Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire

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In Grand Rapids, there has been considerable debate over the prospect of banning nude dancing and regulating what is popularly called “adult entertainment” over the past year, in a debate brought on by the construction of an “all-nude” strip club in the downtown district. This debate has incorporated many opposing viewpoints including those (primarily male individuals) that frequent strip clubs, religious groups, progressive groups, and even those who believe that strip clubs and the larger sex industry may offer some means through which women can increase their power in the patriarchal system. Unfortunately, Liepe-Levinson’s book offers limited insight into the debate surrounding the question of whether or not strip clubs exploit women and reinforce patriarchy. Liepe-Levinson seems to have wholeheartedly adopted the role of the “disinterested” academic anthropologist/sociologist who only wishes to report on and “understand” the particular community that she is researching—in this case strip club employees and their clientele—and as such, she makes few judgments and conclusions about the question of exploitation in strip clubs. While Liepe-Levinson’s book is helpful in explaining exactly what goes on in strip clubs as far as the particulars of dancing are concerned, these practical aspects of stripping could easily be discovered elsewhere. The book fails to subsequently address what should be the key question in any book on this topic—whether or not these clubs reinforce patriarchy. Instead, Liepe-Levison gives the readers quotes like:

Like society at large, some aspects of female and male strip shows remain sexist, heterosexist, and classist. Nevertheless, the fundamental arrangements and dynamics of these events still offer patrons an opportunity for sex role experimentation that interrogates the very basis of such prejudices.

Such juxtapositions are a staple of Liepe-Levinson’s book wherein she frequently discusses the oppressive aspects of strip clubs only to follow them up with poorly supported “counter-arguments.”

Nevertheless, the early portion of her book does explore some of the more basic ways in which strip shows function in sexually exploitative ways and reinforce patriarchy including how female dancers play a desired sex object role, how male spectators dominate women through the act of “gazing,” and how the sex industry reinforces privilege because it is primarily white males that can pay for it. She also discusses how the “baby doll” and “nursing helpmate” characters are among the most popular in strip clubs and how these characters reinforce traditional gendered expectations of appropriate female behavior. Women are also pressured to alter their bodies in order to conform to a male defined standard of beauty via surgery, hair removal, cosmetics, and tanning. Men also pay to “control” women through the act of “tipping” whereby women engage in different behaviors based on the amount of money given to them. These arguments about the exploitative nature of strip clubs are taken further by Rebecca Schneider (cited in the book) who argues that the buying and selling of women’s bodies whether through images or strip shows helps to fuel capitalism and gives women the position of private property in society.

Granted, the book is well researched with field work spanning 8 cities and more than 70 different clubs and Liepe-Levinson seems familiar with the various feminist arguments against both strip clubs and pornography, but the author’s counter-arguments frequently fall short. While she is correct in identifying the fact that focusing only on sexism and the exploitative aspects of strip shows denies sexual agency and individual will, her arguments that such shows do not reinforce patriarchy are underdeveloped. As an example, Liepe-Levison spends a considerable amount of time describing the exteriors of strip clubs and surveying them for insights into the way in which they operate in terms of crafting gender roles. She focuses on a club in Montreal where photos of nude women looking down from a second-story window are described by her not as a means to objectify women, but rather as indicative of the “power” of an overly sexual woman dominatrix and “the transgressive male desire to be sexually overwhelmed or enslaved by a woman.” Similarly, she argues that pornography can give women power, because men then feel like they need to “prove” their manliness, or in the case of pornography in Hustler type magazines, men see the women as beautiful and thus “high class” giving women a position above that of men. Of course, Liepe-Levison’s point that there are gradations and ambiguities in the sex industry’s exploitation is well taken, and indeed acknowledged by many opponents of the industry, Liepe-Levison’s arguments are based more on hypothesis than they are objective data—a technique that she decries when discussing the “secondary effects” argument early in the book. The author argues that most proponents of the harmful secondary effects argument do not have specific data about whether or not legal sex trade businesses move into areas already in decline, whether they furthered the problem, or whether the demise was caused by other factors. She also describes how their have been no studies looking at how other types of establishments disrupt neighborhoods and that the zoning of sex industry businesses is really a “class issue” based on the idea of rejecting the “low” and “vulgar.” The concept of class and the sex industry is indeed important and has long been a critical part of the discussion, and while Liepe-Levison describes how none of the dancers she talked to got involved in the industry through economic coercion, this has happened with other dancers and her arguments that pornography can give women a form of class power or that women dressing up in formal attire in their strip shows gives them class privilege over males seems almost laughable.

Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire will offer little to those look for ways to combat strip clubs as a means through which patriarchy is reinforced in society. Instead, many activist readers will be frustrated by the book’s almost irresponsible dismissal of many of the exploitative aspects of the sex industry. So while Liepe-Levison touts the fact that “baby doll virginal” acts in strip shows offer “opportunities for experimentation and transgression” and that they have no connection to “pedophilia,” many readers familiar with the fact that the such acts increase the demand for younger models will likely become agitated. Overall, this book contributes little to the debate and is generally not worth reading.

Katherine Liepe-Levinson, Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire, (Routledge, 2002).

Author: mediamouse

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