Last weekend I turned twenty-five on the twenty-fifth and this meant it was my Golden Birthday. To the dismay of my friends I’ve spent the past few years hiding inside, avoiding the consequences of my increasing intolerance for alcohol and just doing my grad school homework. Thus, I’ve built up all types of party karma. And with such a major birthday coming up? This was the year to go big.
I knew right away: a gold color scheme, a hotel party, and a strip club.
I have a storied history with strip clubs. When I was a pubescent kid having gay thoughts, a lot of my fantasies were about strippers. When I turned eighteen in New York City and was finally able to realize these fantasies, I ventured to the clubs pretty earnestly, longing to just blend in with the men there and believing it was possible I could. I suspect this adolescent fantasy was how I worked through my fears about my own homosexuality: if I wanted to justify being with a woman, I would need to embody maleness, because that was how sex worked.
Of course, I learned quickly as a patron that being a woman in a club holds a significantly different set of meanings than it does for men. Blending in is not an option. You are instantly, on some level, Irony, Spectacle, Interloper. Getting used to that reality was frustrating, but it was worth it, because strip clubs were fun and also oddly healing for me.
I also learned that when you’re a committed feminist, it’s sometimes confusing to reconcile your ideals with your desires. It didn’t seem like there was much that was “queer” or politically correct about my particular fantasies, and yet the brand of feminism I’m fondest of is that of Andrea Dworkin and her counterparts, our sisterhood’s least likable voices.
After a while, I quieted my misgivings and just allowed myself to have what I considered a type of after hours alter ego. The most satisfying feminist conclusion I could get to (in spite of living in a city mostly home to clubs not particularly feminist in their practices) is that spending money on the dancers—who are so brave, strong, and talented—is a good start. And anyway, for all my pondering, the dilemma of how to be a good woman in a strip club is not one that comes up all that often anyway. I’ve observed other female patrons in my truly innumerable strip club visits only once or twice, and on those few occasions, they’d always been with men.
I used to feel surprise when people would act surprised about this genuine passion of mine. It is not shocking to hear men declare their fervor for strip clubs, so I didn’t think being a gay woman with comparable fervor was such a stretch. But with maturity, I’d developed a sense of humor about it. The fact of a tiny lipstick lesbian who’s hooked on lap dances is kind of funny, and having a sense of humor is important. I stopped going so often once I got in a serious relationship and it was clear my partner wasn’t comfortable with it. But then, years later, the Golden Birthday approached.
The logistics I’m about to describe are technical, but vital to a coming argument:
I invited a bunch of people on Facebook a month in advance—my closest friends and a few outer circles. I booked a hotel room, planned my outfit, and hyped the party for the weeks to come. It was really fun to have something to look forward to. After two phone conversations, I even traveled to Hustler in person to triple-check that a large party would be kosher with the club. Shook a manager’s hand, was laughingly reassured that my big gay birthday was more than welcome, etc.
As the party drew closer, texts and messages started coming in. Some friends were getting nervous. Most had never been to a strip club before. They were so curious and excited, but there were concerns: A strip club is a Straight Male Space. What will it be like to queer up the space of a more dominant group? Are we just going to end up being part of the show for the men in the club? Will the strippers be comfortable dealing with girls? Everyone’s internalized homophobia started to show; the lesbians doubted their ability to swag into a male space and get away with it. This was hilarious to me. Of course a mob of lesbians can’t go to a party without somehow politicizing the experience.
But I also couldn’t blame these queer people for their anxiety. I knew we would be fine if we acted courteously, brought cash, and relaxed. But my guests’ concerns about feeling destabilized seemed fair. We all understood we were walking into a place entirely representative of patriarchal capitalism, that doesn’t frequently serve women, and is likely unequipped for queer visibility.
Meanwhile, what the queers didn’t know was that my small population of cis-male invitees were throwing me off. Most of the guys were close friends you could call well-versed allies, but for some others, I was the only lesbian they knew and this party was shaping up to be the ultimate novelty of their lives. I was disappointed to be receiving messages like “I swear I’m gonna flip one of your lesbians tomorrow,” and “This party is gonna be a dream come true for me,” and “Can I bring some friends?”
I imagined worst-case scenarios: The lesbians might turn the whole thing into a drunk gimmick if they felt too out of place, harping on the campy aspect of our presence in a strip club, and coming off as disrespectful. Or they might start to get self-conscious and leave feeling like creepy dykes. Or, potentially, as novices, they simply might not know that the best way to negate bad vibes is by bringing lots of bills (a flub common to most first-timers, I’m sure). And, finally, the men might get weird. For women, sadly, don’t we know that’s always a risk.
