It’s modern masculinity that’s in trouble

The Independent, Thursday 12 April 2012

Let’s be frank about this: lap dancing is a crap job with no career prospects, no status  and no security. Dancers are self-employed, have few rights, don’t know how much they’re going to earn, and most have left a shift without making any money at all. Then there’s the verbal harassment and unwanted touching from “customers”, who constantly
break no-touching rules or use the encounter to unload hostile feelings towards women.

One former lap dancer, Jennifer Hayashi Danns, has written a book about the industry. She says she had to drink a bottle of wine before she could bear to start work and recalls that punters called dancers rude names and made hostile comments on their bodies. That’s confirmed by a survey presented yesterday at the British Sociological Association, in which nearly half of the dancers interviewed reported ‘frequent verbal harassment’and ‘unwanted touching’ from customers.

The survey has caused a bit of a stir. An influx of less experienced dancers suggests that hard financial times are making more women turn to lap dancing, but that isn’t what’s made headlines. Instead, there were reports about the possible impact on customers of this “de-skilling” among dancers. One of the survey’s authors, Dr Teela Sanders, was quoted as observing that some dancers have “never even used a pole”.

“There has been a dramatic slump in the acrobatic quality of the lithe ladies who populate clubs across the country,” The Sun claimed yesterday. Lithe ladies? What century are we in? I couldn’t judge the skill of the faceless dancer in the photograph accompanying the report, but The Times worried about the effect of falling standards on the bankers and stag parties who use lap-dancing clubs.

I suppose there may come a moment when we can have a grown-up conversation about the effect of such establishments, both on the women who work in them and our aspirations towards gender equality. Lap-dancing clubs proliferated between 2004 and 2008, following a change in licensing laws that put them in the same category as cafés and bars. Their numbers doubled to 300, prompting protests from feminists, councillors and people who lived nearby. As a result, the law changed again in 2009, requiring any venue offering lap or pole dancing to be classified as a “sex encounter venue”.

There’s no doubt that the climate for “sex encounter venues” is chillier than it was. I’m glad to say there’s also been a decline in the number of witless celebrities willing to be seen in them, lending a spurious glamour to places whose purpose is to sell fantasies of male domination. Almost a quarter of lap dancers have degrees, but that doesn’t mean punters go there to meet smart women and discuss Obama’s chances of re-election. Modern masculinity shouldn’t need these props.

Correction: the original version of this article suggested that two-fifths of lap dancers reported rude or abusive behaviour from customers. I’ve corrected it to reflect the survey’s finding that ’nearly half’ had experienced verbal harassment or unwanted touching.

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