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Guy’s World: Don’t Back Down, Merepeka

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You never know where you might end up during a spontaneous outburst of vivacity. You could find yourself surrounded by naked and beautiful women dangerously shaking their hips and performing powerful and graceful acrobatics on poles. You could find yourself drinking in a shimmering vision of a mermaid and be inspired to buy a round of sea breezes. You might, fuelled by drink and your delighted senses, tell the whole country what a wonderful time you are having.

But then, if you’re in New Zealand’s disapproving public eye, like Women’s Refuge Head Merepeka Raukawa-Tait, you could be forced to lie to the country and yourself to save your job and say something like: “My unchecked whimsy was entirely inappropriate and I now realise I wasn’t having fun at all.”

Merepeka’s mile-wide grin plastered over the Sunday Star Times told a very different story. Predictably, the call has gone out for her to be sacked, led by Wellington Women’s Refuge spokeswoman Dale Little, and echoed throughout refuges across the country. Merepeka’s less than enthusiastic apology, made under duress, may not be enough to save her job as Women’s Refuge boss.

Initially, Merepeka had righteously refused to apologise, saying stripping can be “very, very beautiful” when done “tastefully”. She refused the dogma, bandied about in PC circles as if it was irrefutable truth, that stripping, as a branch of pornography, denigrates women.

Sometimes Stripping is exploitative, sometimes it isn't. Exploitation is not an inherent characteristic of the art form.

Luckily for Merepeka, the media has been too preoccupied with the Christine Rankin case to spend too many column inches on her night out at the Mermaid Bar. But with the Prime Minister Helen Clark adding her voice to the disapproval, Merepeka’s days appear numbered, another victim of this country’s inability to separate the political from the personal.

Merepeka was just showing a little natural human curiosity – that doesn’t make her any worse a woman or any less of a passionate and effective advocate for her cause.

If Merepeka is sacked it will be a huge loss for the Women’s Refuge. People - women and men - like her. She’s tough, she’s a straight shooter, she does her job well. People find her real. That’s why She rated second in the New Zealand Herald Woman of The Year 2000 poll. Only Lucy Lawless, warrior princess, mother, and campaigner for children is better liked.

The Women’s Refuge is for every woman who needs it – women who live in the real world, with all its faults, contradictions and inequalities – women like Merepeka. If a radical Marxist-lesbian feminist, or some other ideologue that would hound Merepeka out of her job for showing some lust for life took over, New Zealand women would lose.

National Leader Jenny Shipley, who said she’d visited strip clubs and didn’t see a problem with Merepeka doing it, deserves a rare plaudit for her mature and frank attitude towards adult entertainment. Perhaps it’s evidence of her “human touch”, which has evaded me till now.

A visit to a strip bar demands an occasion, otherwise you’re just being a sad sack. An appearance by the head of the Women’s Refuge at the Mermaid Bar provided about as good a reason as any for a journalist, and I had every intention of seeing the show that so delighted her. But my weekend took me to Auckland for the Computerworld Excellence Awards instead, and I kind of lost the feeling after that.

The last occasion in my life deserving of a strip club visit was my 25th birthday, when me and some mates went to Liks on Vivian Street. Despite my flowery intro, and despite Merepeka’s endorsement of the beauty of erotic dancing, strip bars are usually pretty tawdry places. Liks fits that bill, and that’s just the way I like it – sleazy chrome, cowgirl outfits and pole dancing to AC/DC and Guns ‘n’ Roses.

My mate Damon was nervous at first, and a little wary of who might have seen him walking in and what they might think of him. Seated with a beer and hearing his favourite music he relaxed a little, and after a generously proportioned stripper poured his beer over her breasts and rubbed his face in them, he was at home. Steve took every opportunity to get his fifteen dollars worth. Having deprived myself of this experience all my adult life because, like Damon, I was worried about what other people thought, I was having about as much fun as is possible without breaking the “don’t touch the pussy area” rule.

Were we objectifying these women? You could say that, but no more than the girls spotting “501 bums” while stirring their lattes in a café window, or baying for the Full Monty when a male strip revue comes into town.

Since we were being the kind of broken-asses who go to strip clubs, our evening wouldn’t have been complete without a stop in at the Evergreen Café – where Wellington’s street walkers, trannies, queers and freaks drink special coffees (Nescafe with good slug of whisky or meths or something) and listen to disco.

I caused a scene when my non-special coffee, a teaspoon of Nescafe in an Arcroc cup, cost $3 - just as much as a cappuccino in a flash place!

My outburst was as inappropriate as a bible reading in a jook joint or a “no fat chicks” T- shirt at an Andrea Dworkin book launch.

I was applying my middle class values where they didn’t belong. Context is everything – a lesson Merepeka’s detractors would do well to learn.


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