I was seen as an object, not a person

by Rachel Bell on March 19, 2008

Published in The Guardian on 19 March 2008
View the published article here

Human rights group, Object, are among those calling for a review of the 2003 Licensing Act, which has allowed strip and lapdancing clubs to be licensed in the same way as a pub or café. Rachel Bell talks to a former lap-dancer about her experience, and why she supports a change in the law.

Elena (not her real name) had just moved into a new flat when her temping contract was cut short. She needed rent money fast. Someone she knew had done lap-dancing, which, she says, ‘reinforced the idea that it was something you could do that wasn’t dangerous, it made it seem normal I suppose.’

All around are messages that the sex industry is fun, that stripping empowers women and is an expected part of male sexuality. While lapdance clubs brand themselves as a respectable part of the leisure industry, Larry Flynt has opened his first UK lap-dancing club in Croyden, Manchester has its first student lap-dancing bar in The Ruby Lounge, the kids can watch a former stripper give a topless lap-dance on Big Brother. Music videos have made the sex industry their home with pole or lap-dancing ubiquitous from Britney, Kylie and Robbie to Justin Timberlake and 50 Cent. The Spice Girls held a tour party at the Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing bar in Las Vegas. Job centres advertise lapdancing and escort jobs.

Yet academic research shows lapdancing’s links with trafficking, prostitution, exploitation and increased male sexual violence against both the women working in the clubs and those living and working in the vicinity. In Ireland, a conference on human trafficking recently highlighted the use of lapdance clubs by human traffickers as a tool for grooming women into prostitution. A UK government consultation on human trafficking was advised that UK lapdance clubs may well involve women who have been trafficked, or coerced. International data on men who pay for sex (one in ten of British men) suggests that they are likely to be using all other aspects of the sex industry such as pornography and lapdancing clubs. By reinforcing the idea that it is acceptable to view women as sex commodities, lapdance clubs and those who frequent them, contribute to the demand side of human trafficking. A 2003 Lilith Project report on lapdancing in Camden, found that in the three years before and after the establishment of four large lapdancing clubs in Camden, rape rates rose by 33% and rates of sexual assault by 55%.

For six months, Elena worked in a chain of lapdancing clubs, the ones that tell their customers they’re ‘gentleman’ and it’s all very ‘exclusive’. Elena quite fancies setting a few myths about lapdancing straight. ‘What you don’t realize is that immediately, it’s costing you money. On my first night, I was told you can’t wear those shoes, you have to wear these, they’re £70 and you can owe us the money. I bought a dress from the club which was another £70. You pay ‘rent’ to the club just to be there and if you can persuade someone to buy a dance, it’s £20 – about 20% of which the club takes. Then there are the fines – £10 if you miss your turn to pole dance, if you’re late, you’re wearing the wrong shoes, break the rules. There are so many ways for them to make money from you. You’re constantly trying to make as much money as possible out of everybody that you can, otherwise you’re literally paying to be there. They take on more women than they need in a night so it really becomes dog eat dog. Quite often I made nothing, there were a lot of nights when I would have taken money out to go and come home with less.’ The most Elena made in a night was £205. ‘I love talking to people but to make any money you really have to act stupid, admire their tie, massage their ego for hours. I could never go to work as anything near myself and that becomes damaging.’

In retrospect Elena says that another factor led her to try lapdancing. ‘I thought, well, I’m a sexual object anyway, I might as well have it out on the table. It was like I felt I couldn’t do anything else. Everywhere I look I’m being told that my main source of power is my sexual power, my body is the best thing I have to offer, so to use those things in your job is empowering. But sexual power isn’t power. It’s totally meaningless in the real world. What can you actually do with that? Nothing.’

No, lapdancing didn’t give Elena equal pay, good prospects, a fair pension, or the right to feel safe from male violence.  It just reinforced all her negative beliefs about herself, about men. ‘It reinforced the belief that my body was the best thing I had to offer, that men just see you as an object, not a person, that whether you are equally engaged in that desire is irrelevant, you don’t matter,’ she says. ‘Increasingly, you learn to despise the men because of the way they perceive you. So little of it is about the dance. Lapdancing is about setting up a situation whereby the men feel like they’re doing you a favour, that’s the way the game is set up, therefore all the power is with the customer.  What they get, I think, is a feeling of giving the money, not really the dance.’

Elena, naturally very pretty with porcelain skin, quickly grew tired of the management’s comments on dancers’ appearance. She grew tired of the exterior fakery, the fake tanning, hair dying, shaving of pubic hair, fake nails. A lot of the women in the club had had a boob job. ‘It was constant,’ she says, ‘you know, you can’t have your hair like that, they’d tell people to lose weight.’

The porn and sex industry doesn’t just tell lies about women. One of its biggest lies is that it likes men. Statistics show that addiction to the porn and sex industries is the third biggest cause of debt while sex and relationship therapists are seeing an increase in the number of men suffering from sex addiction. Does Elena think lapdancing is damaging to our relationships, to men, too?  ‘Stag do’s in particular made me think there must be a lot of crossed wires about it. I think men are fed just as much bullshit about their sexual identity as women are, that they probably are as just as much a victim of this sexualised culture as women are. Yet they don’t necessarily know or feel the need to combat it as openly because it doesn’t lead to the same things. I don’t think that it makes anybody happier.’

