Alternet recently published a piece on sex and relationships titled "Should You Try Stripping?"
The "you" in question is specifically female and author Lily Blau's suggestion that parading in the buff empowers women has rightfully ruffled the feminist blogosphere.
These days, says Blau, "sex appeal has attained a status that no other quality shares. So the thought of making money from stripping, especially in these tough economic times, "is increasingly appealing." What sexy girl wouldn't want reassurance that she's hot enough for cash, Blau seems to say. But the real question is not a supply-side issue. It's about the demand.
Yes, women go to strip clubs. We drink beer and eat wings at Hooters. We hire prancing men in Speedos for our bachelorette parties and Cardio Striptease is women's domain at the gym. But the primary market demand for stripping, lap dancing, and other forms of fleshertainment come from men.
So why are so many men paying women to take off their clothes?
This question is sure to elicit a Seth Rogen-esque snicker along the lines of, "Umm ... Cuz they're naked and we saw boobies."
The allegedly more thoughtful among us will argue that men are visual creatures, hardwired to become aroused at the mere site of female flesh. Besides the fact that this doesn't explain women's arousal, or why some men aren't turned on by watching women work a pole, this pseudo-scientific reasoning is just a lame excuse for "boys will be boys." As I explain in my new book, Men and Feminism, this lets men off the hook for their decisions to purchase or rent women's bodies.
In so many circles it's hip to strip. I count my friends among them. But as author and blogger Amanda Marcotte writes, we've got a "hipster culture that plays at men and women being equals, but still makes women tap dance and submit like performing monkeys begging for cookies." Let me add: makes women tap dance naked.
Others suggest that in a capitalist society women are free to choose stripping (or teasing or sucking or fucking) for cash. A simple case of contractual agreement, they might say. Yes, we all make choices. But some choices are more freely made than others. And that still doesn't answer the question why men choose to buy women's bodies and whether it's time for them to stop.
The thing is, this isn't just about stripping. Take away the pole, and we're still left with a host of problems and a crisis in masculinity: A culture that rewards men for being hyperaggressive and punishes those who can't or won't. We have pop culture films like I Love You, Man, which shows men bumbling through authentic interpersonal relationships. There's the Judd Apatow movie model that portrays guys as perpetual kidults who might not ever really grow up. Or Dito Montiel's new flick Fighting that suggests the way hard-bodied men stand tough is by kicking ass.
Yet with tons of mixed messages and no good roadmap, it's still crucial for guys to achieve successful masculinity. Failure is not an option because the stakes are really high.
In her April 2009 New York Times article, "Dude, You've Got Problems," journalist and author, Judith Warner, describes the recent suicides of two young men after being bullied at school, taunted, and called "gay."
The fast route for guys to "prove" they're not gay is to show that they're tough, that they're not weak, that they don't back down -- whether on the playground, the bedroom, or the boardroom. Warner states, "Being called a 'fag,' you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay. It's really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity... It's what being called a 'girl' used to be, a generation or two ago." Though the paradigm is shifting slightly, gender expectations for young boys and men are more heightened than ever.
As author Lindsay Beyerstein comments, "strip clubs are just a symptom of much larger inequities. If they were all eliminated tomorrow, the net effect on women's liberation would be approximately nil. It's not like men would suddenly respect women more." And it's not like men would instantly have masculinity figured out.
The real issue, then, is not whether men keep watching naked women parade around in Lucite heels. The real point is that it's time for men to expand their repertoire, pay attention, and start watching something new. Like their kids growing up. Or our shifting attitudes about gender, work, and home life. Men can head over to YouTube and check Def Jam poet Rafael Casal spit some righteous words about women, men, and relationships. More men can get involved with projects like A Call to Men's National Speak Out, a conference about ending male violence against women.
I'm not willing to tell men -- or anyone else -- to stop watching women strip. I'm not the G-string patrol. I refuse to bed-down with the conservative right. And censorship can only lead to trouble. I'm not going to debate whether women doing sex work is good, bad, sexy, or ugly.
But I am going to insist that we keep asking hardcore questions about men's market demand for female flesh. We need more -- not fewer -- conversations about gender, sexuality, safety, pleasure, earning power, and choice. Because whatever we're watching, it's time we also time to start watching something new. Our culture needs it.