Tuesday 20 March 2018

Private dancer

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?

They look disappointed that I'm not a customer, and I begin to feel leered at. Competition between the girls, I'm told a few minutes later, is fierce: "I could send you out to work in this club but, to be honest, as it's your first time, the girls would probably eat you alive. There's a lot of bitchiness between the girls, a lot of competition, unlike our other club."

I've just climbed another step, passed a silver dance pole, and entered an area that the girls must use for changing. Any thoughts of glamour are quickly scotched by the sight of a couple of sports bags strewn about a dingy room. No fancy showbiz mirrors framed with light bulbs, no dressing tables, no chairs, nothing at all-- just space.

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.

He asks me my first name, age and where I come from (immediately clocking that I'm not a Dubliner), all of which I tell him, adding that I have no experience.

"We have two clubs: there's this one here, which is more rough and ready, more 'how are ya? Would you like a dance?' than our other one, which is a lot more upmarket. The customers have more money, they're older and it has a better bar."

I've been to this "upmarket" club before and it is just that. The girls are wearing more and socialise with customers in the bar downstairs before retiring upstairs for private dances when required, which gives the place a much less seedy feel. What strikes me about the club we are in now, however, is the pity I feel for the men. This is not reality. These are older men, well past their prime, deluding themselves. These women are not interested in them, apart from financially. They must accept at some point, maybe on the way home or waking up the next morning, that they had to pay for that attention, regardless of how they might want to masculinise it. But then, perhaps that's part of the fantasy.

"I think you'd be more suited to our other club, especially because you're new at it," he adds, pausing to study my expression. "This weekend would be a good weekend to start: January's a quiet month, but we've the rugby at the weekend, the Scottish especially when they come, they're usually a good crowd." He's not exaggerating, it's about 11pm and there's just one customer in the club, a grey-haired man in his 50s enjoying the lavish attention of two girls while the rest study the entrance.

I query how he auditions, to which he responds: "I'm not going to make you dance for me here and now. We'll let you work a night, see if it's for you first."

It's all very awkward and he seems almost apologetic for this, distancing himself from the reality that yes, what he is employing me to do is to strip to a thong while dancing seductively enough to convince a man that it is just for him, and not for the money. Other managers have been quite matter-of-fact about it all. I get a sense from this man that he has become so saturated by working in the industry that he's seen one, so he's seen them all.

I'm to be paid based on the value of drinks bought for me by customers. If, for some reason, I don't want to drink alcohol, I must inform the bar staff before my shift starts and pretend to be accepting their gracious offers.

"It's not an easy job for the money. Customers can give you hassle and it can certainly take its toll on you. Both our clubs, the girls just strip down to topless, not the full strip like some other clubs," he adds with a semblance of snobbery, raising one eyebrow and smiling.

"There are bouncers at the door and cameras everywhere, which I monitor," he adds, pointing to his computer screen. "The men can't put that" -- he prods my shoulder with his index finger -- "not a finger on you."

I glance at the security monitor and notice that you can't really make out fingers or even hands very well. It's all so dark and even then, I think it would be a fair length of time before security or this manager could get to me, should a finger land.

Walking out of the "upmarket" club as a bystander, I had felt slightly sorry for the men involved, as if it they were the ones being exploited. However, it was a different story leaving the job interview as a prospective dancer. I emerged that evening dying to speak to somebody who valued all of me, someone who could confirm that I was more than just a body. The desire to be more beautiful than the next is one that plagues most women, daily. However, add to that a financial need to be more beautiful, rather than just an aesthetic want, and it creates a whole different extreme of insecurity.

There seems to be an informal approach to interviewing for lap-dancing jobs in Ireland. No references or CVs are required. There are no formal auditions, no Flashdance routines here -- though many advertise as having all professional dancers.

As one club manager put it: "Ah, we're not like the UK here. You can just come in and jump on the pole," and, though he did ask for measurements, I was promised a job without him ever setting eyes upon me. His club, like many others, provides accommodation for the girls. There are, however, some house rules, such as no boyfriends. The manager explains: "The golden rule is no boyfriends in the club while you're working. He can come down and have a look at the place with you, but that's it then. I've had problems with irate boyfriends before, watching their girlfriends dance for other men."

One Cork club has the appearance of a very trendy club, with a very swish website and talk of exotic surroundings and girls, but, in reality, it turns out to be a very normal, country-looking pub, from the veneered bar tables to the lino flooring, with a pole stuck in the middle on a raised platform that looks, for all the world, like something you'd find under an old school blackboard.

A lot of the lap-dancing clubs in Ireland split the girls' takings 50:50, while others pay girls based on how many drinks customers buy for them. Where girls work as an independent within the club, the need to pay the minimum wage is avoided. Generally, there's an entrance fee of about €20 with a further €20 dance fee.

An owner of one club asked if I would prefer to work in a club in a different city -- "where nobody would know you". That way, he said, I'd avoid working and living in the same area, which could be problematic.

Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO, works with women in prostitution and views lap-dancing as a "gateway to prostitution". Spokesperson Gerardine Rowley has worked with women who came to Ireland on the promise of easy money as a lap-dancer but ended up working in prostitution. To her, the lap-dancing industry exploits women, whether those involved choose to accept this or not. She says the industry normalises the objectification of women, making it a stepping stone towards the normalisation of prostitution in Irish society. Because lap-dancing can be highly competitive, the NGO believes that girls often go further than dancing in order to outdo their competitors.

