Letter: Tropical Lei Article Lacks Respect, Context

To the Editor,

I’m not sure where to begin in critiquing this atrocious example of classist, sexist, irresponsible journalism. I think it might be best to simply wade through this travesty of an article and let you follow along with my thought process.

Nguyen sets up Tropical Lei as an immediately dangerous location and a threat to “good girls” like her, relaying her football-player friend’s admonition that “there’s no way a girl should go there alone at night.” Is Tropical Lei actually “unsafe,” or was Mr. Football Player more concerned that a bout of sexual promiscuity would infect Nguyen and cause her to jump on stage as well?

Nguyen enters into what she calls a “Narnia of sexual perversion.” A strip club… So when her football-player friend goes home at night and jacks off to Playboy or pops in his latest porn DVD, is he a pervert too? What exactly makes a strip club full of consenting adults a place of perversion? The live sexuality, the objectifying gaze, the sexual arousal without consummation? Don’t misunderstand me, I find strip clubs and pick-up joints uncomfortable myself, but I wonder why Nguyen employs the term “perversion.” Could it be she’s reflecting a longer, ongoing debate in feminist theory and praxis about the nature of sex work and the commercial sex industry (in which stripping is usually included)? Is there something inherently violent in separating sex from affection and erotic desire from love? These are questions without answers. But Nguyen never even bothers to ask.

Regardless of her obvious revulsion to the whole scene, she writes how she was “compelled to watch more.” Now I’m not sure why she didn’t simply walk out at this point, but she didn’t. She stayed for the show. In what way, then, is she any different from the “old creepers” sitting next to her whom she criticizes so harshly? She participates and perpetuates the same spectacle, yet somehow she thinks she is different. Because she is a woman? Or because she is young? Or because, despite her inability to stop watching, she “knows” that this performance is “wrong,” which makes everything alright?

The lack of respect and condescension she displays toward the women at Tropical Lei is both startling and troubling. She describes the scene as “full of sketchy old creepers hitting on faded whores.” (My emphasis.) Now while some sex workers have recuperated the term “whore” into their vocabulary to reclaim the word, my guess is that Nguyen employs the term for a more conventional, shaming, punitive purpose. She imagines one woman, whom she names “Kandee” (it is unclear if she ever actually talked to “Kandee”) aging “as the passage of time crept slowly over her as Kandee once crept upon the laps of truckers.” The derision and disgust Nguyen directs toward the women themselves undermines any more valid claims she might be attempting to make about problematic aspects of the stripping industry. Again with the virgin/whore dichotomy, she writes that “another bikini-clad woman purrs at me with all the grace and seductiveness of a malfunctioning robot, roses and flowers tattooed all over her body. She had likely lost her flower years ago.”Nguyen does not elaborate as to whether or not she actually talked to any of the women (or men) in the club. It is left for the reader to decide if she actually approached any of the individuals that she clearly felt were so far below her, but it seems that her fantasizing is based purely on speculation.

I am not arguing that readers take a particular position on whether or not sex work is exploitative, liberating, demeaning, horrible, etc. Those debates can and do play out all over the world. However, as someone who has researched sex work in international contexts, talking with sex workers themselves (actually allowing them to narrate their own complex experiences within the industry and their reasons for getting involved), I am appalled by the way that her article denigrates, intentionally or not, a group of individuals whom she clearly did not attempt to get to know or understand.All sorts of sexual services, from the voyeuristic stripping industry to the literal exchanges of penetrative acts for money, occur all over the world. The reasons are complicated. To discuss the sex industry without contextualizing and accounting for the socioeconomic and political contexts in which it occurs is simply irresponsible. Experiences within the commercial sex industry range from absolutely horrific tales of coercion to the mundane experiences of “it’s a job” to satisfaction with earning a steady income in a difficult world.

Nguyen appropriated the images of strippers to put her own thoughts on the subject down on paper, valorizing her speculations as more informed and superior to the lived experiences of the “faded whores” she observed one night when bored with nothing better to do.

I am equally curious as to why this article has mysteriously disappeared from the TSL Web site. It is an offensive piece of journalism, but readers have a right to read the article and question the ethics behind it and the TSL’s responsibility to maintain a certain standard of journalistic integrity (or not). This article, as problematic as it is, could generate valuable and much-needed discussion around stripping and the broader commercial sex industry, as well as questions of journalism, methodology, and ethics. The TSL should let the article stand and see where it takes them.

Sincerely,Chris Sargent, PO ‘10

Editor’s Note: TSL removed the article from its website pending review by its editors. The article has been re-posted online.

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