I don't always read the weekly Pasadena City College Courier, but I did pick up a copy last Thursday. On page two, I found this "Soapbox" editorial from the opinion editor of the paper, Don Martirez: Deep in Debt? You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Clothes. It's a brief piece, encouraging financially strapped PCC students to consider stripping:
According to the Department of Education, "84 percent of black students and 66 percent of Latino students graduate with debt. And 39 percent of all student borrowers graduate with unmanageable levels of debt." This means that about half of the people who graduate from school will never crawl out of debt because they owe too much. Imagine being bankrupt for the rest of your life.
Why not get ahead while you still can, before college ends? This is America for Christs' sake, the land of the free, and you're free to make money if you really want to.
You're young, talented, outgoing, and want to get paid. Stripping isn't illegal. People are killing and dying for the same thing strippers do every night — and that's bringing home the bacon... Stripping doesn't have to be a long-term career move, it could be a short-term gig, a simple means to a goal, something to pay the rent while you're focusing on school. Student by day, stripping by night — you'd have the time and the money to take the weekends off while being someone's sexual fantasy.
I read it through a couple of times, and showed it to a few students and a colleague. I asked them if they thought it was satirical; all thought Martirez was quite serious. As one of my colleagues (who teaches English) put it, "If it was meant to be satire, it misses the mark so badly that it can only be treated as hopelessly sincere!"
I thought about ignoring it. I though about the fact that it's just a student newspaper, and perhaps we who teach ought to give these budding journalists a break. And then I thought about the huge number of women I've known who have worked in the sex industry, many as strippers. I thought of the nearly-universal stories of despair, addiction, abuse, alienation, and rage. I got angry. So I fired off this letter:
I was saddened by Don Martirez's soapbox editorial on stripping in your March 23 issue.
I've been teaching women's history and gender studies here at PCC for over ten years. In my classes, where we deal with the history of sex work, I've met dozens of students, almost all women, who worked or work in various facets of "this business." Almost without exception, they describe the world of strip clubs in starkly negative terms. Though it is true that the financial rewards can be significant, the emotional costs are also profound. An extraordinary number of women in the "business" are substance abusers; many are unable to "perform" unless they are under the influence.
Martirez repeats an old lie about stripping: that it's a harmless pastime, perhaps even a public service for the lonely and the horny. In his distorted vision, strippers go about their work cheerfully and willingly, perhaps even finding the experience empowering. Men get the visual pleasure of looking at naked women; the women get financial rewards far greater than they could virtually anywhere else given their educational background. Everyone wins, no one loses. It's a seductive lie, but a lie nonetheless.
Ask the wives and the children of the men who are addicted to strip clubs. Ask the children of the single mothers who strip, mothers who come home at four in the morning, exhausted and ragged if not intoxicated. Ask the girls who accompany their boyfriends to strip clubs, and try and pretend to like the experience, while inside they wish they had the courage to say how much they would rather be anywhere else.
We want to believe that strippers are well-compensated women who enjoy their work. We want to believe that men can spend an hour or two staring at strippers gyrating around a pole, and then interact with their girlfriends and other women entirely unaffected by the images implanted in their brain. We want to believe these things because we don't want to accept the brutal reality of the sex industry, of which strip clubs have become an increasingly popular and public face. We want to have our fun and not be troubled by the consequences for absolutely everyone involved.
Martirez is right about one thing: college is increasingly out of reach for all but the wealthiest of students. But the solution to this crisis is not stripping women literally of their clothes and figuratively of their self-respect. The energy of the Courier would be far better spent encouraging greater student activism at the state and federal level to bring down the exorbitant cost of higher education.
I expect to take a fair amount of heat from two different camps: certain "pro-sex" feminists who insist that stripping can be empowering and satisfying for many women (they usually don't know many strippers), and the young randy college-boy types who resent anyone who won't co-sign the acceptability of indulging in what they mistakenly see as harmless fantasy.
My Christian faith and my pro-feminism both lead me to oppose all forms of commodified sexuality. My faith tells me that to buy and sell human bodies for sexual purposes distorts the human spirit and robs both parties in the transaction of their dignity; my pro-feminism insists that women's bodies ought never be seen as commodities for sale. Feminist sexual expression is always, first and foremost, about choice -- and economic necessity and free choice cannot easily coexist.
Rant over. We'll see if the Courier prints it.