Last Tuesday as the clock hit the magical hour of lunchtime I settled into my daily routine. I grabbed my second cup of coffee, munched on leftovers from my home cooked meal the night before, and fired up my favorite websites to take my mind away from the crushingly boring documents I was reading at my job.
One article caught my eye, “Don’t Be an Idiot at the Strip Club: A Stripper’s Guide,” on Jezebel.com. The first line had me hooked: “It’s your birthday, hurray! You’re going to a strip club with a bunch of your lesbian friends, fun!” Lesbians! Birthdays! Strip clubs! It was the trifecta of awesome. This article was calling to me like hunny to Pooh Bear. I had my own birthday party at a strip club two years ago, and a year before that, around 30 of my lesbian friends and I went to a strip club for a friend’s birthday. And both times it was a fabulous gay old time. Clickety click on the mouse I went!
Immediately I saw that it was yet another private email coughed up by an anonymous source and sent to Jezebel, who then decided to post it for ridicule. I am sure you’ve seen the often cruel, borderline racist, body-shaming and flat out abusive Sorority Report emails posted to be pilloried by their millions of readers. Jezebel, when they get it right, can point out some truly terrible, horrible, no good very bad things, so I assumed the writer of the email was completely out of line. “This has to be good,” I thought. While both lesbian strip club parties I’ve attended were well-behaved, perhaps this one veered into drunken douchebag territory. Maybe they ran off without paying. Maybe someone threw up on a dancer. Maybe they were hollering offensively, making lewd statements like drunken sailors. If an email made it to Jezebel, you know it had to be particularly egregious. Right?
Instead I saw an excited email from the birthday girl, a self-identified queer feminist, telling her buddies to have fun but respect the dancers, tip them well and to behave. She reminded the straight men not to gawk at other women guests getting lap dances–as a lesbian who has been in this situation, yes it happens, and yes, it is annoying, despite the claim in the article that this phenomenon is nonexistent: The concern is legit. I gave the authors the benefit of the doubt, as they are probably not queer and may not have experienced it.
And finally, because some of the guests are nerdy bookish feminists who are strip club novices and participating in an event at a strip club might not square with some people’s brand of feminism, there was an obligatory “chill out and don’t be cerebral about this–you can be a good feminist by respecting the dancers and bring $20s and spend them” paragraph. Because, I mean, lesbians. You know you have friends that fall into this category. The birthday girl just wants everyone to spend money and have a good time. The key messages throughout the email were (1) respect the dancers and (2) spend money on dances and drinks.
It must have a been a slow week for private emails posted for public ridicule. I suppose the verbiage was a little frenetic and hyperactive, but it was a private email chain among a group that mostly consisted of queer women who knew each other. The writer had no reason to expect that someone would send the chain to a nationally read website–and chose to write to her friends as she normally would, because why else wouldn’t she? I’ve received worse, like the time my social circle was undergoing a few breakups and infighting and the host of the birthday party informed everyone that, while she is sensitive to people’s feelings, her buddy [name redacted], a NYPD officer, will be bringing her gun and nightstick and will be instructed to use them if people get out of hand. Was she serious? No. If you knew the speaker personally, you’d laugh. But without knowing the vibe of the social circle and the speaker’s sense of humor, had that email been posted on Jezebel, the article and comments would have been less than kind.
While I found it perplexing that a feminist website would choose to rake another feminist over the coals for trying to have fun at her birthday and telling her guests to pay the hard working ladies–I mean, aren’t there better targets, like actual enemies of women–it is, after all, the internet. The internet is a place where endless shit that appears at the bottom of a murky lake feeds the base instincts of normally reasonable people, who are then all too happy dive straight to the bottom to lap up the detritus like gluttonous catfish. Attracting clicks is easy to achieve by “mean girls” cattiness or name calling. PerezHilton became famous by photoshopping dick photos on celebrities’ faces, for crying out loud. If reaching for low hanging fruit can make a website or story go viral, why reach higher? I was disappointed but not surprised.
