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. )
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.