“F-A-N-T-A-S-Y…. Fantasy. What’s a fantasy, Mummy?”
My five-year-old’s reading skills are coming on in leaps and bounds. He’s now even able to read the sign for a lap-dancing club opposite the place where I used to work.
“Fantasy is a lovely image, something you might like to happen, or something you just want to dream of.”
I do not tell my son that in this particular context, “something you might like to happen” is to all intents and purposes “for women to have no clothes on and at least pretend to know their place”. He doesn’t need to know this yet. Ideally, I hope he never will.
Fantasy opened in Cheltenham town centre in February 2014. It is the only lap dancing club in the town and its licence is up for renewal this month. I’ve always felt uncomfortable about it being there – especially knowing that male colleagues could always gaze out of the window and be reassured that you don’t have to treat women like equals all the time – but it’s only since my sons have started to become aware of it that I feel really, truly concerned.
Of course, I know what this makes me: a modern-day Mary Whitehouse who doesn’t want her precious little boys to be corrupted by the sexy laydees. A bitter old harpy who doesn’t want anyone to be having a good time. I don’t want to be that person. At the same time, I’m aware of how all of these stereotypes playing on my mind are quite clearly sexist ones. Why am I being sexist to myself? Isn’t there a legitimate concern to be had about venues such as Fantasy? I think there is. And isn’t it telling that even to think this leads to a barrage of sexist self-accusations, threatening to short-circuit any objections before they’ve even been voiced? This surely tells us far more about the positioning of women than it does about sex.
Because lap dancing is not about sex. We all know it’s not about sex. It’s about power and it’s about sexism. Men wear clothes, women don’t. Men experience arousal, women simulate it. Men have fantasies, women occupy them. Men are subjects, women objects. Men are people, women aren’t. There is nothing open-minded, liberating or pro-woman about the sexism industry. Repeating the same narrative over and over – the ideal woman, thin, silent, stripped bare, is one who exists solely to please men – it simply reinforces what sexists have always believed: that women don’t have any subjectivity of their own. That is the turn-on. That is the fantasy. It’s not a fantasy I want my children to have.
That the women working in clubs such as Fantasy are living, breathing subjects after all is not some great “gotcha!” undermining such objections. We’re all enmeshed in and compromised by the things we critique. It doesn’t render the criticism any less valid, nor reduce the need for change. The lazy misrepresentation of feminists as pearl-clutching rich ladies who haven’t considered the social and economic implications of their sexism-phobia simply doesn’t wash. Feminism is focused on the ways in which resources are withheld from women through socialisation, exploitation and the threat of violence. That sexism is something men can buy from us is a symptom of this. Feminist activists do challenge the ways in which women in particular are being harmed in the current economic climate, by both paid and unpaid work. Yes, the work of such feminists is less glamorous and cutting edge than so-called sex positive protest, but it is intersectional in both word and deed.
If my sons grow up to be sexist arses who hate women, I don’t think it will be all my fault. I know how fashionable mum-blaming is but I tend to think the entire woman-hating world has something to do with how little boys come to see their position in relation to their female counterparts. It is utterly inconsistent to seek to challenge rape culture, “banter” and street harassment while insisting that underlying messages about what female bodies are for remain the same. What Fantasy offers is recreational misogyny. It tells men that sexism is not an absolute wrong, presenting it as something to indulge in as an occasional treat, providing you’ve got the money to pay. It presumes a clear line can be drawn between “real” human interactions – in which one is obliged to treat women as people – and that special zone where men rule and women obey. But not every man can draw that line, and even if he can, not every man can afford it. Why should misogyny be a luxury item? In an equal society, surely it should be available for all? (Why else would we have someone Russell Brand planning “our” revolutions?)
So what if the precise influence of porn and objectification is, as yet, impossible to measure in any precise way? (So too is the precise influence of “bad mothering,” but we have very few qualms about calling that out.) We know that a business inviting men to pop in and purchase sexism – nestled in between a sandwich shop, a hairdressers’ and a couple of pubs – is placing misogyny on a level with a chicken tikka wrap and a cut and blow-dry. We don’t need a new unit of measurement (the misogymetre?) to demonstrate this. Objections to Fantasy’s licence renewal (due on 12 January) must be based on whether “the renewal of the licence is inappropriate with regard to the character of the locality and the uses to which other premises in the vicinity are put (e.g. places of worship, activities for young people and families)”. I am not sure why it is implied that certain people are old enough, or unattached enough, or not religious enough for sexism not to matter. It always does.
There is no special fantasy zone in which female subjectivity can be suspended. Women are people 100 per cent of the time. If this goes against what many men would like to believe, so be it. Sorry to piss on your party. You need newer, better fantasies.