This is the fourth in The Tyee's Love on the Edge series.]
On any given night at Brandi's Exotic Nightclub in Vancouver, the women equal, and sometimes outnumber, the men. Sure, it's touted as a bridge between a nightclub and a venue for adult entertainment, a comfortable place for couples and women, but you can't escape the fact that women on stage are incrementally peeling off their clothes. The advent of what some people are calling "raunch feminism" is what is driving a whole bunch of trends like this lately - from pole and lap dancing lessons under the clever marketing guise of fitness, to Girls Gone Wild, and its Canuck counterpart Wild Canadian Girls, where young women at Mardi Gras and Spring Break flash, spread and simulate lesbianism - not for money, but simply for cameras.
Sexual power, a well-practiced special talent of women, could be one reason why so many of us are frequenting strip clubs these days. Another might be women's well-conditioned habit of competing with each other for the attention of men. It cold be that we simply want to keep a watchful eye on our boyfriends / husbands. Or maybe that we want to learn a thing or two to keep him happy. One woman I spoke with confessed that ever since her boyfriend cheated on her with a stripper, she goes to the clubs to prove to herself that "they're all skanks." But I get the feeling it has more to do with taking away a few tips to ensure that it never happens again.
I've spent some time over the years at the clubs. It was plain old curiosity that started me. I once had a boyfriend who visited a certain popular strip club in Toronto every Wednesday night. He was a journalist, so to put a sugar coat on it, he confessed his "sin" very carefully over dinner one night, telling me it was "research." He needn't have bothered; just about every guy I know goes to watch women take their clothes off. But I was struck by the regularity of his visits and it made me want to go find out what the allure might have been.
I got my chance one night while out bar-hopping with my friend Jay. We ended up at his army alumni Christmas party at one of Toronto's less seemly gentleman's clubs. Not counting the strippers and half clad waitresses, I was the only woman in the room. Among all the testosterone, I felt like I was finally getting a glimpse into the secret world of men. It didn't take long to figure out that although sex was the commodity, the trade was in money and, mostly, power. As I sat front and centre watching the women, and flirting with Jay and his buddies, I realized that although fully clothed, I had my own particularly enjoyable hold in the room.
I admit, I liked that feeling and started going to the clubs whenever I got a chance, always with men. It was, after all, at such odds with my strict Catholic upbringing to enjoy looking at naked women while talking so openly with men about their desires and how I might learn to fulfill them.
That's why I was disappointed at Brandi's recently, when I first noticed the marked increase in the number of women milling about the club. I told people I was upset on behalf of men at the invasion of one of their last bastions of male-hood. But that was only part of it. No longer could I portray myself as an evolved, accepting, un-jealous woman, all the while secretly loving the attention I got in a room mostly full of appreciative men. In the past, my only competition for the male gaze were the untouchable fantasies bumping and grinding on stage.
Here, all kinds of women were annoyingly causing distraction from the main event. Some were sitting in "gyno row," offering their breasts for the strippers to grab, while others were kissing and groping right in the eye-line between men and the stage. I asked former stripper Annie Temple about this. She said, "Those are the women I used to drag on stage since, obviously, they wanted to be there. But is it better to act glaringly rude for attention and not get paid? Or, to dance in a legitimate occupation for the same attention and be paid well?"
Of course, I never put myself in this scenario since I wouldn't considered being up on stage. I only wanted to bear witness to the goings-on.
I wonder though, is there anywhere men can go anymore just to be men? Don't they go to strip clubs for the fantasy of it all, for a little tease by the unattainable, to get a good look at a hot woman but not have to be responsible for how she feels? Mix real, live, available woman with fantasy prototypes in a sex club and watch what happens. I suspect we've reached a point where the line of demarcation between the two is barely visible.
It wasn't that long ago when strippers occupied the low end of the social and professional stratosphere, but with women so keen to emulate them, it seems their stars are on the rise. Are strippers the new superwomen? I am woman, watch me strip! It used to be, you weren't a real woman unless you had a kid. Now it seems imperative to learn to dangle upside-down on a pole. If pole dancing is fitness, (and I'm not saying strippers aren't talented acrobats) then why are students entering competitions in stripper gear and featured at consumer events like the recent Naughty But Nice Sex Show? When I asked Aradia Fitness co-owner Tracy Gray how "fitness" includes the vinyl thigh-high spike heeled boots she said, without a shred of irony, "They help grip the pole."
