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Great Debates: Can Stripping Ever Be Feminist?

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Can stripping ever be a feminist act? In the first of our Great Debates on The Huffington Post UK, you can read both sides of the argument and have your say.

Great Debates is a new platform, where we pit two expert bloggers against one another to tackle some of today's most pressing issues.

In our first Great Debate, stripper-turned-author Shelia Hageman blogs that you can take your clothes off for men and still be a feminist, whilst women's rights campaigner Navprit Rai insists stripping can never be a feminist statement.

If you want to create your own Great Debate, please send a blog pitch to our UK Blog Team:


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Stripping Can Be A Feminist Act

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Who makes the better argument?

Sheila Hageman Author and mom of three

Most people assume I regret my stripping past, I mean, how could I not?

Like an alcoholic, even after you're clean and have seen the error of your way, you're still considered one - a recovered one. One who should go forth and save others from making the same mistakes that you made.

I "sobered up" and even ended up as my college valedictorian; I became a teacher, an author, and a mother. So there must be some apologies for my past choices forthcoming.

Only there aren't.

It's taken me a while to own that not only am I a feminist now, but I always have been, even when I was a stripper. And for me, being a feminist is about not apologising for the decisions I make or made about the ways I choose to use my body and see myself as a woman in this world.

The literal definition of feminism is the belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes and the movement organised around this. But we all know that feminism is about something more and is open to interpretation. Feminism is about women having real identities of their own, rather than living as man-made beings.

Historically, women have for the most part resigned themselves to their predetermined destinies. We were raised to be good wives and mothers and accepted the role of object instead of asserting our liberty.

Today, a woman can be her own agent of change.

Strippers shatter the traditional mould even as they objectify themselves because they are making conscious choices.

But does that make strippers empowered? Can they be considered feminists just for breaking the normal female role? Or does being a feminist involve more? As feminists should we be out there burning our bras or demanding equal pay for equal work?

As a stripper, I was doing none of these things. I was focused on earning money, having fun and expressing myself. On good days I had respect for what I was doing and treated my work as an art form. Of course, there were also those days where I became just body parts, overwhelmed by men who seemed intent on belittling me as an object merely existing for their pleasure. It's true that men who can't handle women as equals can run to their nearest strip club to be validated, old-world style.

So how can a stripper be a feminist if she is putting herself onstage for men's pleasure with no thought of making a feminist statement?

Because that woman is making a choice for herself - no matter how confused or misguided she may be, she has made a choice. A choice of circumstance, or need, or desire - it does not matter. If she has made that choice for herself, then it should be honored and seen as a feminist act - a conscious choice of her destiny in the world.

Women should feel as free as men always have and that begins with having the freedom to choose what we want and do not want to do with our bodies. I want every woman to have the confidence to claim that freedom without worrying about what others may think. If we dare to be seen for who we are, expose ourselves fully (in whatever form we choose), maybe others who have no voice will be able to also.

I can see how people would say that strippers are hurting the cause by pandering to the old stereotypes of female sexuality, but then we are also going to have to accuse every model, every actress, and even every woman who simply wears lipstick and heels.

Strippers are not inherently doing anything wrong. If a woman is earning her money legally and staying true to her morals, then there is nothing wrong with what she is doing.

There are obviously certain societal beliefs that need to be followed for society to run smoothly, like when it comes to not stealing or harming others, but everybody has different morals. It is not possible to box "feminism" into one meaning and interpretation of how we as women should be and believe.

How one chooses to live her life must be an individual decision. I can be a feminist even if I take my clothes off for money.

I will admit that when I quit stripping, I felt guilty for how I had damaged my own self-image and how I had perhaps been disrespectful of other women by dancing nude. But no matter how I tried to separate myself from my stripper self and make it bad, I couldn't. I couldn't convince myself that dancing nude had been a non-feminist act. My spirit expresses life through my body when I dance - that, in and of itself, is a beautiful thing. And to be paid for expressing myself - isn't that what we all yearn to do in our work?

It's a shame that as women we can't express ourselves without judgment and labeling. Why must we be one or the other, good girl or whore? I want to be all aspects of a woman. I want to be sexy and intelligent, too.

While I did experience a whole host of issues related to my time as a stripper, I still enjoyed stripping and live my life with no regrets. I believe having worked as a stripper helped create the independent, strong, loving woman I am today.

Yes, I was a stripper. And yes, I am and was a feminist. I am allowed to make mistakes or change my mind - or not.

I am allowed to be who I choose to be--a feminist (ex) stripper.

Navprit Rai Communications Manager at independent charitable foundation. Former Liberal Democrat Adviser. Views all my own.

Stripping is not some grand feminist statement. It is an obvious point but one worth making, that stripping is a highly gendered occupation. In the vast majority of cases it is women who strip and men who watch and pay - and it doesn't help the feminist cause because it reinforces sexual objectification of women in three important ways.

Firstly, it perpetuates the idea that women should primarily be judged on their looks and sexual attractiveness. This cultural norm causes many women to have an unhealthy preoccupation with their appearance, to engage in objectifying themselves, and thus limit the range of options they have in life. Women are far more frequently judged on current standards of sexual attractiveness than men and go to greater lengths to fit into the ever narrower mould of perfection. Women had 90% of all cosmetic procedures in 2010, the same percentage as in 2009 and 89% of eating disorder sufferers are women. It is women who swell the ranks of dieters and have any number of beauty regimes to get through in a week.

An argument often made to justify the feminist credentials of stripping is that it challenges the dominant sexual norms that define how women should express their sexuality, striking at the heart of the virginal 'good girl' image. However, the problem is that stripping falls within the realms of the highly sexualised images we constantly see - images which reduce women to sexual objects to be looked at.

In a quick experiment I decided to view music videos for the current top 10 singles in the UK charts and found that at least six out 10 feature women in bras, suspenders or knickers and in the most wonderfully original ones, a splendid combination of all three. The even edgier ones have women dancing happily and seductively on top of tables, gyrating their crotches or their enviable bottoms towards the camera. The others couldn't be clearly labelled but what is conspicuous by its absence in them all, is men in their pants, thrusting their crouches towards the camera.

Finally, in a strip club, women have to perform for men within the confines of what is acceptable behaviour for a stripper. Thus punters, who are men, have the power over women, who are primarily there to satisfy the sexual desires of punters. The men decide who they want to see dance and who they want a lap dance from - and ultimately the dancers have to please their customers.

As much as I would love to say that being a stripper is challenging the dominant sexual norms and acting outside of the confines of acceptable behaviour for a women - in a culture where a man is 'a bit of player' and woman is 'a slut' if she is openly promiscuous, I can't.

Whatever benefits stripping may have for individual women - and it will have very different effects on, and meanings for, women according to factors such as class and race - it serves to shore up the sexual objectification of women, which disadvantages women as a group. By any account, whatever else it maybe, stripping is not a feminist statement.



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