With customers ranging from groups of young men out on the lash, corporate bank office parties, celebrities such as Sophie Dahl and Robbie Williams and even supposedly ‘liberated’ women, lap dancing clubs have become a staple of British nightlife.
However, while the number of clubs has increased rapidly since the first one opened in the UK in 1995, few other industries are so riddled with self-serving myths and illusions about the way it operates.
Liz Kelly CBE, who I have come to speak to in order to gain a greater understanding of this modern phenomena, gives one word to explain this growth: "Profit." She explains: "They have created a market for it. It’s grown through the expansion of the service industry".
As Professor of Sexualised Violence at London Metropolitan University and Director of the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit (CWASU) Kelly has a particular interest in the social and cultural impact of lap dancing and the sex industry as a whole.
While the lap dancing industry has always tried to gain legitimacy by presenting itself as mainstream entertainment akin to going for a drink down the pub or visiting a dance club, a study commissioned by the CWASU in 2004 concluded that it is firmly part of the sex industry and that its existence is "in direct contradiction with equality between men and women" because it normalises men’s sexual objectification of women.
Sitting in her office in north London, Kelly herself does not dispute that a certain proportion of men find lap dancing entertaining, but points out it is no longer "acceptable for wild bears to be taught to dance and appear as entertainment however much people might pay for it or however much they might enjoy it."
But while a bear is forced to perform, many people assert – echoing selective, often salacious, media coverage – that women make a considered, rational decision to work as a lap dancer, are somehow empowered by what they do, and often earn considerable amounts of money. Unsurprisingly, although Kelly is careful never to make any blanket statements, the analysis she provides is very different. She argues the working conditions in lap dancing clubs are "inherently exploitative in the labour relations that are going on as well as being sexually exploitative." Rather than making a good living, Kelly says the CWASU has "talked to women and actually a lot of nights they go home and they make no money!"
"None of them get a wage", she explains. "They are self-employed. They have to rent the space, they have to pay to literally dance in the club. So they start off being in debt." For Kelly this puts a lot of pressure on the dancers to behave in a particular way towards clients, "possibly do more things than they would have done had they not had that situation, to really look that they are enjoying what’s going on because they only get money from private dances." Kelly describes these poor working conditions as a "conducive context for prostitution". Worryingly, she says "a significant minority go in whilst they are a minor" while many often have histories of abuse and violence which makes them vulnerable to being recruited.
So what would Kelly like to see happen?
"I want men to stop going", she says simply. However, she is keen to stress that while it is often assumed the majority of men are consumers of lap dancing, actually the data for the UK suggests it’s a minority of men. The problem is that the majority collude with the men who do patronise lap dancing clubs by not questioning or criticising their actions. "Somehow it gets caught up with you are not really a red-blooded man, not really a heterosexual man, so they stay silent", Kelly says. To counter this she is keen to encourage men to see speaking out against lap dancing as "a kind of strength and solidarity with women."
Introduced last year, the Gender Equality Duty, which requires all public bodies to proactively promote equality between men and women, is another avenue of resistance. Kelly explains that concerned citizens can use this legislation to pressure local councils to reject licence applications for new lap dancing clubs. She notes this has already been used successfully in Durham, while recently in Archway in north London a coalition of local residents, women’s organisations, local councillors, churches and a local school worked together to defeat an application for a new club.
On a societal level Kelly argues lap dancing clubs both rely on and reproduce wider gender inequality – "in terms of the economy and the market, and the way women have less options – the gender pay gap and all those things." Always keen to look at the wider picture, she sums up: "My issue isn’t about whether there are more lap-dancing clubs. It’s much bigger than that. It’s about how do we get towards a society where human beings are equal."
This point is especially important when one considers the social backgrounds of the dancers. "In the main it’s not privileged middle-class women", Kelly says. "It’s young working-class women who don’t feel like they’ve got any opportunities to do something in the world that makes a difference or makes them feel good. So they read magazines and aspire to be a glamour model or a lap dancer."
"I want to live in a world where they can have bigger hopes and dreams than that", she adds hopefully.