Katy Pilcher (Aston University)
As the lights dim there is a brief hush. The glass clinking and chatting subdues in the darkened room and women take their seats for the show. Anticipation fills the air as the familiar opening beat of Etta James’ ‘I just want to make love to you’ begins to sound (known perhaps more popularly as the song from the ‘Diet Coke Ad’), and screaming and cheering from the audience ensues. Women customers are singing along, and some stand and clap as the host takes to the stage.
Erotic dance is one of the most contentious issues in feminist debates today, both within academic contexts and within feminist activism and political activities, and is a source of fascination in media and popular cultural representations. There are around 250-300 strip clubs in the UK (Sanders and Hardy, 2012), the majority of these being venues primarily dedicated to the performance of erotic dance by women for male customers. There are only around 3 main companies offering erotic dance within the UK primarily orientated at women customers . My research sought to explore women’s experiences as erotic dance spectators, which has been little-examined in research, and the work of those who perform for them.
What I was particularly interested in researching, and what I reflect on here, is how gendered power relations play out when women are the customers of what has traditionally been a primarily masculine leisure activity. I wondered; is there anything subversive about women’s engagement with erotic dance? I was interested in how popular media discourse, and some research, presents women’s attendance at male strip shows as a signal of women achieving gender ‘equality’. Indeed, media articles posit women’s strip club attendance as a ‘modern form of feminism’ (Fiddy, 19 February 2007, The London Paper), and some academic researchers suggest that male strip shows signal ‘equal time for women’ in heterosexual relations, as women can ‘exhibit sexual behaviours with an aggressiveness usually associated with the societal stereotypes of men’ (Petersen and Dressel, 1982). What I am asking through a play on The Full Monty term here, then, is whether we are seeing the whole picture, or the whole ‘package’, with regards to the show representing an arena in which women have somehow ‘made it’ or reached gender ‘equality’. Further, while recent cinematic representations of male strip shows, such as Magic Mike and Magic Mike XXL, tell the story largely from the perspective of the male dancer(s), my research seeks to elicit women’s own views about their experiences at the shows, and to what extent their experiences can be characterised as signalling ‘equality’.
Here I discuss a snapshot of the findings relating to my research into the experiences of women customers who attended a male strip show held within a nightclub in the UK. This was a small scale study, which was part of a wider comparative project which also looked at the experiences of dancers, customers and management in a lesbian leisure venue which provided erotic dance. At the male strip show, which I have called LoveLads (pseudonym), I obtained permission from management to observe shows and interview dancers and customers. I attended strip shows held at the weekends in 2010, and before and after the show I was able to talk to dancers and customers. I interviewed 14 women customers via email and I undertook five face-to-face interviews with male dancers and one interview with a drag queen host. The show itself is held within a nightclub in a city centre. A typical night begins around 6.30pm, with women entering the nightclub largely with groups of friends, helping themselves to food from the ‘buffet’ and getting their ‘free’ cocktail from the bar, and taking their allocated seats in front of the stage before the show begins at 8pm. A drag queen or a manager hosts the show, and male dancers are on stage for around 2-3 hours, with breaks in-between their routines. After the show, women can meet the dancers and have their photograph taken with them.
The male strip show as a ‘girls’ night out’
Some women customers characterised their attendance at the show as a ‘girl’s night out’ and said that it was an opportunity to cement existing friendships, but also to forge new ones. Customer Vanessa , for example, said that ‘…when I go out normally in town I never talk with other girls, there’s sort of a rule, you just stick with the boys and girls that you’ve gone out with…But in here I can talk to any girl cause everyone’s really friendly and that just feels normal here’. Previous research has also documented that male strip shows can be sites for women to ‘bond’ (Montemurro et al., 2003), and women customers in this study discussed how they would not ordinarily ‘make friends’ with women in other nightclub spaces, but that there was something different about the atmosphere in this venue that enabled them to speak with women who they did not know. This conception suggests that the strip show was perceived as a liminal leisure space, potentially outside the usual conventions of mainstream nightclub spaces.
