A Review of REVELATIONS: Essays on Striptease and Sexuality
by Margaret Dragu and A. S. A. Harrison
London, Ontario, Canada. Nightwood Editions
Review Copyright © 1989 by William A. Henkin
Originally published in Spectator
I gave this book to my lover, who used to be a stripper, for her last birthday. She read it slowly, one chapter at a time, because she found the stories in it to be so true to her own experience that they revived memories both lovely and painful. And when she had finished she ordered three more copies to give to friends of hers who had also been erotic dancers.
For non-strippers too these pages contain poignant tales, mostly recounted by performance artist and choreographer Margaret Dragu who was a stripper for seven years, and social observations made by writer-researcher A.S.A Harrison, who sets out the thesis that underlies the entire enterprise in her "Preface:"
... in this utilitarian world, stripping ... is the only sexual theatre we have that is dedicated to enticement and the arousal of desire as opposed to bald displays of fornication. Striptease is our one shrine to sexual feeling and the enjoyment and celebration of sexual feeling for its own sake.
As they examine "the unique nature and merits of stripping, and at the same time address the moral and political issues that cling to sexual entertainment," the authors exhibit evidence of "the phenomenal intolerance of women's sexuality that pervades western culture." Through this evidence they point out the "neurotic symbiosis" that exists between sex and morals, and "that is wholly out of control."
In their opening chapter, "The Striptease Establishment," the authors note that the strip club is one of the rare entertainment forums where a person might see wonderful and awful performances back to back. The reason, they explain, is that strippers are more often hired for their looks and conformity to a prevailing aesthetic than for their dancing or performing abilities. In this regard Dragu recalls working with another dancer who was so awkward she used to trip herself on stage, but who was regularly employed because "she was slim and pretty with nice, large breasts." As the manager of their theatre said to Dragu one night while the woman was performing, "She's so terrible. But she's kinda cute."
Though the "conventionally sexy qualities of blondeness and a big bosom are highly prized in strippers," Dragu and Harrison say fine dancers are not uncommon, particularly among
successful performers whose beauty does not fit the prevailing stereotype. A woman who does not look like a Jockette or the Girl Next Door; women who are tall, plump, strong-featured, or hirsute; women who are not demure and ladylike; women who are the wrong color or age: all must have unusual talent, skill, poise, and/or ability to command an audience that someone who looks like the Playmate of the Month can get by without. Besides,
standards for strippers are haphazard and easily give way to the personal tastes and politics of managers, and the whims of strippers. Stripping is a maverick industry in which everyone tends to do whatever he or she thinks best at the time. Meanwhile, the general public is so mesmerized by sexuality per se that managers and strippers are both susceptible to the idea that if the stripper gets her clothes off, little else matters.
As examples of stripper stars who did things their way, the authors cite Iris Rose and Fonda Peters. Rose, a transvestite,
used to do a classic burlesque act that was charming and ladylike. But one night when the audience was rowdy and insulting, Iris.... performed cunnilingus on her armpit. Then she took out a powder puff with a long, gold handle a prop she normally used to daintily dust her cleavage.... stuck the puff down the front of her g-string and pounded it against her crotch until powder came billowing out.... [When] Iris came off stage [she] said [to Dragu]: "Well girl, that's my comedy act."
Another stripper "chewed gum, made armfarts and pointed to her armpit and leg hair, asking the guys if they thought she was a lady."
In conjunction with standards of stripper beauty, Harrison and Dragu address the popular "Decline Theory" of stripping, which holds that stripping and strippers are no longer as good as they used to be. Harrison first heard the theory from Dragu, and found it reasonable; she "only began to doubt it after hearing a number of different versions that didn't quite add up. Each person's version, I found, had a strong flavour of nostalgia for the good old days when he or she was just starting out in the business." Harrison makes her point through the parallel opinions of 1930s burlesque queen Ann Corio, a 1950s stripper named Josephine, and Fonda Peters, whose career spanned the 1970s; she concludes that "stripping is not, on the whole, any better or worse than it ever has been."
"Consumers' Guide to Strippers," consists of Dragu's portraits of ten distinct types of strippers.
* Burlesque Queen "fulfills everyone's idea of a classic, old-time stripper.... She wears long gloves and stockings with garters and is the last purveyor of the classic bump and grind.... She is a star, preserving showbiz traditions [and].... showmanship."
