I was looking for something else entirely in my university’s library when I stumbled across Stripping, Sex, and Popular Culture by Catherine M Roach. Not only is the author an Associate Professor in Religious Studies and Women’s Studies, but the book was inspired by her friend’s decision to drop out of her PhD and work as a stripper. The back cover promised interviews with exotic dancers and “a provocative and accessible examination of the current popularity of striptease culture.” I promptly forgot what I’d initially been searching for and popped this book at the top of my reading list.
Aside from the introduction and conclusion, the book is divided into two parts: The Strip Club, and Stripping and Popular Culture. The introduction tells us why Roach chose the topic, why it was personal to her and why it links with her areas of study. Then Roach dives into the world of eight strip clubs in the US and Canada, describing her visits in detail and interviewing the girls who work there. She covers how she feels about what she sees and experiences, discusses the physical and emotional toll of working as a stripper, and then unpacks the fantasy, power and performance elements of the strip-club experience from a feminist perspective – referencing Judith Butler, no less:
To return to my question of whether stripping can be subversive of patriarchy, Butler offers with her notion that gender is a performance, not simply a redefinition and a critique of the problems of gender identity, but also a solution. According to Butler, excess repetition and parody can disrupt or subvert gender norms. […] In most ways, the stripper simply repeats gender norms, she doesn’t set them up for questioning. From Butler’s perspective this lack of questioning is a problem, since subversion requires that one disrupt or “trouble” gender categories by creating ambiguity and acting unexpectedly; otherwise, even parodies simply become “domesticated and recirculated as instruments of cultural hegemony.” (Roach, 2007, p.84-85)
Not only does Roach use feminist theorists to analyse what she encounters at the clubs, but she also undertakes additional primary research for the sake of comparison. In part two, she visits a male strip club that is aimed at women (Canada’s Hot Shots in Quebec) and ponders the fact that there is more tease, more noise and more fun than at female strip clubs aimed at men. Roach comments that, “the point of this spectacle seems to be the all-out mega-thrill of upending patriarchy for the night” (p.99). She also visits burlesque convention Tease-O-Rama in San Francisco, listing the wonderful performances and workshops she attends, including artists who are (unlike those in strip clubs) in their sixties, fat, butch and goth. She notes the superficial differences – choreography, dance shoes, teasing, no tipping and no private dances – and reckons that “neo-burlesque is about performing the women’s fantasy, not about the male strip-club patron’s desire” (p.112).
Roach goes on to discuss woman-centred sex-positive feminism, touching on women’s sexuality in all its many forms, ethical sex, slut shaming and issues of consent and privacy. She also attempts an analysis of co-called “striptease culture”, mentioning the need for sex-positive attitudes to be spread and calling for an improvement in sex education. Even though I suspected that many of Roach’s questions would remain unanswered at the end of the book, it was definitely worth taking the journey with her. If you have even the slightest interest in the subject matter, I would definitely recommend that you read this extremely enlightening and thought provoking book.