In July of 2003, President George W. Bush participated in a number of public conversations about the definition of marriage, standing firmly on his line that marriage means a union between a man and a woman. His commonsensical delivery of this position reflects a widespread American belief that what is “normal” in sexual relationships is obvious, self-evident, god-given, irrefutable, and consistently conservative. It is within this context of vapid tributes to “family values” and ideologically biased “defenses of marriage” that I wish to situate Katherine Frank’s anthropological study of strip club regulars, as it calls into question many assumptions about both the sex industry and the institution of marriage. Frank’s decision to “observe the observers” refocuses our attention from the traditional ethnographic study of the exotic (dancer) to the equally illuminating field-site of the mundane (strip club regular), and in intervening in the expected gaze, she draws attention to the bias behind the boundaries between them. In a sense, Frank performs a perverse reading of the strip club, recognizing the utter dailyness of the strip club scene for regulars (and for dancers), and revealing what is exotic or unexpected in an arena usually considered mundane or familiar: marriage and heterosexual intimacy.1
The focus of G-Strings and Sympathy is on the strip club regular—men who frequent a club or a number of clubs daily, weekly, or monthly, who find these visits satisfying and consider it a significant personal practice (xxiv). Resisting the cultural tendency to sensationalize strip clubs and what goes on inside them, Frank instead analyzes strip club patronage in relation to parallel leisure practices, seeing in the strip club regular many of the same characteristics attributed to the contemporary “tourist” of John Urry’s work in The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990). The strip club provides a space separate from home and work in which to relax, socialize, and engage in conspicuous consumption; through architecture and ambience, it combines the masculinized pleasures of sports bar, golf club house, and Tahitian beach. While some customers attribute the appeal of the strip club to the excitement of the exotic—the sexual, racial, and economic otherness encountered there—many regulars consistently downplay the erotic and exotic aspects of this space in interviews with Frank, adopting a blasé attitude of “seeing through” the illusions of the dancers’ costumes, stage names, and performed lasciviousness. This inversion of the exotic with the everyday is for regulars a way of constructing themselves as worldly and perceptive, not the dupes of feminine wiles and capitalist exploitation that mainstream American culture might see them as. They are “post-tourists” of the red light district, articulating a personal aesthetics of the mundane, unshocked and unhussled.
G-Strings and Sympathy is at least as interested in the other half of these men’s lives—their relationships and marriages—as it is in the time they spend at “Diamond Doll’s” or “Tina’s Revue.” Yet Frank examines the link between marriage and the sex industry in a way that resists simplistic truisms about intimacy, honesty, and fantasy. “[S]trip clubs,” writes Frank, “are not necessarily antithetical to marriage, as some social theorists and community members would like to think, but neither are they unrelated to it. In fact, visits to the clubs are related to particular ways of practicing marriage (and heterosexual relationships more generally) that make this a desirable venue for some men” (xxi). Drawing on the work of psychologist Otto Kernberg and the field of object relations, Frank interprets the behaviors of strip club regulars in terms of triangulation; the male customer can play out certain fantasies of introducing a rival to his wife without the wife necessarily knowing or witnessing the imagined struggle. In this way, he expresses what some psychologists perceive as inherent in intimacy and long-term romantic commitments: aggression towards the love object. The strip club, then, is used as a tool to maintain an otherwise uncomfortable monogamy imperative. It is not antithetical to marriage; it is marriage’s exotic alter-ego.
In her discussion of municipal battles over zoning and the sex industry, Frank destabilizes certain uncritically accepted norms of American culture by characterizing marriage as merely one of many possible sexual preferences: “Only certain kinds of fetishists (married, reproductive, heterosexual monogamists) have widespread institutional support, and individuals with other desires often find that they must feign accordance with this standard” (275). The discussion of zoning is particularly evocative for thinking of marriage and strip clubs as coexisting, even symbiotic, institutions, the borderlands where propriety and wild abandon rub shoulders inside the shared space of the norm; I would add that this vision of marriage and strip clubs parallels the good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy frequently examined by feminist theorists, which also demarcates intertwined sides of a single social norm. Frank situates the strip club regular inside the “family values” movement, rather than reproducing more common assumptions of him as deviant:
In many ways, it makes sense that strip clubs should have multiplied so wildly in the United States during the past several decades, along with the panic about AIDS and fears about the dissolution of ‘the family.’ The process of upscaling in strip clubs, with its promise of ‘clean’ and respectable interactions, could alleviate certain fears about contamination and disease that escalated around prostitution. The fact that sexual activity is not generally expected or offered in strip clubs also fits well with a growing emphasis on monogamy and marriage for heterosexuals after the sexual experimentation (and ensuing disillusionment for many) of the 1970s. (xxxv-xxxvi)
Thus encounters with strippers serve as a psychological lubricant for restless spouses, a latex barrier for the errant desires of the technically monogamous.
