How sleaze entered the city’s mainstream

THE TRAIN was full of bright young things off to their first day back at uni. The girls sitting near me were animated and full of chat, so at first we missed the drift of the young men’s conversation in the corner. Then we realised that one of them was bragging about having been to a tabletop dancing bar. He started cracking contemptuous jokes about the intimate details of women’s genitals – the kind of thing that cannot be repeated in print – and his mates joined in. The sneers went back and forth in a show of knowingness about female anatomy.

The girls fell silent and stared out the window. They were probably transfixed by the same sense of humiliation that had turned me to stone. But it’s not like the young men were seeking our attention. They hadn’t raised their voices; they intended no offence. Making a fuss would just have compounded our embarrassment, so we let them get away with it. No wonder so many men have no understanding of sexual harassment.

But later, it was the everyday tone of their exchange that seemed the most bizarre aspect of the scene. There’s always been “locker-room talk”, but these otherwise well-spoken men were not in a locker room, or a bar, or anywhere else that could be construed as men’s turf. What on earth led them to feel that it was OK to talk like that on a crowded morning train, oblivious to those around them? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the mainstreaming of sleaze.

If the young man had been to a brothel where he had to pay to have his sexual needs serviced, he probably wouldn’t have bragged about it; he’s of an age where he should be able to get it for free, so to speak. Nor could there be any claim to sophistication in a visit to one of the rough old blue-collar pubs that have strippers. And both of these pursuits are well out of the mainstream, contained to their own precincts so that they do not much affect the city around them.

Not so tabletop dancing. It has a different image, a different clientele and a different place in its customers’ day (somewhere between the morning meeting and the afternoon presentation of that new project). The name is glamorous, conjuring up visions of long legs and high heels and obscuring the coarseness of its main activity: women shoving their genitals in men’s faces for money. Tabletop dancing clubs are patronised by the collar-and-tie brigade in the city over lunch. No wonder the young man felt there was nothing to be ashamed of; the customers were probably dressed like his Dad. This is just what blokes do, hey? And the sheilas do nicely out of it too, don’t they?

It is what some blokes want to do. Psychology describes some immature personalities as “phallic characters”, because they can only conceive of sexual behavior in terms of potency. The more mature adult is a “genital character”, who views sexual behavior as participation in a relationship. Tabletop dancing does not attract the sophisticated man but the one who gets an adolescent thrill from sexual bits and power hits.

One can only wonder how such a voyeuristic lunch-hour affects the way he views the wife or the secretary or the women he passes on the street. Or maybe the young men on the train clarified that for us.

Men have always paid to look at naked women, and women who are desperate or greedy or indifferent – or damaged by childhood sexual abuse – have always consented to let them. Both parties must cut off from the deeper significance of what they’re doing in order to participate in it. There’s no reason that the wider society should do the same. This form of stripping should not be allowed to insinuate itself into the popular consciousness as something that is normal and healthy.

Tabletop dancing is not a business like any other. Let’s not pretend that what goes on in these “clubs” is an emotionally or morally neutral transaction. Human beings of both sexes exploit each other in a way that is degrading and repugnant. (Would you like your son sitting at a table or your daughter grinding away on top of one?) This is not sexual freedom but a devaluation of sexuality. The young man on the train did not talk with pleasure of what he had seen.
The commercial success of the sex trade cannot disguise the fact that it feeds on individual inadequacy and social failure. The British writer C. S. Lewis once said that if a roomful of people paid money to sit and watch a lambchop slowly being uncovered on a plate, you would assume that there were problems in that community’s relationship with food. The same could be said for our society’s relationship with sex.

Tabletop dancing venues are part of the sex trade, like brothels, and should be regulated accordingly. They should be limited and kept out of the central business district; they should be corralled from the mainstream. Cities have always had to tolerate sleaze but until recently Melbourne was not forced to embrace it. The rest of us shouldn’t have tabletop dancing shoved in our faces.

First published in  The Age.