What does my body mean? What is it worth? Who does it benefit? How much are you willing to pay for it? Despite four years in women’s studies classrooms and half a lifetime of personal feminism, the questions still sound a little strange to me even as I ask them. But in the past few days I’ve come to the conclusion that these are precisely the questions I need to be asking. What do bodies mean in our consumer culture? What do female bodies mean? And if my body can be bought and sold, even if I am the one selling mine, what does that imply about freedom?
Let me start with a couple of caveats. I consider myself a pro-sex feminist. Moreover, I’ve never believed that pornography is the root of all evil and oppression. I tend to part ways philosophically from the likes of Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin pretty fast. As a primarily hetorsexual woman with some notable bisexual leanings, I actually benefit somewhat from the sexualization of women. And I’ve always been mildly uncomfortable with my own ability to objectify women, but reasoned that the objectification itself (at the mental level) is not entirely unnatural. The problem with objectification is how it’s performed in the world. At a certain level if you look at a stranger and appreciate their physical form you’re objectifying them. And frankly, I don’t think I’m ever going to get to a point where I don’t find myself appreciating the physical forms of those around me. Still, I find objectification as it tends to be practiced in our society sad and scary.
Last weekend I went to Vegas for the first time. We stayed in a hotel off the strip. As it happened, said hotel was right next to Club Paradise, a strip club. As it turns out, I’d never been to a strip club either. Not out of lack of interest particularly. It just was never high enough one my “things I want to do” list to make putting the effort into doing so. So when the friend of the friend I was brought up the idea of going to Club Paradise, I was enthusiastic. Indeed it’s probably my enthusiasm that resulted in us actually ending up at Club Paradise.
I was fully expecting to enjoy the experience. Lots of my female friends like strip clubs. I have great appreciation for the naked female form (though even going in I knew that I have an appreciation for a larger range of female forms than I was going to find there). So where’s the problem?
I’m still not sure I can explain my emotional response in a way that makes sense but I did not enjoy the experience. In fact it made me queasy, depressed, and a little angry. Something about actual women, removing actual clothes, and gyrate around their actual bodies, in an actual club was disturbing to me in the way that the theoreticals never were. B. pointed out to me that this particular club was creepier than others he’s been to on account of the particularly aggressive money extraction (i.e. cover charge to get in, minimum bar tabs for tables, etc.). But I’m unconvinced that I could have stomached any other club any better.
The first problem was two of the men I was with trying to talk me into a lapdance. I was unethusiastic and actually balked at the idea. It took me a minute of standing watching the stage to figure out why. As a woman getting a lapdance I would be playing into the lesbian fantasy that so many men seem to have. A woman getting a lapdance stops being a consumer of semi-naked women and becomes an object herself. So I rejected the lapdance, intending to just enjoy the women from a distance. Except I couldn’t.
Somehow I couldn’t get past the knowledge that they were there because they were being paid. I couldn’t get past the knowledge that these were real live women in the flesh, and they were for sale. The more the women gyrated, the sadder I got. I just couldn’t shake the realization that I was in a huge club packed with people (more men than women, but women too) who had come to consume female flesh.
I don’t hold anything against the women at the club for selling access (if fleeting) to their bodies. I don’t even necessarily hold anything in particular against the men buying it (though I find it a touch disconcerting). But the social structure that all of this takes place in makes me want to scream and cry. It seems to me to be a simple step between “their bodies are for sale” and “my body is for sale.” Actually, that’s not really the problem. They make a choice to sell their bodies and I make a choice not to sell mine. And as long as I continue to think of it in those terms I have no problem. The problem is not with the selling, but the consuming. While I choose whether to sell my body, what I realized at Club Paradise is that I don’t necessarily choose whether or not my body is consumed. It’s not as if I didn’t at some level already know this to be true. But the club just made the point too clearly. The entire place screamed out “the female form is for the pleasure of men (and the occasional woman)” It screamed “the things beneath this flesh, hopes, dreams, personalities are irrelevant.”
I’d like to believe that this isn’t pervasive, that once I walk outside the confines of a given club that I am not for sale, that my body is no longer open to be consumed. But the realities of my experiences suggest otherwise. How many times have men with whom I share no intimate involvement made comments about my body? How often have I caught eyes tracking me as I move? Or tracking other women, whose bodies conform more strictly to our society’s oppressive standards of beauty?
We are a consumer society. We recieve constant messages to consume, consume, consume. So we consume things. And we consume people. And it isn’t just within so-called sex-work. We sell products using people as objects. Movies are all to often about the consumption of the image of people on the screen more than consumption of the story. Sex sells. Everywhere.
And some people even feel entitled to that. In a discussion about the Dove Real Woman ads, Jill of Feministe links to this article, which discusses men complaining about the ad campaign because the women in the ads designed to sell products to women are not attractive enough. The men complaining are implicitly asserting their right to not just consume images of women, but to consume images of beautiful women.
I want to run around screaming “I am not for sale.” I want to wear a huge paper bag over my head (and the rest of me) so that my body does not become object as I walk down the street.
All that said, at least in a strip club there’s a certain honesty. At least in that setting women are compensated for others’ consumption of them. Nonetheless, I don’t think I’ll go back to one anytime soon. I don’t really like the feeling when the realities of my society are presented to me so clearly in black in and white.