The Boys Club

A male strip club on a Tues­day night: This is what gen­der equal­ity looks like. By Greg Hud­son

Fashion (Canada) - - The Female Gaze -

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.

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