Evolution of the Female Gaze: Live Nude Dudes

Read the first installment of Evolution of the Female Gaze here. 

I’ll freely admit it- I had a thing for strip clubs in my twenties. The kind that cater to straight men, feature a pole,  sequinned pasties, and overpriced drinks . I even went to Jumbo’s Clown Room in Hollywood with Michelle Tea when I was 21 (she claimed it was where Courtney Love used to strip). The dancers picked their music off a juke box, grinding and twirling everything from Tom Waits to Iggy and the Stooges and even the Andrews Sisters. A middle-aged woman wearing band-aids as pasties breathed fire and cracked a bullwhip on the stage to “Bad to the Bone.” At the right strip club, shit gets gonzo in a way that it just doesn’t anywhere else.

I’ve never been to a male strip club catering to straight women (do they even exist anymore?) but I have been to gay bars featuring(often gay for pay) male dancers, my fair share of bachelorette parties featuring by the hour male strippers, and I’ve been to “women’s only” dyke stripper events in both the US and Japan. And living in Chicago, I’ve been to a billion boring burlesque shows full of amateurs pulling off their satin gloves at a snail’s pace (go see Michelle L’Amour if you ever have the chance, though, her asscrobatics are off the chain.) None of these environments give me the same illicit, transgressive thrill as an old fashioned seedy strip club. Not all of these places are friendly towards women, but there is (sometimes, not always) a special dynamic between the strippers and female customers in these clubs, like we have a secret bond. I’ve never paid for a lapdance, but I always tip well when I sit at the rail.

As much as I enjoy ogling and objectifying sexy men, I am not so much into male exotic dancers. Interfacing with male strippers is tricky, because existent cultural gender dynamics still strongly inform these interactions, and I seldom feel like I have a true sense of agency over the situation.  There is a bit of weird “won’t take no for an answer” thing that happens with male strippers, presumably to encourage shy women to have a good time under the assumption that being in the same room with a male stripper is implied consent. A friend described her experience at a male strip club thusly: 

I’ve only been to one male strip club, “La Bare” in Houston. It was a lot different than a titty bar. The dudes shove junk in your face and put you hands on their bodies and hump you and whatnot. And they have routines! They don’t just stand around listlessly shaking it. The best part for me was watching the older women a few margaritas in get really enthusiastic about the whole thing.

There’s a reason that these dancers have their aggressive routines- many women are socialized NOT to act out sexually (with anyone other than a husband or committed partner) lest they be considered a “slut,” and it maybe be easier to have a male stripper “take charge” of the interaction so that they don’t have to take personal  responsibility for the wanton sexiness that ensues. Some women may enjoy this attention and liberation from having to “control” a situation that can otherwise be a social landmine.

This seems to be less of an issue for openly sex positive and mature women who are more sexually confident, and less worried about being “slut shamed” for engaging with a male dancer. But what about a female patron who wants the visual experience, but doesn’t necessarily want to be touched? There’s no space to say “no” with male dancers, which can make the experience feel a little non consensual. Compare this to the dynamic at a traditional strip club, where a male client is expected to proffer increasing quantities of cash to ensure continued physical attention from the female dancers.

When I was a sophomore in college, my suitemate hired a male stripper for her roommate’s birthday, and of course, all the girls in our hall crowded into the room for the show. The dancer (we’ll call him “John”) was in his early thirties, the former football star type: tan, blonde and muscular (not my type, to be honest). The dynamic in the room was weird, to say the least, in a way that’s challenging to contextualize. Curiosity had brought us to the room, but the majority of the women were visibly uncomfortable as this guy aggressively shoved his crotch in our faces. He made no bones about physically picking up girls to hump them, ignoring their pleas as they begged him to stop  (and we were paying for this privilege?) There were a couple girls in the room who seemed to be actually having fun, and the rest seemed to be sick with ambivalent dread. Yet we stayed put because we were “having fun?” Supposedly?

Was it that we were a bunch of 20 year old girls who hadn’t really come into our sexual agency yet, and thus didn’t feel comfortable letting go and partying with this naked bro? Or was it that this dude was aggressive to the point that his antics seemed vaguely non-consensual? Was it just too much like the awkward sexual experiences  we got to “enjoy” with drunken frat boys for free? I personally found this dude physically unappealing, and his attitude to be a little repugnant. He allegedly asked my suite mate to go home with him when she walked him to his car after the performance, which clearly overstepped the professional boundaries the situation demanded.

