Bachelor parties can be awkward social situations to navigate. While I haven't been to enough to claim I am an expert, the handful I have attended have all had one thing in common: Most guys only really know their friend who is getting married while their relationships with the other men in attendance are superficial at best. All the guys are likely to enjoy drinking beer together, telling jokes, maybe even discussing politics, but bringing up the medical condition of an ailing parent? Expressing anxiety over career choices? Disclosing personal worries? That's not happening. What if you started weeping? Bachelor parties are fraught with hyper-masculine mythologies and expectations, and the absence of true friendship makes challenging, or intimate, conversations unlikely. In addition, in a society full of expectations about what "boys will be boys" means, regretful choices are practically invited, and anticipated to be inevitably chalked up to a final celebration of bachelorhood.
The most commonly regretted bachelor party choice is probably drinking too much and being hungover the next morning. This is not especially unique to men at bachelor parties - one need only walk around a college campus at 9:00 am on a Sunday. However, paying a woman to remove her clothing and sexually arouse a group of men is.
Presumably most men are not comfortable participating in the commercial sex industry, which is a truth I know from scientific research, borne out by personal experience. And yet, paying for strip teases and lap dances continues to represent the zeitgeist of the American bachelor party. A few years ago, I attended a bachelor party with an attendee list that broke down along the expected demographic lines. The groom invited his brothers, a few friends from high school, a few friends from college, and some roommates from various stages of his post-college life -- DC, Chicago, and New York. None of us really knew each other all that well. After an afternoon of touring breweries, one guy did a Google search for "strippers" to find out how much it would cost for us all to partake in this classic activity. There were ten of us, and he approached each of us individually with the details. I was the last one to be asked.
I'm not sure if this guy knew what I did for a living - remember none of us knew each other very well - or if my being picked last on the playground for football still tinges my aura, or if I just happened to be the last one he came to. Regardless, he opened with, "Caleb, we're going to buy a stripper, everyone is in, and it's going to be $40 a guy, probably $50 with tip. Cool?"
Uh-oh. Not cool.
Despite my work as a prevention educator for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, in which I educate young men about realities of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation, I was not ready for this. Flustered, and with dread in my stomach, my initial response was something like, "wait... what?"
Jason - not his real name - explained that everyone else was already on board with the idea, but he wanted to check with me before he made the call. When I explained that I was not on board, his initial response was something like, "wait... what?"
I explained to Jason that as a feminist, I was uncomfortable with the inherent sexism and exploitation of his plan. We would be perpetuating the idea that women exist to pleasure men, and contributing to the commodification of sex. Jason seemed perplexed. "Dude, it's a bachelor party!"
"I know," I replied. "If this is something that you really want to do, then I'll just head home. I can't, in good conscience, be a part of it."
Jason thought for a moment. "No, don't do that. I don't want this to be something that breaks up the party or anything. We can just head to the bars and keep drinking, I guess."
And that's what we did. Over the course of the evening, the rest of the guys thanked me for being the one who stopped it. They each privately disclosed to me their discomfort with the plan, but that since it was a bachelor party they felt like they had no choice but to go along with it. This makes me sad. Society tells us that a man is strong and powerful. A man is independent and free-thinking. A man makes his own choices and never gets pushed around. Yet in this most-manly of situations, the majority of men felt powerless to speak their mind. None felt safe to say, "I don't want to hire a stripper."
Hiring a woman to strip at a bachelor party is legal but also the circumstance through which one in five johns will first pay for sex. I think it is safe to say that is probably not the way some of those guys wanted the night to go down. In her recent article, "Should Prostitution Be A Crime?", Emily Bazelon did not ask any men to speak on whether the complete legalization of the commercial sex industry would be a good idea. The demand for paid sex was treated as straightforward and assumed, but this is hardly the case. Many men who do pay for sex are emotionally conflicted about their choices, and the overwhelming majority of them believe that it is harmful to their marriages and to their communities-at-large. Why then do we assume that every man would support legalizing prostitution when nine out of ten guys at a bachelor party don't even like the idea of a paid strip tease? If demand is always assumed, then an argument for a legalized sex trade is always flawed.
And, here's a helpful piece of information to help navigate the social interactions of your next bachelor party. Guys, if you feel uncomfortable with contributing money to commercial sex, you can rest assured that you are not the only one.