Dining with a side of va va voom not poetry to her ears

BY K WEBSTER  |  I like the Bowery Poetry Club. I wrote about this important arts space recently on my local blog, Bowery Gals.

I’m very concerned, however, about the club’s impending merger with Duane Park, a Tribeca restaurant with burlesque shows.

Apparently, the Poetry Club has featured artists’ versions of burlesque acts before. Artists try to reinvent old forms hoping to find a fresh edge, though you’d have to work pretty hard to transform this from hackneyed titillation/tired joke into a new thought.

Still, artists can try, and fail, and have it be an honest effort. But the idea of being treated to a steady diet of burlesque shows as part of a high-end dining experience is kind of creepy. It’s just different when you try to make something normal or hip or “just good fun,” when it actually exploits a group of people, in this, case women.

As money speaks louder and louder, the deluge of the sexual exploitation of women and girls grows in direct proportion: Beauty pageants that sexualized 5-year-old girls, millions of trafficked women around the world (and here), the pornography industry, billboard advertising provocatively posed young women (and boys) selling underwear (or anything), prostitution (trafficked women, poor women, child brides, addicted women, abused women, Village Voice ads for escort services, etc.), and all the other overt and subtle ways women’s bodies are sold for off-the-charts profit.

For those of us with children nearby (girls or boys) advertising as if it’s no big deal to have women taking off their clothes as part of the paying customers’ dining experience signals that it’s O.K. for women to be used like a side of parsley. It’s depressingly archaic and stupid, but no less damaging to any hope for a future of relaxed connection across gender.

I don’t blame women — however we figure out to survive sexism will be imperfect. I modeled in art school — for money — and was no less exploited because it had “art” attached to it. I’m also married, which is an institution begun out of the slavery of women.

I don’t think there is an individual solution that gets any of us out of this mess. But I don’t think we want to pretend that agreeing to have female bodies used as commodities is a real choice or a choice without consequence for women. The offer of pseudo-power to manipulate men’s loneliness while being taken advantage of is not agency. There just isn’t a level playing field in gender dynamics. We live in a context of the economic domination of women by men, driven by men (no matter who fronts it).

And men have to take an unflinching look at their participation in the sex industries — i.e., porn has real victims. You don’t want to settle for counterfeit closeness or momentary relief when it comes at the expense of someone else. It is hurtful to women and to men to have the human need for closeness tied to money.

In a culture that increasing targets anything and anyone for profit, we can’t — in the comfort of liberalism — claim that asking women to sell their bodies isn’t harmful. It has to be challenged for what it is: the sexual exploitation of a vulnerable group for the profit of others.

Until women earn the same as men, find employment and respect in any field, are in positions of power in proportion to our numbers, walk down the street without getting surveyed like a piece of meat, are free from the threat of rape or trafficking, until it’s O.K. for men and boys to be close without being ridiculed, until gay oppression ends… enterprises, even those with a posh veneer, that cash in on exposing women’s bodies for profit, just aren’t O.K.

Poetry Club, please rethink this.

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3 Responses to Dining with a side of va va voom not poetry to her ears

  1. Caryn T. Davis

    K Webster hits the nail on the head. Today, at a conference in India, the message is loud and strong, it's OK for women, men, transgender people to decide to sell their bodies. It is these sex workers themselves taking this position. I'm happy to read K's thoughts and responses to sexism and the exploitation of people on the same day. Her perspective, awareness and activism can help end a system that has more and more people agreeing to being exploited by it. I don't blame anyone or judge anyone. Instead, I encourage everyone to step back and try to face the largest picture of how greed and exploitation is trying to mangle all of our integrity, principals, minds and bodies.

  2. Well said. I will miss what the Bowery Poetry Club brought to our neighborhood. I hope there can be a way to maintain the creative, progressive and non-exploitive scene so many of us have enjoyed over the years.

  3. Jean Standish

    We live in a culture of exploitation. We especially see it in business and interpersonal relationships. Kate has admirably articulated this downside of our society.

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