‘I wore a corset; he wore jeans’ A.K.A. Why do men assume I’m dressed for their entertainment?

Hey guys! So, some of you may know this already, but I have a one year working visa for Canadia! Woop, woop! This means that I will sadly be leaving Berlin in 10 days, forever and ever and ever. Until I come to visit at least. It’s truly been a blast being here. Truly. I think I will blog about all the things I have learnt over my past 2 years here and post it soon. However, first things first. If you haven’t seen me perform and you want to, next Saturday is your last chance! I will be doing a solo at Berlin’s Trash-Deluxe. Sneaky sneak preview: I will be doing something involving oil and condoms. Oh, yeah.

Now, back to business. In this, the first of two posts on sexual norms at parties, I describe my adventures at an erotic salon. I ask, what dynamics do we agree to when we go to erotic spaces? Who is doing the looking at these events and how do we negotiate consent?

Last night I went to an erotic performance party. All in all, I am really glad I went. I got to see beautiful women doing bondage play and hang out in a small studio, where they showed silent porn films from the twenties in the cellar downstairs (so tempting to make silly voiceovers). I drank absinthe with flaming sugar dropped into the glass and chilled with an ice cube, and ate poached wild peaches with whipped cream. All of these things were great. However, as the night progressed, increasingly more men came into the private party. I was irritating by the increasing inequality of the gender ratio and couldn’t quite put my finger on why this bothered me, until my friend observed that none of these men were dressed up. This despite the fact that the event was promoted with a specific dress code, and the majority of the early party comers were dressed in extravagant, salon wear.

The kind of canape you might expect at an erotic salon

The erotic salon dress code had inspired all the early comers to wear clothes that suggested fantasies of 1920s Paris: flapper dresses, braces and white shirts, large kohled eyes and sculpted hair. Yet, nearly all the men that arrived after midnight were dressed in normal, casual Berlin wear: jeans, t-shirts, business suits and black shirts. One man even wore a beanie (not sexy!). Increasingly, the earlier participants were pushed to the walls while drunken men laughed and gestured raucously in the middle. The atmosphere of erotic tension and decadence that the organisers had been so careful to cultivate was destroyed as I gradually felt less comfortable and more angry at the shift in the dynamic.

My friend’s observation made me realise that I wasn’t just angry because a mixed queer-straight party had turned into an average Friday night heterosexual party, but also because the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed.

As a promoter of themed parties, I know the importance of dress codes. Encouraging people to consider their outfits and dress especially for the occasion is an invitation to participate in the event. The sophisticated and sexy dress code for this party suggested that attendees would help to create the atmosphere of decadence, and were expected to participate in a respectful way, much in the same way as attendees of a sex party. Dress codes at sex and play parties are specifically necessary: tailoring your outfit to fit the event is a declaration that I am one of you, I am participating in this event; I am not merely an observer.

“the gender shift reinforced a really sexist dynamic of observer and observed”

Now, to be clear, this was not a sex party. This was a salon for erotic performers to network amongst ourselves, while enjoying an atmosphere of decadence and some subtle titillation from the performances. Making out was OK, however any bondage or more intense sexual encounters that weren’t part of a performance would have to wait for a less public space. It was a guest-list only event, and the dress code suggested sophisticated and sexy with a hint of smuttiness. Corsets and feathers and top hats were great; complete nudity would have been inappropriate.

Although it is normal to pay to get into erotic parties, this one was free and was promoted as a networking event for erotic performers. To me, this reinforced the idea that it was a participatory event. It was not as if we were paying money to watch performers on a stage. The canapés were free, and the drinks were cheap. The performers weren’t paid, and we therefore owed them respect. Of course, you should respect any sex performer that you see. But I kept thinking about London and how expensive a salon like this would be there and I realised that when you pay a lot of money for an event, you do expect the performers to perform for you. The cigarette girls walking around selling something, and the burlesque women and MCs in their expensive outfits are, then, there to be looked at (but not touched). You are paying for that experience of titillation; an erotic service. But as an attendee at a private party I had not bargained for performing for a group of drunken heterosexual men. I would have liked to flirt gently with a respectful man in a top hat, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out.

The theme of the night was ‘don’t take a fucking picture of me, you jerk.’ I had to put my hand in front of the lens three times to stop a guy from photographing me eating. Another man sitting right next to us stared unblinkingly at my friend, as though she wasn’t really there, as if she were on a screen and he had paid to watch her. When he angled his camera at her face (he was close enough to touch her), I leaned forward and suggested, ‘maybe you should ask her before you take a photograph of her.’ It was only when I repeated myself that his eyes focused on me and realised that he was talking to a real-live human being and wasn’t going to get away with pure observation. He guiltily mumbled that he would delete the photo and soon afterwards disappeared into the crowd. The fact that he didn’t respond with a respectful, ‘I’m sorry, can I take a photo of you?’ but reacted as though I had shut him down, caught him in the act of doing something illicit, showed that he knew he had done something wrong.