My second experience with a male stripper happened five years later, when a coworker invited me to her friend’s bachelorette party that featured two strippers. The first was a short African American man who went by the stage name of “Black Magic.” He was clad in a glitter spangled purple velvet hooded cloak, matching thigh-high boots, and nothing else. BM’s wingman played dramatic music on a boombox while strobelights flickered in anticipation of the big reveal- Black Magic whipped open his cape to reveal an impressive massive cock. He beckoned me, and instructed me to lie down on the floor. Oh, shit, I thought, not entirely comfortable being the center of attention in a room full of strangers.  Black Magic proceeded to lie on top of me and sensually gyrate for a few minutes, while I laid there awkwardly. I’m pretty uninhibited when it comes to sex, but I felt like a deer in the headlights (which is actually how a lot of survivors of date rape describe the moment of assault).

“Grab my butt,” Black Magic whispered in my ear, sensing my confusion. So I did.

Participating in Black Magic’s show was a trial by fire that endeared me to the rest of the ladies in the room, many of whom I was meeting for the first time that night. They were proud of me, they said, moreover they said they were jealous that I got to be his co-star in the first act (the bride-to-be and other several other attendees eagerly lined up to enjoy a slow grind with BM). I didn’t quite get it- while my simulated intercourse with the stripper wasn’t traumatic, perse, I didn’t really find it sexy or erotic- it was just too public, too staged and phony. While I do find the whole “big black cock” trope to be a bit racist and gross, I did appreciate Black Magic’s flair for the dramatic, and his sparkly sex hobbit attire. Unlike John, it was clearly that this was a performance and not an excuse to non-consensually perve: when the hour was up, he got dressed, packed his gear and left without hassling any of the women.

The reactions of the women at this party was the exact opposite of the girls at my college-era stripper experience: attendees lined up to grind with the strippers, caress them, take shots of tequila off their abs, etc. Part of it might have been due to cultural differences around female sexuality (the majority of the women at the party were Mexican-American), and it also might have been that the attendees were sexually confident ladies in their late twenties and and thirties, not to mention the bride’s 50-something aunt who gleefully macked on our beefcake-for-hire. As Susie Bright said:

Women certainly tend to realize their sexual fantasies much later than men. It takes them longer to feel confident about expressing them, searching for them, asking for them, and creating them.

The irony is that women tend to grow more comfortable with their sexuality as they age, while they are simultaneously viewed as less sexually desirable by cultural standards. The emergence of the “Cougar” archetype, while problematic in many ways, is also quite transgressive in terms of creating a space for older women to be viewed as sex symbols, but that’s a whole other essay entirely.

Bachelorette parties are kind of a weird thing in general. Bachelor parties for men are a centuries-old tradition, but the bride’s night out didn’t first emerge until the “Sexual Revolution” late 1960’s (as a supposed symbol of “gender equality”) and didn’t become a mainstream practice until the 1980’s. Bachelorette parties have become a lucrative industry in the 21st century: many sex toy shops now offer plastic penis straws and necklaces for these events; shops like Batteries Not Included are entirely devoted to these novelty items. Bachelorette parties are one of the few spaces where heteronormative women can publicly fetishize penises, celebrate their sexuality (in theory), and objectify men in a socially acceptable setting. I confess that I love bachelorette parties for the sheer camp factor- I baked a penis cake and had a penis piñata when I threw my Sister’s BP- but I intentionally chose NOT to hire a male stripper for many of the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Bachelorette parties can be fun, but they can also be problematic in a lot of ways. Not all women want to have a male stripper’s crotch in their face and wear a penis necklaces and and eat penis-shaped cake. There should be alternatives that aren’t directly modeled after the Bachelor party “booze and strippers” routine (though I’d really love to see a vagina cake and men wearing vagina hats at a bachelor party!) Furthermore, women who do enjoy sexually objectifying men and celebrating dick should have the freedom to do so whenever they please, and not just at bachelorette parties (within consensual, appropriate contexts). Penis necklaces are ok for a bachelorette party, but if a woman chose to wear one to a regular night out at a bar would probably be labeled inappropriate, “slutty,” or eccentric.  Personally, I like to ogle men and talk about dicks on a daily basis, a habit that has a tendency to alienate me from heteronormative spaces (which may be why I tend to feel more at home in queer or gay male spaces, as a FAAB woman who is sexually oriented towards masculine partners. )

I actually think this one is kinda hot.

