Reflections from the Strip Club: A Heady Night at King of Diamonds

FullSizeRenderA few days after my 35th birthday I went to King of Diamonds (KOD) my first real strip club experience–sorry little strip club on Bourbon Street with women dancing to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” you don’t count. This trip to KOD was about a year and a half in the making as there were many attempts at going that failed. The first attempt occurred during a bachelorette weekend and failed because the concierge convinced us that there were better things to do. The second attempt happened during a close friend’s birthday weekend and failed because of the general exhaustion of the group. With this third attempt in view, nothing could stop me from being the one to conquer this beast. Despite having no real detailed plan for going because my friends sometimes like flying by the seats of their pants, I still had some hopes that on the last Monday in December I would end up in the nation’s largest, most popular black strip club. Fortunately the universe conspired with me and I made it. I didn’t suffer from sensory overload as some suggested I would, I didn’t try to save any of the women stripping, and I didn’t get bored quickly. So what DID I do? I had a good time but I think it was atypically so because I was in my head and analyzing everything I saw with my friends. So here are some of my thoughts from my night at KOD.

  1. “Women Who Strip” not “Strippers”: It occurred to me that few other women are called by what they do, and pejoratively so, more than strippers. There are the instances where people refer to Sheryl Sandberg as “CEO,” or Beyonce as a “pop star” but Cheryl and Beyonce are also “CEO Sheryl Sandberg” or “pop-star Beyonce Knowles.” They are known not only by what they do but who they are. A “stripper” on the other hand is usually just a “stripper.”  Part of that naming convention is that women who strip are usually not world-renowned–unless their name is Maliah–but the other part is that I’ve existed in a world where stripping is considered a morally questionable and problematic occupation. Among the ordinary people of the world, I’ve heard that strippers are “messed up,” morally depraved, desperate, and lacking in self-respect and dignity. Broadly construed in popular culture, the stripper is an icon in rap culture and someone T-Pain could–and has–fallen in love with, someone Usher doesn’t mind, or someone Drake respects. One night in a strip club made me question the way I refer to these women and think about what it would be to refer to these women first as women and then as their occupation. And maybe they don’t care either way, but my personal conviction is “person before occupation or ability” at all times.
  2. Do women who strip have a union? As I watched the women stripping I couldn’t help but be amazed and concerned. My concern wasn’t about the salvation of their souls but about their job security, their worker’s comp benefits, health insurance, the safety of hiking up and spinning around those poles all night long… Do these women have a national union that not only protects their right to do this type of work but ensures their safety and fair pay while doing it? I’ve read a little about regional union in places such as San Francisco but it doesn’t appear that there is an AFL-CIO-level union for women who strip in America. Maybe someone can make that happen…
  3. There is a light skin/dark skin dichotomy. An early observation that my friends and I made was that there was a difference between the performance of light-skinned women versus darker-skinned women. What we noticed is the light and fair-skinned women exhausted no energy during their performance. They did no tricks, waited for patrons to approach them, and sometimes looked disinterested in being there altogether. On the other hand, the dark-skinned women performed like the rent/mortgage was due after they left the stage. They had all the tricks and twerked exceedingly well. This claim worked across the board with the exception of maybe one woman per group. (Shout outs to Mini (sp?) for being the real MVP that night!) This was fascinating as I assumed every woman in the club would be working like their lives depended on it, but apparently that wasn’t the case. I talked to a good friend and he said, “The strip club operates the same way the regular world does. Pretty people can get by on looks.” So the strip club mirrors the world, huh? I wonder how many other ways I could draw the analogy out.
  4. Women who strip are gifted. Now on to something a little bit lighter. Women who strip are gifted. Yeah I said, “gifted.” I have no reason to mince my words here. I watched those women do things that the average, and even some above average women, could never do while naked. It takes a great deal of confidence not only to be naked in front of strangers but to perform compelling routines to great effect. (It also takes great confidence to assume that your vagina smells incredible after all that work, good enough for you to shove it in someone’s face after you’ve finished sliding up the same pole as the woman before you.) Nevertheless, I say “perform” and not “dance” because stripping is a performance of the sexual. It’s a performance of projected ideas of the sexual and sensual by women attuned to those ideas through their observations of what men want and sometimes what they need. Their performances ranged from being docile “lady in the sheets” to aggressive “freak in the streets.” There was something for everyone in the strip club performance.
  5. IMG_1170I’m low-key scared of women who strip. So about my personal experience at the strip club…I will confess that I was somewhat scared of the women. My friends and I were sitting at the bar which was close enough to watch the women strip on the stage and really close to the women who were cruising for lap dances and VIP room action. Early in the night I broke a $20 into $1 bills so that I could tip the women. I was excited about my $18–because the club charges a 10% fee to break large bills–and I felt ready to tip women. I saw plenty that was worth “making it rain” but I never got up the nerve to leave my bar stool to leave a tip on the stage. I was scared that someone would find out I was there celebrating my birthday and then bring me up on the stage for a dance or put my face in their crotch or something else. For the women roaming I tried not to make eye contact in case they thought I was choosing that night and decided I was ready to be relieved of all my money. I’ll also admit that the thoughts of objectification were running through my head as I struggled with enjoying what I was seeing but not wanting to objectify women–even though I believe these women were exercising agency not being objectified. These strains of thought run deep and even if I’m able to articulate a progressive to liberal view of women who strip, deep down the problem still exists. As the kids say, “There are levels to this thing.” As you can see I was clearly in the strip club with a lot of preconceived notions about how it works and a lot of fear that these women were predators and not just performers looking to put on the best show for all patrons. So what did I do with all those $1 bills? I spent it at an IHOP. Don’t worry, I realize how ridiculous I am for this.
  6. I would do it all over again… You’ll be surprised to know that I would do this all over again. While I spent way too much time in my head during this time in the strip club I think it was a good primer for future visits. I reserve no official judgement for women who strip–even if subconsciously I’m still showing the signs of my prior judgement. I respect it as a job a woman takes up like any other, and I enjoy watching it like a would enjoy any other performing art. As someone with interest in embodiment and dancing, watching a woman’s strip performance is one of the most amazing things I’ve seen. Just like dancing, stripping requires a strong core and control of the body. There is similar precision and discipline that the woman who strips must exercise in order to deliver the best possible performance. I respect that and would definitely go again to see it. So, who knows, I might write another one of these reflections in a few months.

