At Work When Women Approach and Men Receive: Masculinity and Sexual Subjectivity in the Strip Club
When we conflate men’s sexuality with harassment and violence, we don’t ask much of them. Masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic.
Men say a lot of things to me at work. I’ve been told that my eyes are like “cheetah eyes,” always scanning the room for prey. Men compliment my smile, my energy, my intelligence, and the mole on my butt, which one customer told me he spends his entire week thinking about. One assumed I must have been abused as a child to do this work, and seemed disappointed when I told him no, in fact, I had been—and still am—loved, and loved well. Men have instructed me to lose a few pounds, or that I need to work on being sexier. Others say not to dare lose a single ounce; that I am perfect, that my body is exactly to their tastes.
In an article for The Guardian published in October 2012, Susannah Breslin calls strip clubs “the new normal” for young straight men who want to experience masculinity, sexuality, and camaraderie all in the same place. She asserts that younger men are better customers than older patrons, quoting Bubbles, the founder of the sex worker blog Tits and Sass : “Today’s young men are better customers, [Bubbles] says, because ‘they aren’t as entitled as the older guys’ who ‘think that strippers should let them do whatever they want, for cheap.’”
I find this assertion to be somewhat suspect. While many young men are able to perform feminism more fluently than their older counterparts, I see their actions when they are surrounded by beautiful naked women whose job it is to flirt and make them feel like a man. And those actions speak louder than words.
In a sentence that has made the article impossible for me to forget, Breslin writes of strip clubs as “ a private room wherein a lap dance is on the table and a man expressing his sexuality isn’t going to be met with a sexual harassment lawsuit.” The implication here is that it is impossible to sexually harass a stripper because of the nature of the job. This isn’t true—though before I started dancing, I did have to take into account the fact that, for the rest of my life, if a man ever did something that was “bad enough” for me to consider pressing charges, working as a stripper could be used against me and lead to his exoneration. This isn’t just idle paranoia on my part: When dancers in New Orleans complained about degrading and traumatizing behavior by the police involved in a series of raids of Bourbon Street clubs, officers responded by saying, “ You lost your right to decency when you became a stripper .”
Despite the fact that I meet many men in a strip club, they’re not, as one might assume, all obvious creeps. They vary in race, social class, age, and physical attractiveness, but generally, they’re just average guys, and the club is a microcosm of the world outside. Inside the club itself, I’ve learned quickly to navigate touch with ever-present vigilance; at any moment I am aware of my body language and how I carry myself, and the physical and psychological boundaries I erect between myself and customers. An errant pinch of my nipple as a customer hands over a single dollar is always to be anticipated and avoided, but it’s more lucrative for me if I swerve out of range of that touch with a coy smile and a wagging finger, as if I’ve caught a child being naughty rather than a grown man slyly attempting to exert power over me. More than once I have caught a stranger’s wrist in my hand as he moved to grab my ass, trying to take what he refused to give me a chance to allow.
My consent, in these interactions, is never sought. That strippers consent, under certain circumstances, to some touch seems to imply to customers—and the public generally—that we necessarily consent to all touch. Breslin’s statement corroborates this in a dangerous and dehumanizing way. The argument also implies that men’s authentic expressions of sexuality and desire must necessarily be conflated with harassment and violence, and that strip clubs are the one place where they can get away with it. If recent news cycles or your social media feeds are any indication, though, it’s clear that this is untrue: They can get away with it just about anywhere.
But it has become clear to me that there is something wrong—or, if I’m being generous, very wounded—about many of the men with whom I interact. At work, on nights that unfold in fits and stops, I catch myself wondering about masculinity itself. What is it? Why do the men who come here perform it in such rote and predictable ways? What are their authentic desires? And if the rude and boorish ways they interact with me truly do represent their authentic embodiment of masculinity, what then?
As a stripper, I’ve fully learned what I should have been raised knowing: that my body is my own—even, and especially, bare before a crowd of men. Though it is clear to me that men of all ages are still not raised to believe the same, the suggestion that masculinity must be inherently violent and domineering is the point I cannot let go of.
As a sex educator, I spent the last two years researching the topic of sexual subjectivity, mostly through the lens of the difficulty cisgender women have, in adolescence and beyond, of developing their own subjectivity—their sense that they have a right to pleasure, safety, and fulfillment in sexual relationships. The world is structured, after all, to the male gaze; cis male subjectivity is paramount, and nowhere is this truer than in a strip club. Yet cis male subjectivity and masculinity are two very different things.
When I walk into work, I know that I am walking into a sexualized atmosphere. I take pleasure in the image of myself I see from the stage: eight inches taller; all eyes, limbs, tits, ass, and hair; more powerful the longer I dance, my body becoming stronger, more flexible, more capable. It has taken me my whole life to begin to understand myself as a sexual subject deserving of pleasure, tenderness, joy; the world was not eager to teach me this. It has taken me even longer to be willing to see myself as a sexual object, to reconcile that with my identity as a feminist, and to delight in it. My humanity is comprised of both experiences: subject and object. Inhabiting both freely has added to the fullness of who I am.