* New Wave Stripper is a rule-breaker who "refuses to conform to popular culture's idea of what is sexual." Today a New Wave Stripper may wear a spiked haircut and dance to political music. But fashions change, and "there is always a new wave."
* Vamp is related to vampire. "[H]ot, sexy, sophisticated, and very much in control.... [she] knows what she wants and she gets it on her terms." Whether she wears evening gowns and gloves, a tiger skin, or S/M leather, watching the vamp dance is "like watching an ancient ritual performed by a high priestess."
* Dingbat Artist neither upholds nor rebels against stripper traditions because she doesn't take tradition seriously, if she notices it at all. She may be a painter, writer, or photographer who is stripping just to make money. "Dingbats don't usually last long in stripping it is too conservative for them and they are always getting fired."
* Hippie Stripper is "earnest and pragmatic, with a disdain for artifice, including makeup, perfume, high heels and stockings." Though Dragu identifies herself as an aging hippie she says she was never a hippie stripper, who regards nudity as healthy rather than exotic and so projects vitality more than sexuality on stage, and who may go to the park to sunbathe nude in between her sets.
* Greaser Mama is a pop culture version of the true biker mama. She is sexually open and guiltless, perfectly able to walk "up to a table of regulars and slap them on the back.... even though she is almost naked and wearing five-inch high heels." Her boyfriend and his buddies are likely to be regulars at the club.
* Sex Kitten is "coy and manipulative, playing the helpless and passive female but secretly plotting, using pouts and giggles and little-girl tactics" to get what she wants. Though she acknowledges the success of this "walking, talking, giggling cash register," Dragu clearly detests the sex kitten because she is "so oblivious to the religion of stripping."
* Pathetic Waif is what most people think all strippers are: victims of raw deals, bad men, bad choices in life. They exist in other walks of life as well, and as in the strip scene they are "the junkies, the lost souls and the hopeless wrecks...."
* Jockette "is the perfect version of whatever men are buying this year, and she radiates the status quo." Wholesome, even virginal, middle-class in values as well as appearance, the jockette does not have to be a good dancer because men will be happy just looking at her "perfect" body.
* Intellectual "There are two things I like to see in a stripper," writes Dragu. "One is the supremely sexual woman who can transfix my very being and make time stand still. This kind of stripper can belong to any category. The other is a thinker who puts her view of life into her act." Through her performance and her presence, the intellectual "offers a discussion of status-quo morality and sexual values."
As Revelations continues, Dragu and Harrison take on a series of topics that relate the western perception of stripping to the condition of our societies as a whole. In "Why Queen Elizabeth Doesn't Strip," Harrison identifies her own realization
that women in general are judged by the same standards used for strippers. We live in a society where it is always open season on women who dress or behave in overtly sexual ways.... sexuality in women is one of the biggest taboos of our civilization.... by invalidating strippers we invalidate women's right to a sexual identity. This can only help to impoverish all of us, since it deprives women of their enjoyment of their own sexuality, and also means that men can't enjoy women's sexuality without guilt.
In "Revelations" Harrison takes her insight one step farther, to claim that "sexual repression in general, and particularly the repression of women's sexuality, is at the base of our sexual distress as a society."
We live in a culture where any expression of sexuality outside of adult heterosexual mating is, in some sense, a problem.... Our sexual code of ethics is rigid and exclusive. Its foundation is the centuries-old belief that sex is wrong and dangerous, and must therefore be closely regulated.... Our contempt for strippers has the same basis as our contempt for rapists. We condemn those who break the sexual code at whatever level.
What Harrison loves about strippers and other sex entertainers is that they challenge the codes and the limits, and hence help us push back the boundaries of our own repression.
In "Vice" Harrison describes a game played between "strippers, prostitutes, b-girls, club owners, some comedians, drag queens and pornographers" on one team, and vice cops on the other. In the vice game, "the first object is to make a living. The second object is to have your way with the other side. And the third and highest object is to make your point." Dragu and Harrison are at pains to distinguish between prostitution and stripping in Revelations, pointing out that very few women who do one kind of work also do the other. Vice cops do not make this distinction, however, and hence Vice is complicated by disagreement between the sides about the purpose of the game. While vice cops think of the sex people as naughty children who need to be controlled, strippers and their team think of vice cops as jerks who prevent them from earning a harmless living. Because vice laws are different as well as differently interpreted and differently enforced from one municipality to another, and because those laws are forever changing anyway, the game of vice never ends. Though each team may win a battle now and then, neither team can ever win the war.
