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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Lost in translation: what we lose when we leave the EU

From learning Irish to studying in Switzerland, my richest memories are all in Europe. What will happen to our creative culture after Brexit?

I’m rubbish at languages. Worse than rubbish, actually; hopeless. (You can ask my old German teacher, if you like. Sorry Frau Sarcher.) I don’t have the ear for inflection or the memory for grammar. I don’t have the patience for diligent vocab lists. I can barely spell in English, let alone in French.

So it was with some trepidation that I headed to West Donegal a few weeks ago to do an immersion course in Irish. I know: Irish, of all things, a language which is famed for sounding entirely unlike how it looks on the page and is spoken only by a small number of people, almost all of them in places I don’t live.

Well, I had to do it: I’m working on a novelist for my PhD who wrote in the language. But alright, fine, I also wanted to – wanted to at least grasp at the bones of the thing, even if I’d never be fluent.

I moved around a lot as a child, although always within the UK, and like a lot of people I know I never really had a proper and precise sense of origin. (Irish classes, replete with diaspora, handled this one fast: I am from here; now I live here.) I’m happy in most places, yet no geography has the ring of home. Yes, I’m undeniably English, but I always felt like I was looking at my own Englishness through glass.

I’m aware this might be the most English thing of all.

After my BA, I was awarded a grant to do research in Switzerland, and after that given a grant to do an MA, and everything changed. Suddenly, I was travelling across the continent, able to afford solo trips on the Eurostar to Paris and long months in a sticky Swiss summer, sending photos of the suspiciously clear rivers and cuckoo clocks back to England. In my early 20s, this became my home: always feeling slightly out of place, as ever, but willingly and joyfully so, stumbling through language after language. A whole world of pleasant unfamiliarity opened up on the continent.

A Swiss professor I met said that the very impossibility of translation is its greatest gift, because it reveals native quirks. I’m not sure I fully became a person until I started translating myself in those European summers – until I had to give an account of myself, as an English woman and as a person, out there in the world. Which is why, this morning, I found myself close to tears on the Tube.

I’m no more informed than you are as to why exactly Leave had such a good result. It might have been the headlines, or the promises of NHS funding, or simply long, dulled anger finding an outlet, however counter-intuitive.

But it was undoubtedly something else, too: an opportunity to wield power.

Feeling part of a movement is a seductive thing. This was a campaign entirely run in the negative, by both sides. I mean that in the most literal sense: not that there was no “positive” option, but that there was no option that offered a yes in relation to Europe – only a no more, thanks or a continuation of the same. Remain had no chance of promising us more. Leave, at least, could try, and even if it didn’t quite all ring true, it still offered action over inaction.

Getting ready for work this morning, I couldn’t get the words of sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor out of my head. A few years ago, I went to a lecture he gave on popular culture, and saw him tell an audience of academics what he knew from growing up in Liverpool, and from watching the Dockers’ Strike: that turkeys will vote for Christmas if there’s a chance to stick two fingers up at the middle class while they do it.

That’s trite, perhaps, but less trite than pretending voters necessarily bought every promise from Leave. True, not everyone knew the ins and outs of trade negotiations, but most people were able to twig that Boris Johnson isn’t exactly a working class hero. As tends to be the case, there’s very little to be gained from calling the electorate stupid.

If the same communities that voted Leave are also those likely to be hit the hardest by a Brexit-induced economic downturn, they are also those who might reasonably have wondered: what have we got to lose?

Well, who knows. I’ll speak responsibly and say that I’m worried about EU funding to Cornwall (whose council is already scrabbling to secure a promise for alternative funds, after the population there voted Leave); about the medium-term prospects for the UK markets; about how we will handle cross-border security initiatives both in these isles and across the continent. I’m worried because I know where the money came from to regenerate Northern cities, and it wasn’t a Conservative government.

But I’ll also speak with feeling and say that something less tangible has been eroded. British culture is watchful and insecure, sarcastic and subtle; it has a class system awkwardly incomprehensible to outsiders and a sense of humour loved for being the same.

And the thing that makes it all beautiful, the Midas touch that takes the British bundle of neuroses and double-edged banter and endless, endless griping about the weather and turns it to gold, is openness – however grudgingly given. I won’t pretend we ever enjoyed a Halcyon age where we welcomed immigrants whole-heartedly. It would be an insult to history and those who fought to come here. But we are a mongrel country, in spite of our intentions, and most people, most of the time, cope. It is at the moments where we shrug and decide we’re not too fussed about difference, actually, that we shine most strongly.

Over and above the economy, even over the personal fear I have for European friends and lovers of friends and parents of friends, I worry about the loss of culture we may have triggered by choosing this course; what a Keynesian might call the “negative output gap” of creativity. We won’t ever be able to know precisely how much talent and creative joy we’ve effectively just told to fuck off, because you can’t measure pop songs or novels or new dishes like you can expenditure.

But that doesn’t mean that right now, across the country, hundreds of small stories forged from difference aren’t being foreclosed. A hundred little acts of friendship, or love; a hundred chances to look at Britishness through someone else’s eyes. The essential richness of being forced to translate ourselves, and receive others’ translations in turn, is being lost from our future. And our culture will undoubtedly be a little the worse for it.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland