G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire.
Franks, Katherine. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002. 344p., $19.95, softcover. ISBN: 0822329727.
<1> Katherine Frank's book, G-Strings and Sympathy, provides an anthropological look into the fantasies of male strip club regulars in a Southern City she calls Laurelton. Turning the gaze onto the gazers, a group left unstudied in the majority of literature on sex work, Frank unpacks how trips to the strip club are closely linked with discourses about sexuality, consumption and masculinity. Through six years of participant observation at a variety of clubs in Laurelton and in-depth interviews with thirty self-professed strip club regulars, Frank delves into not only why these men attend strip clubs but how these visits are made meaningful to them through their interactions with dancers, other men, wives and their own fantasies.
<2> The first section of the book grapples with the reasons behind regular strip club attendance. The majority of men in her study reveal their main impetus to be relaxation and entertainment. As one respondent eloquently phrases his response, "who wouldn't like to drink beer and watch naked women running around?" (89). Frank draws on sociologist John Urry's work on tourism to analyze these responses, exploring how strip clubs offer attendees "dangerous," yet safe erotic encounters. The regulations and ritualistic quality of the interactions at the clubs provide security in that men can engage with dancers without violating monogamous marriages, as the interactions do not leave the club (or the realm of fantasy). Men can then pursue what Frank called "the fantasy penis," or the fantasy of sexual perfection, without the performance anxiety associated with real encounters. At the same time, the pervasive image of stripping as a stigmatized profession allows men to project fantasies on to the dancers, such that their regulated encounters come to feel "dangerous;" while Frank never saw evidence of sexual activities, the customers retain the fantasy that illicit sex with dancers is well within their grasp if they chose to pursue it. Illustrating this point, Frank notes that several customers she interviewed expressed shock when arriving at the interview location (frequently a Starbucks) and seeing Frank prepared to conduct an interview, as they were harboring fantasies that the "interview" was an elaborate ruse for out-of-the-club seduction (one customer even admits he thought she might roll him for his wallet).
<3> Using Arlie Hochschild's work on emotional labor as a backdrop, Frank also explores what she terms "the commodification of intimacy." While the customers realize the dancers are providing a service, their enjoyment rests on feeling that they (unlike the other customers) are experiencing authentic encounters. Frank examines how authenticity is created for the men through situations such as learning a dancer's real name or having a dancer sit with them without asking for money. It is in this section that Frank's work as a dancer provides a fascinating counterpoint to her interviews, as she clarifies that dancers recognize this push for authenticity. She argues that dancers create "authentic" encounters by giving "real" names, providing "home" phone numbers set up specifically for customer calls, or remembering names and preferences of customers. While male customers frequently speak of themselves as "friends" of the dancers due to their perception of the authenticity of these interactions, Frank underscores that this "friendship" is one-sided, as the dancers always see themselves as working, not simply "hanging out with friends."
<4> Seeing dancers as "friends" leads into the final section in which Frank explores how male customers negotiate masculinity and marriage in the face of frequent trips to strip clubs. For Frank, regularly attending a strip club creates a paradox for men, as paying for a sexual service is somewhat emasculating, yet having the money to pay for private rooms or several table dances bolsters masculinity, as other men in the club watch the "big spenders." Using this discourse of "friendship," the men are able to strike a balance between being pathetic losers who pay for strippers and cold, money makers who exploit women, becoming "nice guys" who come to the club to "help out' their friends with tips. Additionally, while none of the men perceive going to strip clubs as violating monogamy ("looking isn't cheating"), they recognize their wives anguish over their attendance. This discourse of friendship also alleviates the guilt many of the men feel about attending strip clubs as married men.
<5> Frank's book provides a fascinating ethnographic account of the fantasies of male strip club regulars. Through "observing the observers," she is able to take the focus off of the dancers and move it onto a previously unproblematized group: male customers. Putting the gaze on men debunks the idea of strip club attendance as an expression of "natural male sexuality" and reveals instead the work that goes into managing strip club attendance. There are several sections in the book, however, where Frank could be more critical in her analysis. For example, she mentions twice that several male customers enjoy hearing "hard luck" stories from the dancers in an eroticisation of poverty, which begs for a deeper analysis of how these stories position men as providers for the "needy," a power issue, and serve to reaffirm the men's own middle-class married lifestyles (as in, this is what happen to "fallen" women). She also chooses to say little (beyond a footnote) on the difference between individual customers and men in groups. Frank notes that individual men who are "friends" with the dancers can behave differently (making critical comments about bodies or ignoring dancers altogether) when in groups of men. The change in these interactions could be a fruitful place for discussing masculinity but is left largely unanalyzed. Additionally, Frank leaves unexplored what friendship means to the men she interviews. As Lillian Rubin has shown, men use the word "friend" to describe casual acquaintances much more easily than women, as they tend to base "friendship" on repeated social interactions [1 ]. Reading Frank's book, it is easy to see that creating a fantasy of friendship serves many purposes for men; however, not having a sense of how they conceptualized friendship outside of the strip clubs, it makes the customers seem extremely naïve. It would be useful to consider what their other friendships are like outside of the clubs and how they compare to what they feel that they get from their interactions with dancers.
<6> A final omission from Frank's work is a discussion of her role as an academic. Frank notes early in the introduction that she had difficulty negotiating the role of wife, dancer, and student while she was doing her study. However, there is no mention about the effect of doing this study on the role of academic. Searching the text, there are a few hints that it is difficult to manage. For example, Frank mentions that when she presented her findings that the men said they were not looking for sexual encounters with dancers, a male academic challenged her findings. When she backed up her data with her experiential knowledge based on dancing, she was still discounted as being unable to find these men's "real" motivations. This lack of authority seems somewhat telling about the reception of findings from a woman academic who takes on a role perceived as stigmatized (dancer) for research, particularly when she is making claims about men's motivations. As Lynn Chancer has suggested, a female academic who chose to participate in prostitution in a study of Amsterdam would never find a job and her findings would always seem suspect [2 ]. Chancer argues that there is a stigma for female researchers surrounding sex work, a point illustrated by the fact that she was asked by several colleagues after publishing her article if she had ever been a prostitute. It would be fascinating to have Frank address this issue in her methods section, as it really speaks to authority, gender and stigmatized positions in research.
<7> Overall, Frank crafts a well-researched and beautifully analyzed work that not only takes the stigma off of dancing but also moves the gaze onto the men who keep dance clubs in business.
[1 ] Lillian Rubin. Just Friends: The Role of Friendship in our Lives. New York: Harper Row, 1985. [^]
[2 ] Lynn Sharon Chancer, "Prostitution, Feminist Theory, and Ambivalence: Notes from the Sociological Underground." Social Text. 37(1) 1993. [^]