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Camille Paglia
Tours Strip Clubs

Camille Paglia
burst onto the
scene three years
ago, her iconoclastic views on art,
literature, and sexuality were published .
in Sexual Personae:
Art and Decadence
Reported by Melanie Wells

Photographs by Robert Clark


from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. Since then Paglia, 46, a professor of humanities at the
University of the Arts in Philadelphia, has published a second book and become notorious for her controversial views on the roles of men, women, and sex in society. For
example, Paglia rankled fellow feminists by asserting that "whenever sexual freedom is
sought or achieved, sadomasochism will not be far behind"; "rape is male power fighting female power"; and pornography is art. Penthouse thought it would be interesting
to take the professor, who admits she is bisexual, out on the town to sample New York's
best-known strip clubs and comment on what they mean in the arena of sexual politics.
A brash, fast-talking Paglia, who maintains that stripping is "a sacred dance of pagan
origins," was bursting with enthusiasm and theories. In a tour of three Manhattan clubs,
she surveyed scenes of writhing women and ogling men with candid observations that
were entertaining and often startling.
Because most of my life I was openly lesbian, I totally understand men's passion for
women. Women are beautiful and remote and unreachable. You feel desperate.
There's nothing you can do to win their favor. The only thing men want is women's attention, and in nude dance clubs, they can get it for a moment.
The feminist line is, strippers and topless dancers are degraded, subordinated, and
enslaved; they are victims, turned into objects by the display of their anatomy. But
women are far from being victims-women rule; they are in total control.
My whole life I've been gaga about beautiful women. That's why I have this angle on
it-I can see the way men see. White middle-class feminist rhetoric has been produced by professional women, lawyers, bookworms, and paper pushers who can't
stand the fact-it's unbearable to them-that most men will still turn their heads and
gasp when a beautiful woman walks into the room and exposes a little tit and ass. It's
a white, bourgeois prejudice to find the seductive wiggling of a butt degrading.
Even though I'm one of those supersmart white middle-class women, I don't have
this jealousy. I'm strong enough as a woman to say that it's natural for a beautiful young
girl walking into a room to capture the attention of al l the men and women. That's an
etern al human princip le. It's not whi te male hetero-sexism. It's universal. All people
admire youth and beauty. In the Greco-Roman tradition, youth and beauty are divine
and worthy of worship. That's my theory. I'm saying that people go to strip clubs to see
beauty, and it's fucking elitist for people who go to museums to look at paintings and
statues of beautiful bodies to denigrate strip clubs. These museumgoers are staring at
beautiful nude bodies for pleasure, and it's supposedly high art. The educated and rich
get their kicks in museums. Most people who come to these mid-level or sleaze-level
clubs are usually not highly educated literati. It's perfectly legitimate for them to want to
look at beautiful female bod ies.
I don't want a culture that says that a woman exposing her breasts is degrading .
That's white middle-class bullshit. Men are fascinated and terrified by women's sexuality. That's why they pay prostitutes. The feminist analysis of prostitution says that men
are using money as power over women. I'd say yes, that's all that men have. The
money is a confession of weakness. They have to buy women's attention. It's not a sign
of power; it's a sign of weakness.

"The feminist line is, strippers are victims .... But women are far from that-wo~en rule."
At Flash Dancers, a middle-of-the-road topless bar, a blonde with slightly sagging
breasts is onstage, acrobatically simulating sex against a fire pole. Her fluorescent yellow bikini top is draped over the head .of one patron, a young man wearing a flannel
shirt, who watches the dancer thrash against the pole, then clasp it between her legs.
Simultaneously, several feet away, a dark-haired woman wearing a skimpy red bikini
and high-heeled white pumps grinds suggestively Her hips and G-string sway only
inches from the faces of two male customers. Smiling coquettishly, the dancer slides
her bikini top aside, exposes her small breasts, and massages her nipples.
Look! The men don't know what to do! The money they're stuffing into the dancers'
garters is a ritual offering, and the women are wearing their booty around their thighs.
They're displaying dollars as trophies, just as the great women in history-the great
queens and courtesans-have worn diamonds and emeralds.
The dancers are flirtatious but removed. Even when they approach the men, even
when they're dancing at the men's tables, there is something removed or detached