My Internet persona is extra. I take on a loudmouth, sassy, verbose kind of character. I exaggerate all of the most obnoxious traits of my personality to a self-deprecating degree. Everyone (who knows me) knows that. It’s a social media inside joke.
I decided I had a responsibility to my guests to write some kind of disclaimer. In my goofy Internet voice, I wrote a long list of the info they would need for the party: how to print the coupons the club advised me to use, what time to arrive, a plea to the men to be respectful of the women, a plea to everyone to respect the dancers, and a plea to my friends to relax and have fun. Even though I’d had prior conversations with most of my guests about it, I again urged them to “make it rain,” while also remaining sensitive to the financially limited people who I knew would not be staying long.
I’ve been made to wonder if I should have written the thing at all, but in today’s feminism, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
A few days later, the New York City snow day, I’m in bed with my girlfriend and my phone is blowing up.
Apparently there was an article going viral on Jezebel called “Don’t Be An Idiot At The Strip Club,” and it was about me. One of my friends, a feminist and guest at the party, had (unbeknownst to me) sent my jokey Facebook message to Jezebel, assuming the writers would find it as funny and poignant as she had. But instead Anna Merlan employed overly cute, self-congratulatory snark to tear me apart for clicks.
Even before reading the piece, I knew it would be insignificant to me. I’ve been critical of Jezebel ever since they staked the Lena Dunham witch-hunt of her pre-photoshopped Vogue photos. Many things about that fiasco felt wrong, and I’ve never cared much about Lena Dunham. Deciding that because Dunham calls herself a feminist, she was required to bear the weight of Jezebel’s pre-established principles? Offering 10k to the public for illegal images of a non-consenting Dunham’s body so that Jezebel could prove a convoluted point about “body-positivity?”
It seemed to me these were emotionally injured people using politics to justify aggressive urges because they yearned to feel powerful. And because attacking other women would garner the website lots of hits. This approach obviously does little but contribute to the unproductive notion that there is one perfect brand of feminism. If I can manage to worship Andrea Fucking Dworkin yet still comprehend the concept that I am not entitled to police fellow women, then it seems to me that other feminists can chill out as well.
My point is: skimming Merlan’s piece about my personal message, I was not surprised by her sarcasm about my out of context words, not surprised by her lazy journalism and the smug tone it all entailed, and not surprised by the easy shots she took at me. I went on to break the First Commandment of Internet sanity: Don’t Read the Comments. Reviewing rampant viciousness dedicated to me, I was again, well, not surprised.
It should also come as no great revelation that even when I somewhat carelessly threw my perspective into the comments, nobody recalibrated their arguments based on clarified details. The hundreds of multiplying commenters wanted to be angry. Suddenly I’m finding myself in the comment thread, stupidly defending myself to Merlan, who at last did surprise me by jumping into the thread herself, leaving the boundaries of her byline behind to join the rest of the Angry and Lonely who find their homes in Internet message boards. A hallmark of a good writer is commitment to consistency, facts, and the humility to adapt to new information. But this writer persistently spewed sarcasm.
Jezebel is read by something like eighteen million people globally a month. It’s a space wherein women are creating a culture: a precious opportunity. It does not reflect well on women—nor does it bode well for our dreams of progress— if that culture is rife with cat-fighting. What is intended to be a political movement looks instead like behavior exemplary of every stereotypical character flaw ever ascribed to women by men: Hysteria, sweeping statements, shit-talking? Emotionally assaulting each other instead of investigating real travesties that are happening not only in our first world, but globally? The pettiness makes us appear stupid and nuts. Worse, it erodes our strength as a community.
If my message had leaked from a man and not a lesbian, what would have happened? Would he be applauded for explaining the economic system of a strip club to his bros, urging them to be as respectful and fiscally supportive as possible to the women, for acknowledging boundaries? Yes! The spin of that leak would look very different than the clickbait mine became. But we expect the men to go to the clubs and they might behave well or badly; either way, their conduct is not newsworthy. Jezebel waits to pounce till a woman tries to go—and then ridicules her for her documented efforts at doing it correctly.
It is frightening that as someone who writes at a publication that proclaims so much concern for the meanings of identities, Merlan never once employed critical thought to remember the probable need for a group of queer people to consider their safety as they plan a trip to a sexualized, alcohol-driven space run by and for heterosexual men.