Later in the chapter Dragu relates the story of a prostitution bust she witnessed in Miami Beach while researching this book. The cops taking Dragu around are nice to her, if awkward, and try to protect her from the atmosphere of the hotel bar they stake out. But later, after the bust, when she tells them she has been a stripper herself,
It gets real quiet. For an instant they look like they think I've pulled a fast one, like I've been laughing at them behind their backs. They look scared and shocked. They've been so busy treating me like the Virgin Mary, it hasn't occurred to them that I might be a stripper. They feel fooled used.... We get into the car. This new attitude of theirs... [has] an edge that's not quite playful. I decide it's time to go home.
In "The Cock's Dance" the authors discuss the phenomenon of male strippers, who have a positive image very much in contrast to that of female strippers among club managers, journalists, vice cops, and other male establishment representatives. Despite this disparity, they welcome the "inversion of traditional roles." As an enterprise ""based on men serving sex to women," male strippers are a sign that sex is becoming an "acceptable pursuit for women."
Dragu and Harrison discuss other aspects of the politics of sex entertainment in several chapters: club politics in "Honor and Jealousy"; the mythical partnership the authors say they found no substantiation for the idea between strippers and organized crime in "The Stripper and the Gangster"; and the patriarchal attitudes of male club owners and managers toward their female employees in "Boss Daddy." In an amusing chapter of customer portraits called "Getting Down with the Boys" they examine the reasons a half-dozen men offer for enjoying strip shows. The reasons are as varied as the men, and the authors conclude that a general answer does not exist: that every man who makes a habit of watching burlesque, or attends a single or an occasional strip show, does so for his own individual reasons.
With "Vice" and "The Cock's Dance," my own favorite chapter in this book is "At the Shrine of the Stripper," where the authors pose the question that continues to baffle responsible, consenting adults who find themselves cast out as criminals or social misfits by the tight-winged pillars of the community simply because they enjoy erotic entertainment: What is wrong with what I like?
If, as a society, we behaved as irrationally about other urges and body parts as we do about those associated with eroticism, magazines like Bon Appetite, Audiophile, and Video would be considered pornographic. Listening to music and eating would be suspect activities. Looking at pictures of food would be illegal in some communities. People who liked to smell roses would have to skulk through the seamy sides of town to do so in the dark, and hide pressed flowers under thick books' covers where their spouses would not find them.
Harrison compares art with sex, noting that sexual display is only acceptable and then just barely when it passes muster as some sort of art. Jerry Falwell may consider a picture of a naked woman in Hustler to be pornography, but if the same woman is holding a Grecian urn and the picture is in a frame in a museum it can be art. By extension, a movie may be filled with gratuitous sex, no matter how loving and humanly expressive that sex is; but there is no such thing as gratuitous art no matter how poorly conceived or executed it may be. "It is sad," she writes,
that in all of this fuss there is no real concern about art. The issue is obviously not a love of art, but a horror of sexuality.... It is the particular job of strippers to represent sexuality to the rest of the world, and the only shame is that they so often do it poorly, diminishing sex instead of celebrating it.... When Dragu first began stripping.... [her] job, as she saw it, was to express the God-spirit innate in sexuality. She wanted to transcend the gutter image of stripping with the power of her belief that sex is holy and that its holiness can be artistically represented through the medium of performance.
Just so, there are people who go to strip clubs "specifically in search of God experience" who best like strippers who "strip to the soul." But these people do not get much play on the police blotters, because members of the two teams in Vice evidently are, in a sense, really incapable of understanding one another.
I take issue with a couple of notions Dragu and Harrison have that they mention in passing but never really address, such as the discredited and outmoded belief that "pornography always involves some form of abuse" ("Cock's Dance"). Similarly, there are several areas within the large topic of stripping that the authors do not address, whose consideration, I believe, would illuminate much of what they have already written. For instance, what about a chapter on women who like burlesque? I've attended strip shows with women on a few occasions: some liked what they saw, some were indifferent to it, and one who had asked me to take her to the theatre become sick to her stomach and had to go to the lobby. Or, what about a section on gay strippers dancing for audiences of their own gender? San Francisco boasts several highly touted gay male theatres, and the beautiful and articulate Rainbeau brings tears to my lover's and other women's eyes.
But with or without consideration of such questions, Revelations constitutes a revelation: it is an obeisance and a monument to stripping, and as such it is, as Harrison writes that stripping is, "one of the few shrines that exists in our culture for the representation of sexuality."
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