Strip clubs: some battles aren't worth fighting

For three years, "John Doe" went to lapdancing clubs every other month. Here, he graphically describes the experience - and argues that feminist articles on stripping often miss the mark.

 

The female journalist gawping at the horrors of the lap dancing club is a recent journalistic trend. They seem to be searching for a great revelation about exploitation, but it never quite comes. Then they usually have a lapdance, which they're mystified to find isn't very pleasurable. Here's one in the Evening Standard last year: "I don't want to judge these women; I suspect I had many more options in life than they did. But nor do they need patronising. If your best option is to show your clitoris for cash, the rest of your choices frankly suck." It's a strange, oxymoronic form of sisterly affection: the well-heeled, well-meaning female journalist telling the poor stripper her life sucks. Stripper's fault or society's? It's left unsaid.

Earlier this year there was a classic of the genre by Amelia Gentleman in the Guardian, who over the course of 5,000 words revealed the club's owner was grumpy and that sometimes the girls make less money than on other days. What always gets me about these pieces is that they never seem to talk to the men in the club. Why are they there? What are they hoping to get from it?

For three years, I went to lapdancing clubs every other month. It was part of the culture at my work, which was at a horrible little media firm in east London. I'm afraid I can't tell you I was bullied into it, or faced overwhelming peer pressure. If I'd chosen not to go, I doubt I'd have been judged. But everyone used to go, so I did too.

You pay an entry fee of £20. Then you're shown to a table and you order drinks, which cost at least £5 each. You might not have even seen a nipple, and already you're £25 down. The place itself has a sort of provincial night club feel - it's not that sordid, but the carpets are a little sticky.

At the front of the club, there's a pole, on which a girl is performing. Every five minutes or so, the DJ - whose taste in music will tend towards the T-Pain school of autotuned R&B bullshit - will call a new girl up to the stage. Pole dancing is, when performed by the best, a feat of impressive athleticism. The standard of the girls' performances will vary. The very best are usually adept at other forms of dance. They clearly enjoy the process of performance, grinning at the punters and showing off all sorts of gyratory tricks. I think there's an element of wanting to show up their less athletic workmates, too. For a start, it means they're likely to make more money throughout the evening.

After a while, you'll be approached by a girl. She'll ask how you're getting on, and pull up a seat alongside you.  Then you talk. She might ask you to buy her a drink (champagne: she'll get commission on this). Eventually she'll ask you if you want a lapdance - either where you are, for £20, or behind a curtain, for £40. Here's the Evening Standard reporter: "[It] was about as erotic as taking out the rubbish. And not just because my friend was in embarrassed hysterics next to me. As a man-fancier, I know I am not the target market, but I can't see what anybody gets out of it. The dancers look bored and everything about the club is joyless. It is surely sex with everything enjoyable edited out: from real intimacy to simple satisfaction."

Funny thing is, it's the same for us men. It's not unpleasant, not at all - but we know it only gives the impression of eroticism - how erotic, really, can a human being waving her genitals in your face be? And we know it only gives the impression of intimacy - there is no affection, no giving of anything other than mild titillation on her part, and money on ours. You think we don't get that? You really think we're so wired to our cocks that we'd pay £40 to stare at a groin for a couple of minutes? In this day and age? When porn is so readily accessible, when most teenagers have seen more anal sex than our parents did in their entire lifetimes?

It's all about a power struggle, the lapdancing club - the journos have got that right - but it isn't about the dance. You see, that's the trade-off for what goes before. Here's why we go: because it's full of really beautiful girls to flirt with. And really beautiful girls are hard to even get close enough to flirt with: they know they're hot, and so does every other guy. Here, they're throwing themselves at you.

Given how exploitative and demeaning it's supposed to be, it's funny how men talk in hushed tones about the possibility of pulling a stripper. It's never going to happen, is it? But still, you put in the work. You do a bit of reading up on eastern Europe, because that's where a lot of them come from, and it breaks the ice. You try to make your job sound more interesting than it is. You talk to them - straight away - about what they do when they're not stripping, because they're just performing a role, like Sartre's waiter. And who are they really, these girls?