The content of G-Strings and Sympathy, which looks with a fresh eye at the complicated power dynamics within the dancer-customer relationship, is reinforced by two compelling stylistic choices. First, Frank punctuates her theoretically sophisticated analyses of strip club regulars with fictional “interludes,” three short stories that appeared previously in various literary magazines. Through these narratives, Frank invokes the power of fiction to catch the subtleties of human relationship, consumer culture, and negotiated agency in the refined light of story-truth (an idea many fiction writers subscribe to—that fiction sometimes tells more truth than fact).2 In addition to this cross-genre move, Frank’s much-noted boundary-crossing position as both participant and observer (a stripper and an anthropologist?!, the reviewers seem to report gleefully) belongs to an important tradition in her field. I want to mirror Frank’s refusal to sensationalize strip clubs, strippers, and strip club regulars by attending to the growing academic acceptance of work like Frank’s, and the exciting body of scholarship coming from anthropologists studying their own cultures.3
Based on her own interactions with strip club regulars, and informed by a widely interdisciplinary synthesis of cultural theory, Frank does for masculinity studies what other feminist theorists have done for femininity—breaking down the monolith of Manhood, revealing it as stratified by social class, and balancing attention between its social constructedness and individual men’s negotiations of agency despite this social construction.4 While the stories men tell themselves about why they go to strip clubs are clearly informed by social mythologies of male desire, Frank reminds her readers that these men experience their bodies and social status with more ambivalence and anxiety than these cultural narratives indicate. With this point, Frank opens up the possibility of positioning the very men most feminists would demonize—strip club regulars—as allies of women in the struggle against sexual repression and rigid gender roles. Frank is careful not to overstate the theoretical or social implications of her study, advocating the more manageable goal of “work[ing] for a situation where these binaries [public and private, body and mind, reality and fantasy, cultural and personal] are not so rigidly fixed and where feelings of shame, disgust, and desire do not congeal into predictable power differentials and hierarchical configurations of sexuality and gender” (279), a laudable goal in itself, yet I want to reach beyond it to suggest that G-Strings and Sympathy radically reorients the relationship between men and women in the project of affirming diverse sexualities in a historical moment devoted to marginalizing them.
1 I take my definition of “perverse” in this instance from Igor Primoratz’s Ethics and Sex (London: Routledge, 1999), who describes “the usage of the word ‘perverse’ in non-sexual contexts: to act in a perverse way in certain circumstances is to deliberately do the opposite of what the rules pertaining to such circumstances enjoin” (59-60).
2 I am thinking here in particular of fiction writer and memoirist Dorothy Allison’s Two or Three Things I Know for Sure (New York: Plume, 1996) and Marianna Torgovnick’s “Experimental Critical Writing” (ADE-Bulletin 96 : 8-10).
3 Among those cited by Frank are Lila Abu-Lughod (“Can There Be a Feminist Ethnography?”, Women and Performance 9 : 1-24), Ruth Behar and Deborah Gordon (Women Writing Culture, Berkeley: U of California P, 1995), and James Clifford and George E. Marcus (Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley: U of California P, 1986).
4 See Lynn Chancer’s Reconcilable Differences: Confronting Beauty, Pornography, and the Future of Feminism (Berkeley: U of California P, 1998) for an example of this third wave feminist move within the structure-versus-agency debate.
Author: Lisa Johnson is the editor and contributing author of Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire. Judging by the way colleagues react to her “racy” scholarly focus, the need to recognize the utter banality of sex–the mundane behavior of ex-strippers as well as strip club regulars–strikes her as urgent.