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).

Showgirl Galleria Opens after Strip Club Resolution Tabled

At Tuesday morning’s Grand Rapids City Commission Committee of the Whole meeting, City Commissioners voted to table a resolution that would restrict sexually oriented businesses such as strip clubs like Mark London’s proposed Showgirl Galleria. The resolution was tabled after Commissioner Tormala announced that he planned to propose an amendment that would make nude dancing legal and focus instead on illicit activities such as prostitution. The proposed resolution as it is currently written would ban total nudity, keep patrons at a set distance from performers, elevate the stage, and require a peep show booths to be visible to club operators. Tormala said that he made the changes over concerns that the proposed resolution would not hold up to an anticipated legal challenge. Judy Rose, member of the Black Hills Citizens for a Better Community, the group that is leading the effort and has offered to bankroll the city’s defense dismissed Tormala’s concerns and at the City Commission’s Tuesday night meeting said that while she had no problem waiting another two weeks for further discussion of the resolution, the City Commission had already heard from Scott Bergthold, a lawyer who specializes in the writing and defending of such resolutions who believes that the Grand Rapids resolution is entirely defensible. The corporate media has reported that most Commissioners oppose the Tormala’s changes to the resolution.

Shortly after the City Commission voted to table the resolution, Mark London opened Showgirl Galleria for the first time, holding what was described as an “impromptu” opening. While the club will not have its formal opening with regular hours until May, the “opening” on Tuesday offered Mark London another opportunity to get free advertising for his club from the corporate media who has been largely willing to give him considerable airtime to promote his club. According to the report that ran in the Grand Rapids Press, a patron challenged stereotypes about strip clubs and said “This isn’t the kind of place to get drunk and grope women… I think it’s going to be a little more upscale,” while watching three semi-nude women dance for the dozen or so men that had assembled to watch the dancers amidst the ongoing construction. As a means of flouting the proposed resolution, the dancers appeared without pasties that would be required to cover their nipples under the new resolution while patrons were encouraged to stuff dollar bills in the dancers g-strings, a practice that would be banned with the new resolution.

As has been the case with most of the reporting on the resolution in the corporate media, there was no discussion of the realities of the sex industry and instead opposition to the resolution is framed entirely in terms of religion and morality. There has yet to be any mention of the connections between the pornography industry (of which strip clubs are a part) and sexual violence or the inherent objectification and dehumanization of women in strip clubs and the ways in which such views continue outside of clubs. Similarily, while there has been considerable discussion of the Showgirl Galleria, there has been no attention given to Tini Bikini’s, another downtown club that both promotes objectifying views of women and the pornography industry as a whole.

Andrea Smith: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide

In this lecture, author, scholar, and activist Andrea Smith of INCITE! Women of Color against Violence discussed sexual violence in American Indian communities and the role of sexual violence in genocide. Smith argues hat sexual violence is an inherent part of the colonial project. She also asserts that sexual violence–as a weapon of both patriarchy and colonialism–must be approached from an anti-colonial perspective. Finally, she shares her thoughts on organizing against sexual violence and argues for a “mass movement” against sexual violence that exists outside of current non-profit structures.

Keeping the Promise of Patriarchy Alive: Some Reflections on the Promise Keepers Men’s Movement

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

A headline in the local Christian publication Something Better News reads “Promise Keepers: Christians 72,000; Lions Zero.” This strange but telling headline boasts of the rapidly growing numbers of a “new” men’s movement known as the Promise Keepers. 72,000 men gathered recently in the Pontiac Silverdome football stadium to “worship, pray, and commit themselves to God and their families.” I attended a smaller meeting here in Grand Rapids just prior to the larger gathering in Pontiac and I came away feeling frustrated and afraid for the future of relationships between opposite genders. This “new” men’s movement is fundamentally the OLD one, where male dominance is the order of the day, in the family, church, and society. I also recently read the Promise Keepers handbook, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family of Colorado. In this article I will give some analysis of the movement based on their own writings and my observations at one of their meetings.

The first and most disappointing aspect of what I understand about the Promise Keepers is their failure to denounce violence against women. In the 207 pages of Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, not one word was mentioned about the need for men to stop raping, beating, and murdering women. Sure, at the meeting that I attended men were admonished to treat their wives with respect, but that advice within a male dominant context may have nothing to do, as we shall see, with the end of spousal abuse.

Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper is a collection of 18 essays by 17 different men who offer strong advice to men on how to keep women subordinate. Many of the book’s contributors have not only been faithfully anti-feminist, but also anti-gay, pro-military, and intolerant of other religious and spiritual traditions. A quick look at some of these men will help put in perspective their urgings to other men.