And the cattier the article, the more likely the comments section will explode exponentially with excited outbursts of increasing amounts of snark and other language that, when used in the world that is not the internet, would be considered by most people as bullying. The comments section can often reach the toxicity of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and if one does not want one’s mind polluted, these areas should be treated as such and avoided.
So of course I looked anyway, and as expected, it was a bunch of grown women laughing and snarking at the birthday girl, and any voices of dissent–including the queer women who were actually present at the birthday party who wanted to correct factual errors – were met with derision by almost all, including the writer of the Jezebel article. Classy. I was frustrated that the straight voices in a purportedly feminist website would dismiss queer voices, even in a fluffy not-very-hard-hitting piece like this. Trust me. I can recognize microaggressions when I see them, and they were crawling out like bedbugs in a squatter pad. Only an article ridiculing another feminist on a feminist website could attract over 1200 comments. Meanwhile, the nuanced article about the Greek system at UVA that was written after the rape story fallout got less than 300. Thank you, internet.
Much of the scorn surrounded the minimum amount of money she asked her guests to bring, which was at least $40 in cash. The article and commenters seemed intent to further the stereotype that women are cheap. As I am not a dancer and don’t wish to put words in anyone’s mouths, I asked a dancer myself, who goes by Jane. About the cash requirement she said, “If every person in your party brought $40 for dances, that’s a solid two dances for every girl. It is smart to ask them to bring that as a minimum, because people will really walk in there with $10 and watch a ‘free show.’” So yes, the writer of the email was actually making an attempt to make sure her guests weren’t cheapskates. I could continue and transcribe more of Jane’s text messages here, but rebutting the facts of the original article isn’t as important as pointing out online behaviors that are detrimental to marginalized communities. Rebutting the assertions in the original article might actually be pointless, as the mob has already made up its mind, and actual facts will be dismissed. Again, internet.
At this point I knew the author lived in New York City based on the landmarks mentioned in the article. It was clearly an academically-leaning lesbian who goes out a lot. I work as a photographer at most lesbian events in the city. These are my people. There was probably a good chance I knew her or someone at the party, so I asked around, mostly so I could give the birthday girl a high five the next time I saw her at a lesbian party.
It turns out she is an acquaintance of mine, and is an instructor at Columbia and a writer. She wrote a rebuttal here: What Happens When You’re A Strip Club Birthday when You’re a Lesbian: The Idiot Speaks. It is a good read. Do yourself a favor and read all of it. Money quote:
“The moral of this story? What happens when you plan a strip club birthday if you’re a lesbian is that you will not be punished by the patriarchy after all, but in fact by other women.”
That’s a shame. Women are still facing an uphill struggle – can we not rip each other apart for utterly asinine things? The world does enough of that already. Smugly policing the private words of a queer feminist who was just trying to be a good feminist does not make you a better feminist. If you are going to target someone, can you at least pick a target who isn’t on our side? Can we at least try to resist the urge to be mean girls for cheap laughs? As my dear friend and lesbian journalist Esther Zinn said about this incident, “Feminism is supposed to be about supporting your sisters, not tearing somebody apart for enjoying their birthday.” (Full disclosure: Zinn has had her own brush with internet bullying at Jezebel in a comment thread about a racist media representation of Asian Americans, most of whom laughed it off as satire and dismissed the concerns of Asian-Americans. Yes, really. Many of the comments criticizing the article have been buried or deleted since then, including Zinn’s, but the article is here. Let’s just say that dismissing the voices of people of color and queers may not be an isolated incident at Jezebel.)
I know the internet is a special place where people feel emboldened to act especially special, but everything we write on the internet stays on the internet and is up there for people to see. And if you are in a position to reach a wide audience of women, bullying other women who haven’t done anything wrong to get LOLs just isn’t cute. As the author of the much maligned email wrote in her rebuttal, having the opportunity to reach an audience of millions to create an empowering culture for women is a precious opportunity. Don’t squander it. We can do better.
And finally, how did the birthday party go? Around 30 ladies showed up, spent over $5,000 and had a fabulous time. The manager was impressed and told them they were welcome back any time, making a barbed comment about guys who show up and spend next to nothing. Ballin’. You go gurls.