SF’s Lusty Lady model of sex-positive feminism worth saving?

The Lusty Lady, the nation’s only employee-owned, unionized strip club, is in financial trouble and in danger of closing down.

The SF Chronicle reports that the club, which makes an effort to employ “diverse body types and ethnically diverse dancers” has come across hard times due to the recession and internet porn. Now it’s looking for an angel investor who believes the club is a model worth saving:

..the ladies argue they are one of only two privately owned venues left in the city – the rest have gone corporate with strippers that look like Barbie dolls. They don’t serve alcohol (which also allows them to put on a totally nude show). And they made “talk to a live, nude girl” a local catch phrase.

“We’re a San Francisco institution,” said Dolores, a dancer since 2005 who named herself for Mission Dolores Park. “If you can walk into a place, pay a dollar, see a beautiful nude girl and give her a wave, there’s something to be said for that.”

When I graduated from college in the early Nineties, I became aware of a term:  “sex-positive feminism.” The term is obviously problematic because it assumes other feminists are “sex negative,”  a stereotype used to caricature feminists.

The “sex-positive” group includes Susie Bright, Annie Sprinkle, and Carol Queen: feminists who were often sex workers, performers, or pornographers; they were supposed to contrast with anti-pornography activists like Andrea Dworkin, Catherine Makinnon, and Robin Morgan.

At that time in the Nineties, I did think that a lot of porn exploited women. But I also thought that healthy sexuality and sexual expression were key to being a free and healthy human being. Shame is a powerful tool and society uses it to control women just as parents use it to control kids.

When I was a kid, I remember being excited when Vanessa Williams became the first African-American to win the Miss America title. I thought that was great sign for more diversity in perceptions of beauty. But then nude photos of Williams surfaced and she was forced to give up her crown. Even as a kid, I didn’t get the difference between a woman being celebrated for parading around in a bathing suit but then being shunned for posing naked for a photo.

A couple years after the Williams scandal, nude photos of Madonna surfaced. I remember bracing myself for another fall. When Madonna’s response was “Who cares?” I was so surprised and psyched. I started to wonder: what if women refused to let the fear of being shamed hold them back? What could they do? What would they be capable of?

So called “sex-positive” feminism is often portrayed as that exciting, the battle of truth versus hypocrisy; free imagination versus the uptight masses; young versus old.

But is it really?

I remember seeing the movie “The People Versus Larry Flynt,” where Flynt was depicted as a true freedom fighter, a crusader for free speech. But no matter how much I tried to be open-minded, it was clear to me that Flynt was no advocate for women’s free self-expression.

So is stripping empowering for women? It’s certainly become mainstream, showing up in everything from music videos to pole-dancing exercise classes. I suppose most women have experienced moments where it feels intoxicating to control men with their bodies. But it’s a different thing to link up those moments into a profession, to transform them into something that your financial security depends on. That seems like engaging in a losing if not risky battle, both for a dependable income and for establishing a healthy sexuality.

As author Peggy Orenstein explains so well, there is a huge difference between sexualization and sexuality. Sexualization is sexuality as performance and not a healthy, integrated sexuality. Unfortunately, sexualization has become so confused with real sexuality, it’s hard to separate it, to define what real sexuality is. One example of this is how we perceive breasts. Breasts are secondary sex characteristics, existing in part to give women pleasure. But when they are replaced by implants, breasts become homogeneous; visual stimulation for a men and a more numbed experience for women.

Which brings me back the Lusty Lady. This club boasts diverse bodies. Real breasts. So is that empowering?

I suppose it’s a question that only dancers can answers for themselves. When I interviewed Jillian Lauren, author of the book Some Girls about her sex work in Brunei, I asked her about it. Here’s what she said:

I really came into the feminist movement with a very particular viewpoint. And in the early nineties, when I was coming of age, there was this sex-positive explosion in the feminist movement. There was Susie Bright and Carol Queen and a bunch of bright, incredible women who were very vocal about being sex positive. Now I’m friends with a lot of these women. I do absolutely consider myself part of that camp. However, Its not simply about, “Sex work is so empowering, hooray.” Because that’s not how I feel anymore, now that I’m out of it and have lived with the consequences for 20 years. Sex work affected my relationship with my body, with my sexuality.It still has a ripple effect in my life. Taking your clothes off for money is a valid choice. For some women, maybe it’s the only choice. Certainly decriminalizing prostitution and having health care available for sex workers would help. But I don’t think it’s the greatest thing women can do for our souls, for the most part.

Maybe asking if the Lusty Lady is a feminist model or a sex positive one is the wrong question. Sex workers are workers. Like all workers, they should to be fairly paid and free of discrimination for age, gender, size, sexual orientation, or ethnicity. That’s a business model that every worker should be fighting for.

4 thoughts on “SF’s Lusty Lady model of sex-positive feminism worth saving?

  1. I don’t have anything against sex-workers intrinsically, but I think it’s disgusting we live in a world where someone can buy the right to ogle at someone else’s body for a couple of hours.

  2. I’m with Putergirl; I have self identified with being a sex positive feminist, because I don’t believe we should be forced to subscribe to either camp – the ones who believe sex workers are disrespecting themselves by objectifying their bodies, offering their physical selves up for degredation OR those who believe the latter to be stuffy, sexually repressed tightwads. I agree that there is this really limiting binary that exists that is black and white. Our society is comfortable in the black and white, it’s easier to define the salient versus the grey area that is heavily nuanced and has contridictions. We love definitive umbrellas under which we can shove things. For me being a feminist is about allowing others the freedom to choose their own definitions of self and empowerment. Up until now I have always really viewed sexualization as a passive act on a larger group of people; sexualizing little girls in odioius reality shows, sexualized advertising (because as was previous noted, sex sells ALOT which is simply a reality). Our culture breeds a certain stigma, a morality judgment linked to sex workers and we’re fed so many stories and messages about these lines of works as acts of desperation, “what was needed to make ends meet”. I think so much is education of the messages we’ve received in our socialization. For me sex positive feminism has meant, as you stated, that all workers deserve to be free of discrimination and treated equally in all spectrums of employment. I think my personal beliefs on it are shifting and I’m not sure I know where the line is between what becomes problematic and goes against feminist ideals and what is safe to dub “empowering”, but who am I to determine that for another individual? I don’t think my thoughts fits in a definitive box, but that’s what our activism is all about, isn’t it? Our inherent right to create our own definitions and not be limited by gender and societal norms. Thanks for this post, it got me thinking about what it means to me to be a feminist in different spheres of my life.

  3. I count myself too among women who refuse to be shamed by my sexuality. Strictly related to sexuality and a woman’s right to do what she wishes, I have no personal moral qualms about stripping or sex work. I respect those who engage in it as a means to support themselves when they truly have no other options, or simply because they want to.
    But there’s the rub. Nearly the only place where women can be sex-positive or express their sexuality openly is in the context of an exploitive display to men that doesn’t really affirm anything substantial other than a woman’s subjugated position in the binary.
    It’s reflected in public decency laws, and as a transsexual woman it’s something I’m acutely aware of. A man can walk about nearly anyplace without a shirt on and not be guilty of anything worse than breaking a dress code. A woman who walked around topless nearly anyplace would be cited or arrested. If men aren’t controlling the display, it’s not allowed, either legally or by society.
    It’s in the context of it’s supporting and perpetuating these roles that I have issue with the sex industry.

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