Although I like the idea of male exotic dancers in theory, the reality could use some improvement. First of all, not all women go for the rather limited mainstream standard of male beauty that most male strippers fall into, and some women may be more turned on by psychological or emotional connections than visual physical imagery (this is certainly true for men, as well.) The now-defunct Filament Magazine did a fun twist on this in their final issue, in a photo pictorial featuring a chubby guy poledancing while a crowd of women showered him in money, as well as a great article about the genre-busting by definition male burlesque scene. Secondly, women need to have the choice to engage with the performer of their own free will, rather than feeling pressured to go along with the game. Thirdly, women need to learn to feel comfortable and derive pleasure (rather than humor) watching a beautiful (by their estimation) man move- and dropping your average macho man into the standard “strip club” model doesn’t really work very well. (And conversely, men need to learn to become comfortable with receiving sexual attention in a receptive, rather than aggressive way.) Male strippers often end up seeming humorous, embarassing, and farcical rather than sexy, like photographer Rion Sabean’s “Men-Ups” photos that have been making the rounds recently.

So, the ultimate question is- what is a more effective strategy for women to visually, erotically, objectify men? Simply reversing the gender roles in existent pornographic and performative tropes based in the heterosexual male gaze clearly isn’t cutting it.

Which takes me to the subject of my next installment: the appropriation of the gay male gaze by straight women.

Men Ups Image Source

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Comments

  1. Your discussion about how a few of the women in the college dorm room watching the male stripper “seemed to be actually having fun” while the rest had a sort of ambivalent dread rang so true to me, but in reverse. The minimal number of times I (straight guy) went to a strip club or a bachelor party with strippers, after some minimal sense of “well, at least one or two women out of the [50/3/whatever]” look good naked, I quickly became uncomfortable and just wished my friends were interested in something else. I do not understand how anyone can enjoy sexuality in a group setting, particularly one where the crowd makes decisions for the individual (as in a group cheering on/generally encouraging behavior that would probably be defined as sexual assault anywhere else when the person is as uninterested as people like you and I in those situations). I am not trying to say “men have it just as bad,” incidentally.

    (Also, my favorite bachelor parties were my one friend’s where we watched professional wrestling for 12 hours, another where we networked our computers in a friend’s basement and played games for a whole weekend, and my own where we merged the bachelor and bachelorette parties for a night on the town in Reykjavík, Iceland)

    As for a strategy for objectifying men? Well, while I of course wish everyone stopped objectifying everyone, I still think it would be fun if the average man experienced how it felt to be lusted after without wishing it, so that is an interesting goal. I certainly have no suggestions, other than perhaps promoting uncomfortable truths about female standards, like how if a guy has a beer gut and a flat ass it is unreasonable for him to expect voluptuous women to find him attractive. But that is probably a pretty boring counterclaim.

    • Thanks for commenting, its interesting to get the male perspective. I agree that strip clubs are not for everyone and the social pressure to enjoy them in group settings can be distinctly weird, because the hivemind sets the expectations for the situation. I have had positive experiences in group sexually charged settings like bdsm play parties, but attendence was strictly voluntary by sex positive, consent oriented people.

      I think consensual sexual objectification is not an intrinsically negative thing. Most of us want to be lusted after and viewed as sexy by our partners of choice. that’s consensual objectification. It’s when we get sexually harassed at work or street harassed that it becomes a problem. I think its very healthy for straight women to be aroused by their partner themself, rather than by simply the ability to turn on their partner. Sexual attraction should be mutual.

      I also disagree with your concept of “uncomfortable truth,” based on individual subjective experience. I know several dudes with beer guts and flat butts in Chicago who are massive playboys. It may be our local culture here that is more fat positive- I certainly have better luck dating here than in Los Angeles. I’m just saying you cannot make universal generalizations about attraction beyond the “people gravitate towards what is fashionable in the mainstream” yet individual predilections are far more complex.

