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So ... mud wrestling. Downtown, at Gusano’s Pizzeria. Every Friday night during Gusano’s “slow” months. Hot young girls, taking off their clothes and rolling around in the mud. How did I not know about this sooner?

It’s pretty much what you’d expect. Despite the fact that girls don’t pay to get in, the bar’s male-female ratio is at least 60-40, if not 70-30. The “ring” is a dirt-filled polygon of beer cases draped with a bright-blue tarp — the kind you’d see anchored with bricks and cinderblocks over an inoperative car or off-season boat — and walled by translucent plastic, wrapped and twisted around wooden stakes sunk in buckets of dirt at each corner. There appears to be nothing more than a layer of plastic between the tarp and the bar’s wooden floor.

An announcer comes over the loudspeakers and says the mud wrestling will start soon — as soon as they have at least three volunteers from the audience. “Volunteers” who will each be paid $50 to compete for a chance to win $100. “Volunteers” who at this point may have been drinking for a couple of hours. A few minutes later, the announcer walks two girls over to the ring. He’s putting his arms around them, explaining things, pointing into the ring. One says something about her birthday. They exit stage left, down a hallway. Half an hour goes by, and to the credit of the female population of the bar, they’ve failed to produce a third girl. The crowd is antsy. It’s getting late.

So they settle for two contestants. The ring is mobbed in an instant as the girls are led out wearing tank tops and shorts. One shivers and mouths “It’s cold!” but at this point they’re still smiling. The announcer huddles with them and pushes them down to their knees. For a moment they’re frozen in exactly the way I imagine I would be in such a situation; they don’t have any idea what they’re doing. So they start to push each other, and the crowd starts to holler. This gets them going, and the mud starts to fly.

It must be a new round, because they’re in another huddle, and then suddenly one yanks the other’s shorts down, revealing her thong and ergo her butt. The nearly all-male crowd produces the expected response, and the girls volley with a kiss. The guy standing next to me chokes out an enthusiastic “That’s awesome.” The girls confer, as if discussing what to do next. One tells the other she’s getting tired. They launch into a mini strip tease, slowly removing their tank tops. The guy in front of me turns to his friend and exclaims, “Where do they find these bitches?” I bite my tongue.

By the final round they don’t look like they even remember having had fun. They’re wilted and bleeding. Their lack of interest in mud wrestling becomes finally apparent when they abandon it all together and begin exaggeratedly making out on the floor. This not only makes it hard to tell who’s pinned whom, it has a dubiously positive effect on the crowd: An overzealous onlooker has fallen into the pit.

On their way out, one of the girls embraces and rubs mud all over a guy in a sweatshirt (for some reason, I take him to be her boyfriend). Looking down at himself, he yells, “I’m gonna beat your ass!” as she disappears into the back to clean up. “I’m so gonna beat her ass,” he repeats to his friends.

I want to stay and talk to them, but I know I can’t be objective. Why would they do that? It wasn’t for the money; they were paid peanuts compared to what, say, a stripper makes. (A stripper also works in a more controlled environment: this event, which my companion later described as a “big swirly nightmare,” would make an average evening at the strip club look like high tea.) And it didn’t look like fun, unless by fun you mean predicating your every move on the howling encouragement of guys who refer to you as “bitches” (not “chicks,” not even “babes,” but “bitches.” Lordy).

So they must have been doing it for themselves. Women — feminists — before us fought for our sexual liberation, for our right to express our sexuality without reproach, to be free of shame about our bodies, to enjoy ourselves. And it’s empowering to say “I choose this; I’m in charge.” But saying it doesn’t make it so, and I guarantee that not a single guy in that crowd was looking at those girls — those “bitches” (I admit it, I regret not popping that guy a good one) — and marveling at how far we’ve come. It’s a losing battle, at least when it’s fought in this way. “Stop objectifying us!” we shout. “We’re perfectly capable of doing that ourselves.”

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