Oh, sex. Sex. Sex. Sex. It means everything to everyone. Gender as sex. Violence as sex. Beauty as sex. Words as sex. Nudity as sex. This all got started in my mind because I went to a couple of strip clubs in Houston with my brothers on Wednesday night. Well, actually it started way before that, obviously, but this particular train of thought started when I went to the strip clubs this week.
I would never think, “Hey, I’m going to go to a strip club tonight!” but I’ve always been easily influenced by these brothers of mine. My dad dubbed them The Vandals after seeing the 1979 SNL skit (Season 5, Episode 1 if you have Netflix or Hulu). The Vandal (Al Franken) has just TP’d and shit-bagged the centurion’s (Steve Martin) camp. His parents (Bill Murray and Jane Curtain) ask the Vandal why he does these terrible things, “After all we’ve done for you!” Franken repeatedly replies “idunno” in an adolescent grumble. That was the chorus of my youth. When a girl scrambled out of the ground floor window of my brothers’ room while my father banged on the bedroom door; when the car ended up in a cornfield. “Idunno.”
The thing about my brothers is—despite all their misdemeanors—they remain totally endearing. They’re nearly Irish twins, born within 16 months and devoted to each other in a way that is completely adorable. They’re five and four years older than I am, respectively. I’ve been trying to keep up with them since I was a toddler. And I still can’t. They can drink so much, without ever getting a hangover! A trait I considered admirable for so many reasons. It’s just birth order, I guess, that sort of looking-up-to. All of that is to say, when they suggested going to a strip club, of course I said, “Yes!”
Ostensibly it was a bit of a walk down memory lane. My older brother was in Houston on business on September 10, 2001. He was stranded here for ten days after 9/11 and has a misty concept of Houston being the home of the hottest strippers in the world. Like reheating the soufflé, I say. We drove (far!) to some place out near the airport because that was the halcyon strip club of his reminiscence. Turned out it was, um, not the place. We went in anyway.
At first I had that weird feeling that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing there. Why is it carpeted? Is that really sanitary? Is it like a cabaret—them on the stage, us in our seats? Or is it more of a contrived cocktail party, with mingling? Who are these people? Are they happy?
That’s not unusual, though. I tend to have that feeling a lot. I wonder what the hell I am doing somewhere, even in supposedly “normal” situations, then slip easily into observation mode. I figure I’ll be able to write about it all at some point. What is that layer of glaucous silicone painted over their breasts? That woman’s tummy looks like she just had a baby…I wonder how long ago she delivered? We didn’t last long at that place because…well, basically because it was kind of skanky and my brothers were in the mood for something a little more upscale.
We went to the next place, closer to the center of town, lots of nice cars out front, behind a discreet eight-foot wall, etc. This one was much nicer. The dancers were more interactive, hanging out in their teddies with men in button-down shirts and khakis or cowboy-type guys in what I consider cowboy dress-up (black) or the three lesbians at the table to our left. My brothers thought it was hilarious to tell the fawning waitresses and dancers that I was USA-Today-Bestseller-Megan-Mulry. I even gave away a few bookmarks. (I’m always marketing, Beth!)
Anyway! This is about…well, I don’t know. Sex for sale, I guess. Because let’s face it. Sex sells. Like any commodity, if people want it, people will find a way to get it. Whatever IT is. That’s the main reason I am such a political anomaly. I am a true believer in the free market (even though no such thing exists). I guess I am a deep believer in freedom in general, but it is very VERY messy. Freedom is so fucking messy and all these religions and governments and organizations are so desperate to keep order. They try so hard, and (when I am feeling generous) I think their hearts are in the right place. They are trying to eradicate hunger and disease; they are trying to enrich people’s lives with moral tools that will lead to a tolerable happiness. Or something.
But I am not always feeling generous. Usually I think they are just trying to be controlling twats. I think “they” are trying to tell me what to do and how to do it. Alas, I am perverse to the point of self-destructive and “they” should know that about me. I don’t know if it’s part of humanity or just part of my personal psych profile, but I gravitate to what I am not “supposed” to like, do, think, try, etc. I like the edge. So this strip club idea felt sort of edgy to me. I’d only been to a strip club once before, in South Florida, which always felt sort of amateurish to my mind. Here was a chance to step up to the big time. Big city. High class. Ba-dah-bing.
