look naked.

So, there’s a conflict there. I believe people in the sex industry should have personal autonomy,  but I dislike strip clubs.

While I believe that women can and should be agents of their own change, I think that strip clubs are just another socially acceptable part of the casual misogyny we are constantly exposed to. So casual, in fact, you probably didn’t even notice it sneaking in and sitting down at the dinner table with you and your family while The One Show was on. Matt Baker might introduce ‘the beautiful and witty’ Alex Jones because, it seems, the most interesting thing about a woman is always, always, ALWAYS the way we look. It’s not offensive, per se, but it’s still reductive, and my heart is telling me to rage against it. Until everyday sexism is a thing of the past, how can I reconcile strip clubs with feminism?

Whether it’s gratuitous nudity or an exercise in empowerment, it’s still a strip club. Right? Well, maybe not, actually.

Michelle De Souza is one of the women behind Chica Bonita, an exclusive club created for the purpose of les/bi women to express themselves freely in an safe, supportive environment.

So how did it begin? Michelle explains: “We wanted to start a revolution and shake up the LGBT community in Britain. Our aim was to provide a sense of exclusivity in women’s society. Over the next couple of months we started researching and exploring various avenues to achieve this.”

Chica Bonita is an exclusive club by women, for women. Photograph: Chica Bonita

Please forgive my skepticism, but the only experiences I’ve had of strip clubs have been the time I got a face full of boob from a stripper at a lesbian club night and felt so awkward I had to leave, or in Edinburgh’s notoriously seedy and aptly-named pubic triangle, (I kid you not) where the stench of heteronormativity is enough to make you want to hurl your cookies. How is Chica Bonita different from these kinds of strip clubs?

“We actually want Britain’s lesbian community to understand that Chica Bonita isn’t a strip club. We incorporate women who are professional exotic dancers within our venues, which will help develop and celebrate our sexuality.

“Heteronormative gentleman’s clubs focus on the male’s perception of sexual desires where Chica Bonita will allow women to develop their own concept. Often you find ‘gentleman’s clubs’ as a predominantly male domain where women are subjected to ridicule and criticism from clients. This is why we strongly believe that Chica Bonita will always remain as ‘women only’ with no male presence.”

No male presence? I can feel myself warming to the idea. By shifting the dichotomy, the experience undoubtedly changes for everyone. But there’s still a nagging in my head. Does feminism hold the answer? Well, much like me, it’s torn on this one. Some of my best friends are feminists (ha) and they fiercely disagree about the issue of strip clubs.

Siouxsie Q recently launched into a stinging, articulate attack on the portrayal of sex workers in an episode of Glee, explaining why there’s more to the issue than stereotypes, and why we need to be aware of intersectionality and our own privilege when engaging in debate.

She said: “You seem to miss a really important piece about the role sex workers play in artistic communities. Myself, and so many others like me who are artists, free thinkers, the kids who didn’t fit in when we were in high school. Well, some of us grew up to be whores. Sometimes if we happen to be queer, fat, trans or many other types of ‘othered’ identities, sex work may present some of the best and only options for us to make money while we conquer our dreams.”

This isn’t a new debate, and Chica Bonita isn’t the first woman-owned strip club. In San Francisco, The Lusty Lady has been around since the 1970s and since then has touted itself as a feminist strip club. Heart says: “The dancers there have always believed themselves to be feminists. For this reason, it has been unique among strip clubs in its practice of rejecting traditional beauty standards and and opposing all discrimination, especially size discrimination.

Dancers from The Lusty Lady in San Francisco, taken from the film Live Nude Girls Unite. Photograph: Phyllis Christopher

“The problem is that strip clubs are about men buying the opportunity to objectify and fetishise the kind of female bodies men have decided are worthy of being objectified and fetishised. On a deeper level, they are about regulating and and selling the bodies of women in the interests of perpetuating a system in which women’s bodies are viewed as the property of men and hence, saleable. That being so, the term ‘feminist strip club’ can only, in the end, prove to be an oxymoron.”

The difference between Chica Bonita and The Lusty Lady, though, is the audience. Remove that power imbalance, and surely you’re removing most of what makes strip clubs problematic.

Sheila Hageman, author and mother, says: “It’s taken me a while to own that not only am I a feminist now, but I always have been, even when I was a stripper. And for me, being a feminist is about not apologising for the decisions I make or made about the ways I choose to use my body and see myself as a woman in this world.

“Feminism is about something more and is open to interpretation. Feminism is about women having real identities of their own, rather than living as man-made beings.”

She continues: “Historically, women have for the most part resigned themselves to their predetermined destinies. Today, a woman can be her own agent of change. Strippers shatter the traditional mould even as they objectify themselves because they are making conscious choices.

