published at The Portland Alliance, January 2004
Pornographer Larry Flynt issued a press release to announce he bought nude photos of Private Jessica Lynch but won’t publish them because he thinks Lynch is a “good kid.” The British paper The Sun reports of the United States soldiers who went shopping with the photos, “One troop, identified only as Bobby, bitterly said Jessica needed to be brought down a peg.”
It’s not surprising that men seeking to diminish a woman’s character and take her down a peg need do nothing more than obtain photos of said woman’s naked breasts. What’s startling is that a pornographer who makes his living selling images of women being “brought down a peg” would make a special exception to spare one woman the humiliation he bestows upon others. More interesting still is the reason the two ex-cadets gave for selling the photos; to take a woman down and to show she’s a slut, not a heroine (the two are mutually exclusive).
I went to my first strip club in college. My roommate worked the bar and I’d get hooked up with all the free beer I could drink. I came to learn it wasn’t one of your raunchier sexploitation establishments but a relatively tame one where the strippers never appeared totally naked and there were no, um, sex acts amongst the performers. Once I even took my liberal college sweetheart there (actually, I knew that would be unsettling but figured there might be some positive response – there wasn’t.)
For a long time I subscribed to the idea that strippers relished the sexual attention, with the occasional boorish ass marring the occasional night. I eventually came to read testimonials from strippers, debates on To Lap Dance or Not To Lap Dance, and scientific queries into why relatively large numbers of strippers ‘turn’ lesbian, and one constant truth they maintain is that the majority of strippers say they’d prefer other jobs but keep stripping because the money is far above what other jobs offer.
It’s been years since I’ve been to a strip club, but reading Flynt’s comments has me reminiscing about the time I spent first gawking, then leering, then feeling a little queasy when three yahoos thought it hysterical they could pay a woman to press a stiletto heel inside herself. I know the argument that stripping can be sexually liberating, or that current buzzword, empowering, but I saw that woman’s pained, strained smile taking the money poneyed up so the empowerment could take place and I heard those men when she walked away. Thus began my efforts to unravel whether they despised that woman because she performed sexually or if they made her perform sexually because they despised women.
And now the caveat for the pro-sex crowd; sure, there may be a few strippers who truly get off on their jobs, but there are also a few people who can’t orgasm unless they’re licking red leather boots and both are far from constituting a statistically significant phenomenon. In the case of the former, numerous studies reveal alarming amounts of child rape, poverty and drug addiction among people selling sex.
The revelation that there are probably as many congenitally exhibitionist strippers as there are nymphomaniac hookers was a breakthrough for me, a person who was pro-porn before knowing anything about the abusive realities of sexual exploitation. I was handed a social script at a time when I knew more about Playboy than real human sexuality, including my own still-developing sexuality.
Strip clubs will probably always be around, as will racism, child labor, minimum wage jobs and other forms of economic extortion, but we can at least be honest about how this line of work isn’t chock full of sassy exhibitionists proudly choosing to strip.
Consider the common reaction to the nonviolent, unpaid porn video that is the Paris Hilton tape. I haven’t seen one email spam, one editorial, one person anywhere comment about how wonderful it is a sexually confident woman feels empowered enough to make her own porn. What I’ve seen is the video being used as proof positive Hilton is the trashy blonde tart they suspected she was. People who would like to consider themselves above thinking less of sexual women easily find pity for poor American Girl Jessica at the same time they launch justified guffaws at Rich Bitch Paris and see no double standard.
Larry Flynt spared Jessica Lynch the embarrassment of having nude photos she agreed to pose for displayed in public because she’s a “good kid.” What sort of bad kids must he think the thousands of women in his magazines are to let them suffer the abuse, loss of respect and diminished integrity that faces women who are stripped of their humanity when they agree to be stripped of clothes? What must those two U.S. soldiers think of all the women they have seen naked in pornography, strip clubs and their military barracks? What do pro-sexers think about the fact that merely seeing her breasts is enough to bring a woman down a peg in the eyes of others? I haven’t the answers to these questions, but it wasn’t so long ago I didn’t ask questions at all and I’ll take that as evidence this progressive has finally made some real progress.
S.M. Berg is a feminist writer in Portland.
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