But can we really equate the two? Or, at least, blame one for the other? One begins to wonder, when faced with club slogans that promise stags their "last fling", where exactly the line is drawn.

Despite the efforts that some clubs profess to make, how can they possibly prevent their dancers giving out phone numbers and personal details in order to pursue "further business" with the men that frequent the clubs

I applied for jobs in many clubs but only one had a strict policy aimed at preventing this, though the measure seemed a little ineffectual. Girls were banned from having mobiles, and even pen and paper, while working. Another club in Cork "strongly discouraged" it, said the manager, insisting: "No swapping of numbers is allowed, I run a clean shop. You can't touch the customers below the belt either."

In March 2003, the Dublin District Court refused to renew the music and dance licence of the exclusive Barclay Club on South William Street when two gardai witnessed an illegal sexual act between one of its dancers and a customer. The customer in question testified in court that what in fact had happened was that the dancer stumbled when the two gardai entered the private dance room and he had put up his hand to prevent her fall.

No element of the lap-dancing industry more obviously highlights the possibility of this crossover than the escort-booking services that provide a sort of home-delivery package of lap-dancers and escorts to homes and hotel rooms.

Job-seekers are told to call "to enquire about rewarding work in Dublin for lap- dancers and escorts". This service, female-owned and operated, states that it is "against the exploitation of women, full stop", but provides "full escort service always, 'A' on request" and promises "an affair to remember".

Frequent references are made to lap-dancing in many different advertisements. Some escorts, for example, are advertised as current or former lap-dancers. Lap-dancing is often bundled with more seedy elements of the sex industry through advertising, as on the website www.irishbirds.com which, birdwatchers may be disappointed to discover, does not refer to the feathered kind. The site provides information on "escort services, domination, lap-dancing clubs, massage parlours and the street- prostitution scene".

And from there, business mushrooms into an array of oddly unimaginatively named agencies from "Red Cow Escorts", based at the famous roundabout, to "Luas Escorts", which has an escort at every stop from Tallaght Hospital to Connolly Station, and, for the romantic, there's "Temporarily Yours Escorts".

Ever the legal eagles, one agency provides the following disclaimer: "The escorts advertised on this website are not prostitutes and will not provide sexual services for payment. However, if during the course of your appointment, you both become attracted to each other and engage in sexual activity, it will be between consenting adults and a matter of choice," while advertising the cost of escorts, from 30 minutes to 24 hours, starting at €100.

We can only assume, therefore, that the additional information provided on escorts and their sexual preferences is given only to serve as a possible conversation starter.

One can argue that lap-dancing is indeed an "adult" pursuit and that it is a matter of personal choice whether to get involved in the industry or not, but regardless of what side of the fence you're on, there's an inherent awkwardness about the whole area. Claims that management run their clubs "in a very clean" manner, while well-intentioned, are a little unnerving even for the most liberal among us. The mention of hygiene in this context appears clinical and perhaps more evocative of a doctor's surgery than a "gentlemen's club". And even to the most liberal eye, the pictures on some of the lap-dancing club websites, where "exotic" women in cheap underwear sit spread-legged on fake leather couches or stand in front of gas fireplaces with their mouths open, are unsettling.

Some are vocal in their criticisms. Rabbi Schmuley Botech, a radio relationships counsellor who has his own show in the US, remarks: "The sexual exploitation of women has led to an epidemic of misogyny. To portray oneself, or to allow oneself to be portrayed, as the male sex slave is to invite male derision and contempt. Such debasement is the lowest form of self-abuse."

On a recent visit to Ireland, the rabbi walked through Temple Bar in all its busy-weekend glory and later appealed to the Irish female population, live on The Late Late Show, to wear more clothes in order to prevent the loss of all erotic mystery which, he claimed, turned men into porn addicts.

An enlightened male acquaintance once pondered the notion that frequenting lap-dancing clubs might eventually lead to overexposure to female nudity, which would diminish the associated novelty. He equated it with the women in Amazonian tribes who never wear anything covering their upper bodies, pointing out that, after a while, you don't see their breasts; they become just like elbows.

Perhaps that's what happened in John Joe Fitzpatrick's rural pub in Co Limerick, which hit the headlines last October when he decided to combat the effects of the smoking ban and drink-driving laws on his trade by hiring a topless barmaid. For the first few weeks, the pub saw a huge upsurge in its takings. It was described as a "great laugh" and local women reported an improvement in their own relationships, one remarking that she didn't mind if her husband "looked at the menu as long as he ate at home". Ultimately, the novelty was short-lived and the pub closed early this year.

In the same way, many clubs fail to prosper here. But that shouldn't be construed as a victory for the Pope-photograph-wielding brigade who loudly condemn lap-dancing. Rather, it seems down to a simple lack of interest from the Irish population en masse. If you disregard the stag parties and sports fans, who draw strength from their numbers, few actually frequent these places.

As one stag party member in Temple Bar informed me: "We went to lap-dancing clubs for other friends' stags and it caused so much hassle that this time we decided against it. It's not worth it. The girlfriends always find out and go mad!"

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