In Stone Butch Blues, Leslie Feinberg writes about masculinity through the lens of a butch woman and transgender lesbian; narrator Jess Goldberg’s relationship to masculinity is complex, and unfolded in this story long before resources about the spectrum of gender were widely available. While Stone Butch Blues is at times imperfect, Feinberg writes about masculinity by putting tenderness and humility at the center of it. In one scene, Jess asks Yvette, a sex worker who was sexually assaulted that night, to dance. The moment hinges on Yvette’s reluctance, and changes when Jess asks for Yvette’s consent with complete humility, offering only comfort and expecting nothing in return.
Jess, as a stone butch growing up in the sixties and seventies, is as far from cultural subjectivity as it is possible to be. Her masculinity is painstakingly, conscientiously, and intentionally inhabited, often at great physical and emotional cost. Perhaps it is cis men’s proximity to what Western culture considers “subjectivity”—the cis male gaze, and socially constructed cis male desire—that makes their masculinity so often toxic. Through this limiting lens, these men are always the subject and never the object; they are never given the chance to see themselves through the eyes of another, whether in caution and fear, or—perhaps even more sadly—in reverence, lust, or love.
Lately, at my day job, I’ve worked with adolescent boys whose embodiments of masculinity are nascent and wavering; they are sweet and tough, awkward and tender, certain and painfully unsure. A client said to me recently, “You know, girls don’t think we have feelings. They think we don’t care. But we do.”
He avidly described his frustration with being unable to express himself, but his frustration wasn’t aimed at me, or even at young women in general; it just was, an open-ended question for which he had no answer, only directionless pain. How do we get from there to the club, a place where men routinely ask me which of my body parts are real and which are fake, how my boyfriend lets me get away with dancing here, or how much it would cost to fuck me?
Masculinity doesn’t have to be toxic. A few nights ago, I had one of those rare, pleasant, and intriguing conversations with a customer. He tipped well, offered to buy another drink as soon as my glass was empty, and didn’t scrutinize whether the drinks I ordered were real or fake, small blessings on a slow night. He told me about a book he’d read when, as he explained, “masculinity wasn’t working” for him. “It really helped me realize some of the things I do wrong,” he said. “Like not feeling my feelings, and getting angry or shutting down. I think a lot of masculinity is like that. Once I realized I do it, too, and read the book and learned how to stop doing it, I definitely felt a lot calmer.”
The process, he said, took time and wasn’t easy, and there doesn’t seem to be any overwhelming incentive for most cis men to examine their own relationship to masculinity this way. It’s easier, perhaps, and certainly less deliberately painful, to coast along the way so many of my customers tend to do—accepting, uncritically, a widespread, one-size-fits-all, masculinity that doesn’t ask much of them. When we conflate men’s sexuality with harassment and violence, we don’t ask much of men, either.
In sex education and gender studies, we talk about masculinities, plural. I think of the adolescent boys I work with, their delicate, tentative masculinity searching for but rarely finding an authentic reflection of how to be in the world. I think of the men in my life who I trust, who are warm, loving, and respectful. They freely give their time and emotional support, and can usually elaborate and articulate their feelings with relative ease; all qualities that would otherwise be coded “feminine.”
And yet this type of masculinity is almost completely absent at the club. Men who come to the club where I work oftentimes exhibit an arrogance that men outside of the club—in my experience—usually try to be more subtle about, at least. Information is demanded of me at work: What do I do when I’m not here? Aren’t I good enough for anything other than this? Men will endeavor to explain to me, in explicit detail and apropos of nothing but the fact that I’m there and wearing lingerie, all the ways they will certainly make me come. I have slapped a man in the face for continuing to push my boundaries, and he looked like he was waking up out of a trance, as if a woman asserting herself was a reality for which he had never been prepared; as if a woman who is paid to take her clothes off could never conceive of her right to say “No.”
These interactions are easier to shrug off here than when they happen outside, but I wonder if they should be. In a recent episode of the Culture of Consent podcast, host Leah King interviewed educator Aaron Rose about masculinity and consent, specifically in the context of recent national conversations about sexual harassment. “You can’t give what you can’t receive,” he said. “If you can’t see another person as a human, you must not really see yourself as human. Dehumanization goes both ways.”
Many people assume sex workers feel dehumanized by our work, but I don’t know many sex workers who would agree with that characterization. I certainly don’t, though it is clear to me dehumanization and disconnection are a large part of many of the interactions I have with men as a stripper. At the club, the women approach and the men receive. Men are the passive recipients of feminine attention, but their subjectivity is still the focal point of an exhaustingly narcissistic experience: their fantasies, their desires, their wants, their needs, their demands to be met by a naked, beautiful girl. They come to feel desired by feminine folks, but in a place that is still structured by the male gaze: Even in strip clubs, a man is always the subject and never the vulnerable object, relinquishing of power, fantasized about and acted upon.
That these men are not given—or struggle to allow—an experience of themselves as objects of desire seems to me a clear lack, a gap, a crucial missing piece in their understanding of themselves. A wound. Their masculinity is laborious to engage with, but perhaps it is also exhausting and lonely to maintain, day in and day out, your whole life long.