Sex Talk in Song Then and Now: What Do You Remember Hearing?

This is the first semester of my doctoral studies at Emory University and I have the good fortune of serving as a teaching assistant for Religion & Sexuality. This undergraduate-level course is all about, you guessed it, religion and sexuality and the many ways they are related. Students study the main religious traditions perspectives on sexuality, significant thinkers in the disciplines, media coverage and pop culture. Keeping in line with the latter, yesterday the professor started to dive deep into this discourse by focusing on Freud and Foucault. But, so as not to completely lose the students due to the denseness of these two thinkers matter, he offered a more contemporary resource to help them understand what is at stake in discourses on sex by using, wait for it…

Yes, Salt-n-Pepa’s 1991 hit supplemented a discussion on Foucault’s discourse on sex in the Victorian age and I was here for it. But as the video played and I surveyed the room to observe its reception, I saw many of the students just staring at it blankly. It hit me that no one in the classroom except for me, the other teaching assistant, and the professor, was born when the song dropped. I was 11 when the song came out and I remember it as the first song I’d ever heard that explicitly talked about sex. The students in the class weren’t even zygotes in 1991 and I realized that, to them, a song that explicitly talks about sex could mean something entirely different.

When I say “explicitly talked about sex” I mean that sex talk in song was direct and not reliant on the oftentimes hyper-aggressive, hostile, violent, and sometimes rape-y sex talk in songs today. The students’s experience of sex talk in song is most likely different from my experience of sex talk in the songs that I came of age to such as Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex,” Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” and TLC’s “I Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” all songs which spoke about sex in plain terms–although the argument can be made that these songs were pushing boundaries at the time. These songs were still tame in nature, didn’t use potentially harmful language, and promoted safe sex either explicitly in the lyrics on in their corresponding videos. This, however, is probably not the reality for young people who were born in 1994–the approximate year I believe most of the students were born in–because by 2005, the sex talk in song sounded something like this,

I’ll take you to the candy shop
I’ll let you lick the lollipop
Go ‘head girl, don’t you stop
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)
[Olivia]
I’ll take you to the candy shop
Boy one taste of what I got
I’ll have you spending all you got
Keep going ’til you hit the spot (woah)

That is an excerpt from 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop” a song that was number eight on Billboard’s 2005 Year-End list. But this still might not be the first song with sex talk that they’ve heard. There may have been something earlier or later but I’m curious about what they first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. And now I’m curious about what many people first heard and how that formed–or didn’t form them. So I’m throwing the query out to readers,

What is the first song you recall hearing sex talk in or the first song you heard that was all about sex? How did the song make you feel? What did it make you think about sex? Also be sure to include the approximate decade in which you were born and when the song came out. I may or may not be using this for research. 😉

So…Let’s talk about sex!