“But does that make strippers empowered? On good days I had respect for what I was doing and treated my work as an art form. Of course, there were also those days where I became just body parts, overwhelmed by men who seemed intent on belittling me as an object merely existing for their pleasure.

Can stripping, then, ever be an act of feminism? Hageman thinks so.

“That woman is making a choice for herself. No matter how confused or misguided she may be, if she has made that choice for herself, then it should be honoured and seen as a feminist act – a conscious choice of her destiny in the world.”

But there are still people who disagree with Siouxsie Q, Hageman, and De Souza, and cannot remove stripping from the seedy, degrading place it has been relegated to.

Navprit Rai, former Lib Dem advisor says: “Stripping is not some grand feminist statement.

“It perpetuates the idea that women should primarily be judged on their looks and sexual attractiveness. As much as I would like to say that being a stripper is challenging the dominant sexual norms and acting outside of the confines of acceptable behaviour for a woman – in a culture where a man is ‘a bit of a player’ and a woman is ‘a slut’, I can’t.

Feminism then, like my friends, are never going to agree. Much as we’d like things to be black and white, they very rarely are, so we have no choice but to live in the grey. I think there’s only one thing for it…

Chica Bonita launches 26th May at Legs 11 in Birmingham. Will I see you there?

We’d like to hear your views on strip clubs. Let us know what you think in the comments.

12 Responses to Lesbian strip clubs: a feminist dream or a degrading nightmare?

  1. Tara says:

    I’m an ex-sex industry girl and I agree, sex workers are primarily ‘man made’, but that’s not the whole story.

    For years, being a queer girl, I wanted to cut my hair and get ink. I never did because I didn’t want to lower my earning potential. That’s not to say that all girls have that problem. I worked with many tattooed girls, and one of my friends worked very successfully with a shaved head. She eventually went on to become a very well-known queer performer.

    What I’m trying to say is that no one forces you to conform. Men are happy to look at naked blondes, brunettes, size 8′s or size 12′s. They don’t really care. It only management that tries to pressure you into dyeing your hair or losing a few pounds. As I had a few problems in my personal life, I was happy to have a clean and easy professional life, so I conformed.

    Nothing changed when I changed from dancing to escorting. There were girls there too who, like me, had a ‘professional’ look that was different from their personal look, and there were girls who didn’t.

    I do get tired of hearing about sex workers being talked about as if we don’t have our own mind or our own strength. I can tell you now that all sex workers are feminist. All sex workers believe that women can live, work and earn independently of men. All sex workers believe that women are strong and capable and intelligent. What you call exploitation, we call earning a living. We’re not children. Some of us start young, yes, but sex working helps you to grow up fast. You are making yourself vulnerable in public, whether it’s in front of a group of leering men or in private with a single man. You have to quickly learn self-confidence, boundaries, negotiation skills entertainment skills, and most of all, people-handling skills. It is not easy money, you DO actually have to work for every dollar.

    Personally I never worked for lesbians. Being a lesbian myself made me wary. Later on I did branch out into escorting for women but quickly found I couldn’t earn enough to live on. I enjoyed it though. Some women were difficult, some were delighted, some I wished I could have seen again.

    A friend of mine who exclusively danced did try to branch out into dancing for lesbians. She was so disgusted by how they treated her that she went back to dancing for men. Another friend, a male dancer, had much the same experience. Unfortunately for him, not being bisexual, he was forced to quit altogether. There is a lesson here for women. Just because you ARE a woman doesn’t make sexual harassment, sexual assault and abusive behaviour OK. You are dealing with another human here and if you don’t think it would be ok behaviour for a man to exhibit, then you probably shouldn’t either.

    • maz says:

      I think a woman has the right to choose what they do for a living, and shouldn’t be judged for it.
      if men can have strip clubs why cant women do the same. I believe in equal opportunities
      I used to dance in a gentleman’s club and the exploitation out there is horrendous, if I had known about a female or woman only club Id have danced for them. where’s this club at I want to join

    • Sandy says:

      Ever have that moment when you are in complete awe and amazement by a persons comment that you know you have to reply to it. However because your still so wowed by it you have no clue what to say exactly but know you still need to say something? No? Well I’m definitely experiencing it right now!!! Seriously loved loved everything you said in that entire comment especially the last part!!! Just wanted to share that lol

  2. Jane says:

    Omg i think this is a fantastic idea! An exclusive classy club for women, NOT a trashy strip club. Total respect female to female. Nothing like this has been done in the UK, it’s so good that we are finally moving forwards out of the Stone Age. The girls look fantastic too! I can’t wait to go the launch with all my girlfriends!

  3. Jigga says:

    I think this article is a good one showing another perspective on the subject, however it is clearly stated that the Chica Bonita event is not a strip club but an entertainment night of a different nature for women who want to appreciate the art of female dancers who have the ability to perform in a seductive way, whether they are androgenous or feminine, the entertainment is catered for both.
    I think its about the mind set you have, if you see it as art and like to appreciate women in that positive way then you should go, but if you just like to perve and look at women in a degrading manor stay at home and watch some porn.

  4. MFeltersnatch says:

    I have worked in the strip club industry since 1999. In addition to stripping , which I still do, I have also been on the business side of it. That’s the part that’s always shocking. I have no idea how many 18year olds I’ve seen spell entertainer with an I. Those girls will never be empowered by their job. Sadly they will always be strippers. Those who entertain, however, have the ability to look the part but know they may be the smartest person in the room. Knowing that I have to dumb it down every weekend can be irritating, but who wants a smart stripper… My girlfriend does. We’ve been together since 1999. While she HATES my chosen profession it has allowed both of us to skip the starving part of being artists. She still doesn’t understand how I deal with the
    obviously revolting parts of my job. But that’s one of the perks of having a stripper girlfriend my princess doesn’t have to worry about the details

  5. Chris says:

    Feminism isn’t about women choosing their own profession, it’s about being a complete human being WITHOUT the input/approval/control of a man. Stripping does not make you autonomous because you are relying on men to pay your living. An all-female strip club doesn’t make any sense to me because, as a lesbian, I find no excitement or entertainment in watching another woman take her clothes off for money. I’m not a prude and certainly have an appreciation for the female body (I have one of my own and I’m married to a woman who is incredibly intelligent, kind, loving, generous and politically conscious). I feel only pity and sadness when a woman has been reduced to an object for profit, no matter who the ‘oglers’ are. Feminism is an embodiment of being more than what we look like or how we use our bodies to titilate and excite. If the only thing you can think of to describe yourself involves your looks or your sexual attractiveness then I worry about you and hope that one day your identity becomes about your intelligence, your sense of humour, your ability to empower yourself and others, and your own personal satisfaction that you can be happy keeping your clothes on.

    • Liz says:

      Quote: Stripping does not make you autonomous because you are relying on men to pay your living.

      I work as a plumber. I ‘rely on men to pay my living’, only I generally call them clients. By your logic I am stripped of my autonomy.

      Which is ridiculous, isn’t it? It’s ridiculous to claim a plumber is stripped of autonomy because of where her pay packet comes from, and it’s ridiculous to say the same thing about a stripper.

      • maz says:

        Nice one Liz couldn’t have said it better myself…when making a living you are subject to either sex… getting paid for a service your providing… whether you work as a plumber or a dancer or even a dentist lol

  6. Beccs says:

    How can you judge a Woman simply on aesthetics? Because you see them dancing exotically. I think that is harsh using the words ‘pity’ and ‘sadness’.

    Last year whilst on holiday in Miami, I visited ‘King of Diamonds’ this was my first time at a strip club. I as a straight Woman found it to be an incredible experience, and although they’re were men present, the girls performing had more interaction with ladies who were observing. You could tell that through their body language they were more comfortable with a female audience then a male.

    You can’t just form a negative opinion about an individual by seeing them dance in an exotic manner. These dancers have education and intelligence behind them. They are not dancing because they are stupid and have no other choice in life. The money just helps to keep up a certain lifestyle they choose or even education fees. Every woman has a different story and many different reasons for doing this type of job. And yes this maybe the only job for some women, but feeling sorry for them for doing so, is sad in itself.

    These women are not making a grand gesture by dancing in a exotic / sexual way, they do it out of choice, because they want to, not because they have been forced to do it. If I had the body I would do it! It would certainly fund my Masters & PHD a lot quicker then the job I’m doing now.

    In my opinion I don’t think the term ‘feminism’ should be used when describing this exclusive ladies club, as these women are not attempting to make a feminist point at all and neither are this exclusive ladies club. It’s an individuals opinion on the event whether they like it, or not. Simple, they are there out of choice, dancing for reasons of their own. This to the dancers, pays their bills and is most probably an amazing work out for them, so who are we to judge them for exposing flesh!

  7. marina says:

    I just wanted to thank Tara for her imput. Empowerment comes from within. We really need to give the people is this industry some credit. If our audience and media have an issue with this work they would need to judge the fashion industry too. It comes down to personal perception really.

  8. thixotropic says:

    There is nothing inherently demeaning in doing any form of sex work, and it irritates me when some feminists presume to tell other women that it does so. Economic self-determination is a strong core of personal liberty, and where else can a woman without a degree or professional/trade skills earn so well? If I were younger, I’d likely be doing it myself.

    Just know yourself, learn everything you can about what you’ll be doing, and research the best ways and places to go about doing it. Just like you would with any career choice.

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Carrie Lyell


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