  2. shannonhumphreys says:

    I was a big fan of the standard, male orientated strip club as well. I was always welcomed by the dancers, (and sometimes dragged up on stage for simulated 69’s!) and rarely (if ever) paid for a lap dance. I’ve never seen a male stripper. I mean, it wouldn’t be my thing, anyway, as they’re all pretty much of a “type” and it’s not my preferred type, but I’ve never had the opportunity to see one, anyway. It sounds like your experiences have echoed the kind I’ve seen on television and in films, though, which tend to show pretty much exactly the dynamic you’re describing, which is… yeah, no thanks. But really, I had to come in here and say that “sparkly sex hobbit attire” is GOLD.

    • I kind of have so much love in my heart for Black Magic for wearing a purple glitter cape and thigh high boots. I kind of hope he’s actually a scifi nerd in real life. Women who work as dancers are often queer, feminist, sex positive, highly educated, etc…Not always, but the stereotype that they’re all damaged, drug addicted “sluts” is pretty gross, not to mention inaccurate.

  3. I don’t think admiring – lustily or otherwise – someone’s physical appearance is necessarily objectification. Objectification is seeing someone as a (sexual) object only, disregarding the rest of their being as a person. Effectively it means disregarding the objectified person’s own individual desires and sexual personality – and I do think that happens a lot with strippers and sex workers, when customers prefer to think of them with fantasy personalities whether that is voracious undiscriminating slut or hooker with the heart of gold or whatever, because its uncomfortable to recognise them as ordinary people who are bound to have a range of opinions about their customers and unlikely to be really aroused all the time they’re working. I often feel that some people would be happier when we have lifelike sex robots – and that’s whats objectification is about. You can have a quick no-strings hookup with someone because you lust after their buttocks, and still appreciate that its a human being you’re sleeping with and not objectify them.

    Good on Black Magic – its hard to completely deny someone their individuality when they are that quirky.

  4. I think you bring up an important question about how to objectify men. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that but as a guy that are carrying out some strip jobs myself I’m interested in this subject. I usually strip for charity events and making the crowd comfortable has always been a goal for my manager. As you say, male strippers are often very aggressive in their approach to the crowd, making many women feel discomfortable. When we’re doing shows for charity we are told not to encourage the crowd to touch unless they desire, and we’re not trying to sit down on their lap unless they clearly want us to. This approach has actually increased the number of visitors and anonymous reviews about our shows shows that the women feel that they’re not taken outside their comfort zone. The women who are somewhat shy and don’t really want to engage anything can simply sit back and enjoy themselves instead of being afraid of aggressive stripper moves invading their private space.

    Other measures are also taken to make sure guests are comfortable such as having a strictly women policy, and the bartenders and staff in the venue are also female. The idea behind it is the philosophy that women know what women wants better than other men and we have experienced that women are less shy about stating their desires during the evening than is the case with the presence of male customers.

    So, is this a good and strategic way of objectifying? I can’t answer that, but I do think we have a good start in our organization. For women to fully appreciate men in an erotic and visual non-funny manner and men to enjoy receiving such attention will undoubtedly take some time but one has to start somewhere. The latter is perhaps the most challenging aspect. At our place I’ve seen many colleagues that have a hard time adjusting to being ogled and sexualized without the opportunity to make aggressive moves or act funny as a stripper in the traditional type of show. Most quit after some time and they’ve asked me how I can keep going.

    My answer is that I’ve always been a bit of a “passive” guy and I enjoy what I’m doing. The way I see it this business can be an opportunity for some extra income for many men, including myself. Personally I believe the demand for male strippers on women’s terms will rise as a generation of young women graduate from uni and become highly paid professionals, many of which desire to spend money on erotic, visual entertainment. Personally I think there’s a chance that we’ll a come to a point where there are many professional women compared to men having the economic advantage in order to shape this business to their gaze.

    But, I’ll stop my rant now ;) Sorry about some bad language, I’m not a native English speaker but still hope you’ll find my post useful.

    • Hey guy,
      This is a really interesting and useful viewpoint- it’s nice to get a male stripper’s perspective, especially since your organization does seem to be doing it in a better, more woman-friendly way. Would you be up for being (anonymously) interviewed for the series?
      Bianca@msbehaved.com

      • Glad I could help. But what kind of interview would this be, and how would it be conducted?

  5. I know this is an old post by now, but I just dropped by this blog again after quite some time and found my old post. I’m still an entertainer and if still relevant I can do an anonymous interview via e-mail, for for instance, so feel free to send me an email with questions (I use the same email to confirm the comments).

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