And here’s a personal admission: I’m as sick of the word “safe” and “space” and “identity” and all of the other jargon you encounter in identity theory as I am sick of Mean Girl Feminism. I’m dismissive of these buzzwords and the kind of self-important seriousness that frequently accompanies them and of politicizing every tiny little thing that happens in daily first-world life. But it’s simply indisputable that I was planning to bring a large group of queer people into a dramatically unfamiliar environment and there would be meaning in that action. I acknowledged the risk lightheartedly, even though these are serious vulnerabilities that perhaps Merlan cannot relate to.
It seems common in feminist and queer communities to pick on each other; call each other out for “language” or how someone wants to party for a night, rather than work hard and with focus to dismantle greater oppressions. If you need to lash out at someone as a means to cope with your own inner turmoil, it’s true that your neighbor is more accessible than your enemy. If you select your neighbor over your enemy, the satisfying results of beholding someone’s submission and shame at your hand come faster. The adrenaline of abuse probably becomes addictive. But there is nothing noble about this form of communicating, so I feel unaffected by it. Thanks largely to the therapeutic powers of feminism, I am proud of myself most of the time and absolute in my worldview. In reaction to this Strip Club Idiot thing, I’m fine, unshaken, unmoved.
I wonder though: I’m a uniquely strong person, uniquely impervious to disparagement. What if I wasn’t? What if Merlan had gotten her hands on a woman’s private email to friends, manipulated the context and ridiculed the woman in that same way, and then that woman harmed herself somehow, actually internalizing the shame and pain that was intended by Merlan and her supporters?
If I’m an active feminist just trying to get through my day and suddenly I’m in a position to defend myself against a powerful woman-centered publication because of a private, humorous Facebook message, then all of us cognizant feminists ought to be in a state of alarm. Jezebel’s modus operandi endorses the idea that any individual who doesn’t submit to a dominant institution’s streamlined view of the world deserves to be brutalized. Anybody who understands and values basic liberal principles can understand how ideologically dangerous that is. Now, I’m not saying Jezebel possesses totalitarian authority that truly threatens my personal liberty. But I am saying that it’s pretty self-righteous for them to operate as though they do.
Still, I also believe in freedom of speech. So I’m in support of Merlan’s right to say whatever she wants about how I approach my life- even if she is a privileged woman critiquing queer needs and did take someone’s words out of a private space, and mostly just made fun of a stranger to fulfill her posting quota for the work day. But one more problem I have with PC rhetoric is that it’s often employed to speak over people’s real experiences as it “advocates” for others. Lived experience was allegedly the crux of Merlan’s polemic, since she interviewed a real live stripper who responded to skewed excerpts of my message (and suggested that women must belong to the 1% in order to belong in strip clubs). So I welcome Jezebel to exercise that “ethical journalism muscle” and call up Hustler to get their firsthand take on their experience with the exploitative lesbian idiots. I know I did. Here’s a Hustler woman’s account of our night: “You guys were amazing. It’s funny you called because we were just talking about your party. You dropped five grand at least and the girls had a great time. We’ve had groups of thirty guys come in before who act like their shit doesn’t stink and don’t spend any money. We want you to come back!”
And here’s my account:
It was great! About thirty people came. Only two of my straight dudes could take the heat of my feminist concern. The club had a hilariously large circle of chairs ready for us and advised our group to pay the cocktail waitresses in cash. We were the only ones in the room for most of the night, until a mellow trio of businessmen came in for an hour. I was thrown into a chair and given a dance immediately, and then another, and then another, forever until the end of the night. It wasn’t long before everybody present was buying drinks and dances. Our giant circle of chairs was truly, beautifully, “making it rain” and just generally “wiling out.” And so, for just one night, thirty hardworking, good-hearted, socially conscious lesbians got to experience the liberating delight of rolling deep in a strip club.
And in case there was any additional moral panic regarding our conduct at the hotel after-party, I can assure all concerned Feminists that we were very well-behaved women. The lesbians hung out, ate halal, and quietly watched HGTV.
The moral of this story? What happens when you plan a strip club birthday if you’re a lesbian is that you will not be punished by the patriarchy after all, but in fact by other women.
If you look at historically successful movements, empathy for members of your community is going to be progressive. Unity will be progressive. So will readiness to connect and understand. Three-dimensional action and prioritizing. Fact-checking and critical thought are always good too.
But I guess it’s cool that my Golden Birthday went viral. I may never know for sure whether I am an objectively good enough feminist. But now I know for sure that my party was legendary.
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