If we want to reach men who go to strip clubs and watch porn we may have to change our approach

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Some of you may have observed my recent attempts to explore conversations about porn and strip clubs in slightly more nuanced ways than I have in the past.

I am aware that the word “nuance” is triggering to some — there was a time when I interpreted it (unfairly, in retrospect) to mean accepting that which is unacceptable. Those who fancy themselves radicals and revolutionaries today have rejected understanding, empathy, and open, honest conversation in favour of definitive statements that read as tough and unforgiving (and are easier to tweet). I know this, because it is the approach I took for many years.

To be clear, I do not intend to say that there is never right or wrong and that definitive statements are inherently lacking in integrity or are never necessary. There absolutely are truths in this world, and principles worth standing up for and standing firm on.

When I say I’ve attempted to take a more “nuanced” approach to conversations about things like porn and strip clubs, I mean just that: that I wish to have open, truthful conversations about the realities of porn use and consumption, as well as to things like why men go to strip clubs and what they seek in doing so. I want to understand so that I can approach these issues effectively and fairly. I don’t want to shut down conversation or paint in broad strokes, because this does not allow for the truth to come to light. It ensures, in fact, that we cannot ever learn the truth. And I want the truth — or the closest I can come to that truth — whether I like that truth or not. Even if it makes me uncomfortable, even if that truth is less than ideal.

This is not because I have determined the sex industry is acceptable, or not harmful. I continue to believe the sex industry is incredibly abusive and exploitative. I think it teaches men to dehumanize women, and think that most women and girls in porn and prostitution do not want to be there. I think many women feel a great deal of upset over their partner’s porn use, or over the fact their boyfriends or husbands go to strip clubs, and don’t know what to do about it, and that when they attempt to speak of their upset, they are accused of being uptight, jealous, controlling, or prudish. I feel that men’s porn use or frequenting of strip clubs can equate to disrespect of their partners, yet this is denied, as these practices are, we are told “just a fantasy,” “normal,” and “harmless entertainment.”

To be honest, I myself find these conversations triggering, as they bring up past issues with boyfriends, or conversations I’ve struggled to have, wherein I did not feel heard, understood, or respected.

That said, I am also aware that there are complexities involved, and have grown frustrated with blanket and over-simplistic statements that claim all men who watch porn hate women and must be ostracized. This is simply not true or realistic. Some men may well watch porn that is violent and that degrades women because they get off on seeing women be abused and degraded, but this is not the case for all men. Men and boys have grown up in a culture wherein porn is normalized and ubiquitous. Naturally, most do not consider their masturbatory habits to mean they “hate women,” particularly when many of those men and boys likely love many individual women, including family members, daughters, friends, and partners. I think most men don’t really think about their porn use all that much — they think of it as just a thing they use when they’re horny. As someone who would like men to think more critically about their porn use, I’m invested in having these kinds of conversations in ways that engage and seek understanding, rather than in ways that cause people to shut down.

Similarly, I’ve thought for a long time about why men go to strip clubs. It might seem obvious (naked women, duh), but I don’t think it’s so simple.

The strip club is an explicitly male space, which has always seemed strange to me: why would men want to go get turned on in a room full of other men? It strikes me as an exercise in embarrassing, awkward, depressing, sexual frustration. While of course some of these men might resolve that by paying for sex — either at the strip club or after they leave — many don’t. Many simply go there with friends and leave with those friends, onto the next bar.

Why would men hang out in places where they can’t get sex or girlfriends (none of those women are going to date them, really), where they know, on some level, the women are only talking to them because they are paying, and don’t genuinely like them, and where there is almost no chance of actually finding a sexual partner?

What I think the strip club boils down to is that it is an ideal space for men who fear rejection and real intimacy. They may not see women as equals, and therefore cannot imagine truly connecting with a woman, but more than that, I think they fear vulnerability. I think they fear real women. I think they aren’t up for the challenge of dealing with real women who have real needs, opinions, desires, and demands. I think they fear accountability. I think maybe they don’t like themselves very much, and fear judgement. I think they fear opening up and letting a woman see their true selves, again, risking judgement and rejection.

I’m not demanding women pity men who go to strip clubs, but I do pity them, in a way. I feel sad that they fear and cannot bring themselves to seek or build real connection and intimacy. I feel sad for anyone who fears rejection so much that they refuse to open themselves up to genuine love and intimacy. Connecting to other human beings requires openness and vulnerability, and also guarantees hurt. The fear is justified. When you choose vulnerability you accept the fact you might be rejected, heartbroken, embarrassed, or hurt. But, at the same time, connection with other human beings is the most important, fulfilling, and joyful aspect of human existence.

I’m sure there are plenty of men who go to strip clubs and use porn who are truly horrible people — abusers, sadomasochists, and sociopaths. I think a lot of them simply feel entitled to these things. But there are also plenty of men who do these things who are just regular men, with complex feelings and emotions and problems, some of whom who are lonely, unfulfilled, depressed, sad, and lacking in the ability or courage to escape these states. It isn’t easy to change your life and habits, though it is worth it to try. And so I am at the point where my hope is that men will begin to attempt to set their egos aside and look deeply at why they do the things they do, whether those things are serving them and supporting them in building healthy relationships and therefore a healthy, fulfilling life. And I am unconvinced that this will happen by hurling the “misogynist” label at them, and insisting they are cruel, hateful, irredeemable people.

I am predicting that many who read this will respond snarkily, asking why a “feminist website is worrying about men’s feelings,” or why I am “not-all-menning” men who participate in unethical practices, or why “Meghan Murphy has become such a pick me/ball palmer.” I get it. Some of you think I’ve gone soft. But, to be perfectly honest, I think softness is a good thing. I think compassion and empathy and understanding are valuable qualities, that I don’t wish to reject. I do not wish to be hard, I don’t wish to be angry, I don’t wish to hate. That’s not how I want to spend my life and I don’t think that energy serves me. And while there is plenty in this world that does anger me, my driving motivation is understanding, truth, and authenticity.

There are problems in this world we will never solve. But we can do our best to reach individuals and try to change lives for the better. And in this case, that is what I would like to do. I don’t like these realities anymore than you, but I don’t think we can deal with things like porn use and strip clubs if we don’t deal with men’s motivation for participating in these things. So while it might feel easier to just say “fuck them,” that is unlikely to be the thing that actually makes a difference.

Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including The Spectator, UnHerd, Quillette, the CBC, New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her very beautiful dog.