Madonna and the Contradictions of Sex for Sale

"There's a difference between a Go-Go Club and a Gentleman's Club," explains Cashmere, one of HBO's celebrated G-String Divas. "I'm not a Go-Go dancer. I'm an entertainer. They don't touch me. I'm topless, but am not at all ashamed of my body."

I'm watching today's episode of the Sally Jesse Raphael show, Secret Lives of Teen Strippers. Sally, her mostly female crowd and her resident shrink, Pat Ferrari, all clap their approval for Cashmere and her dancing colleague, Joey, after booing or otherwise dissing the half-dozen teenage strippers who appeared on stage ahead of them. A shrill Ferrari calls the two poised, twenty-something Divas "ladies" after chastising the row of hapless girls for their occupational exposures. She draws weak distinctions of propriety, and then haughtily compares her own life path to the teenage strippers. "I too was a single mom, and I didn't strip. I waitressed!"

As I sit in a London hotel, watching the talk show import, I can't help but ponder the contractions of what makes some sex for sale appropriate. Of course, Americans don't seem to handle contradictions well, especially not sexual ones. But life will always be messy, as demonstrated by another U.S. import generating media hype in London -- Madonna, who launched her London tour on American Independence Day.

From her Like a Virgin breakthrough nearly two decades ago to today's "Mother and Fucker" iconography, Madonna has made a career of expressing sexual contradictions. In the early days, the self-made Madonna did what a lot of girls do with big dreams and little resources -- use their sex to open doors. Early magazine profiles show the budding material girl crossing sexual boundaries by selling nude pics for cash, and trading sex for food, a place to stay or star-making chances. Sure, Madonna's choices then might have wrinkled Sally's morality nose, but given the chance to hang with her now, Sally would surely stick the same nose up Madonna's proverbial butt.

On Sally's show, a plain and pudgy guest, Destiny, says she started stripping at 19 to make more money to raise her daughter. It was a theme echoed by nearly every shameless stripper on stage. Destiny describes the one time she took cash for sex, when she was three months pregnant. The father was nowhere around. She had a baby on the way. She did what she had to do. Easy.

One of the two Divas also has a child, but both dancers are in college, both invest their money and one, Joey, dances to fund her "art." Although more accepting of these two from the upscale strip scene, Sally rambles on about how work should involve "selling your intelligence, worth, heart and soul, not your bodies." Okay, maybe I agree that work should ideally be about applying things other than your body. But we should all be so lucky. Ferrari certainly wasn't using her worth, heart and soul when waitressing. She did what she had to do to get to the next place. For some, there is never a next place, whether working as a maid or construction laborer or tollbooth taker. We do what we know.

And given the ubiquitous commercialization of sex, little girls know early on the power of sex for sale. Though Madonna controls and shapes her sexual messages, she still demonstrates its power to sell. Though Britney clings to a public virginity, her sex more than her music sells. Though Lara Croft kicks ass, her game videos penetrate the testosterone crowd only because of her sexual dimensions. Even Sally cashes in with her teen strippers theme. Every day executives, managers, handlers, marketers from record labels, TV, Hollywood, Madison Avenue all package and sell sex in spades.

Since Eastern Europe's economic security net crumbled with Communism, prostitution has exploded, as women learn to capitalize on their only valued assets. Russian Mail Order Brides have become a multi-million dollar industry, as daring, poverty-stricken women seek the American dream.

Which leads to the hidden player in sex-for-sale finger wagging -- the customer. As women scold women for their chosen sex work, men remain invisible in their chosen consumption. When Joey, who sold Bibles before dancing, refers to her mother arguing against her work, she says, "The thing is that this business was created by men for men. Yeah, we capitalize on that. But instead of parents telling their daughters not to strip, they should go home and tell their sons not to go to clubs."

And maybe we would better serve those caught up in the sex-for-sale industry by recognizing that there's not much difference between a Go-Go Club or Gentlemen's Club or Record Label or Corporate Marketing Campaign or TV Show or any work-for-hire, except for subtlety and fortune.

Lara Riscol is writing "Ten Sex Myths That Screw America," a book she began while completing a master's degree in contemporary issues and public policy at the University of Denver. Write to her at sexaware@home.com.

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