At 10.00pm tonight, Channel 4 goes behind the curtain of the lap dancing industry in a new documentary, Strippers that gives an honest portrayal of an industry that has more than doubled in the decade since I last slunk round a pole in breakneck heels.
Concentrating on ‘high end’ Glasgow club Diamond Dolls, tonight’s episode raise questions about the ethics of an industry that encourages young girls to make money using their bodies, with little compunction about taking lascivious camera angles of the girls’ peachy behinds.Would that my own had stayed so peachy.
It comes as some surprise to me that the strip club industry is burgeoning since its early noughties heydey when I paid my way through uni with little more than a smile and a sparkly thong. But while my ‘career’ in London may have come to an end just before 2008’s financial collapse, the industry has flourished, particularly, it seems in areas of particular economic hardship, as the repercussions continue to reverberate around the country.
While bringing into focus the experiences faced by the forty or so dancers who grace the club’s three levels, as well as attitudes to them from both their customers and society more generally, the cool neutrality of the programme’s commentary made it somehow seem all the more judgemental.
Both compounding and overturning strip club stereotypes, it was interesting to see how little has changed since my own dancing days. The eyelashes may be thicker, the acrylic nails may be longer, but I could almost taste the cloying clash of perfume and sweat, and feel the blistered toes as the cameras panned down the steps away from the dance floor and followed the girls as they first sashayed, then hobbled through the changing room door. Beyond that, the camera was barred, but there was little left to the imagination.
The conviviality and competitiveness behind the scenes were tangible. Interviewing a range of girls I recognised from my be-sequinned days – the ex-student keen to make some cash, a gymnast rebelling against her strenuous upbringing, a European nurse paying off debts – these are not necessarily the disadvantaged girls of broken homes though many of them will have troubled pasts one way or another. But neither are they the strong, independent women enthused about by the rather jollier-than-I- ever-remember house-mother. They are most marked by their ordinariness, for all they are done up to the nines.
It’s easy to see the appeal for the punter of a girl-next-door shaking her booty for the cost of a bargain bucket if you’re Mr Ordinary working 8-6.30 shifts at a call centre up the road. Like the dancers, the punters come from all walks of life, and most of them just want a cheap thrill and someone to talk to. Nothing has changed. The public service aspect of the job should not be underestimated.
But it is perhaps the ordinariness of both girls and punters that is both worrying and refreshing. In an economy that’s increasingly disenfranchising the young, it’s hard to see how many of these girls has a lot of better options. Compared to a zero hours contract, wearing a headset at one of the few remaining call centres that have not been outsourced to India, or pushing a cart around the Amazon warehouse, stripping isn’t that bad. Sure you get bruises on your knees, and get your ears bent by arseholes, but there’s ready money, the chance to get dolled up, feel desirable, have a bit of fun and chat to people who wouldn’t look twice at you but to get them a coffee in an office.
Mainly, though, like me, and everyone else who’s ever stepped foot into a perspex platform, when push comes to shove, they’re in it for the money. But the money’s not changed since I was a dancer ten years ago, although I’d bet my last tenner the house fees have gone up since then.
And for all these girls may believe, as I did at their age, that they are the ones in control on that dance floor, they are not. The too-nice-to-be-true house-mother states at one point that the only people getting exploited are the ones with the money. But only a fool would believe that. And none of these girls could be taken for that.
There’s a reason many strippers don’t tell their parents they dance for a living, and a reason society at large disapproves, and it’s probably not the reason the girls – or even the programme-makers – think.
It’s what these girls do afterwards that’s so troubling – and I don’t mean going home with the punters. Thankfully this seems as rare now as it was back in my day – although they are always those who break the rules, are prepared to go a bit further, or have no choice but to also be on the game. That’s is the way it’s always been.
But it’s glaringly obvious from where I’m sat that the worst thing about stripping is that it doesn’t offer these girls much of a future. The sense of desperation I felt as a dancer, one eclipses all the shopping sprees, and glasses of champagne, glitzy outfits and toned behinds, pervades this documentary too. Of the forty girls working every night in that club, only one of them has a career in the industry post forty, and she’s the one saying the girl’s aren’t being exploited. But in my experience the owners tend, by and large, to be men. So unless these girls are squirrelling their money away into property, or businesses of their own, the future’s looks bleak for them.
According to ex-gymnast Kim, it’s a young woman’s game. Says ex-gymnast Kim. ‘You can’t dance for life. You start losing your looks and your boobs will sag. Guys don’t want that.” But for me, it’s not losing one’s looks that make it so uncomfortable. It’s the fact she’s still doing it.
For all those taking their clothes off to put themselves through college, there will be plenty who are bringing up kids. The point is, like the lithegymnast now contorting herself around a pole, stripping isn’t a career with much longevity. Luckily for Kim, she left shortly after the programme was made, for a job in a bank. But there will be many more who find it much harder to make the transition to a ‘real job.’ And in an economy that is struggling to find jobs for its young, girls who miss the narrow window to get a foot in the door of a career with legs will find there’s more than pole to climb before they hit a glass ceiling.