I think my first indication that taking a beginners' stripping class was not going to be exactly what I had been envisioning was when we (a group of ten girlfriends on a bachelorette party outing) were introduced to our instructor, Daphne. She happened to be a perfect physical mix of Jenna Jameson and Mary Lou Retton.
She also paraded around the waiting room in little more than a bra (think see-through black lace, not sports), short shorts (think matching black lace with ruffles on the butt, not something she would wear biking), and five-inch red and black platform shoes. Earlier that day, anticipating nothing more than maybe a minor deviation from a run-of-the-mill aerobics class -- doesn't Teri Hatcher do this as a workout? -- I'd thrown on a faded tee-shirt I'd had since high school and stretched-out, paint-spattered sweatpants.
Daphne led our group into a large studio, illuminated only by big candles dripping sexy red wax amidst five metal poles. She turned on Barry White, and I almost died when she then whipped out a bag of neon-green g-strings with ties on each side and started passing them out. Sure, I was among close girlfriends -- but let's just say I wasn't thong-ready under any circumstance.
I felt better when she ordered us to put them on over our underwear, because we were going to learn how to give "our men" a sexy dance involving the removal of said g-string. I felt less better when, upon my attempted sexy removal, the piece of neon-green floss actually got stuck and I had to reach down into the back of my sweats and yank it out.
My dismay mounted when we started learning more moves: we had come from a huge brunch (and I was admittedly about three Bloody Mary's deep), so I could barely move, much less roll around the floor, splay my legs, gyrate my hips, twirl like a ballerina around a pole, or according to Daphne's impassioned instruction, "sloooooowly trail my fingertips from my hair -- giving it a sexy tousle -- down the side of [my] body, across my breastsÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ " At one point, my friend Liz looked over at me and wailed, "I feel like a 90-year-old woman with arthritis trying to be sexy!"
Part of the reason why we took the class in the first place is because my girlfriends and I tend to consider ourselves pretty adventurous and free-spirited. A few months back we started regularly going to (female) strip clubs and getting the occasional lap dance, while the mostly male clientele licked their chops. However, suddenly two things made all of that a lot less alluring for me -- and one of them wasn't that every time I tried to swing around the pole, I got dizzy and my sweaty hands caused me to land in a heap on the floor.
First, taking the strip class put me square in the stripper's shoes (heels), right there on the stage, under the flashing lights. Second, and more importantly, reading Female Chauvinist Pigs by Ariel Levy gave insight into the mind of the stripper, and the overall rampant pornification of our culture at large.
Levy writes about the proliferation of "raunch culture," which, regardless of my self-proclaimed staunch feminism (women can make any choices they want!), I have been unwittingly engendering by doing things like going to strip clubs. Levy says in raunch culture, it's the norm that "all empowered women must be overtly and publicly sexual Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ and the only sign of sexuality we seem to be able to recognize is a direct allusion to red-light entertainment."
All during strip class, Daphne kept repeating the mantra ad nauseum: everything we were learning was for "[our] man." To me, empowerment signifies control -- and the man-centric philosophy strip class (not to mention the whole stripping industry) seemed to espouse flew in the face of female control, either in society or just swinging around the pole.
Empowerment in my view is also about equality -- and if all things were equal, would women necessarily want to be stripping for the greasy dollar bills that men throw at them with the same hand that wears their wedding bands? If my experience is any indication, I don't think so. Proponents of "female liberation" might argue that some women are really comfortable with their bodies and like what they do with that pole, but as Ariel Levy says so perceptively, "because I am paid to is not the same thing as taking control of my sexuality." Liberation implies we have broken the chains that have bound us to our status as sexual inferiors, and as Daphne's sultry intonations suggested, that's definitely not the case.
Ms. Levy continues, "The vast majority of women who enter the [stripping] field do so because they are poor and have no more attractive alternative" -- and they stay poor. It really unsettled me to discover that I, as a "feminist," would exploit one woman's lack of power in the name of my own empowerment. This sort of hypocritical "empowerment for sale" mentality strikes me as another layer of conspiracy in the race to keep women down, and indicative of the fundamentally economic nature of the inequality of the sexes.
If we were smart and really empowered, we women would use our economic power to take sex out of the equation. Similarly, Female Chauvinist Pigs quotes Erica Jong as saying "sex is not power -- women in decision-making positions -- that's power. When the senate is 50 percent women, that's power. Sexual freedom is a smokescreen for how far we haven't come."
In a perfect world, I'd love to be able to be judged for something other than my physical appearance, and for something other than just my sex. Strip class taught me though that at least for the moment and to the detriment of all women, even the rare few who actually hold truly powerful positions, achievement for us is tied to sex.
The question is, what are we going to do about it?