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15 November 1999

They’re brazen, and coming to a town near you

Nick Horleyhad the full nipple-tweaking, lap-dancing experience. He liked it . . . and then wanted m

By Nick Horley

Ever thought of putting your pension fund into a brothel? You may already be investing in an allied trade: lap-dancing. The Pru and Standard Life are major shareholders in SFI Group, owners of Britain’s biggest chain of lap-dancing clubs, at which no stigma is attached to paying a woman £10 to give you a close look at her genitals.

The link between lap-dancing and prostitution is, according to club owners, police and licensing authorities, a tenuous one. They stress that it is difficult (though by no means impossible) to hire a lap-dancer to come home with you. But what they gloss over is that the acts performed by the dancers are so intimate and explicit that they constitute a halfway house to paying for sex.

This is not just striptease: it is quasi-sex, skilfully presented as legitimate, harmless and socially responsible. It had the effect of persuading me that full, paid-for sex, something I had thought my inhibitions and ethics would never permit, was a logical, acceptable next step. And I can’t pretend that I did this in the name of research. My curiosity cost me two and a half times what I’m being paid for this article, and I stumbled willingly down the slippery slope, seduced and debased by experts every step of the way.

SFI has succeeded in packaging lap-dancing or, more accurately, tableside dancing, as mainstream entertainment, at which unashamed businessmen can find their expenses haemorrhaging in a plush, secure environment. The dirty-mac brigade and the lager louts are kept out by a strict door policy and a typical evening’s expenditure of £200. Charming, pretty girls queue up to give the customers their undivided attention, undressed, in three-minute slices, at £10 a go.

No research has been done into the theory that lap-dancing prompts men to buy sex. Prostitutes are ambivalent. Some worry that the clubs suck the punters’ wallets dry; others simply welcome the safe, legitimate employment that the better-run clubs provide for those sex workers who can make the grade. The English Collective of Prostitutes points out that “70 per cent of sex workers are mothers supporting families . . . and like all sex-industry workers, lap-dancers are concerned about pay, secure private changing facilities and protection from violence.”

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If the industry’s expansion plans come to fruition, the experience offered at For Your Eyes Only, SFI’s flagship site in Park Royal, London, will soon be as commonplace as watching a sex scene in a Hollywood movie. Picture yourself entering something akin to an executive airline lounge, but with moody lighting, more space and better music. Polite, well-groomed staff seat you at your table and bring you a reasonably priced drink. Beautiful twentysomethings glide past in underwear, a negligee or perhaps a nurse’s uniform, scanning for eye contact.

Reciprocate for a millisecond and a girl sits down at your side, introduces herself and engages you in conversation. And forget the raddled old crones who bark at you from Soho doorways. This girl is not just pretty and fresh-faced; she is personable, intelligent and well-spoken. She may turn out to be a trainee barrister or a business-studies student. You want to put some more clothes on her and take her home to meet your mother.

But she wants to dance for you: that’s her job. Not wishing to offend, you accept her offer. She pushes your knees apart so she can gyrate between them, her gym-toned torso one foot from your nose. Embarrassed, you avert your gaze from her groin and look up, to find her maintaining direct eye contact with you, wearing an expression of arousal that, with the help of a few drinks, you find convincing.

She starts to strip to the music. She leans forward to brush her hair in your face as she unfastens her bra. You abandon the eye contact. This heavenly creature is insistent on seducing you with her body, not her mind. So, your shame diminishing as your arousal heightens, you close your eyes as she blows softly on your neck. And open them again to find her hand proffering an erect nipple within a millimetre of your lips.

Need we go on? Yes. Because you must picture her waving at you. From between her ankles. She has turned around, placing her naked bottom six inches from your face, and now she’s folded in half at the hips, leaving you with nowhere to look other than her smiling upside-down face or her labia, which she is lightly fingering.

Then the record ends; your three minutes are up. “Budge up,” she says, cheerily.

So how would you feel? After half a dozen such encounters, I found the distinction between sexual fantasy and reality had blurred. These women were not images in a magazine. I felt as if I’d been on the brink of having sex with them. And I was convinced that my sexual partners had enjoyed every minute of it. Best of all, I wasn’t in Bangkok, surrounded by teenage, HIV-infected heroin addicts. I was at a party full of beautiful, sophisticated women who desired my company. I did not want to go home alone. And money was the solution. If only I hadn’t spent so much, I could have bought a fairly upscale prostitute for the £200 I had just parted with. And the sex would have been real, not imaginary. I felt a bit of a mug.

