One day early in the Christmas break The Boy let out a wounded cry. “We already have a writing assignment for Writing 122,” he called from the living room. “I can’t believe it; we’re not even in the class yet, and we’ve already got an assignment.”
Upon further investigation it transpired that his professor had assigned his 122 students a project that might actually end up netting them some nice scholarship dollars, and as part of the assignment the students had to identify and write about a controversial issue in their communities.
“I think I’m going to write about the strip club,” The Boy informed me a few days later. And that was the beginning. Ever since we’ve been reminiscing about the early days, when the strip club had only just moved into the old “Curves” exercise studio right next to the big Mexican Food! Pizza! Carnes Asadas! store along the highway.
When we first heard about the club we were fascinated, and also perplexed. How had such a controversial business managed to gain a toehold in our town, where the major source of entertainment is going to church? And how had we not noticed it?
We got directions. We cruised slowly along the highway, peering at signs and into windows. We finally identified the club not by what I had been expecting to see–large pink neon signs flashing Girls! Girls! Girls! (Editor’s note: See image above for a graphic representation of what we did not see)–but by the signs in the vacant store next door.
Jesus and Mary had shown up, full size and stiff with either cardboard or disapproval. Mary peered suspiciously at the darkened door of what we believed was the strip club. Jesus stood facing passersby: “Yeah, I’m here…what of it? Some of my best friends are strippers…”
On the way home I told The Boy the story of one of my favorite aunts, who had for a brief time been married to My Uncle the Child Molester. She had been a strong, serene, woman, a vigilant mother. She had beautiful red hair and, as her oldest daughter informed us, some beautiful pasties that she used for work. My aunt was a stripper. She left my uncle as soon as she discovered what he was up to and I lost touch with her, and I’ve always been a little sad about that. I liked and respected her a great deal. She was a good mom.
A few months later we drove by and realized the protesters had refined their message. Cardboard “you want to make somethin’ of it?” Jesus had given way to Poster Jesus, who had been moved clear the hell and gone over to the vacant storefront door farthest away from the strip club, and out of the way of temptation. Mary now stood between him and the Girls. She had been somewhat ambiguously surrounded by a flashy frame of metallic gold paper doilies. Whether this was to blind Jesus to what lay beyond or to bribe Mary into hanging around and keeping him out of the club was an open question.
The Boy had another idea. “I think they’re her pasties,” he observed. We toyed with the idea of adding his graduation tassels to the middle of a couple golden doilies, just for the sake of completeness, but ultimately opted to just come home instead.
All of this, of course, is not getting his paper written. He has to Do It Right, and talk to people in our town from various walks of life and stripper-friendliness, and from this somehow explain how he sees the strip club.
I, of course, do not have to Do This Blog Right. I can do it any way I damned well please, and what pleases me right now is to ask myself the same question The Boy is having to ask himself in his paper: what do I think about having a strip club–any strip club, even one as low-profile and apologetic as ours seems to be–in town? Who works there? Because let’s face it, I know a lot of people in our town, and can’t think of any of them as Stripper Material. Many of my female townmates have souls they practically dunk in Clorox each week, and those who don’t seem to be more blue jeans and boots types of gals.
It might be that I just can’t tell the difference between strippers and other women–after all, one of my favorite aunts turned out to be a stripper, and when I was in California I looked in vain for Ladies of the Evening along Sunset Boulevard. Finally a co-worker took me firmly by the elbow, led me outside the office (in front of which Mr. Buttafuoco had been arrested for trying to get a nice lady to give him sex in exchange for his watch. It was a nice watch, but still…but I digress). My co-worker took me outside, and we stood on the porch, and he pointed. “There,” he said, “and there, and there.”
“But how can you tell?” I asked.
And he gave me a short tutorial on Recognizing Hookers. The basic points seemed to be that they just stood around in weather-inappropriate clothing and high, high heels, and waited for cars to pull up and stop for a little conversation.
I’m still not good at identifying hookers and strippers. What makes them so different from me? Many are like my aunt, doing a job because it pays better than some of the other alternatives available to her. Most are just trying to get by. And that’s like just about everybody else in this town.
And then there’s the question of bareness. It’s been in the news a lot lately–mostly GOP conservatives getting very, very exercised at the thoughts of tatas exposed so the Little Ones can eat. The conversation has gotten demeaning and ugly, including references to “titty twisters” as a suitable reaction to public breastfeeding (it’s not, my Grandpa actually ended up with breast cancer in one nipple, and he swore that it had resulted from one of his co-workers at the foundry giving him far more titty twisters than Grandpa would have liked). So, not a fan of yanking on breastfeeding moms boobies around here.
But the question remains: How is it that in America we regard exposed breasts and bodies as so threatening to our morality that we are happy for babies to be forced to nurse in filthy bathrooms rather than offend our delicate sensibilities? Because the rest of the world doesn’t feel that way. People sunbathe topless and even nude in European parks and on beaches, and it’s a non-issue. It’s been like that for years.
In other countries women are wrapped up to preserve their modesty, and their families’ honor–and sometimes forbidden an education, and killed if they have the misfortune to be raped. Might a stripper who exploits her body for others’ pleasure have a healthier self image than a woman who lives her life wrapped from head to toe, knowing that if she is raped, she might well be killed to expiate the shame to her male relatives? I don’t know, but it’s a good question. Body-shaming is a powerful thing, and it happens in all kinds of ways.
So how do I feel about the strip club coming to our town? I don’t know. It’s hard to have strong feelings about an organization that seems to be embarrassed more than anything. I think before I make up my mind I will have to know more about it.
Who works there? Who owns it? How well are the women paid? What sorts of extra services are they encouraged or required to provide? Do they have a decent health plan? Does the owner see them as professionals doing a job, or as assets to be exploited? How do the women see themselves? Who goes to the club? Why do they go there? How do they treat the women on the stage? Why is it that the women who work there are seen as Less, while the men who go there are given free passes (it was a bachelor’s party, it was business, my boss wanted to go there…)?
There’s a long and fairly honorable history of women in the “comfort” business in our part of the state. In the days before social services, town leaders in my hometown just thirty miles away used to send needy families to one of the town madams, who was famous for helping women find jobs–and not just on their backs. Neither working in a strip club nor as a prostitute disqualifies a woman, or man, from being human. And yet the industry is rife with exploitation and abuse.
I’m not done thinking about this yet. Arguing the big issue of Strip Clubs is very different from talking about the strip club in our town, where I most probably know both staff and customers. This is personal. And its effects, and how the town responds to the people who work there, are also personal. But in what ways?