Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power — Elisabeth Eaves

Bare has lots of good parts but goes on too long, follows too many random tangents (the “Kim” character doesn’t illustrate anything), and repeats itself too often. But I also liked it and learned some things from it I might not have otherwise, and Eaves is usually a perceptive reader of both her own and larger social hypocrisy. She seems sensitive, or she adopts a sensitive persona in the book. I only wish she’d taken more economics classes; the big thing she’s missing is micro 111 and 201. She’s missing game theory. And evolutionary biology and psychology. Those taken together explain a lot about the double standards she justifiably complains about. Take this section, about Eaves’s dawning sexual awareness:

I had this notion until my teens that my body was my own. How to clothe it, how to gratify it, whether to impregnate it—I had believed these to be matters of personal choice. And I had a notion that the rules of society should be applied fairly to all. With the discovery of a sexual morality especially for girls, equality suddenly seemed to have been an idea meant to go the way of Santa Claus. My shock and anger would have been difficult to overstate.

She’s right. But the main disappointment of Bare is that it doesn’t go deeper into why these social forces exist, especially in the discrepancy between what parents want for their offspring and what offspring want for themselves. Girls bear the greater cost of pregnancy, and society believes that they are at greater risk of sexual predators, so parents take much greater efforts to restrict that sexuality (for more on this, see, for example, “The Daughter-Guarding Hypothesis“). If you want to deal with double standards, attack parents first, since a lot of the double standards are parentally inflicted. When parents say, “You can’t go out looking like that,” they usually mean, “you’re sending signals about sexual availability and interest that I disapprove of.” Almost no parents say the second one, however. If you could get them to, you might at least move toward greater honesty. Good luck using this vector, however.

And girls will sometimes impose double standards on themselves. Here’s another example of a spot where Eaves notes this but doesn’t go deeper:

Fraternities permitted the consumption of alcohol, whereas sororities did not. Guys could have girls over to fraternity houses any time of the day or night, but girls could have guys over only under heavy restrictions. In my sorority we could invite boys to our rooms only on Tuesday evenings from seven to ten, and most girls had three or four roommates. The upshot was that boys never made the walk of shame. The rules of the Greek system upheld an intricate web of double standards. Sororities had to have a resident ‘house mother,’ a supervising adult; the fraternities had no equivalent. When I asked other sorority girls about this rule, they told me that a house mother was required to get around an old law that classified a group of women living together as a brothel.

But sorority girls (and, perhaps, the parents who pay for their college experience) are willing to put up with “heavy restrictions”. Why doesn’t a sorority house offer a frat-style experience? If the market is there, girls will join it. That girls are willing to accept sorority rules shows that those same girls are getting something out of them, even if they complain. Think about reveled preferences here: if what people say and what they do diverge, look at what they do first.

If girls refused to enter a system that “upheld an intricate web of double standards,” the system would change. Yet they don’t. Note that I’m not advocating for double standards or saying they should exist: I believe the opposite. But Eaves should look harder for what powers and purposes these guys of social rules serve, who is enforcing them, and why, in the face of logic and the rhetoric of freedom, they persist. As I said previously, I think you can trace a lot of double-standard behavior to parents, and until you deal with that issue, you basically haven’t dealt with anything substantive. You’re making the same arguments women have been making since at least the 1960s and probably earlier. Also, I’m not convinced other sorority girls are a sound source of legal advice, or that such rules about multiple females living together would pass contemporary constitutional muster, especially if a lawsuit regarding them found its way in front of a female judge.

Plus, I can imagine what would happen to a fraternity that forbade its members from having women in their rooms: the fraternity would quickly have no members, since so much of its real purpose is ensuring sex to its members. That women don’t respond similarly en-masse to sorority rules shows that sorority girls are getting something; I could make up stories as to what (many are probably uncomfortable with having strange or partially clothed men wandering their halls), and so could you, but the important thing is starting the analysis.

This leads toward questions of how one can change larger cultures. Eaves does engage those; she starts with whether she’ll speak to others about her profession. She mostly doesn’t:

I was nowhere near as open as Zoe, a dancer with whom I became friends. She believed firmly in telling everyone. Her parents knew, as did her sister, boyfriend, and most anyone she met. I told her once that I didn’t tell certain people because I didn’t want to deal with their judgments and preconceptions. ‘That’s why you have to tell them!’ she said. ‘How are those stereotypes going to change if people like you and me don’t talk about what we do?’ She had an energy for changing minds that I lacked.