I should have remembered from that other visit. Strip clubs are not sexy for me. A few days ago I was reading Olivia Cunning’s rock star erotica, Backstage Pass, and let me tell you what: That shit is fucking sexy. That book made me squirm on the airplane and reduce the size of the font on my Kindle app so the nice lady in the seat next to mine wouldn’t catch a glance of any of those sex words and take my mom off her prayer list.
There wasn’t even the hint of a squirm at the strip clubs.
So I learned something about myself as I stared at those supposedly sexy ladies: naked dancers are not my aphrodisiac. Stories are. Words turn me on so much more than visual stimulation. But enough about me, back to the strippers.
I’ve been ruminating about the objectification factor. Are these strippers being victimized? Are they culturally looked down upon? Was I looking down on them? Well. I was objectifying them because I was storifying them, but I do that to everyone in my life, so I don’t think I was making them into a science experiment of human behavior any more than I usually do with all humans. This feeling was reiterated when a twitter friend in Japan mentioned she had gone to her first Maid Café. I had no idea what that was so we exchanged a few tweets about it. (More background info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maid_café )
(The ear cleaning option? Just ew.)
That idea of a really choreographed type of interaction got me thinking more about this objectification idea. Seems like some people really like the whole construct thing. It’s all orchestrated. If I pay for admission to the strip club (or Disney World for that matter), those people actually are there for my entertainment. Even though I love to drive around and sing along with Pink when I’m feeling belittled, the truth is we are all here for one another’s entertainment. Denying that would be like getting upset when I find out my friends and family talk about me behind my back: Grow up. People talk about you. Get over it.
When I realized I was asking one stripper all sorts of questions about what goes on in the VIP room, and what was the most she ever made in one night, and what does she average for a dance—and on and on like I was licking the tip of my metaphorical pencil and had a god-damned “scoop” sign on my head—she went along with it for awhile. I think she even enjoyed talking about how she got into the business: “That’s my mom over there,” she said as she gestured to an attractive waitress about my age. “This place is like my second home.” I think she knew I would like the homey angle.
And there it is. Who really objectified whom? My brother who smiled and slipped a bill into her boy-shorts (no g-strings allowed in Houston, my friends)? Or I who took her story and shoved it into this story? Or she who steered a conversation filled with all sorts of information that may or may not have even been true? We were all on.
That led to a whole other murky-thinking-time about the nature of contrivance. I contrive all the livelong day. I make up people. I make up places. I make up stories. I decide who lives and who dies. When you open one of my books you will be part of that shared hallucination. (Come on in!) We make these little social contracts endlessly in our lives. When people enter a Japanese Maid Café or a Houston strip joint, they are making a little social contract. They are playing along.
Sometimes I think I’m really bad at playing along, especially in person…with other people. I blurt and feel awkward. And then money is added to the mix and I’m even more befuddled. The morning after the strip-club outing, I even had the brief thought I should drive back to that second strip club and pay that nice second-generation stripper for the time she spent talking to me. Did I totally waste her time while she was working? What was I thinking? I started to feel like a total douche after-the-fact. Was it worse that I thought I was treating her like a “person” by not paying her for her time, or was it worse that I had not paid her for her time?
What if we just handed cash to people after a regular (non-strip-club) conversation? “Hey, I really enjoyed talking to you; here’s five bucks.” I guess that’s where my blurry ideas about love-of-free-markets and go-pay-for-sex-if-you-feel-like-it and why-can’t-we-all-just-get-along run into a small snafu. Where along the interaction continuum do I go from authentic to contrived? From person to customer? From being to being on?
I never know.
Fun with Etymology:
Strip-tease – 1. A kind of entertainment in which a female (occas. a male) performer undresses gradually in a tantalizingly erotic fashion before an audience, usu. to music; an instance of this. (1936) (OED)
Also love this OED example, which makes it sound so plummy, so quintessentially Graham Greene:
1978 G. Greene Human Factor ii. iii. 75, I thought dinner in the Café Grill and afterwards a spot of strip-tease.
Oh my god! Did you notice that I didn’t use the words degrading or feminist one single time? Without even trying? That’s progress, I tell you, serious progress.
Lastly, just so you know, I had a whole paragraph in there about the “real” meaning of human connection and intimacy that began, “Was it Kierkegaard or Maisey Yates who said…” but I deleted it because it was just too incongruous.