Lap dancing clubs in “crap workplaces” shocker

March 8, 2009 at 6:47 pm (lap dancing, rights, sex workers, unions, voltairespriest)

There’s an article in today’s Observer, by the extravagantly named Nadine Stavonina De Montagnac, which tells the tale of her previous life as a lap dancer. The upshot of it is that lap dancing clubs are thoroughly unpleasant places to work and she’s glad she doesn’t do so any more. It does sound nasty at points:

In order to make money, I acted dim-witted. I had to dodge the gropes, pinching and slaps even though, officially, there was no touching allowed. I felt the stress. I constantly had to say “no” to propositions of sex. Once, as a “joke”, a customer pinched my nipple and twisted so hard I nearly passed out. It bled, but the management’s reaction was: “Well, stay out of his way then.” I realised that if I wanted any money that night to pay the club rent, I had to just get on with it, so I took a large swig of vodka and went back to work.

If nothing else, this certainly reinforces my own pre-conception about the sweaty, furtive (or drunk and boorish) types whom one sees heading into lap dancing clubs across the country. They’re certainly not my kind of places, and their customers are not, by and large, my kind of people. Furthermore, the people who ran the particular club that Stavonina De Montagnac is talking about sound utterly callous and unconcerned for the welfare of their staff, and in need of a good keelhauling from the unions. What’s more, the description she gives of her colleagues paints a pretty desperate picture:

Some dancers pushed the boundaries, prostituting themselves, and the club turned a blind eye. Many of the women were young, shy and still finding their feet in life. Then there were those in their 30s, some with university degrees, who came in because they said that was the only way they could pay the mortgage.

Some of my colleagues had drug problems, many suffered from mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders, low self-esteem or disorders associated with past abuse. These were vulnerable people who stripped to survive. We clung to the idea that women have been making sacrifices for the greater good of their families for centuries, to keep everything together. But really, how many women would even contemplate going into lap dancing if there was a real choice of other well-paid jobs available to them, with flexible working hours?

Again, my first thoughts were that such workplace exploitation is quite appalling, and that people in such situations need assistance. That’s self-evidently true, however a number of caveats also strike me.

Firstly, it simply is not the case that there aren’t people who freely choose to work as lap dancers. It isn’t most people’s first choice of career, and indeed most of the people I know of who did, or do, it, did so in order to earn money to supplement something else – in several cases to get extra money whilst studying for a degree. Now, virtually nobody does any job through entirely free choice (I certainly don’t):  we work for money to buy food, pay the rent/mortgage, educate the kids, save for a holiday or whatever else. People “with drug problems or mental health issues” are no exception to that rule, having also obviously to buy things in order to get through the year. Also, lap dancing is, for obvious reasons, not the last-ditch desperation method of earning money that, say, street prostitution is. There is then a question over choice here – and also indeed over how uniquely desperate are the situations suffered by people who become lap dancers – and also whether all of them went into the trade of a desperation any greater than that felt by people going into any other crap job.

It’s obviously the case that the UK is full of workplaces which exploit low-paid workers, and female ones in particular. Tube cleaners don’t exactly do a job which is secure and fulfilling, neither do supermarket shelf-stackers, call centre operatives, meat packers or countless thousands of others. These all have issues of bullying, workplace stress, low pay, boredom, and many other things which many of us see every day on the downside of employment relations. In that sense, lap dancing clubs really aren’t so galactically far removed from many other workplaces in the UK.

I think actually that Stavonina de Montagnac is relying to some extent on the “yuck factor” which afflicts many people when discussing the sex industry. People instinctively recoil at the sight of lap dancing clubs because they sell sex, which is somehow seen as a much more taboo commodity than cars, beer, or lawn mowers. There is no reason for this to be the case in law, and I fail to see how it would really help the more vulnerable people working in that field for the provisions contained in Jacqui Smith’s policing and crime bill (which would re-classify the clubs as “sex encounter establishments” and give councils the power to close them if they are near schools etc) to come into force. People who have serious issues will have them whether they continue to be employed as lap dancers or not – the only difference is that they will now be an unemployed person with issues. Stavonina de Montgnac was evidently fortunate enough to be able to fall back on (err) being a professional writer, however most people do not have a graduate education an alternative career option available. They need rights as work where they are. That requires lap dancing clubs to be seen in an economic rather than a moralistic context, and to be the focus of unionising drives, just like those cleaners I mentioned earlier.

Ms Stavonina de Montagnac certainly hasn’t convinced me. I for one won’t be supporting a bill meant to appease the Daily Mail reading nimbies whom New Labour thinks so crucial to its empty electoral success, and I certainly won’t be doing so under the misapprehension that it protects the vulnerable. Only rights will end the wrongs.

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