A few days ago I heard an interesting radio debate. Following the news that footballer Mario Balotelli was caught out visiting a strip club, BBC Radio 5 Live held a late-night telephone discussion about the rights and wrongs of ‘gentlemen’s clubs’. A feminist speaker argued that such establishments unfairly degrade women. Opposing her, a female strip bar owner claimed strip joints were nothing of the sort – striptease performances were ‘natural’ and ‘harmless fun’.
Remarkably, morality never entered the debate and the arguments hinged on personal choice and the psychological wellbeing of the strippers. The strip club proprietor claimed all her workers were well-informed adult women who enjoyed showing off their bodies. Her antagonist gave anecdotes of women who had suffered serious psychological harm.
Neither party gave any evidence to support their claims – only personal experiences. And whilst very little scientific research has ever explored the issue, there is sufficient to peep in on the truth of a female stripper’s mental wellbeing…
Is stripping for a living bad for mental health?
Of the few relevant scientific studies to explore this voyeuristic trade, one of the best was conducted by Daniel Downs and Gloria Cowan of California State University. In their 2006 research they compared 40 exotic dancers with a similar number of young adult females who didn’t strip for a living. Using validated surveys, and interviewing both groups, they made some significant findings:
- Strippers had remarkably less satisfaction from their personal relationships and were more likely to think their romantic partnerships would fail
- There was no difference in self-esteem between strippers and non-strippers
- Strippers prized their physical appearance over and above their other qualities and abilities.
- If a stripper felt their body was not beautiful enough, their self-esteem would be affected.
- Strippers seemed to be slightly less satisfied with their body and were more likely to scrutinise their physical appearance. More often they would “be ashamed if people knew what I really weigh”.
Superficially, the evidence seems to support the strip club owner: strippers do not have any loss of self-esteem or overall sense of self-worth. They are (perhaps understandably) more preoccupied and concerned with their physical appearance. This research is however far from infallible. The strippers interviewed were generally older than the non-strippers, and 40 strippers is hardly a big sample to draw sweeping conclusions. And of course, there is nothing to actually prove that the stripper’s increased level of body shame is caused by their occupation.
It does of course seem logical that taking one’s clothes off for a living is sufficient a reason to skew a woman’s sense of self-worth toward her perceived physical attractiveness. Our feminist speaker would argue that women should never view their physical appearance as the measure of their importance.
Personally, I’m no advocate of the sex industry (of which stripping is officially a part of) and I don’t feel that women should objectify their bodies. This is, perhaps, more of a moral than a scientific decision. But if that means I ought to be called a feminist then I can live with that.
Thanks for reading – feel free to comment below…
Downs, D., James, S., & Cowan, G. (2006). Body Objectification, Self-Esteem, and Relationship Satisfaction: A Comparison of Exotic Dancers and College Women Sex Roles, 54 (11-12), 745-752 DOI: 10.1007/s11199-006-9042-y