In his book, The Macho Parado, Jackson Katz, who works with young men in gender violence prevention, documents how the porn and sex industries make it normal for men to objectify and dehumanize women, how they erotise male dominance and control. Men who go to lapdancing clubs because they think it’s part of being a man, or because they feel pressured by their peers, are just one type of customer. One body of research on the US strip scene found that all dancers suffers verbal harassment, both physical and sexual abuse whilst working, all women are propositioned for prostitution and three quarters had been stalked by men associated with the strip club. In her 2004 report, Profitable Exploits: Lapdancing in the UK, Julie Bindel showed the inadequacies of licensing legislation with strong evidence that lapdancers can suffer sexual harassment on a regular basis, that some lap-dancing club owners and managers create conditions in which prostitution is likely to occur, and that in some clubs, the buying and selling of sexual services does occur.

Did Elena get verbal abuse or propositioned for prostitution? ‘Just by being there, you’re acknowledging that you are something that they can pick and choose from, in that dehumanizing way. A lot of men are totally blunt, and will say I like bigger tits than you’ve got, or how much for a blow job? Sometimes men try to persuade you to go back to their houses, or to a hotel room for sex. There’s a lot of blurring of the understanding of what it is you’re supposed to be doing and whether you’re actually a prostitute.’

So was the no-touch rule broken in Elena’s club? ‘The clubs maintain a veneer of no touching, but touching is more standard than not. It’s a case of don’t be massively obvious with what you were doing. Like when some policemen came in, as customers, the manager came over and told me to be careful. It’s more a question of know who you’re dealing with, rather than don’t break the rules. And if a woman goes to any strip club with her boyfriend, she won’t get the full picture. When you see a man or woman come in together, you aren’t going to treat them the same as you are a man on his own or a group of men. So even if your boyfriend took you to a strip club to show you what it was like, you won’t see what really goes on. If I had a boyfriend now and he said he was going to a lapdancing club, I would consider it to be infidelity. The fact is that if you break the rules, you make more money. If one dancer starts breaking the rules then the pressure is on others to do the same. Otherwise men would mostly go for the dancer they get to touch, or who touches them – a bloke would think well that dancer charged me £20 and stayed three feet away, but that one charged me just the same and she put her breasts in my mouth and sat on my crotch! Once you’ve been there a while you learn that certain things are profitable, and breaking the no contact rules is the first rule you learn to break. And then eventually you start to wonder – what is the difference between me and a prostitute? The clubs are keen to promote this idea of it being something exclusive, that prostitution and lapdancing are completely different. I think they kind of are the same thing.’

Funnily enough, men who pay a naked woman for a sexual service in a lapdancing club do not see themselves as johns. Elena says, ‘There are probably a lot of men who would go to a lapdancing club who wouldn’t go to a prostitute. It’s seen as a totally respectable thing for a man to do. Yet I don’t feel like it’s something I’d put on my CV or expect anybody to look at it on my CV and go, ‘Ooh it’s good that you did that’. The respectability of it is very one-sided. I mean why is it alright if it’s not respectable for the women working in them?’

The 2003 Licensing Act introduced the one-size fits-all Premises licence. Prior to the Act, strip clubs needed to get a ‘Special Nudity permission’. Not any more, and as a result strip clubs and adult events proliferate and go unregulated. Several police forces, including Torbay and Durham, have objected to or voiced concerns about applications for lapdance clubs. Object, who are launching their Lap Dance Challenge on 22 April, want legislation changed to classify lap dance clubs as Sex Encounter Establishments and recognise them as part of the sex industry. This would allow local authorities to regulate them as such. As well as working with supportive local authorities, Object are working with MPs and peers to highlight a need for legislative change and prepare a Ten Minute Rule Bill. Sandrine Levêque, Advocacy Officer at Object says, ‘Ten years ago a handful of lap dance clubs operated in the UK. Today that figure is well over 300 according to industry sources. This has been facilitated by liberalisation of the law which licenses them in the same way as pubs and cafes and not for what they really are’. 

The Lilith Project, run by Eaves and The Fawcett Society are also calling for tighter controls on lapdance clubs. In their  2007 report, Inappropriate Behaviour: Adult venues and licensing in London, the Lilith Project show how the current policy of normalizing lapdancing and striptease develops the illusion if the sexual availability of all women, in a culture when sexual harassment is rising and 26% of people believe a inappropriately dressed woman is ‘asking for it’. The Fawcett Society point out that current licensing make it difficult for Councils to implement the Gender Equality Duty. Kat Banyard, Campaigns Officer for Fawcett’s Sexism and the City campaign, which launches on 1 April, says, ‘Lap-dance clubs are part of the commercial sex industry yet current licensing really restricts local authorities in terms of the conditions they can impose on clubs both in order to protect the women who work in the clubs and the women who live and work in the vicinity. Many local authorities want to halt the proliferation of lapdance clubs but feel their hands are tied by the law.’