Watching male strippers
LoveLads represents one of the few commercial leisure spaces in the UK where naked or semi-naked male bodies are presented for women to look at. It also potentially challenges the traditional gendered conventions of men being seen in an active sexual role, and women as passive objects of a male ‘gaze’, or of it being women’s bodies that are on ‘display’. Some of the comments from women customers suggested that at LoveLads they can experience interacting with men that they find physically attractive and approachable. For example, customers said that: ‘their physical appearance was yummy but they were also nice to chat to’ (Wendy); ‘The boys were HOT, HOT, HOT!!!’ (Kerry). This suggests, as Smith (2002) similarly argues, that the male strip show ‘is one place in which women can show themselves as actively desiring’.
Limitations to gender ‘equality’ at the male strip show
Despite these important experiences, the subversive potential of the show is limited. The set-up of the show works to heavily shape, construct and regulate women’s experiences in ways that limit their enjoyment of the space. Unlike in many venues where women dance for male customers, there are no ‘private’ dances available at the show. Some women customers said that they wanted to feel the sense of private intimacy of a one-on-one encounter with dancers. For instance, customer Wendy said that ‘it’s just not private enough…nowhere you can be alone’. While women could interact with dancers at the end of the show during the ‘photography period’, this was in a group situation and during the show women had to remain seated while dancers were on stage. This suggests that the show is structured to preclude private interactions between dancers and customers.
A host ‘warms up’ the audience before the dancers begin their stage show. Women are encouraged by the host to scream and shout, as the show rests upon making women customers ‘feel’ that they can transcend the normal boundaries of femininity (e.g. by acting loudly and potentially ‘sexually aggressively’ in public) in order for it to be a successful show. All male dancers that I interviewed spoke of how audience participation was a key ingredient for the success of the show as it affected the atmosphere in the venue and made it not feel ‘right’ for them to perform if the crowd was quiet. Further, the host encourages women to respond to the show as a collective – ‘the girls’, which again leaves women little room to act independently or experience sexual performance as private. Moreover, while there are rarely ‘hosting’ figures in clubs where women dance for men, there seems to be an assumption in LoveLads that the women audiences’ interactions need to be directly shaped by a host, which in turn reproduces the somewhat problematic assumption that women’s sexuality is passive, and needs to be excited, and supervised, or that women do not know how to express sexuality in a public and group setting.
The experiences of women customers at this show, together with these limitations (and more that I discuss in my forthcoming book , including the instability of the women’s friendships and the venue’s construction of women’s sexuality as one-dimensional), suggest that what is ‘going on’ within this venue is not a straightforward road to signalling gender ‘equality’. Yet what LoveLads does afford women customers is a venue in which to try out new subjectivities which women customers felt would not always be possible in other leisure spaces. Their experiences are thus potentially resistant, yet they also highlight the salience of gendered power relations operating.
 These are my own estimates based upon internet research, and to my own knowledge, were correct as of November 2014.
 All names are pseudonyms.
 Erotic Performance and Spectatorship: New Frontiers in Erotic Dance (Routledge, forthcoming)
 Please contact author if you would like copies of these articles.
Katy Pilcher is a Lecturer in Sociology at Aston University and an executive committee member of FWSA. Katy has completed research projects pertaining to erotic dance, sex work, and ageing and everyday life. She has publications relating to her erotic dance research in Sexualities, Sociological Research Online, and Leisure Studies , and has recently co-edited (with Mary Laing and Nicola Smith) Queer Sex Work (2015, Routledge). Katy is currently writing a monograph for Routledge entitled Erotic Performance and Spectatorship: New Frontiers in Erotic Dance. This research was funded by ESRC grant ES/F024126/1.
Image: Women customers watching a male strip show in the UK (author photograph © Katy Pilcher taken during a previous research project)