Lap dancing clubs. Dark. Dirty. Seedy. Sleazy. Unfair representation or justified description? Up until a few weeks ago I would have tended to agree with this description, regardless of the fact that I had never actually been to a strip club. I always thought that the positioning of lap and pole dancing clubs in popular culture was to accommodate the objectificaton of women and enable the realisation of a man’s sordid desires. So after hearing that a few of my male friends had visited one of Southampton’s lap dancing clubs, Glamour, I wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I dragged three fellow editors and went down there to see everything for myself.
The club, which refers to itself as a “premier lap and pole dancing venue” has a 110 capacity and has been open for seven months. On entering the club, customers are given a list of rules which must be followed that include no touching, no propositioning and a special emphasis on the need to demonstrate courtesy and respect. Owner Carl Farrelly insists that this is a fundamental rule in ensuring that the girls are kept safe. “Just because the girls are dancers doesn’t mean they are slags or slappers. We tell our customers you will treat them as you would any other girl.” To enhance their safety, when the girls come into work they are required to tell management how they plan on getting home at the end of the night. If they drive, security will walk them to their car, and if they are getting a taxi, one will be called for them. The rules are expected to be followed by the dancers also. As well as not being allowed to touch customers or each other, when giving a dance in the nude they are expected not to spread their legs by more than 12 inches. Carl claims that defying these rules has resulted in the immediate dismissal of some girls. In one incident a girl was fired for meeting a customer outside of work, and although she did not have sexual intercourse with him, the intention may have been there which would have damaged the club’s reputation.
Let’s Go In
Like all who venture into the club, we were escorted to our table by a member of security. Immediately I was taken aback by how plush and classy the interior was. The image clashed greatly with what I assumed would be mirrors on the ceiling and leopard print rugs on the wall. None of the above was remotely evident. Once customers are seated, the dancers are required to spend ten to fifteen minutes at each table talking. On stage, depending how busy it is, a girl will dance for the duration of one song . In the week girls are charged a set fee by the establishment of £35 and on weekends this rises to £50. With the cost of a private dance (which take place in private booths) set at £20, on a weekday night, girls will have to secure at least two private dances to break even. At first glance this may appear easy, but if the club is not busy and the girl is not to the customer’s taste, then trying to make back the money becomes difficult. Although, for every dance they do give, the girl keeps £19, the remaining pound goes to the club. Issues regarding the exploitation of women and the rate of pay are important aspects of maintaining loyal staff. Phil Hayward, the bar manager, comments: “one girl who came to work with us told me that in another club, she made £140 in one night, but went home with £40. A lot of clubs will try and rip the girls off.” Phil, a University of Sussex graduate with a degree in Geography, takes a sympathetic approach towards students who decide to work in the sex industry in order to make ends meet. He recognises the flexibility of this type of work and how well it can “fit in and around their uni timetable.”
The Lap Dancing Association does not view lap dancing clubs as part of the sex industry but rather as a “small but vibrant part of the UK entertainment industry.” This attempt to disassociate the clubs with the sex industry appears flawed as shown in the actual performances given by the girls. I had never seen any form of lap dancing and always thought that if I ever did, (due to my own insecurities) I would feel both awkward and embarrassed. So as Glamour’s most popular girl, Michelle*, danced on and around the pole, grinding to 50 Cent and some other mainstream hip hop, using her legs of steel to spin around the metal device, I found myself in an immediate state of awe. Sheer awe. Thoughts of “I want to be able to do that” ran through my head the entire time. Rather than turning my head away I could not keep my focus off the way in which she enticed every person in the club albeit without making any eye contact with anyone herself. It did not matter that she, the person being gazed at was a woman, and I, the person doing the gazing am a heterosexual woman. It was not about sexual attraction but about appreciation of her physical strength.
The type of clientele present proved interesting. There were two groups of young men, two girls and a few middle-aged men. Yet the customer who really caught my eye was a baby-faced boy. He could not have been any older than 19 and walked in by himself. This became my main concern. Why would anyone go into a strip club alone? Phil explains that this is not entirely weird, “Many of our customers include business men, who are alone in their hotel at night and come into the club not necessarily to receive a dance, but sometimes just for a drink and a chat.” If this were to happen in any other club, say Oceana, the lone man in question would stand out like a sore thumb, being subjected to funny looks and labelled as a ‘perv’ or a ‘weirdo.’ The nature of any lap dancing club like Glamour, means that these types of men can come in alone, sit at a table with a drink and talk to one of the girls for ten minutes. This to me was incredibly unnerving. According to both Carl and Phil, most of these men just want someone to talk to. Carl says, “One guy comes in and talks about his campervans for hours on end. Meanwhile his campervan is sitting in the car park!” It would seem then that there are a specific group of men who visit lap dancing clubs looking for mental as well as physical stimulation.
