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Katherine Frank, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire.

Katherine Frank, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire (Durham: Duke University Press 2002)

THERE ARE OVER 3000 strip clubs in North America, sometimes generating revenues of over $5 million, and offering a wide range of "adult entertainments" for men: stage shows, table dances, lap dances (frottage), sex shows, and, rarely, prostitution. This insightful and lively book makes the rather counterintuitive and, I believe, wholly justifiable claim that these clubs are not fundamentally about sex at all. Rather they are about sexual and gender identity, specifically, how men's fantasies are constructed more around conflicting goals such as intimacy and the distance of voyeurism than around sexual gratifications and conquests.

Frank, a professor of cultural anthropology and former exotic dancer, takes a close look at how and why men consume the eroticism of the strip club. Strip club "regulars," whose repeat visits and attachments to particular dancers differentiate them from other patrons, Frank argues, are consuming two erotic forms: spectacle and intimate interaction. The consumption of eros in the strip club is thus made possible by an industry that is becoming simultaneously more spectacular and more individualized. The commodities clubs are "selling" include primarily bodies, as mass objects of the male gaze, and private identities. It is the category of identities that Frank does such a fine job of articulating. Basing her conclusions on conversations with hundreds of male customers and thirty primary interviewees, Frank states that she "can say with confidence that I do know what men were willing to pay for each night." (7) What these men are essentially paying for each night is a cluster of fantasies that serves to support their desires. These desires involve notions of self and other, male and female, and sex and its negation:

Men's consumption practices in strip clubs are thus premised on a range of desires, such as a desire to publicly display a particular "masculine" self free of obligation and commitments, a desire for "adventure" by mingling with Others who are seen as "wild" or visiting spaces believed to be "dangerous," a desire to feel desirable (at least in fantasy), or a desire to have a sexualized relation with a woman that does not involve the vulnerability of actual sexual activity. (118)

The contradictions underpinning male desire in the strip club are profound. Here are men often choosing to pursue fantasies in defiance of reality--the reality of their own social status, attractiveness, and aggressive sexuality.

The question of what drives men to seek experiences and pleasures that are deeply contradictory is addressed by Frank on several fronts. There is, for example, what Frank calls "touristic practice," an experience of the strip club where the very elements characteristic of geographical tourism are in play: the gaze becomes significant; experiences are sought through interactions; and "escape" fantasies are at work. Some men generated all sorts of fantasies pertaining to the transgressive nature of where they were. For some middle-class, or higher, men who enjoy visiting lower-end clubs, fantasies of vice and danger were in play, with all the obvious racial codings. Other men fantasized about what really happens in the infamous "champagne room," a private or semi-private room where dancers and patrons interact. Such fantasies became marks of distinction, a form of "insider knowledge," in the upscale clubs. Another front along which Frank analyzes the regular's experience of the strip club is the seemingly innocent, if not pedestrian, explanations typically produced by the men to explain their investments, emotional and financial. Perhaps the most commonly heard reason for visiting strip clubs is the main title of the book's third chapter, "Just Trying to Relax." What Frank shows so adroitly is how complex the seemingly straightforward "I'm just trying to relax" explanation really is. In this desire to "relax" are mixed the pleasures of escape from, say, emotional involvement and the wish to make the habitual desirable again. It is as if "relaxing" is not actually repose at all but a process of securing one's identity and desires in a changing world.

One of the biggest challenges facing men who visit strip clubs regularly is how to handle their own desire to be voyeurs. The strip club dramatizes the contradiction between the desire to look at women without being labeled a misogynist or "pervert" and the real wish to look, a wish some men define, Frank discovered, as natural, an inherent masculine drive. Men, in other words, are often quick to draw from pop psychology a justification of their voyeuristic behavior, perhaps precisely because of the feminism they have, however imperfectly, internalized. Part of the appeal of the strip club then is the escape it offers from confusions about contemporary masculinity and the expectations that govern it. Remarkable in Frank's account is the repeated claim by men that strip clubs are therapeutic in nature: "It's almost like therapy," one patron remarks; while, as Frank notes, "many sex workers also frequently joke about really being 'therapists.'" (119) Men might appeal to the language of therapy and an essential biological nature, as Frank suggests, because they wish to be absolved of responsibility, to deflect any anxiety about being a customer in a commodified sexual service, and to express the idea that, for these men, sexual arousal is an emotionally meaningful experience.

The greatest contribution to the understanding of men's investments in the strip club scene is, I believe, a critical engagement with the fantasies men have about their own identities and the women whose labour they enjoy. The vast majority of sociological and anthropological studies of strip clubs are focused on the dancers, their working conditions, and the attitudes they have toward their work. Relatively little critical understanding of the men who visit these clubs has been advanced. The real power of Frank's extraordinary book is that she is able to give voice, through her many interviewees, to the complex fabric of masculine desire as it is staged in the strip club. Revealed in her study is a deeply conflicted masculine self, one that, for example, searches for some authentic experience of intimacy like friendship while maintaining at the same time a healthy cynicism rendering staged performances transparent. In the end, the strip club is not some marginal cultural phenomenon, even if it is consigned to the margins of the metropolis. It is one of the finest laboratories available for studying male privilege, pleasure, and fantasy.

It must be said that Frank is an especially gifted writer. Her critical prose is lucid, compelling, and accessible to non-specialists. But in this book Frank also displays her talents as a writer of fiction. Three fictional interludes serve to elaborate a few of the book's central issues, such as bodily identity and intimacy, and are presented from the first-person perspective of the exotic dancer.

Michael Uebel

University of Kentucky
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Author:Uebel, Michael
Publication:Labour/Le Travail
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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