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Going to the Strip Club With Sociologists

Researchers have been studying straight women's strip clubs since their rise in the 1980s. Let's take a look at what they've found.
Channing Tatum in Magic Mike XXL. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Channing Tatum in Magic Mike XXL. (Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Yeah, I know, a strip club with sociologists doesn't sound like my idea of a great Saturday night, either. Just kidding! Here at Pacific Standard, we love social science research. And, as it turns out, there's been lots of it done on male strippers who dance for women. With the opening of Magic Mike XXL yesterday, we thought this would be a good time to review the research.

The first batch of such research arose in the 1980s, soon after the founding of the famed Chippendales show in 1979. At the time, the idea of a women's strip club was new. When the researchers took a seat inside, however, what they found was an age-old story. Many of the power inequities between genders in the wider American culture remained in women's strip clubs, the sociologists argued.

"For men the stripper role is infused with traditional male influences," sociologist Christine Williams wrote in her 1993 book, Doing "Women's Work": Men in Nontraditional Occupations. "Their power is linked to their physical prowess or occupational success—both traditional features of masculinity.... When men are portrayed as sexual objects, they maintain power, dominance, and an ability to objectify others." Other researchers of the time made similar arguments.

Social scientists seem to agree that, in straight women's strip clubs, things haven't changed much since the '80s.

Now, three decades later, researchers are still analyzing strip shows. In contrast to the fun, empowering experience of watching Channing Tatum body roll on-screen, social scientists seem to agree that straight women's strip clubs continue to be oppressive and stereotype-reinforcing. Apparently things haven't changed much since the '80s. "The male strip show reproduces traditional, stereotypical gender roles," sociologist Maren Scull wrote in a paper published in 2013. "These venues in fact do very little to challenge normative hetero-oppressive sexual scripts," University of Warwick sociologist Katy Pilcher wrote in 2009, although she acknowledged in a later paper that some patrons of one English strip club "experienced it as an 'empowering' space in which they could be 'sexually aggressive.'"

Sad! Perhaps the problem has something to do with the commercialization of sexual desire. In aiming at the largest possible crowd, clubs and companies may fall back on stereotypes they think will please many; some even stress to female attendees that their male strippers do, in fact, have day jobs. (They can be good providers!) Or maybe the problem is that strip clubs for straight women are often nevertheless owned and run by men.

The one paper we found presenting a gentler vision of straight women's strip clubs was born out of extensive interviews with male strippers themselves. The paper was published in 1982, so the interviewees must have been some of the first male American strippers. The strippers saw their work as offering an equalizing experience for women, they told Georgia State University researchers. "[Women] want to see something they've been denied and have their rights like men," one dancer said. Even if those rights mean getting a stereotype-affirming striptease from a good, old-fashioned beefcake.