The Strippers vs. the Supremes

Just last week the Supreme Court once again took on the question of whether nude dancing is covered by the First Amendment as a form of protected speech. Previous cases have suggested that it is, even though it isn’t literally speech — dancing is considered a form of artistic expression, though, so it shouldn’t matter if it’s done with or without clothes. In fact, nude dancing gets a sexual message across easier than clothed dancing, and many of the legal battles over strip clubs have been fought in a First Amendment arena.

The trouble with the First Amendment is, some people don’t particularly respect it — even, in many cases, agents of the very government it supposedly represents and guides. To some Americans free speech is an annoyance, especially when it comes to anti-administration views — and this goes double for sexual speech, which has always been more tenuously protected than many other kinds of controversial speech. When the sexual speech is expressed by art it is even more controversial and at risk; it seems many people don’t appreciate art, either, especially edgy contemporary art (hence the flaps over Robert Mapplethorpe’s exquisite photos of explicit subjects, and the recent fit Rudy Guliani pitched about the Chris Ofili work at the Brooklyn Museum). The more adult and explicit the context, the less these folks are ready to acknowledge it as art in the first place; porn and strippers have a notoriously hard time getting a fair hearing at the First Amendment table.

So it comes as perhaps less surprising than it would otherwise be that the strippers have lost this round at the high court. The Supremes majority ruling paid lip service to the fact that exotic dance has been given First Amendment protection in the past, but this time it opined that strippers’ free speech wouldn’t be curtailed by having to wear pasties and a g-string. Sandra Day O’Connor said, essentially, that anything you can “say” naked, you can also say minimally clothed.

Except one thing: “Nudity is good.”

Any law, or any ruling, which takes aim at nudity and/or explicit images sends a clear message of its own: Sex and nudity are not, when you get right down to it, okay. It’s doublespeak worthy of Animal Farm: Some speech is worth of protection and some isn’t; some pigs are more equal than others.

It’s enough to take me back to the good old days when sex was dirty. Almost all the last five decades’ cultural changes centering around sex have one thing in common: to wipe out that hoary old belief. Not only that, but some sex was always considered dirtier than other sex — that’s what powered homophobia and other kinds of xenophobic anti-sex sentiment (“Our sex is okay, but your sex is dirty”). From gay and lesbian rights to the porn wars, from Lenny Bruce to nude dancing, that’s what it’s all about: taking all kinds of eroticism, and the body, out of the closet. Allowing access.

No strip clubs have to close because of the latest ruling, although some, and their dancers, may suffer economically because their customers can no longer get the kind of show they want. Fundamentally, though, the dancers’ shimmies and grinds now have to tell a different story: last week they were nude, and this week they have naughty bits that have to be covered up. In one fell swoop O’Connor and her fellow justices made one form of erotic expression dirty again. It suggests that they, like the puritans who make the local laws, thought it was dirty all along.

What does this have to do with Good Vibrations? On the surface, nothing. But in fact we are keenly interested in any law or decision that circumscribes sexual rights, because we understand many forms of sexual expression to be connected. True, we’re not the kind of sex shop with a side door that leads into a strip club. We are “clean and well-lighted,” comfortable for women (not to say that all women are uncomfortable with strip clubs — many women like exotic dance as much as the next guy, me among them). We’re practically squeaky clean. I bet even Sandra Day O’Connor would like shopping with us. But the enemies of available sexual entertainment would probably thing we were almost as bad an influence as a Hooters by the freeway. So the suiting up of American strippers in pasties and g-strings doesn’t make us feel any more secure: on the contrary, it means for us (and for you) that our sexual rights remain tenuously won.

Sex isn’t dirty. Nudity isn’t, either. And, as organizations to protect our sexual civil liberties (like N-ACT) continually remind us, freedom isn’t free. Ironic, that we’d have to send that message to the body charged with protecting our freedom: the Supreme Court.

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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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