about them. The men know it. The men value it. The men all know they can never fully
penetrate the dancers and their lives. This is a point I made in Sexual Personae:
Feminists are wrong to think that when women expose thei r breasts-or even their
genitals in a beaver shot-they are totally exposed . No woman is ever totally exposed;
you can never full y penetrate to her wom b , the heart of her sexual nature. Every
woman we're seeing tonight is still mysterious. No man ever thinks, even when he is
putting money in her garter belt, that he has her secret.
But men are totally exposed, sexually. Their penis and scrotum are externalized and
vulnerable. Men have no secrets that they're hiding . Men in strip clu bs are completely
cowed . They are dazzled . The only time the men feel remotely superior is when they're
young , 19 or 20 years old, and in a pack. They'll come in very giddy, drink a lot, and try
to get their spirits up. Even then, if there are six of them, one woman coming over to
them totally throws them off. My theory is that woman rules the universe; woman is the
dominant sex. Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct was a great example of woman's power.
Stone uncrosses her legs, shows a little pussy, and it turns the men to jelly.
The idea that exposure of nudity is degrading to women or anyone else is absolute
nonsense. It's one of the biggest lies of the fem inist establishment. If they would just
open their eyes and visit these strip clubs , they'll find the exact opposite of what
they've been complaining about. The more a woman takes off her clothes, the more
power she has.
The feminists who claim that women are violated and diminished by this kind of format don't know what they're talking about. Current femini st rhetoric has gotten parched
and bleached and sanitized and distorted. It doesn't allow for passion , for instinct, for
lust, for beauty, for the awesomeness of nature. It's not sufficient to explain sex. So,
bizarrely, the more antiporn that bourgeois fem inist rhetoric gets, the more these clubs
will arise, because they are fulfilling a deep need.
Strip clubs are pagan temples, pagan shrines. It goes all the way back to Babylon,
which has a very bad reputation in the Bible, where it's a synonym for sin and decadence. Why? Because apparently there was ritual prostitution in the great temples.
Women offered themselves to random strangers in honor of the great goddesses of the
ancient Near East and Asia Minor-modern Turkey.
In these pag an cults, the goddess was omnipotent. What we ca ll str iptease
-that is, erotic dancing-was central. Contemporary strip dancing is in the mainline of
this kind of ritual dancing. Belly dancing, where you clearly see the sexual undulations
of the hips and pelvis, was designed to incite the lust of aging sultans. That's exactly
the kind of dancing that was forbidden by Judea-Christianity, which has always been
opposed to dance. Christianity wants us to rise above nature, above our sexuality. All
activation of the body is pagan-it's never degrading . Instead, it's filling a hole, the
vacuum in our religion. Judea-Christianity is not enough. It cannot explain sexuality. It
suppresses the organic rhythms of the body.
In other words, the n:iore something is forced underground , the more intense it gets,
because it becomes taboo, forb idden. This makes it dangerous and very al luring. So
you have these women letting us look at them. The areas of the body they're exposing
are the ones we're not allowed to look at.

"The sex industry exists as a rebuke to the philosophical inadequacies of our religious system."
College women are being trained in women's studies courses to say that when men
focus on a woman's breasts and buttocks, they are reducing women to dead parts.
This is absolute bullshit. I'm radical on this. I'm militant. I know I'm really extreme, and
most women probably can't feel what I feel. I say there is nothing degrading in the
exhibit of any naked form , in whole or in part, male or fema le. In India you've got copulating nude bodies-three- and foursomes- depicted on the temples. In Hinduism the
body is part of nature and the cosmos; sexuality is seen as the life force of the universe. In Judea-Christianity we have a problem. We feel we always have to surmount
nature, to contain and control it.
Our best women students are being taught that pornography and strip clubs lead
directly to rape, that there is no space between men going to see this and then attacking women. This is absolute nonsense. The truth is, the minute you have a complex,
advanced, urbanized society, throughout history, you get prostitution, stripping, and
homosexuality. Immediately.



What does that mean? It means that

as soon as people cluster together, the
reality of sex erupts. What you see in
pornography and prostitution is the reality of sex. It is not a patriarchal distortion. It is the ultimate physical reality. So
a feminist who claims to understand
sexuality but cannot deal with pornography or topless clubs is no expert. She is
a censor. She is a prude.
Stripping is not about sexual freedom;
it's about freedom of sexual imagination.
Stripping, erotic dancing, is an art form,
and the artistic level of the scene in
America has increased enormously. It's
obvious that it's a new vocation. Dance
itself has gained in stature recently. I
think Madonna, with her sensational
dance routines, has helped bolster the
pride and self-confidence of these
women. They are professionals, and
they know they .are in control. They
aren't apologetic or defensive. These
girls know their power.
At the Paradise Club, the beer is cheap,
but a private viewing of two women
making love will set you back several
hundred dollars. It's a hard-core strip
joint in a quiet neighborhood off
Broadway. Chairs rim a room-length
platform on which two women stalk
- A curvaceous black woman stoops in
front of patrons and allows them to peer
between her heavy thighs. By regulation
they can't touch her, so she massages
herself absentmindedly Porno movies
run on televisions suspended at both
ends of the platform, but they are largely
ignored. The main attraction tonight is a
lithe, long-haired woman with one tattoo
and a penchant for bending over in front
of pairs of sheepish male patrons and
exposing her hairless genitalia.
Look at those two young men! They
don't know what the fuck to do. The girl
is dancing right at their table. She's flirting with one of them, touching him,
flaunting her rear end in his face. The
men are desperately looking at each
other for support. They're embarrassed.
She is in total control. They're paying her
a tribute. They're offering her money for
her momentary attention. They are as
abashed as they would be with their
There's nothing humiliating in this.
Look , she's totally self-assured. He's
nervous, insecure . She's helping him
feel confident. That is part of her skillto make him feel relaxed. He is admiring
her. She's lifting up her breasts for him
to see . Now she 's lean ing over and
shoving her tits within inches of his face.
He loves it! He's purchasing a close
encounter with beautiful female breasts.
And why shouldn't he? I think it's wonderful.
These women have great asses .
Twenty-five years ago in America, only
breasts mattered . Asses were not