- She just started a property business
- She's studying creative writing at Kingston University.
- She's studying paleoanthropology at UCL.
- She works in the bedding department at John Lewis
- She does part-time work for a homeless charity

All stuff I don't know the first fucking thing about, but I'm happy to talk about it. Who doesn't like talking to other people about their lives - sociopaths aside? You read the newspapers on this, and the assumption seems to be that men just go there for a flash of tits and ass. I repeat - they're the trade off for being allowed to play the game.

You don't believe me, do you?

After all: why would you pay so much to play a game you can't win? Well. Here's the bit the journalists haven't told you about. The last time I went, a friend of mine was behind the curtain when the girl started rubbing herself on his cock. She kept doing it, and doing it, and then - well, turns out girl was a squirter. Boom. Poor guy had to take a taxi ride home with lady juice all over his tailored trousers. And another friend - he got invited back to the girl's house. They started getting jiggy on the sofa. He went down on her. Then her eight-year-old son walked in, which killed the mood. Me, I've just been snogged and groped. Maybe they just thought it an acceptable way to get a lot  more money out of me. I don't consider myself one of the world's greatest lookers, so I chose not to head down that particular rabbit hole.

But you can do all that in a normal club, and you don't have to pay for it!

Yeah, I know. Well, here's the thing about men. We're lazy. And most of us have realised the harder we try, the more we fuck things up. Here the rules are pretty simple. You've got ten minutes to charm them, before dance time. You'll usually fail - who the hell would want to date a guy she met in a strip joint - but that's fine, because it means there's no pressure. Also, if you'll permit me to speak like a real twat: people see Wayne Rooney bang in a thirty yarder, but don't see the work that goes in on the training ground.

And then comes the dance. . . Usually it's soulless. Occasionally there's a connection, and things get gropey. Which is fun, kind of like you're both 15 again. Quite often you get the dance, carry on flirting, get another one. It's like buying drinks in a bar, but a fuck sight more expensive and with far less chance of getting laid. And weirdly, that's ok. Of course, they need your cash a lot more than you need to see their bodies. So who wins? The person who's demeaned herself by taking their clothes off, or the person who's demeaned himself by handing over money to watch her demean herself? The answer is no one, really. Score draw, with no hearts broken, no awkward exchanges in the morning.

One day, I just stopped going. I wasn't in a relationship, I didn't have a Damascene conversion - I just stopped. I don't think it had any lasting impact on me. Feminists say we should ban the clubs. Maybe they're right. But the letches will letch somewhere else, and the girls will lose a source of income. There are some battles that just aren't worth fighting. 

Frisky business. Photo: Getty

John Doe is not this writer's real name.

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Britain's commemoration of Partition is colonial white-washing in disguise

It’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it.

While in London a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t help but notice a curious trend in the British media’s coverage of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the end of British colonial rule in the Indian subcontinent. It wasn’t the familiar think-pieces about "the jewel in the crown", thinly disguised nostalgia for empire masquerading as critiques of colonialism (see for example, The Conversation’s piece on how colonialism was traumatic for, wait for it, officials of the British Raj). It wasn’t the patronising judgements on how India and Pakistan have fared 70 years down the road, betraying the paternalistic attitude some of the British commentariat still harbours towards the former "colonies". It wasn’t even the Daily Mail’s tone-deaf and frankly racist story about 92 year old countess June Bedani and her “loyal Indian houseman” Muthukanna Shamugam, who doesn’t even speak a word of “Indian” (that’s just classic Daily Mail). What got my attention was the British media’s raging hard-on for Partition - a flurry of features, documentaries and TV specials about one of the biggest and bloodiest mass migrations of the 20th century.

Just take a look at the major headlines from the past couple of weeks - "They Captured And Forced Him Out Of His Home: This Isn’t Syria In 2017, It Was India In 1947" (Huffington Post UK); "Partition: 70 Years On" (The Guardian, BBC and Independent, each with a different subhead); "The Real Bloody Legacy Of Partition" (The Spectator); "Remembering Partition: 70 Years Since India-Pakistan Divide" (Daily Mail) and many more. It isn’t that - unlike some of my more reactionary compatriots - I believe that the Partition story shouldn’t be documented and spoken about. On the contrary, I think India and Pakistan have failed to grapple successfully with Partition’s scars and still festering wounds, and the way it still haunts both our domestic politics and our relationship with each other. But the overwhelming focus on the grisly details of Partition by the British press is deeply problematic, especially in its unsubtle erasure of British culpability in the violence. Even the Guardian’s Yasmin Khan, in one of the few pieces that actually talks about the British role in Partition, characterises the British government as “naive and even callous” rather than criminally negligent, and at least indirectly responsible thanks to its politics of "divide and rule". Of course, it’s much easier to focus on the indigenous perpetrators of religious violence than on the imperialist policies that facilitated it. That would require the sort of national soul-searching that, even 70 years on, makes many British citizens deeply uncomfortable.