Lapdancing, like the normalized sexual objectification of women as a whole, perpetuates the idea of women as sex commodities, fuelling the global sex trade and all its forms of prostitution. Despite the weight of evidence showing how the sexual objectification of women feeds into male sexual violence, our selective media largely ignore the less than glamorous truths, instead feeding us stories of a minority of young women talking up lapdancing as a nice little earner to get them through college. Like the happy hooker, these women are much more willing to talk to the media than those in the majority who are degraded and abused in the trading of women’s bodies that the media calls ‘sex work’. Lapdancing, like pornography, acutely limits women’s sexual liberation, yet this is too dark a truth for a media that favours positive, lightweight, or salacious stories from women willing to say how empowered the feel dancing round a pole. For those working in gender violence prevention, the harm of normalized sexual objectification of women is clear. Damian Carnell works with men about gender violence at the Nottinghamshire Domestic Violence Forum. He has worked closely with Nottingham City Council licensing committee to limit the number of lap-dancing clubs in the city and led successful campaigns to generate public awareness. Damian says, “Lap-dancing tells men that all women are sexually available, provocative and want to be objectified. Whether it’s lap-dancing, pornography or prostitution, the case for it that always comes up is that it releases male sexual frustration. So why is there an increase in sexual crimes? The accessibility and the severity of these things continually increase, and so too an increase in the severity of the violence used in sexual crime. The backers of lap-dancing and other porn say that it satisfies men’s sexual fantasies. No actually, it leaves these men dissatisfied, as they want the reality from the fantasy – and research shows that increasingly women are feeling pressured into doing things they don’t want to do during sex. These men come away and want to finish off their fantasy, not necessarily on that day. So who are their targets? Women will experience sexual harassment on the street when men are coming out of these places, men’s partners, daughters or other girls, or women colleagues at work etc. These men take from lap-dancing and other porn that women are of little value and can be treated as sex objects. Is this what we want men to believe and behave? I don’t.”

Elena supports the need for a change in licensing legislation. Why? ‘I live in a country with these unbelievable levels of rape, where two women  die every week because they are murdered by their partners and I think why’s it so hard to draw parallels between these things that are to do with issues of power and a ‘leisure’ activity entirely based on reinforcing that structure? Like we make the connection between not advertising junk food to children and children being fat. For me, I suppose the question is always, why would you want somebody to take their clothes off for you when you know that they don’t really fancy you, when you know it isn’t want they really want to do. That’s why I don’t believe it’s about sex. These men may not do that to any other women in their life but the fact is that they’re capable of doing that in that moment in, that context, that they will spend their money engaged in something that I personally find really difficult to understand why that would be fun. Lapdancing fosters sexual violence. It is damaging and not a good thing for our culture even if people are doing it voluntarily. I chose it and that’s part of the problem. Even if lapdancers did make loads of money, that’s irrelevant, paying a lot for something doesn’t make it alright. It’s not used as an argument for anything else The point about lapdancing clubs is what is this a cultural statement of and what does it do to ALL of us, not just the women working in them, but men too.’

One reason Elena stuck with the job was other people’s perception of it. ‘People found me interesting because of it,’ she says. ‘The reality didn’t matter as long as I could pretend that other people thought it was interesting, glamorous or sexy. And it’s hard to say, I am shocked by the reality of it, I do feel degraded, but I need to pay the rent and gas bill.’

Statistics show that the majority of women become lapdancers through poverty and lack of choice. Elena says, ‘I do think you would have to have a low expectation of what you were capable of if you think that lapdancing is the best way that you can earn a lot of money. I mean god, the dancers weren’t of sub-intelligence or anything. It just that there is this one asset that they had, which they’ve been encouraged – by popular culture, by all the sexist messages in society – to think was the best thing they had, that was their best feature, the fact that men could see them naked and therefore they were using it to make money. They’re not even making a lot of money so it’s even more false. There was definitely a hope among the people who worked there that one day someone would come in who’d just pay them loads of money and sort of “rescue” them. Cinderella thinking, if you like. There were single mothers, nurses, it wasn’t what you might think. Some of these women had a whole other career, but for whatever reason they needed to supplement their income. Some of the nurses, they’d come in knackered after a day on A&E, strip till two in the morning and then go home. That’s quite dark, I think.’

In January, the press reported how an employment tribunal heard that London’s Sophisticats lapdancing club sent a thug to threaten a former waitress after she took them to court for wrongful dismissal. Elena wishes to remain anonymous and not declare her age or the chain of clubs she worked in for self-protection. ‘I definitely have a fear associated with going against the clubs,’ she says. ‘The shadowy world behind it is not something that you would want to go up against. I mean you know that instinctively without anything happening. You just know it.’

What made Elena leave in the end? ‘I began to sort myself a bit and realized that it was a crazy thing to do. I could never be myself. I just sat there, really bored, and suddenly thought, oh there’s loads of things I could do other than this. This is really shit. I’m going to go home.’

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