As a straight woman of a certain age, you may not find this surprising. But still . . .
Having grown up in an era of stupidly rigid norms, I absorbed through my pores the notion that commercial establishments were gendered. Some were targeted toward females — dress shops, obviously, but also shoe stores, fabric stores, and for the most part, grocery stores — while places like hardware stores and anything having to do with automotive repair or maintenance were the domain of men.
Of course, there was some crossover, since guys also needed shirts and shoes and food, but to every extent possible, all that was supposed to be dealt with by their mothers or wives.
Just like a woman could drive a car — all that nurturing involved running lots of errands — but counted on their menfolk to actually know how the thing worked, or what to do when it didn’t.
Even retailers who courted both sides of the binary had separate sections: toy stores, for example, in which kids were expected to quickly self-sort the moment they entered the door. Pink tea sets, fashion dolls, and pretend kitchen things encouraged the proper domestication of girls, while boys were supposed to be lured by remote-control cars, warlike action figures, and construction toys.
If you’re old enough, you will recall the obtusely named Erector Sets. Enough said.
The rigidity (sorry) has relaxed since then
At least, to a degree. The mostly mythical days of the nuclear family —with the stay-at-home mom who handled all the nurturing and social niceties while the provider-dad worked his 9–5 all week long and then spent Saturdays unplugging stubborn sinks for her if he found time between playing golf and tinkering with his car engine — are behind us.
Everybody works, everybody’s busy, and everybody has to go pretty much everywhere to access all the stuff contemporary life entails. People of all orientations walk into tire stores and nail salons without anyone giving them the side-eye.
It’s been years since an auto mechanic has even asked me if I want to call my husband.
These days, as a woman driving through town, there are no longer retail spaces that, by unspoken agreement, are not intended for me.
With one exception
In my medium-sized city, along all but the most glamorized commercial thoroughfare, is what I’d call an average number of strip clubs. Or, as they’re still referred to with breathtakingly retrograde branding, gentlemen’s clubs.
I’ve never been inside one, and that kind of irks me.
Not that I have any great desire to visit such a place. But it’s as though, despite our alleged (and highly debatable) progress toward gender parity, I’m still confronted by the equivalent of boy’s clubhouses with crudely painted signs saying GIRLS KEEP OUT.
That doesn’t apply to all girls, naturally. Girls who can pole dance or rock a set of pasties while delivering a tray full of cocktails are not just welcome but required. Also, I’m given to understand, some men bring dates (of the female persuasion) along with them, and that’s considered okay.
After all, the dates are with their gentlemen. The operating assumption of these places is, by all indications, that men call the shots. Literally. That, it seems, is what secures them the title of gentleman.
These places (I suspect) are so not Bridgerton
I haven’t worked up the nerve to try it, so I can’t confirm this, but I have the strong sense that if I, by myself, on any given Wednesday afternoon, were to walk into a gentlemen’s club with my gray hair and comfortable, low-heeled shoes, I might turn a few heads.
But not for the usual reasons. And it wouldn’t be dukes and earls in swallow-tail coats doing the looking.
Still, the fact that I feel like I can’t just walk into these places, even if I don’t really want to walk into them, makes me feel excluded.
I hate being excluded.
Already I’m anticipating comments, primarily divided into two categories (again with the binary). One will decry my professed interest in the sexual objectification of women.
The other will call me out for my starchy judgmentalism, likely suggesting that I should actually go to a couple of these places first so I know what I’m talking about before I go all woke feminazi killjoy.
If you’re in either camp, I politely suggest you lighten up
It is absolutely correct that I don’t know what I’m talking about here, because my only experience of gentlemen’s clubs, or strip bars, or whatever label you prefer, is limited to what I see on cop shows.
Cops in these shows, especially detectives, frequently find it necessary to go to strip clubs. They’re there on business, of course, intent on getting a straight answer out of the sharkskin-suited proprietor or one of the shamefaced clientele.
Based on my supremely unscientific observation, roughly 99.5 percent of the time it’s a guy the detective needs to talk to. The women are there to serve as salacious backgrounds, writhing against poles or slinging drinks while wearing very little but their world-weary expressions.
Once in a while one of these women gets to say a line or two, which unfailingly reveals her nature as a tough but vulnerable creature, one roughened by life, who could benefit from a good rescuing.
But since this is a noir show, rescue isn’t coming. So after a sympathetic nod from the darkly handsome but emotionally unavailable detective, it’s back to letting potbellied guys in trucker hats stuff twenty-dollar bills into her G-string.
I hope they’re at least twenty-dollar bills. But what do I know?
I imagine the reality is very different
It’s probably both worse and better than what’s typically portrayed. I am aware that women — or any people — who are exotic dancers or even peripherally attached to the sex work industry have to put up with more than their fair share of garbage behavior.
Not that there should be a fair share when it comes to garbage behavior.
According to statistics from the Bedbible Research Center (yes, that’s a thing. Isn’t Google amazing?), “60–75% of exotic dancers experience some form of harassment, leading to reduced job satisfaction.”
That’s up from what the National Sexual Violence Resource Center reports for workplace sexual harassment for women and men in general:
Thirty-eight percent of all women and fourteen percent of men have reported experiencing sexual harassment at work (Kearl, Johns, & Raj, 2019).
Since the NSVRC stats include workers in all industries, we can assume exotic dancers and sex workers are included in that total.
All of which suggests that the entertainers in strip clubs have to put up with a lot of crap.
But that’s not to say that every exotic dancer is a pitiable soiled dove with no better options, nor that every patron of such establishments is a leering, slavering swine.
That would be a disrespectful assumption about exotic dancers. And about swine.
There’s one club I drive past frequently
Located along a busy street, sandwiched between a vacuum repair shop and a pizza place, is an establishment I’ll call The Flame (not its real name; I’m not an idiot).
Instead of exuding sleaze, The Flame has an oddly good-natured, friendly vibe. An Uber driver who once drove me past it on my way home from the airport supported this impression.
“Those girls are some of my best customers,” he said fondly as we cruised past. “Sweet ladies, good tippers. They just need a safe ride home back to their kids.”
The Flame’s marquee announces the week’s special events: naughty trivia night, beer pong with a twist, etc. Several years ago, the marquee urged regulars to show up for a special occasion honoring one of its own.
This Saturday: Farewell Party for Tits McGee, the sign blared. Come Say Goodbye!
The sign struck me as more goofily affectionate than offensive, but since the place is located near a residential area, it was evidently overreaching, possibly fueled by exuberance.
The next day, which was only Thursday, the guest of honor’s colorful name was no longer on display.
I assumed the honoree was a woman who was a retiring dancer.
But again, I can’t say for sure, since I didn’t attend the party for Tits. Who knows what I missed?
Claiming my place in a gentlemen’s club . . .
. . . is not exactly a high-priority item on my To Do list. I doubt I’ll ever darken the door of The Flame or any other establishment of its ilk.
The fact that I feel like I shouldn’t or mustn’t or can’t, that there is a whole category of legal, public entertainment venue in which I, by virtue of being a woman of a certain age, do not feel welcome is a low-level irritant.
I rarely think about it, honestly. But it’s there. It still bugs me. And every time I drive past The Flame, that irritation flares just a little bit.
I can’t help but wonder. What if I did just walk in, sit myself down, and order a beer? Would it be anything like I imagine? What reaction, if any, would there be to my presence?
What if I dressed like a detective?
Mostly, I wonder: what’s Tits doing these days?
Maybe she’s running for office, under another name. That would be cool.