“I would have liked to flirt gently, but I was not up for being the exotic treat on a straight lads’ night out”

At queer parties, or mixed parties where queers feel safe, I often don’t mind women taking photo of me. But every time a man tries to photograph me, especially when he doesn’t ask and assumes that it will be fine by me – that I have agreed to be there for his sexual entertainment – I, understandably, get really pissed off.

My friends and I concluded that what we was needed, as well as a stricter door policy, was an awesome detector. Like a metal detector, but which could detect awesomeness in straight men and admit them accordingly. I, personally, hope that one of you guys can invent this for me. At least, at the next party I organise, I am going to make damn sure that I enforce the dress code!

Check in next week for part two on the norms in straight vs. queer spaces, how to create a safer atmosphere and is there such a thing as unspoken consent? 

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5 thoughts on “‘I wore a corset; he wore jeans’ A.K.A. Why do men assume I’m dressed for their entertainment?

  1. supernaut

    Hey, I was there last night also with a friend (who was groped by a fucknut Berliner straight, outside), though we left before it turned heteroblah. We both really enjoyed the evening specifically because it was put on for people like us and while I may not be so community-minded, we appreciated the effort and attention to making such an evening possible. And Absinthe!

    It’s a pity it became like this later on, though I don’t think there is a need for a special straight-detector, as it’s pretty obvious when these men are tourists, and if they’ve made it past the door could easily have it suggested that leaving would be appropriate.

    For me I wondered about this specific 1920’s trope as implying, or being a synonym for decadence. Certainly yes, it allows for dressing up in a way that is unambiguously not xberg on a Friday night, but … as far as gender roles go, the dress aesthetic of this era is stringently either/or (even if cross-dressed). Maybe it’s partly because I tend towards more anarchic assemblages of dress, rather than period costume reiteration.

    I also found the porn films not enjoyable. Conceptually I saw no difference between those films and the most tedious of mainstream hetero porn today (or how the groper outside behaved) and so it’s not especially avante-garde or ‘subversive’ for me. Ok, it fitted the theme, but there is some amazing, weird, beautiful porn around now that doesn’t get seen so often (thinking of Genki Genki for example), or even odd stuff from the ’60s and ’70s that is pretty … odd.

    And yeah, a couple of intrusive straight men with cameras. Somehow I thought it was a ‘no photos’ policy, but maybe not?

    I did like though that it was — at least when I was there — an interesting, friendly group of people, and would certainly get dressed up for the next one and get soused on Absinthe.

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Hey supernaut, it’s funny that you were there! Small Berlin world… 🙂 I, too, thought it was an event with potential to be awesome – the main problem was the letting in of jerks and we should all write letters so that they don’t do that next time! Although the official photographer was also very rude to my friend, so it’s not as if all the invited people were respectful either.

      You are right about how binary that 20s aesthetic is. I wonder what kind of outfits would suggest sexual decadence without exclusively referring a gender binary? The pseudo-Victorian of steam punk also suggests that top-hat-vs.-corset aesthetic. Maybe sci-fi costumes would move away from this? That’s really not my deal though. Hmm, food for thought…

  2. Thanks for summing things up, Laura!

    In another incident at the same party, while I was in the queue for the toilet, a guy I had never spoken to or seen before instructed me “you need to stand over there” and held his camera up expectantly: when I challenged him, “are you asking me or telling me?” he replied “telling you.” YUK.

    Being treated as a spectacle when I had not signed up for that kind of attention left me feeling disrespected, uncomfortable, bored to death by certain straight-white-hetero-able-bodied men’s sense of entitlement to my body, and generally rather icky.

    I’ve written to the organisers suggesting they consider a no-camera policy next time. It’s sad in some senses to impose a blanket “ban” rather than entrust people to navigate consent around photography sensibly and respectfully… but after last night I think that’s the kind of rule I’d like to see before participating in future events.

    Supernaut – I really appreciated reading your response to the porn parlour. I felt similarly, but hadn’t quite been able to articulate myself!

    1. Lipstick Terrorist

      Thanks for writing that letter, friend. I really hope they get a message – that event had so much potential, and it was a shame the photography problem kinda ruined it.

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