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Dear Gentleman Scholar,
Last year, my boyfriend was invited to join a storied gentlemen's social club. He had not sought out this opportunity, and he does not come from high society or possess great wealth. It was therefore an unexpected invitation, but not unwelcome. My boyfriend joined the club and has enjoyed participating in its events and meeting its members.
Nonetheless, he is questioning the ethics of his choice, because he recognizes that elite clubs perpetuate the structural inequalities of society. This club is much less racially diverse than the city where we live, and it takes its "no women" rule very seriously. My boyfriend considers himself a feminist and a fighter for social justice and worries that his membership in this club makes him a hypocrite.
On the other hand, it's difficult to argue that anyone is directly harmed by my boyfriend's membership in the club. He recognizes that to quit in protest would be more a symbolic gesture than a means of creating real change. And perhaps his presence in the club is a good thing, preventing it from being the exclusive domain of plutocrats and patriarchs.
At the risk of sounding like Carrie Bradshaw, I can't help but wonder: In the 21st century, is it still gentlemanly to join a gentlemen's club?
—Morally Conflicted Socialite
Thanks for your question, which directs our attention to institutions of the sort that most famously flourished on Pall Mall in London in the 1700s—places to eat grouse and play whist in congenial company.
Let’s begin by observing, Ms. Socialite, that you seem not terribly concerned by this club’s exclusion of women, and by supposing that this unconcern is indicative of a general trend. Since certain legal events in 1980s and ’90s—including a Supreme Court ruling (in New York State Club Association Inc. v. City Of New York Et Al.) affirming that the government’s compelling interest in eliminating sexual discrimination justifies laws restricting the constitutional right of association—no one has been able to get very worked up about all-male private clubs. There is sure to be a fuss if one of the relatively few such clubs that still exist is hosting a golf tournament; however, those fusses concern the sites of a public spectacle, and different standards apply. Feminist activists have bigger fish to fry than the octogenarians swimming laps in the nude at the New York Health & Racquet Club; anyone who objects to such organizations on the grounds that they systematically perpetuate the patriarchy must concede that they’re doing a pretty lousy job of it.
This last point constitutes a significant ethical out for persons hoping to construct an intellectually coherent defense for keeping women out of a social club: If it is essential to the character of an institution that it be all male, then it is necessary that nothing of greater importance than dudes-being-dudes be going on there. And because powerful men now feel it necessary to resign such memberships upon seeking elected office and landing other prominent societal roles, it is increasingly guaranteed that nothing will. I therefore find nothing inherently wrong with belonging to an exclusive organization that selects its members much as a men’s college selects its students, with a commitment to equal opportunity in all respects but one. Your boyfriend can assuage his conflicted feelings about the club’s anti-egalitarian bent by nominating worthy persons from atypical backgrounds for membership and by taking an active role in involving the club as a whole in the community at large.
But still there is the question of whether one should want to join any exclusive club. I am inclined to interpret the Groucho Rule as a joke about the absurdity of snob appeal: Any club that would have me is too common a place for high-falutin I. If one’s primary motive for membership in a club is to assert his social superiority, then one is being justly mocked by Mr. Marx. A gentleman does not need a posse.
It seems, moreover, that conscientious membership in a club involves mutual obligations: You are de facto representatives of one another, and some great spirits find such entanglements odious. “All my thinking life I have declined to ‘belong,’ ” Vladimir Nabokov wrote in a letter declining his election to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. His excuse was social awkwardness, but the terms in which he explained it—saying that to join would be a “betrayal of principle”—indicate his expansion of the Groucho Rule to a matter of philosophical conviction.
I recommend studying the Nabokov letter as a model of politely refusing (or resigning) a membership: “I am deeply touched and feel greatly honored by the distinction you propose to confer upon me, and the little rosette is perfectly charming but, alas, I must return it.” The rosette he refers to is the club’s pin, and his attitude toward it was far more gracious than that of a fellow non-joiner, the Californian poet George Sterling, who attached his to a cat: “I hope they’ll not demand their button back. ... The outraged animal has lost it.”
Dear Gentleman Scholar,
Early next year I will be attending a bachelor party of a dear friend. One of the stops will be a strip club. Help.
I hate the idea of strip clubs. It's exploitative. It's gross.
I consider myself an ally of modern feminist causes, and the thought of entering one of those factories is beyond off-putting. The groom in this particular wedding party and I share most of these views in the abstract, but strip clubs are where we diverge.
Add to this that I'm in a happy relationship and that my girlfriend feels the same way (I imagine, I haven't had a conversation yet).
I don't want to be THAT GUY in the bachelor party who bows out, but I also can't imagine myself walking through the doors. What's the etiquette here?
—Fully Clothed and Thrilled About It
Thank you for your note, which turns our attention toward the sort of gentlemen’s club primarily connected to Pall Mall by the menthol 100s lifted to glossed lips during smoke breaks. The question you present is timeless: Every weekend, in Miami and Montreal and everywhere that bachelors party, thousands of men wrestle with such ethical issues, sometimes while baby-oiled women wrestle one another before their unsure eyes.
It would be unreasonable to condemn strip clubs outright: To do so would be to impugn the art of burlesque, the sport of pole-dancing, and the philosophy of those ladies who call themselves “feminist strippers,” many of whom will agree that (despite the injustices done to some sex workers) the only person clearly being exploited in the basic strip-club transaction is the patron.
That said, I appreciate your visceral distaste for the stereotypical strip-club experience, with its crass commodification of flesh, its organized criminals and sloppy regulars, its Barbies molded with 600-cc bags of silicone, its Budweisers sold at 1,200-percent markups. There is no denying that strip clubs tend to be horribly tacky and that the “classiest” establishments among them, being corporate-built virtual environments, lack even the honest virtues of authentic skeeze. For these reasons, I discourage bachelor parties from going to strip clubs.
Instead, have the strippers come to you. If there is to be a stripper element to a stag party, it is often more affordable and always more comfortable to entertain at home (where home might be some dude’s apartment but is more likely a hotel suite). You select the talent, the music, and, as at an exclusive club, you control the guest list, so that your evening will not be spoiled by the pungently ungentlemanly behavior of other patrons.
Mr. Fully Clothed: Because you say that you “hate the idea” of strip clubs, I must respectfully wonder whether you understand the fact of them. Have you been to such an establishment? If not, consider treating this bachelor party as an opportunity to develop an informed opinion. After receiving approval (or, perhaps, non-disapproval) from your girlfriend, just go and hang out. Enjoy your $18 Heineken and tip a dollar per song for a floor dance. You’ll probably hate it, but at least you’ll be hating it knowledgeably.
If you choose to go this route, be alert to serve as a conscience or comptroller—a counterweight against bad ideas. Assert your level-headed presence should any members of your party begin arranging for the bridegroom (or anyone) to enjoy a dance in a private room. There is, per Chris Rock, no sex in the Champagne Room. (Even if there were, you of course wouldn’t want to be an accomplice to that betrayal or responsible for the waves of shame undulating therefrom.) There is no sex in the Champagne Room, but there may be a $1,500 hand job or a $21,000 blackout, and a stand-up guy like you can help to avert such calamities.
If the above arguments do not compel your attendance, then just say no. Simply explain to your friend that strip clubs bum you out, that you don’t want to be a buzzkill, and that you’ll rendezvous with the group at the next stop. (There is a next stop, right? A bachelor party shouldn’t end at a strip club. Not very shapely. At least arrange a dive-bar debriefing or a midnight supper.) Before you go, give someone $20 to buy the groom a lap dance, then leave the other guys to their date with Destiny (and Fantasia and Bambi and Cherise).