Zoe is right: maybe if people were more open about what they actually did, the many stigmas around sexuality would fade over time: but by hiding what one actually does, one allows assumptions to go unchallenged and to calcify into convention. By not speaking of then, Eaves lets the double standard get infinitesimally stronger, and by speaking of it in her writing, she at least makes it slightly weaker. You can’t complain about the double standards and simultaneously lack the “energy for changing minds” someone else has. And it makes sense that Zoe told “most anyone she met.” In high school, the essential question is, “What kind of music do you like?”, in college it’s, “What’s your major?” and once you leave the educational system it’s, “What do you do?” I don’t hide my professions. To do so would seem to hide an essential part of myself.

Still, the mere fact of being a stripper causes some change in the person. Here’s Eaves discussing some:

Stripping put me in a new world with new conventions. Having ditched the moral framework of the outside world, I was now ethically adrift where nudity and sexuality were concerned. I actually felt as if I had divorced myself from the moral norm years previously, simply by growing up and becoming sexual. But when I entered pink-and-red stripperland, my departure became official. Having given up the old norms I needed new ones, and where none were provided, I had to make my own.

Good. That comes from page 88. Two hundred pages later, from 291 – 292, we’re still there:

The sexual morality I grew up with was rife with inconsistencies. It had words to insult promiscuous women but not men, it ticketed strippers but not their customers. It imposed on women, far more than men, an intricate code of modesty that came down to a few inches of fabric, and then read a woman’s clothing or lack thereof as an indication of character. I didn’t want the morality that said I must cover my body, and that if I didn’t I was responsible for whatever came my way. I didn’t want the morality that said I should be coy and shameful about sex.

Again: there’s lots of “what” but very little “why,” which is disappointing. Why do strippers accept a sexual morality that “tickets” them (note the nice word, implying just the right amount of censure). If Eaves doesn’t want the morality—and I can’t blame her—she should be looking for more about why the morality exists. She also understands her power—”Being young, female, and attractive was one long bout of intoxication, with all the dizzy pleasure and vulnerability the word implies. In the careening, can’t-get-off, sex-saturated roller coaster from puberty to adulthood, I discovered I could hold sway over boys and men”—but not why people might use different means of finding what they want. She doesn’t like placing lonely hearts ads:

A column inch of newspaper, struck me as a sterile way to find someone compatible, whether for life or just an affair. I didn’t think of myself as romantic, but when it came to meeting men, I was attached to ideas of chemistry and coincidence. I was convinced that sex and love would follow naturally from other things I did—work, hobbies, or friends. By definition they would be unplanned and messy, but all the more exciting for it. I couldn’t understand why I would want to engineer an affair as though I were buying or selling a used bed.

Spoken truly like someone who’s attractive enough to have plenty of offers to accept or reject. The rest of us need to gin up more offers and do what it takes to do so. It’s easy to be “attached to ideas of chemistry and coincidence” when you’re young and attractive. Lots of men will offer their services, so to speak, and she gets to pick from them. For others—who are either bored with the standard offers or looking for something better—she doesn’t speak or acknowledge why they might do what they do. I know very attractive women who’ve signed up for online dating because they’re tired of the men they meet in their everyday lives. Eaves seems unusually lucky with “work, hobbies, or friends.”

Bear in mind, too, that Bare has over-readings and inconsistencies of its own, as in this description of one of Eaves’s boyfriends who has admitted to hiring a prostitute:

For men to pay for sex as a matter of course seemed to show a profound insecurity or worry about women—that women wouldn’t want to sleep with him without payment, or that when they did they wouldn’t be kind and acquiescent enough, or that a man’s and a woman’s sexual wishes simply couldn’t coincide. I also thought paying for sex indicated a subtle sense of guilt—if a man was uncomfortable facing the women he had sex with, he could pay for the promise that he wouldn’t have to.

Alternately, it’s possible that men paying for sex doesn’t mean anything, and that women who dance for sex doesn’t mean anything more or less than any other profession. She doesn’t consider that the men might just want to get laid. Not everything has to mean something. That would make for a much shorter book, of course, since books about sexuality thrive on analysis even when that analysis might not be warranted. And, sometimes, “a man’s and a woman’s sexual wishes simply [don’t] coincide”: how many women want a tall, handsome, wealthy alpha male with an impressive job who could get any woman he wants but chooses her? How many men want a perky young pneumatic blond with who is, as Ludacris once put it, “a lady in the street but a freak in the bed,” and who also thinks he’s witty and looks up to him and doesn’t make the very reasonable demands women in the real world tend to want?

Maybe Eaves isn’t really unhappy about a subtle sense of guilt: maybe she’s actually unhappy that sex-for-money subverts her own sexual power by making it easier for men to obtain a lot of what they want quickly. She has her own sexual morality that might not be much better than the one she derides. She can’t or doesn’t want to imagine why people would use dating services, and the same is true of prostitution. By writing what she wrote, Eaves has helped ensure that more men will lie about the hookers they’ve hired, since they know they’ll be judged by women like Eaves.

