On the bus back into London today, I spotted a billboard at the side of the road advertising the strip-club Spearmint Rhino. I say “spotted”, but that probably suggests a misleading degree of achievement on my part – the thing was enormous and pretty much unmissable. I suppose there are a few things I might find objectionable about the advert, but I’m not about to launch into a detailed discussion about the morality of strip-clubs or the appropriateness of a scantily-clad, larger than life woman (interpret that as you will…) towering over one of the main roads into London. It was actually the tagline, which describes Spearmint Rhino as a gentlemen’s club, that caused me to double-take. I asked myself the question I’m about to put to you now – what exactly is “gentlemanly” about paying to watch women you don’t know take off their clothes?
The euphemism is inherited from the tradition of private members’ clubs (plenty of which still exist) which require members to have some particular common interest. For Spearmint Rhino and others of its ilk, that common interest appears to be women in various states of undress. I said that I had no intention to launch into a discussion about the morality of strip-clubs and I stand by that, but I will say that I think the enduring presence of clubs with such a common interest amongst their clientele is symptomatic of a disease which is endemic in our culture – a basic lack of respect and responsibility.
The news this week has been full of the horrific story of the Steubenville rape case. If you’re unfamiliar with the story you can read the BBC account here. More than the incident itself, the way in which it has been reported has caused absolute outrage – CNN in particular has been criticised for focussing upon the impact of prosecution on the rapists rather than the victim. Poppy Harlow was the CNN reporter at court, providing this as her initial response:
I’ve never experienced anything like it. It was incredibly emotional—incredibly difficult even for an outsider like me to watch what happened as these two young men that had such promising futures, star football players, very good students, literally watched as they believe their life fell apart.
I understand that that might be true, but I struggle to see why the consequences of their freely chosen actions is more tragic than the assault of a young girl. Was her experience in court any less traumatic than theirs? No, it was probably far worse. Descriptors like “incredibly emotional” and “incredibly difficult” might better have preceded an account which talked about the prosecution of two young men who showed no respect for a sixteen year old girl and violated her repeatedly in the most disgusting ways, or the fact that their prosecution finally concluded the public reliving of that experience for the victim. It is sad that their lives have been irreversibly changed but so has hers. The difference is, it was their choice and their responsibility. They showed her no respect, and they showed no self-respect either.
Perhaps the most troubling thing about the Steubenville case, though, is the way in which the evidence for the prosecution was gathered – from texts, from social media, and from photographs. In a New Statesman article Laurie Penny compares the photographs to the Abu Ghraib photographs. They are evidence of the boys’ crime, but they are evidence of that endemic disease too.
The pictures from Steubenville don’t just show a girl being raped. They show that rape being condoned, encouraged, celebrated. What type of culture could possibly produce such pictures? Only one in which women’s autonomy and right to safety counts for so little that these rapists, and those who held the cameras, felt themselves ‘perfectly justified’. Only one in which rape and sexual humiliation of women and girls is so normalised that it does not register as a crime in the minds of the assailants…Rape culture. That’s what rape culture is. The cultural acceptance of rape.
The point that I am making here is not that going to a strip-club, or running a strip-club, or even stripping at a strip-club, is the same as rape. Of course it isn’t. What worries me, though, is that they are underpinned by the same core issue. Our culture is part of a much more sinister sort of ‘Gentlemen’s Club’, whose members value their own desires more than they value treating others with respect, who prioritise sexual gratification over their principles, and who will do all they can to deny that they are responsible for the choices they make. I find it baffling and terrifying.
I overheard a boy I know discussing the Steubenville case with absolute horror, wholly agreeing with Laurie Penny’s article. In general, I think he’d probably describe himself as feminist. I wonder what he’d think if he knew I found it ridiculous to hear him talking about making a stand against rape culture when I know that he has, emotionally speaking, treated girls terribly in the past. He’d probably tell me it’s not the same thing at all. He’d be right in a sense – just like the strip-clubs, it’s not at all the same thing – but it’s still symptomatic of the same disease. When I hear him talk about an ex coldly or believe sincerely that it’s not his fault when people get hurt because of selfish choices he makes when he is sad or lonely or drunk, I hear the same lack of respect and responsibility. He’s in the Club too, even if he’s just there for a drink with his mates and isn’t bothered about the stripping bit. You don’t have to be pushing money into underwear to be complicit.
The cruelest irony in all of this metaphor of sickness and Gentlemen’s Clubs is that there’s really nothing gentlemanly about any of it. Worse still, we’re choosing to be sick.
To me, it’s pretty simple. The sort of club that I want to be a part of is a club where people respect themselves and one another, make their choices based on that, and take responsibility for those choices. Incidentally, it’s also the sort of club which you can join regardless of whether you are biologically, economically or otherwise a ‘gentleman’. Life is complicated and people make mistakes, but if we had those principles of respect and responsibility at the core of it, I can’t help but feel that society would function pretty well for everyone involved.
And that’s the sort of club I want to see advertised on billboards.