Empowerment or dorm porn?

December 17, 2005
Toronto Star
By Judy Gerstel

In the midst of winter storms and political barnstorming, a stripper in a dorm doesn't seem like such a big deal.

A first-year student at the University of Western Ontario did a full striptease and lap dance for some guys in a residence bedroom, it was reported this week.

Her performance was photographed by her appreciative audience and uploaded to the world on the Internet, all with her consent. There was no coercion, no trickery, she told administration officials who say that because no crime was committed, it's not their business.

So it's not a problem, right?

Well, yes and no.

No, because stripped to its essence, this was an instance of an exhibitionist and some eager voyeurs.

A teenage girl, perhaps drunk, was experimenting and enjoying the power her naked body has over men and the attention it brings her. Nothing too shocking about that. Boys have been trying to look up girls' skirts and down their blouses since clothing became non-optional. And most women enjoy being looked at, absent any blatant leering.

If blame is to be assigned for this freshman folly, better start with biology. Nature fosters lust and display.

But take a closer look at this teenage girl getting naked. She is now part of Internet porn and, while there was no coercion by the guys in the room, it's not much of a stretch to suggest her striptease and lap dance are evidence of another kind of coercion — the cultural coercion for women to mimic the look and behaviour of porn stars and sex workers.

"Pornography is hardly rare on campuses in the new millennium," writes Pamela Paul in her new book, Pornified. She cites a University of Indiana freshman who started her own porn site using photos taken in dorms. The coed told the school newspaper she did it, at her boyfriend's suggestion, to help defray expenses.

Well then, isn't this an entrepreneurial post-feminist extension of the women's movement? That sounds pretty good up to a point. The point: Realizing that controlling and profiting from female sexuality is the business of madams and pimps.

Consider the women on Girls Gone Wild videos, baring themselves for ogling crowds and production teams. The women insist they're exhibiting empowerment as well as nipples. They get a T-shirt or a hat and the guy who founded the franchise is worth $100 million and building an empire. Call that girl power?

Ariel Levy, 30-year-old author of a new book about the rise of raunch culture and fall of feminism, told National Public Radio after watching a taping of Girls Gone Wild about "the creepy feeling watching a horde of drunken men surround and cheer a woman as she takes off her clothes."

Levy says the women want to prove they're wild, uninhibited, liberated. Very often, they're drunk. "They use the rhetoric of sexual liberation and empowerment, of the women's movement," she says.

She wonders "how we got to this place where the very things the women's movement reviled" — objectification of women, exploitation of women's sexuality for the pleasure of men and for profit, cultural and economic dominance of the male gaze — are celebrated as examples of women's empowerment and sexual liberation.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, sums it up as "the contradictions and evasions and self-deceptions that pass for empowerment."

Besides, Levy notes, this raunchiness is not rebellion: "It's the status quo. It's happening all over the culture."

Let there be no confusion: A culture that encourages women to titillate and tease men and to fashion themselves for the male gaze, that rewards them for stripping and exposing themselves and commodifies female sexuality, is not a culture in which women are empowered and liberated. It is one in which the backlash against empowered and liberated women is powerful.

Judy Gerstel is a member of the Star's editorial board.