See this excellent article on lap dancing from Rachel Cooke in the Observer. She absolutely nails the nature of the exploitation and how these clubs created men-only space in our towns and cities, as if there wasn't enough of that already.
SHOULD LAP DANCING BE RUN OUT OF TOWN?
With a new venue opening every week, lap dancing has spread into British culture. Rachel Cooke talks to the men behind the boom, the women lured by the promise of easy money, and the campaigners battling to stop the clubs opening on your doorstep
The Observer, Sunday 8 March 2009
The lap-dancing industry will tell you that its 10,000 (their estimate) female employees are all as happy as Larry: that its "performers" are decently paid and well looked after, and enjoy some of the most flexible working in Britain.
But I am not so sure. The first time I call Lucy, an ex-lap dancer, she says: "I think you must have the wrong number" and hangs up, fast. The second time - by now she has remembered who I am and why I want to talk to her - she tells me: "I'd rather not say what I am doing these days, for the same reason that I won't tell you my real name. These are people [the club owners] you don't want to mess with. I am genuinely afraid of them. Who knows exactly what goes on behind the scenes, but I'd still rather not mess with it."
Lucy began lap dancing when she lost her job as an office temp. It was quite simple: she needed to pay her rent. "It felt like a desperate decision," she says. "It was a case of: I can't do anything else. But also I'd fallen for the myth that lap dancing is a good way of making a lot of money very quickly." She applied for, and got, a job as a dancer in a supposedly upmarket club. At the end of her first night's work, however, she went home having earned nothing at all. More alarmingly, she now owed the club some £80. Like the vast majority of lap dancers in the UK, Lucy was self-employed. Not only was she required to pay the club a dance fee every time she wanted to work, a sum that could vary from £10 to £80 (Friday nights were most expensive, because they were most popular with customers), but she also had to give the club commission on every dance performed (nude dances cost punters £20, of which she kept £17.50; on slow nights, she might perform only once or twice, or not at all). And then there were the fines. "You got fined for everything, at £20 a time: if you were late, if you were wearing the wrong shoes or dress, if you failed to dance on the pole twice an hour. There was also a fine if you were caught breaking the 3ft rule [licensing laws require dancers to stay 3ft away from customers] - though strangely, that one they never seemed to enforce."
Lucy lasted for six months. "It was very hard to make money: it was like having a very competitive sales job. They'd filled the shop with loads of the same thing - us, the dancers - and then there'd be only five customers. It wasn't just that we cost them nothing; the more of us there were, the more they made, even if the place was empty. At the end of the night - 2am or whatever - you'd need to take a taxi home, of course. But you'd have to pay for that, too, so I often ended up walking. No one is looking out for you, whatever the clubs say. You're on your own."
Did any of the women enjoy the work?
"A small number were there because they wanted to move into glamour modelling, and they thought this might be a way in. But for most it was about trying to make enough money to pay their bills. There were problems with drink and drugs; people were using coke and drink, especially drink, quite blatantly, to get hammered." Partly, she says, this was the only way some women could pluck up enough courage to undress. "But it was also extremely boring, and drink made it less so."
Lap dancers need to tout for business, which means, in effect, chatting men up, flirting. "You had to have the same tedious conversations over and over and over." Did she drink? "Yes. For me, it was for Dutch courage."
The only way to survive as a dancer, she believes, is to pull a psychological trick on yourself. All lap dancers use a "dance name" in the clubs. It lends them anonymity, of sorts. But it also gives them a persona to hide behind. "Brook", "Jordan" or "Sasha" is a much more fun, outgoing girl than the woman who plays her, and she favours more outrageous clothes and make-up. Thus, for a time, it is possible to convince yourself that everything is OK. "No one in the club would express any uncertainty about what they are doing - they're too busy competing for work - so even if you do feel bad about it, you wonder if you are the only one. You convince yourself that your perception of what the job would be like is the same as what the job is, even though there is a quite weird gap between the two. It's only when you have made the decision to leave that you realise how insane it all was."
