Two weeks ago my friends and I spent 45 dollars to watch semi-naked men clad in firefighter outfits awkwardly gyrate to Bon Jovi songs at the Ho Chunk Casino in Baraboo, Wisconsin. While watching the “blokes” from Thunder From Down Under tear off various pieces of clothing, I was by turns revolted, disturbed, and amused but never aroused. And I thought to myself, Women deserve better strippers than this.
Envision a theatrical production concocted by a not-particularly imaginative 5-year-old and performed by intoxicated WWE wrestlers, and you’ll get the idea. Each vignette featured a new theme in an attempt to cover a wide variety of stereotypical female fantasies. So we got to see gangsters and Roman soldiers and cowboys, who, after some choreographed combat, stripped down to thongs and showed their sculpted buttocks to the crowd. The closest we came to seeing a penis was when we glimpsed the side of the bare shaft and testicles of Alex, a mid-30s, steroid-filled Australian stripper.
Then it started to get interesting. They’d bring overweight 40-something women on stage for lap dances, guiding the women’s thick hands inside their thongs. They’d simulate cunnilingus and intercourse on the deliriously happy women. They’d jog into the audience as women grabbed at their crotches with a fierceness usually reserved for plucking bulk condiments from Costco’s shelves. Clearly, the audience loved them.
So why do we have so few female-friendly strip clubs?
You usually have to go to a large city to find a strip club primarily geared to a female audience, whereas every dumpy small town in America has a gentlemen’s club. The argument is that this is a demand problem: naked men don’t turn women on. Women are aroused by romance, not bare genitals. But that argument doesn’t hold up under scrutiny, as the vaginal plethysmograth shows us. Heterosexual women are, in fact, aroused by visual stimuli. They’re turned on by watching men having sex with women, women having sex with women, men having sex with men, and monkeys having sex with monkeys. Twenty-five percent of viewers of free online pornography are women.
So why does this myth persist that women aren’t aroused by naked men?
It’s partly that the second-wave feminist movement latched onto pornography as an emblem of out-of-control male heterosexual desire. As feminist Robin Morgan famously said, “Pornography is the theory; rape is the practice.” It’s partly the fault of Laura Mulvey for arguing in 1975 that the erotic gaze is the province of men only, and that “the male figure cannot bear the burden of sexual objectification.” For a woman in the 1970s to admit that she gets turned on by watching sex violated one of feminism’s sacred tenets. But that doesn’t explain why we still have this myth. For that, the blame can be put on that age-old fear of women’s out-of-control sexuality.
The idea that sex devoid of romance could turn women on is terrifying. It goes against the comforting cultural narrative that women are aroused by romance novels and romantic comedies with their kind male heroines and traditional stories of love and marriage. Presenting women as being turned on solely by romance is a way of containing women’s sexuality and fitting it into the narrative that women are naturally monogamous, and that a woman’s ultimate sexual fantasy is to have hot sex with her husband. It’s the standard story that all roads from the highly lubricated vagina lead to love.
We need to admit that women, like men, will pay for a lap dance from a stranger. They will pay because it turns them on. They want this but nobody is providing it for them. The male strip reviews currently touring are only marginally erotic. It is assumed that women want a story more than they want nudity, so that’s why the costumes and hokey scenarios are ubiquitous among male strippers. And, sure some women are turned on by this. But a lot of women need carnality along with their sex.
What America needs is a chain of strip clubs for women. Women classed up sex-toy stores, once the province of trench coat-wearing fifty-something county employees. Now they need to do the same for strip clubs, by transforming them from dank and dirty embarrassments to well-lit venues with nice furniture, strong drinks, and good music. A chain of female-friendly strip clubs would make women’s sexual desire as visible as men’s, thereby normalizing it. The road to women’s sexual equality isn’t through consciousness-raising groups; it’s through capitalism. —Hallie Lieberman