It sells, it titillates, it outrages. Sex, or the promise of it, is a primary motivator for a tremendous amount of human behaviour from baby-making to bar fights. From the moment that puberty rears its hormone-y head, only asexual folks seem to be immune to the madness; busying themselves with far more sensible things than those of us caught between surging desire and a spinning moral compass. Few things on earth are as heavily contested as sexuality – be it the concept as a whole, or the individual experience and expression thereof.
Even within Metro Vancouver, New West is hardly first on the list of scandalous locales, but our little city does a fine job of demonstrating the strange and ill-defined gulf between what is culturally acceptable sexuality and what is taboo.
What fresh-faced young thing, flush with love and equipped with a new rock on her left ring finger, fails to make New West’s Bridal Row her first stop? We almost certainly have more white tulle per capita than any other city, and I’m not sure if there is anywhere else in the GVRD where the gown stores are more densely packed.
That ritual of standing on a plinth before one’s mother and any number of bridesmaids as a shop attendant manhandles your bosom into a strapless cupcake is just an early step towards one of the most flagrant and ostentatious displays of sexuality in our culture: the wedding.
“But wait!” You might gasp. “Surely it is merely a celebration of love!” Yes, but a very specific kind of love—no one is going to give me a brand new Kitchenaid stand mixer, WITH dough hook, to celebrate the decade of near-daily gossipy Gmail chats I have with my BFF.
Marriage is, for our culture at large, the most accepted and encouraged expression of human sexuality. It is at the point that we’ve ceased to see weddings as anything but sneakily or implicitly sexual—perhaps during prescribed events like kissing on demand at the clinking of glasses, and the garter toss.
We can identify a concept like marriage as a cultural norm by noting how it lacks a qualifier, i.e. marriage vs. gay marriage. Norms have significance and value, but they also create harmful assumptions about people and the lives they may be leading. While this is gradually shifting, norms remain pervasive, and failure to follow them often means a more difficult life.
Orientations other than “heterosexual monogamy” are subject to policing both subtle and obvious; a presumption exists that simply being visibly LGBT means that that visibility is sexualized.
As an example, and to return to the creepy tradition of the wedding garter toss: Ten years ago, as same-sex marriage was becoming legal across Canada, I worked as an assistant to a wedding photographer. At one wedding, the sour old aunt who had spent very long minutes in my ear going on about how “the gays are rubbing their lifestyle in our faces,” gleefully clapped as her nephew crawled under his new wife’s gown to remove a strip of fabric from her upper thigh with his teeth.
With the exception of our annual Pride festival, very little queer sexuality is placed front and centre in New West.
How many people are even aware of the men’s bathhouse on Columbia? Its presence is extremely subtle, running perpendicular to the hot yoga studio. Both establishments can tout high heat and sweaty bodies in various contortions; but one is highly visible with a tonne of signage, and the other is barely detectable but for a rainbow flag. This is not to say that the distinction is unwarranted, naturally there is a difference between sex and sport, but the juxtaposition is nothing if not amusing. Particularly when one considers what is on full display just a short walk away.
The Fantasy Factory, tucked in between Columbia Square and the Terminal Pub, is—like it or not—something of a New Westminster institution. Now, I am not a community elder by any means, but I am old enough to recall a time when one’s 18th birthday automatically meant a trip to the adult store.
Those were quainter times on the internet, when download speeds were slow enough that DVD and /gasp/ magazines were still viable porn delivery methods. And yet, despite our technological advancement, the Fantasy Factory remains. And it is exceptionally clear from the outside what the store’s purpose is, from the bright yellow signs to the latex-bedecked mannequins. While I’m sure they serve customers of all orientations and genders, it’s pretty clear that the bulk of their products and programming are geared toward the titillation of straight men.
Likewise local stalwart The Paramount, advertising itself as a Gentleman’s Club that, thanks to its lack of a liquor license, can hire eighteen year old dancers.
As the club’s website claims: “Our upscale atmosphere and grand dimensions make the Paramount like no other in British Columbia and Canada. Most strip clubs prohibit any form of contact but because of the Paramount’s unique situation you can get a true lap dance.” How anyone can endure the awkwardness of any lap dance, let alone a sober one, is beyond my understanding, but I gather I am not the target market.
Naturally, such a place has had its public detractors, most recently a group of 12th grade students who attempted to launch a petition to close down the club in 2013. The dancers themselves mounted a counter protest, suggesting the students were ill-informed and lacked understanding of the complexity of their work. Which is absolutely true—yes, there is gender inequality, and yes, sex work of every stripe is couched in that inequality, but the solution isn’t just to shut down all regulated venues and expect that that will take care of the problem. If you remove the supply but not the demand, it drives the work underground. That isn’t safer for anyone.
Exotic dancing, not that it has ever really experienced a dip in popularity, is currently enjoying renewed legitimacy. Convergent with the burlesque revival of the last decade and the introduction of pole fitness studios around the world, New West’s own AVA Fitness is the place to go for a unique and challenging fitness experience… that happens to involve twisting on a metal pole.
Of course, just because an activity is sexy, or sexualized, doesn’t mean that it isn’t an incredible feat of strength, grace, and agility. Other similar studios have bent over backwards (literally and figuratively!) to assert that it’s about DANCE and FITNESS and STRENGTH but it’s not DIRTY. I think that’s a bit of a shame, to erase the very real influence of sex workers on a rapidly growing aspect of the fitness industry.
To their credit, the folks at AVA don’t appear to have divorced pole dancing from its stripper roots. AVA’s website and storefront does tacitly acknowledge the history behind what they do, with silhouetted bodies in platform heels doing amazing and precarious things that use a core strength that I for one do not possess. I can’t deny the appeal; I have numerous friends who have gained strength and confidence from taking part in pole classes. It isn’t for me, personally, but neither is propulsion physics, and I am not about to harangue NASA into closing their doors.
In terms of big-picture conversations: shutting sexuality down, rendering it invisible, or presenting a neutered and scrubbed-clean facade to the world is dishonest and impractical. It takes all kinds of people, in their infinite complexities, to make up a community.
If we want to be engaged citizens, open to everything that our community has to offer, we have to be able to sit in tension with stuff that doesn’t always feel right or natural to us. The great cities in this world have many sites that ignite this tension, and I don’t think that is by any means a coincidence.