And even once you are on the outside, it is not always easy to leave the clubs behind. "You have to start lying straightaway - as soon as you apply for your next job. There's going to be a gap on your CV. You probably also lie to your family, and your boyfriend, and it affects your relationships. If I had a pretty low opinion of men before I became a lap dancer, it only got worse afterwards. Because you see the worst of men in there."
What about the club owners' insistence that lap dancing has nothing whatsoever to do with the sex industry? That it is merely part of the entertainment industry? For Lucy, this is laughable. "Anyone who works in lap dancing and who deludes themselves that they are not a sex worker is in for a shock. No one respects lap dancing. The rest of the world thinks you're a slag." This would, she thinks, be the case even if all the rules were observed. But, unfortunately, they rarely are. "Customers might not come in for sex, but it is about sexual stimulation, whatever the clubs say - and it is physical. It shouldn't even be called dancing. It's not a show. The 3ft rule is a joke. You pay someone to get naked and then grind away on your crotch."
The pressure to shift boundaries like this is a direct result of the clubs' business model: as freelances, the women who "do" more earn more. "In theory, you could decide only to dance on the pole all night, or to dance topless rather than nude (a topless dance is £10, half the price of a "fully nude" dance). But if you're surrounded by 29 women who will take their pants off, how on earth are you going to make money?"
Since 2003, when the Licensing Act came in, the number of lap-dancing clubs in Britain has almost doubled. There are now some 310 such establishments in the UK, though this figure may not take into account struggling pubs which, their profits battered on one side by the smoking ban and cheap supermarket booze, and on the other by the financial downturn, are now turning to strip nights to keep their businesses alive. In 2008 a lap-dancing club opened in Britain almost every week - last May, five opened for business - and not only in big cities and dreary out-of-town business parks. There are now venues in places such as Worthing and Sidcup, Henley and Stratford-Upon-Avon: small, genteel towns to which people move for the good schools. Residents usually oppose the licensing of such venues, but only rarely do their efforts to persuade the local council to turn down such applications come off. In 2008 only two campaigns were successful: in Durham and West Kensington. In Durham a lap-dancing club, to be operated by Vimac Leisure bang in the middle of the cathedral city, was initially granted a licence by the local council, a shock decision that was only overturned at an appeal for which residents bravely hired their own barrister.
The simple fact is that, tomorrow, you or I or anyone could wake up to find that the licensed premises at the end of our street had turned into, or was shortly about to turn into, a strip venue. Its windows would be blacked out, and that would be it. Or we could discover that one of the big owners - For Your Eyes Only, perhaps, or Spearmint Rhino - had applied to open a club on our local high street, and that we were almost entirely powerless to stop them. Thanks to a loophole in the law (one so large you wonder about the ability of politicians to read through the most simple of documents), lap-dancing clubs are licensed in exactly the same way as any pub or cafe. As a result, objections to licence applications can only be raised by a tiny section of the local community - those who live within 200m of the venue - and on only four grounds, as set out in the Licensing Act 2003 (these grounds are: public disorder, public nuisance, crime and disorder, and protection of children). As you will know if you have ever tried to object to, say, a pub's late licence, protesting on these grounds is difficult. How to prove that crime is up as a direct result of one nightspot? In the case of the lap-dancing clubs, moreover, they are rich enough - and smart enough - to ensure that they have sufficiently effective security to keep the street outside their venue quiet. All of which leaves residents who are uncomfortable with the club's main trade - the purchasing of a lap dance, performed by a naked woman - with no recourse. By law they cannot object on moral grounds, nor can they bring up the issue of gender equality and argue that such venues objectify women - in spite of the fact that this ruling puts local councils in breach of Gender Equality Duty 2007, which requires them to consider gender in all decision-making.
All this, however, is set to change, and in just a few weeks' time. Or that's the theory. In November 2007, a group called Object, which aims to challenge the objectification of women, launched a campaign called Stripping the Illusion. Supported by the Fawcett Society and others - the group quickly built an effective coalition of MPs, councillors and academics - Object began campaigning for a change in the law. It wanted lap-dancing clubs to be classed as sex-encounter establishments, as a Soho peep show might be; they would, in other words, need a new (and more expensive) licence to operate - one that would better take into account the feelings of local communities (because councils would at last be able to consider the impact of such clubs on, say, nearby schools; these licences would also need to be renewed every year). Amazingly, just nine months later, the government announced that it would indeed draw up proposals on these lines. The Policing and Crime Bill, which includes this legislation, has now reached the committee stage in the Commons. It is expected to pass through the Lords and become law next month.
