When Joanna Kiernan auditioned to become a lap-dancer, she was astonished at howwilling club managers were to take her on and at how frankly they discussed sex with clients, bitchiness between dancers and the problems associated with living and working in a sex industry, albeit a legal one. With suspected IRA and INLA links, and connections to mafia groups and human trafficking, lap-dancing goes further than just shaking your booty for cash, she discovered. Portrait by Agata Stoinska
'No touching the girls, no asking for sex," were the words from the large Eastern European bouncer as he put his palm on the chest of a punter heading into this Georgian-basement lap-dancing club.
It's a Thursday, about midnight, and a steady trickle of men, mostly solo but some in pairs, makes its way down the concrete steps past two massive doormen, in matching leather jackets and gloves, and through the six-inch-thick door.
This club, like many in Ireland, claims to be a "gentleman's club" with internationally sourced "model dancers".
The lap-dancing business in Ireland has expanded greatly in the past decade alongside other legal and illegal elements of the sex industry. A staff member in what is considered a very exclusive Dublin lap-dancing club revealed that a certain young, good-looking and very wealthy businessman spends at least 10 grand a week there, enjoying private dances and drinks with friends on an almost nightly basis.
One may wonder if this is a sign that our once Catholic nation has finally become comfortable with its sexuality. Or is it a sign, perhaps, that our newfound affluence has warped our perceptions of sexuality, turning it into yet another commodity?
The topic of lap-dancing usually meets a variety of extreme responses. To many, lap-dancing is smutty and exploitative of women; to others, it symbolises a form of sexual liberalism and expression. I've never really had an opinion on it. However, I'm not convinced women are born dreaming of some day becoming lap-dancers, though I have heard tell of a nine-year-old turning up at a kids' fancy dress party as a "pole dancer".
To me, as a woman, lap-dancing has a double-edged mystique. On the one hand, you wonder if it may be liberating to be that proud of your body, up there shaking what God gave you. But then, when you contemplate getting paid for this 'self-expression', it loses its mystery as, to some extent, your ownership of this so-called sexually liberating act becomes mere mechanical movement, and you simply go through the motions to get paid.
I'm told at the door that unless I'm looking for a job I'm not coming in because I don't look like a lesbian. When I ask what a lesbian looks like, my question falls on deaf ears, but I am glad to hear they wouldn't discriminate if I were so inclined.
Lap-dancers are inspected by consumers for chinks and flaws, just as products often are: "You could go out there one night looking good and a customer will tell you different. You have to be able to deal with that," I'm advised by the manager of a Dublin city lap-dancing club, noting that the "customer is always right" theory still applies here.
It's quite clear from internet forums that unhappy customers will freely voice their opinions, posting reviews, ratings and sometimes even photographs of girls who did not meet their expectations, advising others to avoid particular clubs.
One comment reads: "Will pass on the advice about the mingin' ladies. I am surprised there are no classy strip bars." The contributor had received a barrage of scathing reviews of Irish lap-dancing clubs.
I've just walked in off the street and asked for a job. One of the bouncers eagerly escorts me in, through a curtain at the bottom of a stairs covered in a worn-out, wine-coloured carpet which, oddly, gives it an ecclesiastical look.
Inside the club, it is extremely dark and I'm astonished at how different it looks from the photographs on the club's website. I'm taken aback by the number of girls, 20 or so, sitting dressed in little more than underwear, watching the entrance for punters. Even for a lap-dancing club, these girls are under-dressed, I think to myself as I'm ushered through. Isn't the whole point to tease?
A few girls have followed me in, pretending to need something inside, and it's obvious they just want to know why I'm here. As one scurries from the dark club into the bright back room, the need for darkness becomes apparent. In moving between rooms, she has aged about 10 years and though she is beautiful, the application of such huge amounts of make-up has obviously taken its toll on her skin.
The manager invites me into his office and, noticing the girls' interest, closes the door. He glances at me, up and down, then back to eye level.
"OK, there's no need to be nervous. There's nothing seedy going on here," he says, and I have to say, I genuinely believe him. He seems protective, almost brotherly in his reassurances.