A Not So Sweet Spot: Questioning the Performance of Sexual Liberation

Note: The following post has strong sexual language and content. 

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend Sweet Spot, an evening of “high energy, heart pumping, fist pounding, laugh out loud pop erotica performance art.” The evening featured spoken word artists, singers, burlesque dancers, a sexologist, comedians, a miniature sex toy shop and much more all focused on one thing, sex and the acquisition of pleasure. I must admit that from the onset I was hesitant about attending this particularly after I watched a promo video for it. It looked like it was above my sexual pay grade and like it would be filled with moments that would make me clutch and break my non-existent pearls. It turned out that it wasn’t above my sexual pay grade, it was–in my opinion–beneath me and did a particular kind of violence.

The show started out innocently enough with some jokes, a pledge that included putting our hands over our “hearts”–hearts defined as private parts–and the rules of engagement otherwise known as “How Not to Cockblock Yourself.” The host for the evening, a petite young woman wearing a bedazzled ringmaster costume, told the women that the two ways we cockblock ourselves is sitting with either our arms or legs crossed. She directed us to uncross both and allow our “hearts” to breathe and be free. I appreciated this opener for no other reason than it was clever, not for its ability to help a room full of men and women keep their legs open for whatever may come. What followed the opener was a series of performances which started with a woman reading erotic fiction. I’ve never read erotic fiction, so it was interesting to listen to someone do a dramatic reading. It was also the moment when I realized that “dick” and “pussy” were the only words I would hear for the next few hours and it felt like an assault each time I heard it. This was the beginning of what I felt like was a particular kind of violence. But I tried to suspend that judgement until I saw more.

sweetspotphoto

The son of a preacher man reciting erotic poetry–and I’m not talking about Songs of Songs either.

The show continued with a burlesque dancer from Jamaica who was actually pretty good and had the most amazing back tattoo I’d ever seen, so that was a moment of reprieve. After her were two spoken word artists, the first was the son of a preacher reading from, “Fellatio 3:16.” I’m sure you can imagine my shock at the title but that was just the beginning of the profane as he said things such as,

I will read a scripture off your clit.
You can suck Lazarus back to life.

The violence of those words struck me particularly because I am a Christian woman. I understand it was the play on words given his context and upbringing, but I couldn’t help but be bothered. He invoked the homiletic style of charismatic black preachers to get the crowd riled up and aroused, but, to me, it just felt profane and reckless. I teetered between a dropped jaw and nervous laughter, and trying to find something redemptive about what I was hearing.

Another spoken word piece was performed by Sweet Spot Nation founder, Ainsley Burrows, and featured yet more lust-filled allusions such as,

I will eat the magnesium out your cum
I’ve got enough dick to raise your IQ and make you lower your standards at the same damn time.

His performance was slightly more invasive because he stared me and my friend down intently during moments in his routine.  By this time my reactions were part laughter, part silence, and part observing everyone around me to see their reactions.

In the midst of all of this there was also the condom throwing that was off-putting. Yes, condom throwing. A multi-pack of condoms and lubricants sponsored by the Stand Up 2 HIV Atlanta campaign was provided for each seated guest. I thought it was a nice touch for the evening given the public health concern that HIV is within urban cities such as Atlanta. But at no point in my time there–it could have happened after I left–did I hear a plug for the program or even gratitude for contributing the condom gift bags. Instead I saw many of the condoms being thrown at the artists and performers as if it were a form of currency. I was disappointed, to say the least, in the extreme waste of an important resource in the fight against HIV.