Stripper culture's bleed into the mainstream has been enthusiastically led by some of the most popular celebrities like Carmen Electra, Britney Spears, Teri Hatcher and even Oprah, who took a whirl on the pole during one of her trend shows. Women are now staging stagettes at male strip clubs instead of going to see men take it all off. In an age of deconstruction of norms and traditions, young women truly seem to believe that this anything-goes-and-shows attitude is just an inherited right, fought for by feminist foremothers. New York journalist and feminist Ariel Levy calls this new breed Female Chauvinist Pigs: "She is post-feminist. She is funny. She gets it. She doesn't mind cartoonish stereotypes of female sexuality, and she doesn't mind a cartoonishly macho response to them. The FCP asks: Why worry about disgusting or degrading when you could be giving - or getting - a lap dance yourself? Why try to beat them when you can join them?"
If this is truly the trend, I'm a little concerned that we might be selling ourselves short. Each of us, after all, has our own instinctual sexuality that's what makes chemistry so interesting. So, I don't really get why we have to borrow someone else's idea (or a whole culture's one-dimensional idea) about how to be sexy.
What I was discovering, though, is that my own observations in the clubs were enhancing, and maybe even altering, my sense of my own sexuality.
On another trip to Brandi's, I met Crystal, a lovely, tall brunette whom, you could say, initiated me into the "female" experience of male strip clubs. I joined her all-girl table to find out why they were there and she was only too happy to tell. "I love to look at naked women," she said, adding that she appreciates the athleticism of the strippers. She had recently become engaged, but that didn't stop her, though her fiancé didn't ever care to join her. Leading me up to "gyno row" she asked me if I was married. No, I said. She leaned intoxicatingly close to advise, "Before you get married you should be with a woman, at least once."
It wasn't long after we sat down that the man next to me offered me five bucks to give to the stripper. Earlier, a couple of men told me they were annoyed at the presence of so many women, that it changed the experience for them. Not this guy. He was paying to see me interact with the dancer. Now, after reading about female chauvinist pigs, I'm wondering if my own behaviour makes me one. I'm certainly not consciously aware of recasting my feminism as "empowerment" to behave badly, but there was something exciting in this new and seemingly forbidden world. Here was a woman thrusting her private parts very close to my face. The pull to look was strong and I pushed the default Catholic shame aside. She looked the same as me, only intriguingly different.
Sitting with the twenty-something Crystal, it occurred to me that consuming pornography of any kind is fairly normal for her generation (hence the female chauvanist pig trend) while for me, in my mid-forties, it's still in many ways taboo.
This experience, and Crystal's advice, stayed in my consciousness so much that a few months later at Brandi's, a little more inebriated than usual, I allowed myself to be escorted to the back, curtained area for my own private "non-contact" lap dance. My dancer, another brunette, was the perfect mix of athletic and feminine - petite with smallish breasts, a well toned, tanned and unmarked body. I found it utterly uncomfortable to be in a sexual situation without being able to touch and yet exciting to want to. She told me she thought I was pretty and I hoped she really did. Was this normal procedure? While there's no shortage of men willing to escort me to the peeler bar to do my "research," they sure are reluctant to admit to paying for lap dances, let alone to reveal the appeal. So I have no idea if this woman really liked me or if she was just earning her keep. But I do understand how a man, lonely or not, with a satisfying personal life, or without one might be flattered and attracted to such attention. No strings attached. Just a little harmless exchange of discretionary cash. What happens at the club stays at the club.
In an essay from What I Meant to Say: The Private Lives of Men, writer Ian Brown breaks his experience down like this, "I went to the club to bring lust into a more honourable place in my life, to normalize my desire, to make it less of a big deal. For a man, looking is part of his education. It's one way he learns the difference between what he wants and what he can have; or between what he thinks he wants, is supposed to want and what he actually needs."
Maybe that's what I've been doing in the strip clubs; coming to terms with my own sexuality which I've always worried I placed in too high prominence; trying to understand what men want, why they want it and how I can give it; and dealing with my curiosity about women without having to consummate it. For now, I think I've had enough and I'm only too happy to leave these dens to the men who, at least according to some I spoke to, are hankering to reclaim their territory.
Carla Lucchetta is a freelance writer and TV producer. Her commentary on "the way we live today" can be found at HerKind.com.