A couple of years ago, I visited some straight strip clubs on behalf of a local magazine. They thought it would be fun to have a gay guy (that would be me) visit the ne plus ultra of straight sexuality and write up my impressions. I thought it would be fun, too. Until I got there. And then I was seriously creeped out.
Maybe I’d have felt better or different if I were straight and shared in the vibe. But for me, all these places felt like prison camps with armed guards patrolling the frontiers. Except I wasn’t sure who were the guards and who the prisoners. The men who were supposedly calling the shots looked troubled. The women who were supposedly being exploited looked predatory. And the cold-eyed security guys looked like something out of a Jerry Bruckheimer guns-and-explosions fantasy.
What shocked me, I suppose, was the complete absence of anything I recognized as lust, pleasure or even friendliness. The scent of desperation was everywhere. This game was all about power.
I thought about this as I read a fascinating story in New York magazine called “The Half-Hooker Economy.” It explores the bottle-club world where Tiger Woods and his like allegedly meet their high-priced company.
I’ve never got the idea of bottle service. For me a drink is a drink, not an investment. And the idea of trying to impress somebody with my low-level tastes just doesn’t occur to me. I’m not paying to scrub up the sex appeal. They like me or they don’t.
But that’s not how it works for the high rollers. For them, it seems, it’s all about power and display. Guys pay $1,500 to $30,000 for a table and the attentions of a bottle girl who up-sells them through rounds of Grey Goose, Cristal and Krug. Meanwhile, a host or hostess methodically moves flocks of eager women in their direction.
Sex isn’t purchased directly. The women aren’t hookers, and the club is not a brothel — but there is an under-standing that the men have money and the women want it.
I’ve always been a bit of a romantic about sex, even short-term sex, so I was fascinated by this view of lust as a power game, where everyone’s a pawn with a price.
Modern gay society has an aversion to power, or at least the psycho-sexual display of same. Couples are constructed so as to avoid it, and sexual contacts are assumed to be equal-opportunity events, status-neutral exchanges of pleasure. In the naïve view of the modern gay world, the ideal couple is perfectly balanced to prevent any unsightly power inequities. That’s why so many gay couples look like twins. They’re usually from the same, age, race and class. (See one of those gormless TD bank ads if you don’t believe me.)
But in many cultures, power is at the centre of desire. You get a glimpse of this in The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, a Frontline documentary about the Afghani tradition of bacha bazi, or “boy play.” In this tradition, powerful men recruit boys as young as 11 to dance at all-male parties and just generally act the decorative toy. The boys are taught to sing and dance, but they’re basically chattel. They’re bought from their parents or off the street, and the only escape is age. Those who run away are sometimes killed.
There’s almost no context in this documentary, and you get very little sense of how this practice fits within Afghani sexuality, except that it’s both taboo and widespread. A former Afghani commander says he kept a boy because all the other commanders did, and he had to compete.
But nobody asks how the men identify, and you get the impression that this practice exists outside the usual bounds of gay or straight. It’s hard to know what’s going through the men’s heads, but it looks more like dominance than lust. In a patriarchal world where women aren’t even worth consulting, the best way for a man to assert his place in the hierarchy is by subordinating other men, especially ones who by virtue of youth and poverty are considerably less powerful.
Watching this doc, I had to wonder if sex was the goal or the expression. Were these men pursuing sex for its own sake or as an expression of self and status? Here in gaydom, we usually think of sex as a thing apart, a pleasure so intense and necessary, it’s inviolable. Desire is so central to gay identity we resist any suggestion that it can be shaped, modulated or directed.
Yet the reality is that people use sex for many things — for distraction, amusement, intimacy and power — and their culture shapes those uses in odd and interesting ways.
Tongue Lashing appears in every second issue of Xtra.