One evening about 20 years ago, my best friend and I crammed ourselves into our tiniest, most restricting little black dresses, hoisted ourselves up onto our highest, shiniest heels and toddled our way over to a club on the east side of town where the Chippendales dancers were performing.
It was my 21st birthday and my friend Kim thought Chippendales would be a humorous way to celebrate my entry into womanhood… or at least my entry into the age where it became legal for me to drink. Her gift to me was to expand my horizons, and it would start with male strippers.
The club was filled with hundreds of women, who in my 21-year-old brain were all account managers in their 50s escaping a boss who disrespected them and a husband who no longer found them attractive. In truth, there were several bachelorette parties, ladies who lunched, groups of fangirls the same age as we were, tourists who ditched their men for the night and Chippendales regulars who knew each dancer by name, waiting bravely for their most cherished to emerge.
A disembodied voice rallied the crowd, with the charm of a circus emcee: “Go ahead and pick your favorite… ladies… the world…famous… Chippendales!” The familiar C+C Music Factory anthem “Everybody dance now” started and out came 10 of the most beautifully sculpted Adonises you’ve ever seen… if you like that sort of thing. Shrieks and screams from the crowd told me that indeed, they did.
Kim and I were there as a goof refusing to sit with the pulsing crowd, so as not to be mistaken for one of them. We watched from the back of the club where we stood, as these perfectly formed bodies moved fearlessly in their well-choreographed dances across a dimly lit stage eager to make eye contact with their admirers. Suddenly one of the men broke the fourth wall leaping into the audience, grinding on women too embarrassed to do anything but laugh. Then another man joined the crowd, and still another. The men seemed so comfortable, yet the women seemed so uncomfortable. Wasn’t this what they had come for? What happened to the sexual revolution? Was it one of those scenarios where the fantasy was much juicier than the reality?
I left with these questions in mind, questions that didn’t get answered until two decades later.
The other night a gay male friend was celebrating his 40th birthday and thought it would be fun to hit the current Chippendales “Get Lucky” show. As a psychologist I went just for longitudinal research purposes, of course, and discovered how quickly we women have evolved sexually.
While the women at Chippendales in the ’90s exhibited some shame in their reaction to the nearly naked men grinding on their crotches, this was different. This time when the dancers dove into the crowd, women ground back. This was anti-slut shaming. What I saw was a group of women with agency over their sexuality, comfortable touching male strippers, happily acting out their fantasies and having no trouble getting what they wanted.
There was a running theme among the audience that revealed such comfort with sex and sexuality. At one point they pulled Carla from Astoria on stage to turn the tables and do a lap dance for a dancer. Without even a thought, Carla flipped up her short skirt, got on all fours and twerked on the stripper’s lap. She may have been from Astoria, but parts of her were obviously Brazilian.
These were women with refreshingly sex-positive attitudes, the kind who I would imagine go to women-run sex shops and have agency over their own pleasure. I was wondering what the dancers thought about it when one of my girlfriends turned to me and said: “I know a Chippendales dancer.”
I, of course, made her call him the next day. He goes by “Gentleman Bob.”
Gentleman Bob danced in the ’80s and the ’90s and is now into other things. He immediately dispelled the rumor that the dancers are all gay; they are not. He then said that the reason I didn’t see women responding the same way 20 years ago was not because women weren’t interested; they were, they were just more private about it.
“In the ’90s there were two things going on. One was Chippendales’ scrutinization by law enforcement and the liquor authority to keep it within the letter of the liquor laws. But backstage was a very different story. At the shows you might not have seen women acting inappropriately, but once they got backstage there were no boundaries.”
He said it was mostly isolated incidents but when it did happen, “The behaviors were wide open and it was everything you can imagine.”
Gentleman Bob, being a gentleman and all, didn’t want to get too graphic but he did tell me that women are a lot more aggressive today with the dancers and there is no shame. It didn’t matter who you were or where you had come from. Back in the ’90s, the few women he did see backstage were from all different socioeconomic levels.
“We would go to New England, the blue collar towns, they were a lot more free there than in New York. But then you would get the high-powered woman with her own money… rich, educated, women in business who had less of a problem letting their hair down. One lady showed up, turned her mink coat inside out, laid it down and said, ‘let’s go.'”
Here’s to sexual agency. I guess, “I am woman, hear me roar” is now the roar of the vibrator.