But men are mugs. Women are right to complain that we keep our brains in our trousers. So is it any wonder that a trade that panders so accurately to a man’s strongest instinct is so good at parting him from torrents of money? SFI, whose core business is pubs, acquired For Your Eyes Only almost by accident and did not embrace it with enthusiasm. But when it became apparent that the club made as much profit as five pubs, expansion plans were tabled. The single site has grown to a chain of three, and there will be ten within 18 months. Shortly afterwards, there will be a flotation on London’s Alternative Investment Market, which will be enthusiastically seized on by the City boys, who make up a large chunk of the clientele. Tony Hill, SFI’s chairman, has already said: “We would want to get anything between ten and 15 times earnings for it, which would be very, very attractive.” Too right; imagine the shareholders’ perks.

All the signs are that the UK will end up with a couple of hundred of these clubs. Every big town will have one, cities will boast a handful. Joy Drama, a former dancer who manages Secrets, a club in Hammersmith, west London, reckons that you’ll go into a bar and “there’ll be girls who take their clothes off and you’ll think nothing of it”.

She’s probably right. No one is doing anything to impede the clubs’ expansion. The police have the power to close down most of them, on the grounds that the explicit finale to many a dance constitutes a lewd act. But the clubs and vice unit officers find it difficult and tiresome to gather evidence that the dancers are contravening rules concerning what are referred to as their “pink bits”. Their priorities are drugs and violence, and SFI suffers from neither. The Park Royal club has not had a single complaint made against it in its four years of operation.

Councils share the view of the police, and are gradually becoming ever more liberal, thanks to SFI’s professionalism. Licences used to be granted only on condition that the girls stayed at least three feet from the punters. A judge even ruled that, at Secrets, “genitalia and excretory organs” should be concealed behind a one-inch gusset and/or pubic hair. But SFI has proved that a simple no-touching rule is sufficient, because chaps in suits with Gold Cards in their pockets can be relied on not to grab shaven pudenda wafted under their noses.

Pressure groups have been virtually silent on the subject, and our prurient media have responded with the same fascination reserved for the newly fashionable US hardcore porn film industry. The government also appears unmoved, perhaps mindful that teachers, nurses and other essential workers need to be provided with the chance to make £600 in an evening if they are not to abandon our cities.

The money men laugh at any suggestion that lap-dancing is not A Good Thing. They see SFI simply as an aggressive, hard-headed operation that knows how to deliver profits in a turbulent sector. Many of them have jolly tales to tell of the client who took a lap-dancer home after they’d slipped the waiter a few hundred quid in exchange for a receipt reading “dinner for four”. The big firms scoff at any suggestion that management might have qualms about clients being entertained in lap-dancing clubs on expenses. “Is this a joke?” was the universal refrain when I questioned their policy.

After prolonged digging I eventually unearthed two lonely voices of disquiet, both female: the first is an anonymous American manager in the City who forbids her staff to be entertained at lap-dancing clubs, and punishes suppliers who try it; the second is Karen Eldridge of IRIS, an organisation that screens companies on behalf of ethical investment funds. Eldridge has taken it upon herself to categorise SFI with the porn merchants as an adult entertainment company, which means that two-thirds of her clients won’t touch it.

This was news to SFI’s financial director, Andrew Latham, who will be debating this point strenuously with Eldridge. “We have absolutely no moral qualms about our business,” he told me. His views are presumably shared by Dr David Avery, a non-executive director of SFI’s rival Cherokee Leisure, and a former mayor of Westminster who once helped to ban the controversial film Crash on the grounds that it promoted “degradation”.

The absence of a furore about lap-dancing is taken by some as welcome evidence that Britons are at last defeating sexual repression. Even Bournemouth has a branch of For Your Eyes Only, and Latham is delighted to relate that grandmothers have visited and granted their approval. Perhaps this acceptance of nudity bespeaks a new sexual maturity, an age when we will be too sensible to get agitated by the sight of Gail Porter’s bum projected on to the House of Commons.

For Your Eyes Only certainly helped me overcome my inhibitions about paying for sex. My local paper, the Hammersmith and Fulham Times (published by a woman) carries a full page of adverts for prostitutes every week, under the headings “Escorts” and “Massage”. Formerly I regarded them as out of bounds, but in my newly enlightened state I phoned a “Stunningly Beautiful Student” and, within 15 minutes, there was a 23-year-old Russian vision of beauty in my house, wanting an hour’s sex with me for £120. Well, not wanting it, but offering it.

I accepted her offer. I’ll spare you the details, but the transaction we completed seemed much the same as the £10 deals in the lap-dancing club: the difference was merely one of degree.

It remains to be seen whether the acceptance of lap-dancing clubs will in turn lead to a widespread destigmatisation of prostitution. Already there are hundreds of thousands of men in this country who studiously avoid a glance at the top shelf in their local newsagent, yet do not flinch from scrutinising women’s sexual organs while having a drink with friends, colleagues or clients. The female body is a growth industry: mark SFI up as a buy.