After my reading in Detroit a woman approached me to say that she enjoyed my poems but that she felt one poem I read was insensitive to people working in the sex industry. “As a former exotic dancer myself,” she said, “I was hurt by the suggestion that there was something wrong or shameful about such work.” The poem she is referring to deals with, among other things, a man’s changing attitudes about how much control a parent can exercise over a child’s life. I quote Chris Rock who famously boiled the issue down to this: a father’s primary job is to keep his daughter off the pole.
I understand things differently now that I have daughters of my own. But before I was a father, I recall a couple of lengthy arguments I had with people—one of whom became my wife—people I felt were myopic and condescending in their approach to the issue. My wife’s argument was that any woman who made a living plying the sexual imagination of men was a victim of malevolent social forces and was being exploited. Her argument considers the way economic conditions create a limited set of opportunities for women. This world of limited opportunities is made worse by cultural practices that devalue women’s labor. It is only natural, my wife would argue, that a woman would turn to such an occupation either to compensate for feelings of insecurity and self-loathing or to validate herself as fetish object through the empty flattery of male attention. This, my wife said, was why men are often misled into believing that strippers, for example, had chosen their occupation over and above others, and that this was an informed choice. They are victims, my wife says, of men who prey on their compromised social position, men who prevent them from imagining other possibilities for their lives.
All of this, she would be quick to acknowledge, can also be said of wives.
Before becoming a father, I argued we must keep in mind that every human being has agency. Except where physical coercion is used, there are few power dynamics in which one party holds absolute authority over another. Authority must be given, and that “gifting” constitutes an empowered act. We understand the people at the bottom of a paternal system of power are actively engaged in authorizing the symbolic king’s or father’s or master’s position. Each member of a family, tribe, community, network, etc., determines the quality of their participation within that group. My point being that what we see as malevolent social and economic systems are, for people within them, reality. There is a bourgeois arrogance in demeaning people for manipulating the systems in which they live. Disparaging someone for choosing to become a stripper in response to limited social and economic opportunities is like denying the afterlife to ancient Greeks because they existed before we invented Christianity. In other words, because the relatively comfortable conditions in which we live and raise our middle class families does not provide for any real measure of economic mobility (certainly not enough to assuage our middle class guilt) for the poor and working class, and because the conditions in which we live narcotize us into believing we, too, are conscientious and morally justified, we must vilify others for, essentially, not being us, and for engaging the system in ways that may radically afford them a greater exercise of agency.
But that was before I became a father. The woman who found fault with my poem, I thought, was approaching the issue from a more personal perspective, one that harkens back to the days of political correctness. I understood her to be saying, if you don’t have something good to say, don’t say anything at all. And I started to respond to her out of frustration. I found myself thinking, if there was nothing wrong with being a stripper then why did you stop doing it? Then I realized what she was defending was her hurt pride. Not necessarily her actions within a particular economic system; she was not railing against a hegemonic ideology. And she was right. I could have made my point without resorting to the Chris Rock joke. I could have chosen not to perpetuate a culture in which the sex worker is alienated and vilified (because that is the only way men may continue to profit from it). She handed me her card and offered to continue the conversation. I discovered she is a graduate student at the local university. Here’s another possibility: perhaps all she was trying to say was that she was somebody’s daughter, too.
GREGORY PARDLO is the author of Totem (APR 2007). He is recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and a translation grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. He has received other fellowships from the New York Times, the MacDowell Colony, and Cave Canem. Pardlo is an associate editor of poetry for Callaloo, and an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at George Washington University. His website is pardlo.com.