Consider this, on the same subject:

What angered me, specifically, was his easy acceptance of a buyer-seller relationship between men and women. In some ways I came to regard Paul as I would a customer: someone cynical, who didn’t place a high value on sexual honesty, who was easily manipulated by female facades. I could never bring myself to trust him completely. And though I wasn’t fully conscious of it, on some level I decided that he wasn’t due the respect I would have accorded a different kind of man. For me, Paul symbolized men who preferred buying women to knowing them.

Is a “hard” acceptance somehow better? Is nattering on about morality and improvement? And maybe Paul is just a dude, not someone who should be held as a symbol for all men. This preference Eaves expresses actually indicates she doesn’t like conflating market and gift norms, or that she doesn’t like it when a man she’s with does it but doesn’t mind when she herself does. Or this is another random boundary. I suspect it’s conflating gift and market economies; lots of people have addressed this, including Lewis Hyde in The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World Geoffrey Miller in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior. But these are issues Eaves doesn’t address: her own blindspots are there for people to see. Mine probably are too, but no one has taken the trouble to observe them.

Eaves also makes the mistake some of my freshmen do in their papers: she assumes there is some unified thing called “society” “culture,” or “the media,” which gives her and others a single message. It’s not that easy. Words we use to flatten the dialectical nature of collective individual desires, like “society” or “the media” leave so much out of them. This is one lesson of Michel Foucault, however problematic some of his other comments might be. Eaves, for example, listens to this idea:

There was very little stigma attached to being a passive sex object. Images of the legs, breasts, and lips of strangers suffused my life thoroughly, from billboards to magazines to television. Far from shaming the bodies’ owners, society made them starlets, supermodels, and video queens, glorifying them with money and fame. Yet to actively pursue sex-object status—to say, ‘Okay, I agree, please look at me’—in this I felt as if there was reproach. The difference between a stripper and a woman modeling bathing suits was that the stripper acknowledged her intention to arouse, whereas the model could pretend ignorance.

Do most people make the “passive sex object” and active pursuit of “sex-object status?” Maybe they do, but it seems like an unlikely distinction to me. Plus, as I said in the paragraph above there is no “society” inflicting a sole message on you. There are only individuals who respond. It sounds like Eaves is wrestling with her own feelings and her own internalized demons and then re-projecting those on a nebulous “society” at large. The experiences of someone growing up in a small town with a highly religious family probably experiences a much different “society” than Kate Winslet’s children, since the actress “talks to her kids about same-sex feelings — reminding even liberal parents to go beyond pink and blue.”

Those two are extremes. Eaves probably grew up somewhere in the middle; she says this about when she starts having sex as a teenager:

Sex also mitigated an asphyxiating boredom. I lived on a dead-end street on a hillside, where every house sat in the middle of its own private patch of green, with views of the water and the mountains. The street was surrounded for miles by detached houses and an occasional park or school. It took about an hour on city buses to get downtown, and I had no car. [. . .] It was beautiful, peaceful, and the urban equivalent of a sensory deprivation chamber. [. . .] Boys, though, were a world to be discovered. While I waited for my life to begin, I had sex.

Suburbs are boring. That’s why parents move there: to protect their children from perceived dangers. But they don’t realize that, to a 15-year-old, the boringness of suburbia makes life itself look boring and pointless. No wonder so many yearn for college. Paul Graham gets this too:

If I could go back and give my thirteen year old self some advice, the main thing I’d tell him would be to stick his head up and look around. I didn’t really grasp it at the time, but the whole world we lived in was as fake as a Twinkie. Not just school, but the entire town. Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.

Where I grew up, it felt as if there was nowhere to go, and nothing to do. This was no accident. Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.

And as for the schools, they were just holding pens within this fake world.

Notice how Graham goes a little further than Eaves, to the “why:” “Suburbs are deliberately designed to exclude the outside world, because it contains things that could endanger children.” Eaves’s parents, whatever they did right or wrong, presumably thought they were doing the right thing. She was also doing the right thing, since sex does quite effectively mitigate (some might even say “relieve”) “asphyxiating boredom.” But she’s old enough to be able to empathize with her parents—to ask, “Why did they do what they do?” She’s smart enough to empathize with men like the hooker-hiring boyfriend. Unlike, say, Norah Vincent in Self-Made Man, however, she doesn’t. It’s too bad, because the stretch is so easily within her reach.

Bare has its problems, and it has too many weak sentences like this one: “He was tall and angular, with chiseled features, pale skin, and black hair and eyes.” It’s too much description and too little analysis. But it’s fun, and it offers access to a world not easily entered by outsiders. At the very least Eaves starts the conversation, and she does so in a way better than how many others would try to finish it.

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