Dr. James Dobson is the founder and leader of one of the largest rightwing sectors of evangelical Christianity, known as Focus on the Family. Started in 1997g, this organization has grown to a $90 million a year operation, an operation that publishes books, 10 different magazines, and broadcasts its radio program on 1,400 radio stations daily. Dobson has been a big supporter of Operation Rescue, is opposed to sex education and evolutionary theories in the public schools, but is more recently known for his major influence in the passing of anti-gay legislation in Colorado.

Luis Palau, as was reported last fall in The Fundamentalist, advocates Christianizing the world, even through violent means. This has been demonstrated by his long standing relationships with numerous despots throughout Latin America, most notably the former General of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, who was responsible for the deaths of nearly 20,000 people in 18 months as president by coup.

Jack Hayford has been a longtime preacher on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the Network that produces the “praise the Lord” program that brought Jim and Tammy Baker to fame. Hayford has been the personal minister to Paul and Jan Crouch, the founders of TBN. The Crouchs, although less political in their programming, are very involve in the politics of Israel, especially since it fits into their Armageddon theology (the notion that the world is going to end soon with the return of Jesus).

Bill Bright is president of Campus Crusade for Christ, which began on the campus of UCLA in 1951g. Bright’s movement became well known during 1968g, when it entered berkely with the intention of “thwarting the efforts of the movement against the Vietnam War and supporting Governor Reagan in his attempt to contain massive campus disruption (Diamond, Spiritual Warfare, pg. 52). Bright also is active in setting up chapters of his ministry on military bases. Known as the Officers Christian Fellowship, this group of 7,000 officers ministers to active duty officers on United States military bases here and abroad. In 1987g, Bright was included on the exclusive guest list of Ronald Reagan at a dinner for then Salvadoran President Duarte.

One of the features of the Promise Keepers, as eluded to in the opening paragraph, is by way of making their events seem like a sporting event. One of the main proponents of this men’s movement is Bill McCartney who is the head football coach at the University of Colorado. The language and metaphors that he uses in his essay of the book Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper are exclusively sports related. McCartney talks about he gets men to relax before a game by watching boxing matches. This is similar to the military showing pornographic films to soldiers before going into battle, as was done during the United States war in the Persian Gulf. McCartney is also hailed as being a healer of racial tensions, specifically between Blacks and Whites. At one point he relates his experience of being at the funeral of a former Black football player. He says that this mostly Black-attended funeral changed his life, yet does not elaborate on it or give any specific examples of what it did for his future relations with Blacks. Sure he advocates that his Black and White players get along, but that is in part so they play better together, because, as I believe, with male unity women can be better kept in place. Many other contributors to the book echo this same sentiment.

Several of the contributors refer to men “who have let the women be heads of household” as “weak” and “sissies.” Dr. Tony Evans, who is a Chaplin for the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, says tthat the primary crisis for this country is the “feminization of the American male…a misunderstanding of manhood that has produced a nation of sissified men who abdicate their role as spiritually pure leaders, thus forcing women to fill the vacuum.” Evans’ essay on Spiritual Purity is by far the most blatant in its advocacy for female subordination, in a subsection entitled “Reclaiming your Manhood,” Evans says, “The first thing you must do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back. I’m urging you to take it back.” In many ways this sums up the fundamental principles behind this men’s movement: to subordinate women, because God says so. This is one of the differences between this movement and that of the Robert Bly version. This movement is exclusively supported by the perceived male godhead religion of Christianity. What is interesting is that even these men, like many other men’s movements, are trying to appropriate the language of women’s ability to give birth by saying that “Like a woman who is pregnant and nearing the end of her term, we Christian men are about to burst forth with the coming of the Lord in ways we have never experienced.”

While I can acknowledge that this movement may help men to stop drinking, cheating on their spouses, and spend more time with their children, it does not promote real equality where women are seen as equals and not as narrowly defined homemakers. In my opinion the Promise Keepers is a movement that, apart from being homophobic and supportive of the economic status quo, is a response to the influence of the feminist movements to challenge the old guard of male dominance. It is a pep rally-like movement that brings men together to primarily affirm their desire to control women. Like a football game, they are the stars that score the touchdowns, while the women stand on the sidelines in a non-participatory role to cheer them on. God is the coach and HE sends in the ideological plays that men zealously follow with other men to achieve their goals. The only promise that the Promise Keepers really keep is to continue to play this game.