Rose-tinted views of empire aside, the coverage of Indian and Pakistani independence by the British press is also notable in its sheer volume. Perhaps, as some commentators have suggested, this is because at a time of geopolitical decline and economic uncertainty, even the tainted legacy of colonialism is a welcome reminder of the time when Britain was the world’s reigning superpower. There is certainly some truth to that statement. But I suspect the Brexit government’s fantasies of Empire 2.0 may also have something to do with the relentless focus on India. There is a growing sentiment that in view of historic and cultural ties, a post-Brexit Britain will find natural allies and trade partners in Commonwealth countries such as India.

If that’s the case, British policy-makers and commentators are in for a reality check. The truth is that, despite some simmering resentment about colonialism, most Indians today do not care about the UK. Just take a look at the contrast between the British and Indian coverage of Independence Day. While there are a handful of the customary pieces about the independence struggle, the Indian press is largely focused on the here-and-now: India’s economic potential, its relationships with the US and China, the growing threat of illiberalism and Hindu nationalism. There is nary a mention of contemporary Britain.

This is not to say that modern India is free of the influence - both good and bad - of colonialism. Many of the institutions of Indian democracy were established under the British colonial system, or heavily influenced by Britain’s parliamentary democracy. This is reflected both in independent India’s commitment (in theory, if not always in practice) to the ideals of Western liberalism and secularism, as well as its colonial attitude towards significant sections of its own population.

The shadow of Lord Macaulay, the Scottish legislator who spent four eventful years in India from 1834 to 1838 and is considered one of the key architects of the British Raj, still looms large over the modern Indian state. You can see it in the Penal Code that he drafted, inherited by both independent India and Pakistan. You can see it in Indian bureaucracy, which still functions as a paternalistic, colonial administrative service. And you can see it in the Indian Anglophile elite, the product of an English education system that Macaulay designed to produce a class of Indians “Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” It was this class of Anglophile Indians who inherited the reins of the Indian state after independence. It is us - because I too am a Macaulayputra (Macaulay’s child), as the Hindu right likes to call us. We congratulate ourselves on our liberalism and modernity even as we benefit from a system that enriched the few by impoverishing the many. This class of brown sahibs is now the favourite punching bag of a Hindu nationalism that we have allowed to fester in our complacency.

Still, ghosts of the past aside, the UK no longer holds sway over young India, even those in the Anglophile upper classes. Today’s young Indians look to the United States for their pop culture references, their global aspirations and even their politics, both liberal and conservative (see the Hindutva fringe’s obsession with Donald Trump and the alt-right). We still want to study in British universities (though increasingly strict visa rules make it a less attractive destination), but we’d rather work in and emigrate to the US, Canada or Australia. We drink coffee rather than tea (well, except for the thoroughly Indianised chai), watch Veep rather than Yes Minister, and listen to rap, not grime.

Macaulayputra insults aside, the British aren’t even the bogeymen of resurgent Hindu nationalism - that dubious status goes to the Mughal Empire. Whether this cultural turn towards America is a result of the United States’ cultural hegemony and economic imperialism is a topic for another day, but the special "cultural links" between India and the UK aren’t as robust as many Brits would like to think. Which is perhaps why the UK government is so intent on celebrating 2017 as the UK-India year of Culture.

Many in the UK believe that Brexit will lead to closer trade links between the two countries, but much of that optimism is one-sided. Just 1.7 per cent of British exports go to India, and Britain's immigration policy continues to rankle. This April, India allowed a bilateral investment deal to lapse, despite the best efforts of UK negotiators. With the Indian economy continuing to grow, set to push the UK out of the world’s five largest economies by 2022, the balance of power has shifted. 

The British press - and certain politicians - may continue to harbour sepia-tinted ideas of the British Raj and the "special relationship" between the two countries, but India has moved on. After 70 years, perhaps the UK will finally realise that India is no longer "the jewel in its crown". 

 

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.