Gift of the Gab
It was fascinating to watch how some of the girls flounced around the tables and chairs, manipulating words to flatter, charm and guarantee their way to at least £19 cash in hand. This, more so than the dancing, is the most important part of clinching the deal. It has to be said however that this was not true for all the girls. It was two of the girls’ first night working and they appeared both unsure and nervous. Paired up together, a practice that Carl claims helps in pleasing people’s different tastes, a blonde and a brunette stuck together as they attempted to talk to customers. The blonde, although not as confident as the more experienced girls, desperately tried to converse with the men. However the brunette did not seem so comfortable. While her outfit and make-up suggested she was sexually overt, her body language suggested otherwise. Her back was hunched, her focus flickered between the floor, the bar and us- anywhere but at the guy she was supposed to be talking to. It was not that she seemed frightened, but more confused at what was going on around her. I was not fearful for her safety as much as I was for her emotional well being.
The cameras in every room of the club, the big burly security men and the long measures taken to protect the girls, were enough to convince me that the girls’ safety is a main priority for the owners. Yet there was something quite sad about the look in her eyes that made me want to take her away from an environment that she clearly had no concept of dealing with. Her vulnerability meant she was unable to create an emotional distance between herself and her customers, of which the other girls seemed able to do. Clearly the issue of role playing which is an unwritten requirement of the job is not as easy as one may think. Carl emphasised that it is easy to forget that the dancers have body hang-ups. “I brought my wife down to help out with auditions when we first opened. It was only then, after being apprehensive about me working in this industry, that she realised the girls were just as, if not more, insecure about their looks.”
The introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 now means that lap dancing clubs are viewed in the same framework as bars and public houses. Many have argued that as a result of this, attitudes towards the sex industry, which assume that the women are exploited and are not willing participants in the exchange between offering and selling a sexual service, have now become lax and allowed for the normalising of lap dancing clubs. Consequently the Fawcett Society, a women’s rights group, has called for lap dancing clubs to become licensed as Sex Encounter Establishments. If this happens, Carl fears for both the financial implications and the reputation of the club. “It will make the club sound dirty and seedy” he says. However, there is no getting away from the fact that in lap dancing clubs women are essentially treated as sexual objects. After insisting that they were in no way exploiting the girls who worked for them, I asked Carl how he would feel if his own daughter decided to work in the industry, “Well my daughter is only 3 years old so at that age all I think about is that she’s my little girl. When she’s 18 however it would be a different story.” In their defence, bad attitudes towards the sex industry as a whole become problematised when you consider that there are lap dancers such as Michelle who are business savvy and view the sex industry as a lucrative sector, where they can take advantage of their looks and bodies to make a considerable amount of money.
Also, what happens when the dancers on stage are male? Is lap dancing still viewed as exploitative or does it suddenly become harmless fun? Glamour holds a ‘Ladies’ Night’ every few weeks where all male dancers perform on stage for the duration of 20 to 40 minutes. Interestingly, most of the ladies who come to these nights are the regular dancers for the club. “The girls want to feel what it’s like to be on the other side of things,” says Phil, “what it’s like to receive a dance.” Ironically, according to Carl, they find that female customers are much harder to control than male customers, “Male customers pretty much do as they are told, whereas women usually don’t.” The same rules that apply on any other night still stand on ‘Ladies’ Night’ with the customers not allowed to touch the male dancers and vice versa. In this case it seems that gender does not readily determine who the exploiter is and who is the exploited. If we are so willing to claim that the female strippers are exploited then surely this reasoning has to be applied to the role of male strippers also.
