The Boys Club
A male strip club on a Tuesday night: This is what gender equality looks like. By Greg Hudson
IT’S AROUND 7: 30 P. M. on a Tuesday in September. Hannah and I are watching a man stroke his mostly flaccid penis with all the enthusiasm of a kid forced to practise the piano. The lazy self-love has no apparent teleological purpose; when he gets off the stage, it will be the only time he gets anyone off tonight. In front of the small stage, there is a table of three men who do not seem particularly entertained, though I could definitely be projecting. To me, it’s all a bit like watching a short story about alienation and the commodification of sex play out in real time.
We hadn’t planned on coming to Remingtons tonight. Hannah and I were just walking home along Yonge Street when we passed the club, and I remembered reading that it would be closing soon. I had probably walked past it every day when I went to Ryerson, so it seemed like I should at least see inside it once before it was turned into a condo or student residence. This wasn’t exactly what I imagined it would be like. I was expecting Magic Mike. Instead, this felt very real. But then again, who goes to a strip club on a Tuesday and expects a party? And even if it were a party, I’m not exactly Remingtons’s intended clientele. That’s why I came with my girlfriend.
When I was a kid, bursting with prepubescent wonder and shame, I used to get aroused watching professional wrestling. Well, one wrestler in particular: Shawn Michaels, “The Heartbreak Kid.” He was a Face—one of the good guys—but just barely. Like that of a lot of Faces before him—Ric Flair, Gorgeous George, The Rock when he was all about having you smell what he was cooking—Michaels’s shtick was that he fancied himself to be a ladies’ man, only instead of wearing Liberace robes like Flair, he brought a mullet-and-leather, hairmetal swagger to the bit. Entering the ring always involved a bit of striptease, and I’d feel guilty and excited. I’d get the same Shawn Michaels stirrings whenever Chippendales dancers popped up on Sally or Ricki Lake.
This sounds like a coming-out story. It’s not. The Heartbreak Kid did not send me on a journey of sexual self-discovery that ended with me coming out to my family. After all, when you’re straight, you usually don’t need to announce it to your parents. I’ve never felt conflicted or confused about my sexuality—I’ve always known I like women—despite my evident reaction to homoeroticism. After I hit puberty, I mostly forgot about the Shawn Michaels thing. It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I thought about it. I’m not turned on by male bodies, ripped and sweaty though they may be. What thrilled me was the overt, public display of sexuality of those wrestlers and dancers. They were avatars; their performance was proof of the existence of sex. They were like emissaries from an otherwise invisible world.
Now that I’m an adult, that world is pretty visible. Usually, Hannah and I go to more heteronormative strip clubs where it’s women removing their clothes. I say “usually,” but we’ve only gone a handful of times. She took me to my first one. I was 35. Before that, I had two contradictory expectations. The naïf in me pictured them to be like…well, like female versions of Magic Mike, with costumes and choreography: Flashdance but with nipples. But at the same time, I also figured they would be full of desperation and loneliness—that they’d make me sad. I’m someone who is regularly brought to tears by struggling shopping malls. Strip clubs seemed dangerous.
But it turns out that both ideas were mostly incorrect. At least, at the two places we’ve gone to, there isn’t a lot of choreography—or energy at times—but they’ve never felt depressing either. In the age of ubiquitous porn, strip clubs are almost quaint. They hearken back to a time when simple nudity was the pinnacle of erotica. It’s even nicer when you’re part of a couple. No one pressures you into buying a private dance. No one expects you to flirt or stuff dollar bills anywhere. Hannah and I see them as a kind of talent competition. We sit away from the stage and rate each performance. The only person who talks to us is our server, who is always fully clothed.
We have fun, but I’m under no delusion that Hannah finds it at all titillating. She appreciates the athletic dancers—the women who spin and climb the pole like circus performers—but it’s not in a sexual way. Whether it’s objectively true or not, we’ve all accepted the idea that women’s sexuality is more fluid than men’s. As a result, we often expect them to participate in activities geared toward the male gaze. Girls who like traditionally male things are Cool Girls, down with watching porn, shooting whisky, hitting up the strip clubs or having threesomes (with another woman, naturally).
And while the fluidity of female sexuality is backed up by science, it still seems suspiciously convenient for straight men. Men are under no such expectation. If I watched gay porn or fooled around with other dudes— whether out of real interest or a desire to impress women—my sexuality would be questioned. I mean, what would a straight guy get out of a male strip club? And, obviously, men should only ever do things geared toward them, right? It was only fair that I bring Hannah to a strip club for her. It’s called gender equality.
When I explain my obvious wokeness to the friendly stripper who sits down with us, he’s impressed—but only mildly: He’s straight, too, and he’s here all the time. If he came over to sell us a private dance, he doesn’t seem disappointed we won’t be buying. With him there, it’s like we’re just hanging out after hours. The club isn’t empty or sad. It’s, uh, intimate. He calls to the new dancer onstage to do a turn on the pole, and it’s like the kid immediately becomes a younger brother desperate for his big brother’s approval. He’s been practising, he says, and he tells us to watch. He pulls himself so he’s completely upside down. His feet touch the ceiling, and he stomps a few times, clumsily. “Not bad,” our stripper friend says. He gives the dancer some pointers, naming specific muscle groups he needs to engage; then he gets up on the stage to give a demo. His walking on the ceiling is much smoother. You really get the sense that he’s walking in a circle. This is sexy.
Are straight men addicted to our privilege, or is privilege just a term for our obvious addiction to ourselves? Either way, never underestimate a straight dude’s ability to take care of himself. Hannah’s body language is written in upper case. She is UNCOMFORTABLE. Like the first performer, the new fellow that takes the stage is all about his own member. While he touches himself, he stares at Hannah, pulling her into his pleasure against her will. She tells me later that that felt like the point. “There’s no way he couldn’t tell I didn’t like what he was doing,” she says. It’s as if he needs to prove just how powerful the male gaze is. Even at a place like this, where straight dudes should be an afterthought, if we’re considered at all, we take up our space.
While Hannah avoids eye contact, our friend speaks of the next dancer’s body with reverence. He rhapsodizes about the way the light will hit the valleys and peaks of his anatomy. Hannah isn’t big on ogling unless it’s Michael B. Jordan, which I fully understand and support. But when Brad stops, she ogles him. If this were a cartoon, her tongue would fall out of her mouth and bounce like toilet paper across the table while her heart would beat like a yo-yo out of her chest. And I can’t argue with her reaction. But Hannah doesn’t want to stay. She feels too uncomfortable to continue judging. We leave before Brad takes the stage. Things feel much safer among the women strippers.
In the age of ubiquitous porn, strip clubs are almost quaint. They hearken back to a time when simple nudity was the pinnacle of erotica.