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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What’s the secret of the world’s best-paid sports manager? Ask the Chicago Cubs

Theo Epstein is a star because he values the person as much as the player.

As I write, the Chicago Cubs, perennial underachievers, are three wins away from reaching baseball’s World Series for the first time since 1945. By the time you read this they may have crashed out. Besides, baseball – like cricket – is a language that asks a lot of its translators. So, in writing about the Cubs, I’ll skip the baseball bits. Fortunately, the lessons of the Cubs’ success (they were the outstanding team of 2016, even if they don’t win the World Series) transcend baseball.

To understand the future of sport – and perhaps employment – I recommend a pair of profiles of Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, one published in the New York Times and the other written by David Axelrod (Barack Obama’s strategist) for the New Yorker.

Epstein, 42, has just agreed a contract extension worth $50m over five years, making him the highest-paid non-player in professional sport. There is plenty in the profiles on his whizzy use of data analytics; his algorithmic tests that measure players’ co-ordination (essentially using neuroscience to measure talent); as well as the Cubs’ coaching programme dedicated to mental health and managing stress. Most timely and important of all is Epstein’s emphasis on character. He talks about “scouting the person more than the player”. He wants the right kind of people on the field.

“In the draft room [where the team decides which players to sign], we will always spend more than half the time talking about the person rather than the player,” he has said. “We ask our scouts to provide three detailed examples of how these young players faced adversity on the field and responded to it, and three examples of how they faced adversity off the field.”

Epstein is well known for empowering a “geek department” inside his baseball teams. Yet instead of perceiving a conflict between science and the human realm, he sees the two as part of the same big picture. He craves players with character who can benefit from the insights of science.

“Character” is a vexed subject inside sport. It sets off uncomfortable associations. Talking too much about character – building it, or even just valuing it – sounds dangerously close to endorsing an amateur ethos. Victorian public schools often celebrated sport explicitly in opposition to intelligence, even achievement. H H Almond, the headmaster of Loretto from 1862, got an A for candour (if nothing else) when he ranked his school’s priorities: “First – Character. Second – Physique. Third – Intelligence.”

The Victorian notion of games cast a long shadow over sport and society in the 20th century. The first phase of ultra-professionalism, in the office as well as on the sports field, was a reaction to Almond’s set of values. The concept of character was recast as a consolation prize, doled out to the class dunce or the twelfth man. Crucially, reformers and nostalgics alike bought in to the historical perception of a separation or conflict between character, intellectual life and sporting achievement.

The Cubs, however, know better. To adapt Almond’s clumsy saying: intelligence and physical skills derive, significantly though not entirely, from character. Character is now being understood not as the destination, but the foundation, even the process.

This is an overdue reassessment. In the loosest terms, I would identify three phases in the development of professional sport. Phase one optimised the body. Sadly, though we are still inching forward, the human body is now reaching the outer wall of virtuosity. All sports will tail off in speed of progress, in terms of pure physicality.

Phase two of modern sport turned to psychology. Realising how hard it is to gain an edge through physical conditioning, everyone suddenly started talking about the mind: the inner game of this, the mental game of that. However, reconfiguring the mental approach of elite athletes – already in their twenties and thirties, with deeply ingrained habits and highly evolved psychological software – is also exceptionally difficult. That is why many top athletes recoil from conventional “sports psychology”; the discipline is oversold and under-sceptical.

We are now entering phase three: the whole person. Sustained high achievement relies on something much deeper than a few sessions with a sports psychologist. So you need the right people in the room.

Coaches in future will be numerate and intellectually unthreatened by the scientific advances that illuminate sport. But the best coaches will never lose sight of a parallel truth: that although science can help us to understand what happens on the sports field, and sometimes how to do it better, it cannot conveniently convert athletes into inert particles, as though it were a ­physical science. Coaching can benefit from ­science but remains an art – one that revolves around understanding and helping people.

In most sports, players and coaches are really in the business of decision-making. The winning team, as Pep Guardiola says, makes more good decisions. Sport, in other words, advances when it trains people to make better decisions. There are now highly evolved analytical techniques for understanding how those decisions influence results. However, the athletes themselves are still people, imperfect and imperfectible. If you want machines, you get dummies.

This month, I was asked to found a new institute of advanced sports studies at the University of Buckingham. The mission is to create undergraduate and postgraduate courses that attend to the entire mindset – critical thinking, ethics and leadership, as well as data analytics and sports science: a kind of “PPE of sport”. After a misleading triple fissure – character, body, mind – sport is starting to put the pieces back together again. That’s why, this month, I’m rooting for Epstein’s Cubs.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood