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Written on the Body 
By Carlo Wolff

Bare: On Women, Dancing, Sex, and Power
By Elisabeth Eaves, Alfred A. Knopf, 295 pages, $24

No matter your gender, you’ll want to see what Elisabeth Eaves looks like after you read her account of the stripper’s life. It turns voyeurism into art.

Even though Bare is profoundly feminist, it’s also by, and about, a woman proud of her sexual magnetism. Whether such self-regard makes Eaves the commodity she so desperately wants to avoid being is a question she doesn’t quite answer, giving Bare an appeal that blends wistfulness and power. This book also begs for photos. The question is, would illustrations from her past life constitute a form of pornography? Despite Eaves’ ambivalence toward her former profession, the stripper’s life clearly honed interpretive powers that she wields provocatively.

An excellent reporter and social analyst, the Vancouver native explores the link between the dreams of the everyday housewife and the practices of the everyday whore. Bare is an exploration of the standards—single, double, even triple—that inform the Western view of women. Eaves came to understand those standards during three years she spent stripping, primarily at Seattle’s Lucky Lady.

“The difference between a stripper and a woman modeling bathing suits was that the stripper acknowledged her intention to arouse, whereas the model could pretend ignorance,” Eaves observes upon discovering that the cast of the Lucky Lady were paid to help men jerk off. “I felt uneasy at the sight of all these men because I had crossed the line from passivity to engagement.” On the other hand, when she joins the Lucky Lady, Eaves embarks on a lucrative career with nearly instantaneous reward, discovers a solidarity among the women, and enjoys the freedom to pursue other interests. The life seems ideal for a while. But as Eaves, whose stripper name is Leila, becomes close to other strippers Kim, Zoe, Abby and Satire, she also sees how that life facilitates emotional distance.

“The sex biz was nothing more than a sophisticated arbitrage operation, dealing in morals rather than financial instruments,” she writes. “The greater difference between the sort of sex people wanted and the sort that was socially sanctioned, the more business thrived. It exploited the spread between lust and deeply ingrained social expectation.”

At the end of her 20s, Eaves quits the profession to become a reporter for Reuters in London. She also begins to research where she’d come from in an attempt to discover why she’d lived the way she had. She finally comes to understanding, if not resolution. In so doing, she finally fuses her sexuality and intelligence.

“To some the term ‘feminist stripper’ is ironic, but it’s not an oxymoron—it’s just that one has to become a very extreme feminist to remain a stripper. When men don’t matter at all, stripping makes perfect sense. It’s the natural result of combining sexual freedom with a hostile, anti-male feminism. . . . A stripper can be a feminist, if she is one who wants either revenge on men or their total exclusion from her life.”

At the end, Eaves returns to the Lucky Lady as customer and reporter, gazing through the one-way window at a dancer who reminds her of her former self. Eaves hasn’t settled into conventionality or compromised her individuality; if anything, she has enhanced it, realizing she no longer has to perform to be sexy and/or powerful. Her trip, which might have been merely titillating, is liberating.

 


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