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.

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war