Only there is a catch. Or two. For one thing, the proposed legislation is not mandatory; it will be up to local authorities to decide whether they adopt it. Result: a postcode lottery that the lap-dancing industry will do its best to exploit. Campaigners point out that while many councils - perhaps the majority - will welcome the new legislation, some will resist. It is not only that councils are already under-resourced when it comes to licensing inspectors; in some smaller towns - Newquay, which has four clubs, would be a good example of this - councillors are convinced that lap dancing is beneficial to what they call the "night-time economy". The second flaw in the bill is that venues that host lap-dancing events less than once a month will be exempt. "The government is under a lot of pressure from working men's clubs, which have occasional strip nights, to weaken the reforms," says Sandrine Levêque of Object. "But the conditions in those places, and especially in pubs that turn to irregular lap dancing as a way of improving revenues, is much worse than in the bigger venues. If anything, they need monitoring more, not less."
Levêque and her colleagues are now working to put pressure on the government to amend the legislation, and two Labour MPs, Lynda Waltho and Roberta Blackman-Woods, have tabled amendments. However, time is running out. "The government is not very responsive at the moment," says Levêque. "I am not hugely optimistic."
Is all this a fuss about nothing? After all, 300 (the number of clubs in the UK) is not that many, is it? And what harm, really, do lap-dancing clubs do? From the outside, with their inevitable strip of red carpet and their velvet cordons, they look a good deal more upmarket than most nightclubs. Girls like Lucy, surely, are in the minority. To the first three questions, the lap-dancing industry would answer: yes, no, and none, respectively. Its people would then tell you that the clubs' smart exteriors reflect what goes on inside - that they are, in fact, "gentlemen's clubs" - and that this is why Lucy's testament is not to be trusted: a culture of "respect" prevails in their professionally run establishments and, as a result, its employees tend to be extremely happy in their work. "I've worked in regular bars," says Del Dhillon, the manager of Bandit Queen, a lap-dancing club in Dudley. "Girls get molested in those places. This is a nicer environment. Here, you can leave your girlfriend at the bar, and no other gentleman is going to chat her up. That's why 15% of our customers are women. Me and my partner, we like a club like this, for a drink."
Since Object came on the scene, the club owners have mobilised, aware that if the mood is turning against them in government, good public relations could be important. They established the Lap Dancing Association, a body that claims to represent a third of the industry, or 60 clubs, to "improve industry standards"; its secretary is a woman, and when you call the PR company that acts on its behalf, you also deal with a young woman. Its president is Simon Warr, owner of the British end of the Spearmint Rhino chain. In 2002 undercover police officers found that dancers in Spearmint Rhino in Tottenham Court Road were making offers to customers with the "intonation" of sex, and of cocaine; the club came close to losing its licence. At the magistrates court hearing, counsel for the Metropolitan Police described Warr as "not fit and proper" to hold the licence. Unbowed, he is now high profile. It was Warr who last December gave evidence to a Culture, Media and Sport select committee in defence of lap dancing, though his arguments proved to be anything but convincing. To the amazement of both MPs and Peter Stringfellow, another witness, he insisted that lap dancing has nothing to do with sexual stimulation. (Stringfellow, whose own club only offered topless dancers before the arrival of Spearmint Rhino in the UK, rubbished this argument: "Of course it's sexually stimulating," he said.)
I meet Warr, a Kiwi who used to work in the motor industry, at Spearmint Rhino in Bournemouth. But before he and I talk, I speak to three of his dancers. These women, as you would expect, are keen to defend the work they do and furious that what they regard as patronising feminists seem bent on turning them into sex workers. However, their pride in their work does not extend to allowing me to use their real names. All three insist that I use their dance names. Two of them tell me that this is to avoid upsetting their parents. The family of the third knows full well what she does, but still: she would rather not tell me her real name.
