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.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.