April 10, 2013
Lesbian 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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
Kung Fu Lesbian – Trailer
The trailer for Dan Curry’s debut novel, King Fu Lesbian.
October 31, 2012