Though I’ve mentioned my feelings about the violence instigated through language throughout the night, it actually didn’t occur to me what was taking place until a sexologist hit the stage halfway through the show. She focused on teaching women and men how to get and give the best possible orgasm and she claimed that many don’t get there because of the aggressive nature in which some approach the sexual event. She encouraged men to take their time with women instead of acting like attack dogs and encouraged all to acknowledge the sensitive and delicate nature of our sexual organs and told women to breathe. But it was the juxtaposition of hearing someone talk about how we should be more gentle and patient in sex while hearing coarse, abrasive language that made me realize the entire situation was troubling and mimicked a particular kind of violence.

So what is this violence? I believe that violence is not just in the realm of the physical, it can be verbal and mental. Thus when I speak of the violence at Sweet Spot, it was violence through speech and through making the sacred profane. Whether it was through using Scripture as a template to talk dirty or language that made sex seem like one long rough porn fantasy, I wasn’t convinced of any sexual liberation.

As a culture we’ve long struggled for and against sexual liberation for years. Those who have fought for it are the pioneers and offspring of the sexual revolution. Those against it have primarily been conservative Christians. I want to clarify that though I am Christian–I consider myself progressive–I am not opposed to sexual liberation. I am, however, opposed to sexual liberation that results in uncritical ways of being sexual. I believe in responsible freedom which still requires some limitations and reflection on what is expedient. As it pertains to sex and sexuality narratives, I’m interested in what repeated narratives do and how they form and/or inform us. So, in the case of my time at the Sweet Spot where I was assailed by coarse language–and flying condoms, I wondered what that language did to people. How that language might have been the reason that men attack women in the sexual act–I’m not talking about rape here but the aggressive way that some men descend upon women in the sexual event because they heard that is the way. I thought about what it means to be a black person whose sexuality has almost always been regarded as animalistic and aggressive and I wondered if words such as “dick” and “pussy” play into that or are they part of our culture’s way of expressing ourselves sexually. Are the words our own or did we get them from someone else who is still determining our sexual selves? Are there different ways of speaking about sex that don’t rely on an allusion to violence? (Think about the popularity of the phrase, “I’ll beat the pussy up” in urban music.)

There are so many questions that came out of my Sweet Spot experience that made me wonder if the artists and audience were truly sexually liberated or sexually oppressed and just performing an idea of liberation. And of course the question of whether I’m the sexually oppressed or repressed person is up for discussion too. That is another reflection I’m taking up, but that is also much too predictable a conclusion to draw at this point. It’s too easy to say that the person who walks away from an event such as the Sweet Spot feeling anything but aroused and liberated is sexually repressed. It doesn’t leave room for a critique that could be useful to all parties involved. This is not to disregard pop erotica as a genre, but it is to stretch our understandings of the genre’s form and function in our communities, psyches, and selves.

PS: Lest anyone read this and think I had a completely bad experience I did enjoy myself during the break between acts when they played a lot of ratchet Top 40 music and, like I mentioned earlier, the burlesque performer and her awesome back tattoo was great too. Maybe my next excursion should be to a burlesque show. 

Video: How to Stay A Virgin

Things have been fairly heavy on Sex & the Sanctuary so I figured I’d lighten things up a bit on this Humpday. Earlier this week I asked on Facebook how people who have committed to abstinence, either as a premarital principle or for another reason, maintain that commitment. I wanted to know the practical and impractical measures people take to remain chaste. Unfortunately only one person responded with the tip that she stops shaving and waxing “the naughty bits.” I was disappointed because I know I have friends who are practicing abstinence but another friend alerted me to the fact that my question might be a little more complex than I realize–and also that people might not feel comfortable answering that question in a public space. Point taken.

Interestingly enough though, a response to my question landed in my inbox yesterday. Granted this isn’t a direct response–I don’t know this guy in real or virtual life–and he is addressing a young woman who is a virgin, but I do appreciate his advice to her. It isn’t the Evangelical Christian clichés rattled off to young people about remaining chaste–which means it isn’t full of that rhetoric. It’s real, practical advice guided by one person’s experience and a good sense of humor.  So here it is:

What do you think? Are daytime dates and unshaven naughty bits what you would suggest to someone? If you or someone you know is abstinent or celibate, how is that personal commitment maintained? What are the practical measures taken to remain abstinent if such a lifestyle is chosen? (There is no wrong answer, additional I’m not an undercover agent for Purity Culture or Pro-Abstinence, I’m just a writer/researcher interested in the topic and what people really do when they are abstinent.)