Eleven o’clock on a Friday night in Central London. I’m sitting on a velveteen sofa in a cordoned off area of Sophisticats, a lap-dancing club in Marylebone.
A pretty young woman called Zoe is dancing in front of me. She can’t be much older than 21, with platinum blonde hair extensions stretching down to her waist, fake nails and far too much glittery make-up.
Unnervingly, she doesn’t break eye contact. There’s not a hint of awkwardness, as though she’s done this a hundred times before — which, of course, she has. Her electric green G-string has been carefully peeled off. She gives me a wry wink before dangling it inches from my face. I have no idea where to look.
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It’s been claimed more women than ever before are frequenting these ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ — some of which have reported a 30 per cent rise in female clientele in a year.
We’ve certainly seen a host of female celebrities patronising these venues, from singer Katy Perry, who visited Sapphire in Las Vegas last year for her hen party, to Harry Potter actress Emma Watson , who celebrated the final premiere of the film series with a visit to a New York club this summer.
Spice Girl Mel B has been seen at the Fantasy Bar in Manchester and, astonishingly, Princess Eugenie was spotted at Sophisticats in London two years ago. So I’m here, at the same club the young royal visited, to find out just what the attraction is.
For the uninitiated, lap-dancing clubs are essentially nightclubs where women are paid to perform stripteases and pole dancing — either on stage or in a private room. They’re not a new invention, having arrived in the UK from the U.S. after World War II.
In a man's world: Katy Perry, left, and Princess Eugenie have both visited gentlemen's clubsTraditionally the preserve of men only, the past five years have seen a surge in British women visiting for fun with one chain, Platinum Lace in London claiming women make up a quarter of its membership. Secrets, another chain, hosts regular ladies-only nights, with the most recent earlier this month attracting 150 guests.
While countries such as Iceland have now banned such clubs, they’ve become a regular fixture on Britain’s suburban High Streets, after changes to the 2003 Licensing Act made it easier for venues to get a sex establishment licence. Since 1997, the number of strip clubs has risen ten-fold and three years ago a new club was opening almost every week.
The venues operate much like a nightclub. You pay an entrance fee (normally £15 or so before 11pm, after which prices rise steeply) and, once inside, drinks are eye-wateringly expensive.
LAPPING IT UP
The lap-dance industry has doubled since 2004 to more than 300 clubs across the UK
Once at your table, you can either watch the main show or pay for a private dance, where for £20 a naked woman performs astride your legs for one song. The client must not touch the dancer, but the dancer can touch the client.
So far, so seedy. So why are so many professional, respectable women spending vast amounts of money at these kind of establishments? Why, when addiction to pornography and strip clubs is the third biggest cause of debt in men, are women falling for it, too?
Paul Kennedy, director of marketing at Platinum Lace, says the industry is changing. ‘A few years ago, the lap-dance industry was stagnant: the same bankers were going to the same old clubs. So we encouraged female customers and they’ve breathed life into the business. With more girls coming here, it’s less of a taboo.’
But is it really possible to make these places acceptable to women, when many feel their very existence depends on exploiting vulnerable women who are desperate for money?
I visit Platinum Lace in Central London on a Thursday night, just after 10pm, and the club is already buzzing. Inside, I find about 40 men to every five female clients, including a couple of mixed groups. The club’s main area is big enough to seat about 100 people. Black chairs cluster around circular tables facing one of two small stages at either end of the room, which are lit up like a theatre show with a pole reaching up to the ceiling.
Strip tease: Some women are also paying for private dances for themselves or their boyfriends
The owners have tried to make the decor feel glamorous, but there’s no way to mask the seedy nature of what goes on in here; women take their clothes off for money and no amount of gold gilt frames, crystal chandeliers and glittery disco balls can change that.
I ask some of the other women why they’re here. Sam, 32, an events manager from North London, says: ‘I go to a strip club every month with a few female friends and sometimes a male friend or boyfriend.
‘We know we’ll be able to sit down, get a table and won’t be chatted up by guys like in a normal clubs. The atmosphere is relaxed and quieter than some pubs or clubs.’
To me, this is a ludicrous excuse. There are hordes of venues across the country where even the most stunning women can have a night out without being pestered. And if you’re seeking a quiet, relaxed night why visit a strip club?