So, about these new licences. They are not happy. "People are going to start asking what extras we offer," says Layla, 23. "It will make the public think we're a brothel. It's irritating enough when customers ask that now. How dare these women fight a battle on our behalf without even talking to us first?" Her colleague, Jayda, agrees. "We don't sell sex. It's a show. It's the same as acting. You're more protected in here than you are in a nightclub on a Saturday night. The security is amazing. No one misses a trick. You only have to say the word and they are gone, escorted out politely." The third woman, Becky, 24, says: "Customers are respectful. Some are scared of girls, so they find it so lovely that we'll sit down and talk to them. We're in control. There's rarely any drooling. They admire what we do. They feel it takes courage."
Jayda, 35, is a single mother of two. She also happens to be a Muslim. She is beautiful, and extremely soignée: crisp white shirt, dark jeans, soft sweater in Kelly green slung lightly about her shoulders. This job, she tells me, means that she can be with her children during the day, and work while they are asleep. She has been here four months. Given her background, would she ever have believed that she would one day end up working in a place like this? She smiles. "No, it would have seemed preposterous. But you have an alter ego. It's quite hard to get your head around. As people, all of us are quite shy, retiring, insecure. My first night, I was on stage within 10 minutes. You switch off. You think: OK, I'm auditioning for a Broadway show. You don't see anything. You only see the lights." Is the money good? Like her colleagues, she is infuriatingly vague about this. "It's hard to say how much we take home. It's not a guaranteed income. You set targets for yourself. You think: tonight, I'm going to do 10 dances. I'm not going to the loo, or for a cigarette. Otherwise you might just sit and chat to someone fun all night."
The women go off to eat the sandwiches that Warr has laid on for them, and he and I go into another corner to talk, on a black leather banquette that has been torn and then badly mended with what looks like duct tape. Lined up on either side of him are various beefy, dark-suited and apparently adoring male employees. Warr insists, first of all, that lap dancing is not a growth industry, in spite of the openings last year.
"Look at Bournemouth," he says. "No new clubs in the last five years." But Bournemouth already has four such clubs: there is no room for more. "Well, we need to make a distinction between clubs and premises that offer striptease." Are the latter proliferating? "Yes. They are exploiting a licensing loophole." So he disapproves of those venues? "Yes, because they have no proper safety facilities." He does not, though, disapprove of striptease per se. So how does he feel about the change in the law? If his clubs are as suitably located and superbly run as he suggests, surely it won't be a problem for him, applying for the new licences? His only real worry is likely to be the increased financial costs. "I'm shocked by it," he says. "And we are going to take this to court. We will push for a judicial review." On what grounds? "There has been no consultation, and the government pledged not to increase the bureaucratic burdens on business."
If necessary, he says, the LDA will go the European Court of Human Rights (I've since spoken to a licensing barrister about this point and it is bluster; he has no grounds). The LDA's current plan of attack, however, is to demand grandfather rights for existing clubs, which would mean that they would be automatically granted the new licence, and on extended terms. But still: "It's arse against the wall time for us. It's bloody unfair."
There follows one of the strangest conversations I have ever had. Does he, I ask, regret telling the select committee that lap dancing has nothing to do with sex? Did he feel silly when they were scornful? "No. Do you think people come in here to be sexually stimulated? Guys are sexually stimulated when they walk through the lingerie department of M&S, but the purpose of that shop is not to sell sex." So if it has nothing to do with sex, why is the cost of a nude dance greater than that of a topless one? "Purely, it's an intrinsic value. We build value into the dance." But why is the value greater if the woman is naked? He can't answer this. "We are able to charge more, that's all. Look, sex screws our business model. Here's a thing: the average spend here is £200. You can get a prostitute for £20 to £60. If a guy truly wanted a sexual experience, he'd spend £40. So why spend £200? We're not selling sex. I'm sorry people don't get that. It frustrates me." He sighs, angrily. "Look, if we gave a blow job with every dance, we would be packed, but they'd have one dance, then they'd leave. That's why we don't provide sex." So, let me get this straight: the only reason that he doesn't provide sex is that it wouldn't make him as much money? "No, I'm not saying that. I am saying it would screw the business plan."