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important. Now we've gotten much

more sophisticated, in the European
I first became interested in topless
dancing when I was teaching at Bennington College in the 1970s. Some of
my students were moonlighting as topless dancers. They made a lot of money,
but they and the ir coworkers always
drew a very firm line between themse lves and prostitutes. Many of the
dancers are single or divorced mothers
who rightly regard what they do as a
profession. They know it's an art form, a
craft with dema'nding skills.
Strip clubs today are far less squal id
than the c lu bs I saw 20 years ago,
before feminism improved the status of
women. These women are very secure
about themselves . I'm very happy with
what I'm seeing here, because I think it's
showing a kind of European cosmopolitanism. For more than a century in Paris,
there have been all kinds of soph isticated displays of sexua lity, such as
the shows at the Moulin Rouge. In
Europe it's accepted . European television has a tremendous amount of nudity. Men and straight women over there
like to look at beautiful female bod ies. In
London, one of the most popular fami ly

newspapers has a topless "Page 3" girl

every day.
I don't wa nt a c ulture that says a
woman exposing her breasts is degradin g. That's just puritanism. We are so
fucking parochial about this. The feminist estab lishment believes the stripclub scene is chaos, all debauchery
and decadence. It's not. It's as strictly
organ ized as a facu lt y meeting at
Princeton University.

At Stringfellows Pure Platinum, patrons

wear Armani suits and can enjoy an
expensive full-course dinner while
watching gorg eo us "entertainers"
dance and drop the tops of their fulllength gowns. During individual dance
routines, the women shed everything
but skimpy thong bikinis and invisible
patches of latex covering their nipples.
When they're no t performing, the
women mingle among their guests as if
they were hosting an intimate cocktail
Twenty dollars buys you a provocative
table dance, where a woman of you'r
choosing sheds her dress and dances
suggestively over your lap. Hard work?
The best dancers take home from $700
to $1,000 a night.
Men don't just want to see women taking their clothes off. They want to see
beautiful women. Period. Some women
here are in various stages of undress,

but others are ful ly clothed, promenading around in fabulous glittering evening
gowns. We are being treated to the full
range of women's sexuality. This is theater, a mesme rizi ng sex ual theater.
There's an energet ic, improvisatory
quality. It's very sexy. It's almost as if the
women saunterin g around were creating their own plays, their own little dramas. There's a classy, high-fashion element that I think is a real step forward in
American eroticism.
Strip .c lubs are an art form for the
masses. It's the highest paternalistic
condescension when people attack and
dismiss them. We haven't seen a single
man cross the line anywhere ton ight.
What we have seen is men understanding that women rule the world .
I issue a chal lenge to all those prudes
and puritans who are carrying on from
the oh-so-safe precincts of t he Ivy
League to come to one of these clubs
and actually watch the men's behavior.
The reality totally contrad icts that bullshit feminist ideology. All sexual entertainment is pagan; that is, it's oriented
around the supreme fact ot woman as
You can sense the awe in men's attitudes to each of these women as an
incarnation of the goddess figure. I'm
radically pro-pornog raphy. The dominance of woman's image in pornography is not about the subord in ation of
woman-it's the oppos ite. It's about
male anxiety. It's about the male mind
trying to confront and take control of this
enormous, mysterious power of female
Men are run ragged by female sexual ity all their lives . From the beginning of
his li fe to the end, no man ever ful ly
commands any woman. It's an illusion.
Men are pussy-w hi pped. And they
know it.
Everything we've seen tonight shows
women in co nt ro l and try in g to be
patient and nurturing with the men. You
see that so clearly with prostitutes and
strippers. Very powerfu lly sexual women always know that men need to be led
and guided. Men need help.
The sex industry exists as a rebuke to
the philosoph ical inadeq uacies of
Judea-Christianity. Our religious system
is simply incomplete. Unlike Hinduism, it
has never ful ly dealt with the power of
woman's sexua lity. Until our c ulture
does, we'l l continue to get it in these
underground ways. Th at's what strip
clubs are about: not woman as victim ...
not woman as slave ... but woman as

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