A reader named Sarah recently wrote in about a conversation she had with her husband about strip clubs:
My husband today mentioned the time he took his younger brother to a strip club when the brother turned 21. I laughed a bit, and said, “wow! i never heard that story before!” A few more teasing words were said between the 3 of us, and Imentioned that if he ever took our (still non-existent) son to a strip club i’d be furious. I assumed no more needed to be said, as the whole idea of it was so ludicrous and that my husband wouldn’t do something so creepy and so anti-women with a son of ours.
My husband shocked me by saying that yes, he would take our kid to a strip club and he doesn’t see why it would matter to me if “our son is getting married, and we all go to a titty bar for the bachelor party. it’s not like i’d encourage him to cheat!” I was left sputtering and a little disturbed, and totally unsure on how to proceed with this conversation as my husband is a man who’s always respected women and agreed on these matters. (or I obviously wouldn’t have married him!)
I’m no fan of strip clubs for a host of reasons. But Sarah’s email isn’t really about strip clubs — it’s about the problem of homosociality, a topic I’ve written about many times before. (Homosociality is the notion that for American men in particular, the approval of other males is of paramount concern, even more sought after than validation from women.) One of the most odious features of homosociality is the way in which it employs women’s bodies as devices for bonding men together. For example, many women are perplexed (as well as infuriated) by the habit young (and not-so-young) men have of cat-calling female pedestrians from passing cars. “Why do they slow down and whistle at me, making those comments?” a young woman asks; “Do they really think I’m going to get in the car with them?” The answer, of course, is that the fellas in the car are far less interested in the woman they’re harassing than in bonding with each other. They demonstrate their heterosexual bona fides to each other, and in the process of humiliating women on the street, forge a closer homosocial relationship. (It’s more than anecdotal to point out that groups of men, having just harassed a woman sexually, will high-five each other; one of the most devastating depictions of this comes in the rape scene from “Boys Don’t Cry”.)
Going to a strip club, of course, isn’t necessarily analogous to participating in a gang rape. But fathers and older brothers have been taking their sons and younger brothers to “titty bars” and brothels for a long time; in parts of Latin America, the practice is particularly common. The stated purpose may be an “initation into manhood” for a teen boy, or a bacchanalian farewell to bachelorhood for a man about to be wed. But there’s invariably more to it than that. Wives and girlfriends, not unreasonably, suspect that the motive is sexual: fathers and brothers may claim to be doing it as a favor for a son or a sibling, but in reality they’re just looking for an opportunity for “justified infidelity” of one kind or another. That may be true, but there’s a deeper and more common reason: a longing for homosocial intimacy.
Going to a baseball game is the paradigmatic “father-son” bonding activity. But for many men, sporting events are less effective than strip clubs as homosocial strategies. Women haven’t been excluded as spectator from ball parks for generations; very few wives and mothers actively disapprove of sports. (They may find watching sports dull, but that’s hardly the same.) Men in our society, as countless scholars of gender have pointed out, are socialized to find particular delight and meaning in activities from which women are excluded, or which most women find repugnant and objectionable. American boys prove their manhood, after all, through their rejection of their mothers’ values; to care too deeply about what mom thinks is to be a sissy, a mama’s boy. And need I point out how many American men have relationships with wives and girlfriends that closely resemble the mother-son dynamic? Mama might not object to taking little brother to the Yankees game — but she’s likely to be less pleased with a sojourn to the titty bar down the block.
The effectiveness of strip clubs as a homosocial bonding strategy is thus linked to two things: the shared sense the male patrons have that their wives and mothers disapprove of their being there, and the opportunity to establish their credentials as “red-blooded, straight American guys” by sharing the experience of objectifying women’s bodies. A single man in a strip club, nursing a beer, is seen as a vaguely pathetic — or perhaps threatening — figure; a group of men on a “stag night” in that same club are anything but. What is unacceptable in solitude is admirable and manly when done in solidarity with other males.
For men who, perhaps like Sarah’s husband, who have not yet done the vital work of learning how to establish intimate relationships with other men which do not require the objectification of women as “bonding glue”, the homosocial appeal of the strip club experience is tremendous. But women aren’t cement to hold together that which can’t otherwise be joined. Emotionally competent adult males don’t use either women’s revulsion or women’s bodies in order to establish closeness and cameraderie with each other. And men’s universal capacity to become emotionally competent — at a relatively young age — is very real. The fact that so many choose not to exercise that capacity is not evidence that they lack it.