Does he feel that groups like Object have any case at all? "I can't answer that in a yes or no way. This is a popular, regulated form of entertainment." I mention the City, where women have recently won large sums in the courts in discrimination cases, one element of which was they were forced to entertain clients in lap-dancing clubs. "I'm familiar with those cases. If it is part of the corporate veil, it is wrong. This isn't the meeting room. But this isn't a battle about gender. We've been unwittingly drawn into that battle, and we don't want it." Warr is married. How would he feel if his wife worked as a lap dancer? "It's her choice." So he would be supportive of that choice? "It's an unfair question. That would be a conflict of interest." What if his daughter decided to become a lap dancer? He sighs. "I wouldn't like it." Why? "Because it's your flesh and blood. You don't like to think that there are people... looking at your daughter." This is a surprise. All the other club owners I've spoken to have been consistent enough to say they would support a wife or daughter who wanted to lap dance - even if I got the sense that, sometimes, they were lying. Then again, now I think about it, Del Dhillon, of Bandit Queen, Dudley, who is a Sikh, told me that he believes in arranged marriages, even as he boasted that his girlfriend used to be a dancer. Perhaps consistency is not these guys' strong suit.
Lap dancing is now considered a part of normal British life to a quite amazing degree. To take just one example: last September, delegates to the Conservative party conference were sent vouchers offering £10 off entry to the Rocket Club, Birmingham, with their official conference literature (nothing to do with us, said the Tories later; it was all down to the city's marketing people). The list of those in public life who have visited such establishments includes even royalty (Prince Harry has patronised the Slough branch of Spearmint Rhino). As a result, those who raise objections to it are often seen as prudish and are apt to be the butt of its supporters' jokes. At the Culture, Media and Sport select committee an ex-dancer, Nadine Stravonia de Montagnac, argued forcefully, and from first-hand experience, that lap-dancing clubs needed to be better regulated. Cue Peter Stringfellow, who remarked: "If she was a lap dancer, it must have been a long time ago." When this was reported by the parliamentary sketch writers (men, mostly), good old "Stringy" was merely a card, whereas de Montagnac was a "squawker" in "candy pink". One writer could hardly contain his excitement at having been given a card - "not unlike the cards one finds in London telephone boxes" - by an "inky-maned, 34D" woman called Solitaire.
All of which is infuriating for those who have experience of lap-dancing clubs, or who have fought to keep them from opening near their homes. It is not only that they have their dark side: that there is evidence to suggest that three out of every 10 men who pay for sex indoors find it at a lap-dancing venue, and the industry has also been linked to human trafficking (and, for the record, one club owner telephoned me after our meeting and made what I took to be a veiled threat). What of their effect on the wider culture? At For Your Eyes Only in the City of London, a manager shows me a special "meeting room" in the centre of the club, soundproofed so that clients can work undisturbed by music and yet glass-walled so that they can still see the proceedings outside. Is it normal to "work" in a place like this? Apparently so. "Officially, entertaining clients [at lap-dancing clubs] is not approved of," says Kate Smurthwaite, a former City analyst who is now a stand-up comic. "But the client is always right. You don't say to them: stick your multimillion-pound deal. It's worth your while to accommodate their tastes even if, strictly speaking, you can't expense them." Clients, however, are only half the problem. Her male colleagues often used to disappear to such clubs at lunch and in the evenings. "They would use euphemisms. They'd say: 'We're all going home now' or 'We're off to the dark side.'" Did she complain to her superiors about this culture? "I did mention it to someone in human resources. I was told to 'manage my own exit'. In other words, go home and don't make a fuss." Unsurprisingly, she did not feel as though her company - a major bank - cared about equality in the workplace. "There were lots of remarks on the trading floor, and it was obvious to me that the lap-dancing culture contributed to that. When we had equality training, their concern wasn't improving the situation for women. It was more a case of: how far can we go before we will get sued?"