And if it’s one thing for a woman to come to this type of club, surely it’s quite another for them to pay for a private session?
'Our most loyal customers are women in their 40s - it's their naughty secret'
As we chat, it becomes clear her motive for coming is to please her boyfriend and stop him visiting with a group of testosterone-fuelled guys.
Dr Teela Sanders, a sociology professor from Leeds University, specialises in the UK sex industry and has just finished the biggest-ever research project on lap dancing in the UK. She found women enjoyed how well strip clubs were run.
‘Security is much stricter than normal pubs and clubs. Violence is rare and women find the atmosphere to be more safe and relaxed — men aren’t looking to them for sexual titillation.’
She found couples were using strip clubs to spice up their relationship, while other attendees were there to prove they are liberal or to fulfil a personal fantasy.
The next night I visit, For Your Eyes Only, is in the City and is popular with bankers. It’s a more masculine club, attracting an older clientele. Manager Tony Osborne tells me two of his most loyal regulars are women in their late 40s — one a barrister — both living at upmarket addresses in Mayfair.
‘They come in, order a bottle or two of good wine and spend money on a couple of dances. They’re here to let their hair down. It’s their naughty little secret.’
However, not every woman here is having the time of her life.
I meet Karen, 23, from Glasgow, visiting a strip club for the first time. She’d been persuaded to go by a man she found attractive. ‘I’ve spent £100 on a bottle of vodka,’ she winces. ‘It’s not what I expected and it’s not my idea of sexy.’
Unsurprisingly, the women who dance at these establishments aren’t pleased with the sudden female influx either.
Summer, 23, who works at Spearmint Rhino, says the women clientele change the atmosphere. ‘They constantly look down on us and snigger,’ she tells me.
Supporting sexism: When women visit strip clubs, we send out a powerful signal that we not only condone, but actively encourage, our sexual subjugation
Peter Stringfellow opened his Covent Garden club in 1980 and has been in the business for almost 50 years. He often turns away groups of ladies in a bid to maintain a high level of ‘affluent, corporate male’ customer.
But he will make exceptions. Last week, there was Rihanna and, in the past, he has hosted Kelly Osborne and Trudie Styler (who attended with Sting).
‘Men are inhibited when women come in. They can’t relax and won’t spend money,’ he tells me. ‘Women come here under sufferance, brought by husbands or partners. My advice to them is, have a look around the club, then go home. This is a male form of entertainment.’
He has a point. These clubs pander to the crassest kind of male fantasy. The fake hair, breasts and 5in platforms are miles away from what a real woman looks or acts like.
Fans may say it’s all just a bit of fun. But, in fact, the whole industry promotes a distasteful male-female dynamic and the image of a woman as a souped-up sex toy is one which can trickle into everyday life.
Take Imogen, a 30-year-old from Swansea, who I meet in one of the clubs. She’s worried about the effect coming here has had on her partner.
‘His image of what’s sexy has been distorted,’ she says. ‘He now really wants to push the boundaries in the bedroom and asks for things I feel uncomfortable doing. There’s pressure, as he feels let down when I say “no”. Places like these are putting his head in the clouds.’
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Anna van Heeswijk, of feminist group Object, refuses to believe stripping empowers women by celebrating the female form and allowing girls to make money.
‘Lap-dancing clubs are based on sexist ideas that have no place in a society in which women are fighting to be treated as equals, not as sex objects. This is a last attempt by the industry to hold on to a facade of respectability, which is rapidly being exposed for the illusion it is.’
After visiting four strip clubs in three nights, the industry has left me feeling hollow. The atmosphere is mechanical and depressing, and the clubs feel like livestock auctions. The dancers are there for money — and money alone.
Understandably, they all use fake names and are acting from the moment they walk through the door, while the men simply stare and whisper.
When women visit strip clubs, we send out a powerful signal that we not only condone, but actively encourage, our sexual subjugation. The further we pull lap dancing into the mainstream, the further we lose sight of the moral issues it raises.
As Anna van Heeswijk says: ‘If more women start visiting lap-dancing clubs, then the industry will have won. Now’s the time to decide what kind of society we want.’