Chipping away at the Dales
My experience with the Chippendales was simultaneously amusing and uncomfortable. I began by speaking to Lind Walter, one of the 22 contracted Chippendales in the world. The dark haired, blue-eyed 25 year old American, raised in a small town outside Pennsylvania began his modelling career in New York. One summer on a trip to Las Vegas he met long time Chippendale Kevin Cornell. He was offered a job and signed a contract there and then. ‘I was chosen based in my looks and body’ Lind says ‘but the dancing was a lot tougher than I had anticipated’. After being a Chippendale for two years this summer, he is starting to feel the negative effects of the job. ‘I have been living out of a suitcase for so long, and the job is so demanding that you don’t really get any down time.’ This does not take away from the endless benefits he receives. The countless magazine covers and t.v. he has done have increased his celebrity status. ‘I’m really lucky to have this job, I get to go all over the world and every day is completely different to the last one.’
Take it off! Take it off!
After the interview, it was time to to see the show. The eager and almost desperate crowd ranged from 18 to 80 and the atmosphere in the theatre was buzzing. When the music hit, and the Chippendales finally appeared, the screams were deafening. There was a Chippendale for everyone. The hunky black one, the pretty boy, the rocker and so forth. I frantically tried to spot Lind and point him out to the girls, but to no avail. Throughout the night I was either laughing hysterically, sitting agape or feeling incredibly awkward. Under no circumstances did I ever feel that the men were being objectified or did I get the impression that they felt they were being objectified. This is for a number of reasons. The first being the borderline cocky attitude some of them seemed to have. The second being how the audience’s reaction to them reaffirmed their sexual power. The third being their dubious treatment of the women chosen as participants of the show.
One of the first acts, where a replica of Blind Date was set up, was harmless. Think a banana, a condom and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Sexyback’. Predictable, but humorous nonetheless. However, in a similar act towards the end of the show, things got awkwardly explicit. The same Blind Date set up was used, although this time the ladies’ hands were tied up behind their backs. The Chippendales then proceeded to grope their breasts, grind on them and stroke their inner thighs. I felt really uncomfortable when one of the ladies, middle aged woman wearing a long sleeved top and a floor length skirt, had two Chippendales put their hands up her skirt. Following this, a scene was set up by where it was made to look like one of the Chippendales had just had a shower. The Chippendale in question was Lind. Dressed only in a towel, he brought a girl on stage and gave her his underwear. It became clear that he wanted her to put it on for him. With his back to the audience, he opened his towel whilst she bent down and started to pull his briefs over his legs. She could not pull them up faster. He then grabbed her behind him sliding her hands all over his oily torso. Then, without warning, he thrust her hand down his underwear.
This is weird
Good god I thought. Is that even allowed? Just because he owned the penis did not mean that she was a) in control or b) free from being humiliated. Caught up in the excitement of the moment, he had no perception of whether she wanted to do it or not. Of course she had every right to walk off stage if desired, but, egged on by the rest of the audience, this was not presented as an option. I also found the impression I had formed of Lind earlier in the day was changing. The friendly and outgoing man I had talked to conflicted with the conceited and vain character presented in front of me. The all female audience never had the upper hand. In their willingness to become participants in the Chippendales’ sexual games they became objectified. I am not saying that they were too naive to realise what was going on, as evident by the long queues formed to take pictures with the Chippendales at the end of the show, but there was something quite demoralizing about the way in which the performers had complete control over the audience.
There were aspects that I did quite enjoy, however, mainly chief Chippendale Kevin Cornell. His corny sayings kept me amused whilst his dedication to swinging his long blonde Californian locks was to be applauded. The performance aspect of the show – the music, their out of time dancing and their cringe worthy costumes, I enjoyed greatly. Yet this did not soften my main gripe with the evening.The Chippendales had a finely tuned awareness of the way in which they are able to manipulate the audience’s reactions. They were the puppet masters manoeuvring the audience’s strings. I am very glad and grateful that I have had this insightful experience, however, I do not want nor need it again. I am deterred because of the apparent double standards in the industry. Why is it more socially acceptable to go and see the Chippendales, where in my experience there is far more sexually explicit contact, than it is to visit strip clubs? Society has accepted one type of sexual entertainment but not another. Why is a Chippendale celebrated and a Glamour model denounced?
The 2009 Sunday Times Rich List stated that Katie Price was worth £30 million. Her source of wealth came not from modelling but from fashion of which she has a hair care and lingerie range – an obvious example that the role of the glamour model has transcended from sexy pin ups of the 1950s to commercial product of the noughties. Nowadays, not only do they grace the covers of men’s magazines, they endorse various products, are active participants in reality television, and hang off the arms of footballers. All of these factors assist in presenting and solidifying a certain stereotype of the glamour girl which is wholly negative. More importantly they have become a commodity, a special kind of commodity offering their explicit sexual prowess in exchange for a climb up the celebrity social ladder. However, when the girl in question is a student, this exchange dissolves quite considerably. Cue Ella*, a student currently in her final year at the University of Southampton. A down to earth girl dealing with the usual aspects of student life, excited about imminent graduation and according to her, “my boy mates just see me as one of the lads.” She also happens to be a glamour model.
Two summers ago, Ella was in nightclub 90 Degrees when a modelling scout spotted her. After initially feeling apprehensive and refusing to take the proposition seriously, she eventually agreed to partake in a photo shoot. Since then she has been featured in Nuts, Zoo and on various websites. A swimwear photo shoot made her £150 for three hours’ work, which appears quite alluring considering you would have to work approximately five days in a retail store in order to make the same money. I am shocked as she tells me that magazines, unless you are a bonafide recognizable model such as Lucy Pinder, will not pay in monetary value but rather offer the chance of exposure. Of the photo shoots she has done, she insists they are fun and, in her own experience, the majority of the people she has met are down to earth and very professional, labelling many of the photographers “like brother figures.” According to Ella a certain type of professionalism is maintained. When going for an audition or a photo shoot, references, a portfolio and various forms of identification are needed before proceedings can begin. I wonder if the atmosphere of photo shoots, of which you are standing semi-naked in front of a group of people you have only just met, is uncomfortable. Ella argues “standing in front of the camera means you can become a different person all together. It’s fun to take on a role so far removed from the role you play in everyday life.” Giggling, she says that she cannot pull out sexy poses and needs to be in full make up and costume before she can get into character. Hence why she never takes family or friends to photo shoots as she is strictly against mixing business with pleasure. It cannot be denied that in all men’s magazines women are objectified, defined by the size of their boobs and the length of their legs, though something is to be gained for the women themselves. In Ella’s case, the photo shoots boost her self-confidence. “Whenever I wake up feeling ugly or like shit, I just look at my portfolio which reminds me of what I can look like! The feeling of empowerment I get is much better than the money!”
Not all Fun and Games
Although she is happy to talk about all her good experiences, she is even more keen to talk about one experience in particular that presents the very dangerous side of the glamour modelling world. “A year ago I was at an audition to be a party girl. A party girl is someone who is hired to go to celebrity parties and stand there looking good, adding to the group of many good looking people at the party. The actual audition was to go out clubbing to show them how comfortable you are in that environment.” Unfortunately the night didn’t end as she had expected. The man for whom she was auditioning drugged her and attempted to rape her. It was only for the fact that she had not ingested enough of the drug to have been unconscious that she was able to escape. In hindsight there were warning signs that she admittedly should have picked up on, “In every other shoot I have done, I’ve always been encouraged to bring friends and family with me. In this case, when I asked if I could bring a friend down, they point blank said no. This meant I was in an area that I had never ever been to all by myself.” The traumatic experience meant she had to take anti-depressants, which she no longer needs. The support of friends, family and the university helped her greatly, and Ella emphasises that if it was not for this network of people she would still be struggling with what happened to her today, “I think that if I wasn’t at uni and had the life of a uni student to occupy my mind, I wouldn’t have been able to get through it.”
University versus Modelling
“I am a university student first and foremost” she says with conviction. Interestingly she never once refers to herself as a glamour model but instead takes a realistic approach when talking about the doubling of her role as glamour model and student, “I do this strictly for financial assistance. I don’t claim to be the most beautiful girl in Southampton, but I know I am attractive and I do not see the harm in taking advantage of the situation I have been put in.” Her acute sense of self-awareness is surprising and refreshing. “I have no desire to continue in this line of work after I have graduated. My main focus at the moment is to finish university. I hope to work in Human Resources one day.”
Whether you believe the sex industry to be licentious or entertaining just remember that the most important aspect is the girls safety. I am not here to sway your opinions, but rather offer my own experiences, which have indeed altered my own preconceptions. The stigma and taboo surrounding the industry will always remain unless we take an inquisitive approach to it. So the next time you are quick to either celebrate or condemn the sex industry, stop and pause. It is not as straightforward as you think.
*All names have been changed