It is extremely hard to prove the existence of a link between the clubs and sexual violence in the world outside, though a report by the Lilith Project, run by the charity Eaves Housing, which looked at lap dancing in Camden Town, north London, found that in the three years after the opening of four large lap-dancing clubs in the area, incidents of rape in Camden rose by 50% and of sexual assault by 57%. However, there is little doubt that women find the existence of such clubs intimidating. In its good practice guide, the Royal Institute of Town Planners suggests that lap-dancing clubs in city centres are to be avoided on the grounds that they make women feel "threatened or uncomfortable". Tracy Earnshaw, who has campaigned against the proliferation of clubs in Newquay, Cornwall, and who also works for Rape Crisis, says that the town has become a magnet for men seeking sexual services, with predictable consequences. "The atmosphere has changed. There is an air of menace. The men come out of these clubs, and shout things like: 'Why should I pay some slapper in there when I could have sex with you?' A lot of women take the long way home now. Because the centre of town is a no-go zone." (Incidentally, last month, Earnshaw's home was attacked by a group of men in the early hours of the morning; her front door was kicked in. Police say there is no evidence to link this incident with her campaign against lap-dancing clubs; she, however, would like them to prove that this is so.)
Local campaigners will tell you how difficult and traumatic it is, legally speaking, to keep the clubs at bay. But they also point to other difficulties. In Durham, Ann and Desmond Evans, who hired their own barrister to appeal a licence, found themselves asking how much training the councillors on the licensing committee had received. They also wonder how impartial councillors can be when they are dependent for political support on local businessmen. Tracy Earnshaw, meanwhile, is concerned that police seem reluctant to act on tips received from the public about the breaking of licensing conditions. Last year, a Dispatches documentary for Channel 4 filmed serious breaches of such conditions in a club called Halo's; the women were touching their customers. Yet last month the police wrote to Earnshaw saying that no further action would be taken. Is this a matter of resources? Are the police simply content that the clubs keep rowdiness on the street to a minimum, and to hell with what goes on inside? Or is it something else? Though no one is suggesting anything corrupt, several people mentioned to me the cosy relationship that can sometimes exist between the police and the club owners. Del Dhillon told me that his customers include off-duty police officers. I approached both the Metropolitan police and the Association of Chief Police Officers about this issue. The former would not comment. It is, I was briefed, "neutral" so far as any change in the law goes. The latter issued a statement which said that, under current licensing laws, lap-dancing clubs are monitored in the same way as pubs by police, that their clientele generally does not cause "public disorder" but that the service would "vigorously pursue" any allegations of the sexual exploitation of vulnerable women and of illegal activity.
It is clear that the government must amend the legislation, or waste yet another opportunity. The big clubs can well afford the new licences, whatever they say, and they will be granted them if their businesses are as squeaky clean as they suggest. But perhaps they will also find that they are not able to move into new towns so easily in the future. This can only be a good thing. As for the women who work as dancers in these places, I don't for a moment believe that new licences will change how their clients think of them. But then perhaps this is because I don't think that they have a high opinion of them in the first place. They know what these women are "for". Or they imagine they do. In a supposedly smart City club, one where you can buy a bottle of Cristal champagne at £600 a pop, I sit in a corner, sipping a Coke. It is early; the place is half empty. Still, there are men here whose mothers and wives and girlfriends would be appalled to see what they are up to: the grabbing, the yelling, the proprietorial charm that masks an altogether less pleasant kind of entitlement. I cannot bear even to take off my coat.
And perhaps the dancers know this, too, deep down. I am not going to accuse anyone of false consciousness. But it is not a happy business, even for its happiest exponents. In Dudley a young woman called Stephanie, with a sweet smile and a lovely Black Country accent, tells me that she loves her evening job; she is an apprentice hairdresser, and lap dancing helps to fund that. Then she starts to describe a night's work. "I wasn't always confident," she says. "But once you've done your first couple of dances, and someone has gone: 'You've got great tits', you feel better, and it's dark and for three minutes' work, well, £20 isn't bad. The first minute you've got your clothes on, remember. You only take your bra off after a minute, and you only take your knickers off 30 seconds before the end. I don't think about the customers. I probably couldn't recognise them if I saw them in the street the next day. It's like being someone else."
She looks over to the bar, where her fiance is waiting to take her home. How does he feel about her job? "He doesn't mind, so long as I am going home with good money. It makes him feel good. Other men want what he has got." She zips up her hoodie and, snug inside it, heads towards him, very young and very businesslike.