"You can touch yourself, but don't insert any fingers," says 'House Mum' Debbie, who's initiating me into the world of lap dancing. "And if a customer offers you a drink, you always say yes, you'd like champagne — otherwise you'll be sacked on the spot."
I am having my first night induction, at the first of eight lap dancing clubs that I'll work in undercover, over the next three months. I actually audition for another two, but at one of these I'm told to come back, "if you tone up," and at the other, the owner insists on seeing proof of my address. When I tell him I'm staying with friends, he offers to let me live in a house he owns, at the back of the club. "I rent rooms out to the girls — then I have proof of your address. I can let you move in tomorrow." Dear reader, I did not.
I got drunk and started fingering myself on stage, then I sucked my fingers, and sprayed saliva at the punters sitting nearest.
I'd prepared for my first audition by writhing in front of the mirror, with all the poise of a plank of wood. The website had said to wear a g-string and a long dress, so after arriving at the club, I waited in a tatty gold room, in a dress I once wore to a black tie dinner, looking around at the leopard print chairs and stained red cushions, and generous lashings of gaffer tape across the carpet.
My nerves were so shot, that I'd have run out at any second, if it hadn't been for a camaraderie with another woman waiting to audition. At 24, she'd worked in 15 lap dancing clubs over the last six years. Wearing a sequined halter-neck dress, that was long at the back, and crotch level at the front, she told me she’d been fired from her last club, where she'd been earning £800 a night. "I got drunk and started fingering myself on stage, then I sucked my fingers, and sprayed saliva at the punters sitting nearest."
When I'm finally called to audition, I'm as seductive as a paving stone. If I'd been wearing a high-vis jacket, I might have been mistaken for a builder securing some scaffolding. Miraculously, they offer me a job, and as mortifying as I find the experience, it later turns out that I got off lightly. This one-minute audition, which took place before the club opened, and which ended the second I took my dress off, turns out to be the least demeaning audition I do.
The majority of the other clubs ask me to audition during opening hours, effectively providing the club with free entertainment for their customers. These 'auditions' last for the duration of two songs, and I am required to be topless by the start of the second song. One club insists that I strip fully naked, explaining, "it's just for the audition, you wouldn't normally be naked on the pole." It's clear that the auditions are a bonus for the punters — and also some of the staff. As I watch another woman audition, the creepy security guy shuffles over to the stage mid-song, and leans in to remind her: "You've got to take your knickers off."
While none of the clubs offer a nude stage show, they all offer fully nude lap dances. As I've never done this before, House Mum Debbie talks to me about grooming. "Most of the girls are waxed," she says. "Some have got a landing strip — and some have got a bit more than a landing strip." Debbie does not sound happy about this. "What you can do, if you've got a landing strip, is tell the guy that you're going to have it all waxed off, just for him — that way you encourage him to come back." Stockings, she tells me, are a good way to cover up if I haven't shaved my legs for a few days.
These 'auditions' last for the duration of two songs, and I am required to be topless by the start of the second song.
My induction is taking place in a well-lit VIP room. I ask Debbie if it's always this bright. "Oh no — when you do dances in here it's nearly pitch black. They'll be like this," she says, picking up a miniature light that looks like a candle, and waving it at my crotch. This turns out to be a pretty accurate impression of some of the customers, who fancy themselves as amateur gynaecologists.
At each club's induction I am told that drugs aren't tolerated, but it becomes apparent that this is mostly lip service. I speak to several 'customers' who are actually drug dealers, one of whom tells me that he used to supply the management. One lap dancer tells me that when she started at a club in the City, the manager pointed out the resident drug dealer, to send customers to if they asked for anything. I'm often asked by customers if they can buy coke off me, or where they can get it from, so I imagine that the club sanctioned dealer does well.
In one club, a woman who's started that night tells me the manager called her to the office to take her photo, "and when I took my bra off, a gram of coke fell out and I was shitting myself because he saw it, but he was like, 'oh, I like you already, you're a party girl! Don't worry, I didn't see anything! Save some for me and we'll take it later!'" When I point out that he should have only taken a headshot, and shouldn't have asked her to take her bra off, she says, "I'd rather he was like that, than getting me in shit for the coke."
She's in her mid-20s and has been doing the job for seven years. I can only imagine she's become used to managers treating her as a perk of the job, as this guy's attitude doesn't seem to be unique. At one of my auditions I meet two Spanish women in their early 20s. They tell me they left their last club because, "they treat us like shit. All the other girls are sucking the manager's dick, but if you don't suck his dick you have a hard time there." I ask if this is a euphemism. "No, they are really sucking his dick in the office." But why? "Because then they get treated better, with shifts and holidays."
Every customer I speak to seems to think they're the nice guy, and that talking to them will save me from talking to any 'creepy guys'. They often say, "I bet you don't meet many men like me!" But I do.
One of the first is a 60-something who breathes stale red wine in my face as he tells me Tony Blair's responsible for all the immigrants. Then he explains why we're better off out of Europe. He's an accountant from Yorkshire, and as a dancer walks off stage he nods in her direction and says, "she's ruined her body with all those tattoos. Beautiful canvas and she's ruined it." Earlier he had a lap dance off a woman of about 20, from Eastern Europe.
Every customer I speak to seems to think they are the nice guy, and that talking to them will save me from talking to any 'creepy guys'.
Another night I talk to an American called Pat, who voted for Donald Trump. He says he's disappointed that Trump hasn't lived up to his expectations. I do not ask him what his expectations were. He tells me he is twice my age (he is wrong, but it's dark) and as he repeatedly asks if that bothers me, I start to suspect that he's getting off on the idea. "I'm old enough to be your father," he continues, "maybe you like it that I could be your father?" He makes me touch his biceps several times.
Not all the customers are such obvious wrong 'uns. The majority of men are in their 20s and 30s, and they're often well-mannered, good company, and very likeable. There's a heart surgeon called James who I definitely would have dated, and a landscape gardener called Ben whose babies I would have had — if only I'd met them in other circumstances. If I had, I'd have thought they were lovely, and never imagined they were the "type" to go to lap dancing clubs. But the fact is, there isn't a "type." It's not "other" men who go there, and it's not "other" men who ask the lap dancers to have sex with them.
There's a heart surgeon called James who I definitely would have dated, and a landscape gardener called Ben whose babies I would have had.
I talk to an absolutely charming Welsh guy of about 50, who's in London for the night on business. Married of course, but I almost believe that his visit is harmless, until the end of the night when he politely asks if I'll come back to his hotel room. If I were his next door neighbour, or a friend of his wife, I'd never imagine he went to lap dancing clubs to pick up women for sex.
I'm frequently asked how much I charge for sex — it seems to be taken as read that, as a lap dancer, I offer services outside the club. Some men are coy, asking, "would you do a lap dance in my hotel room?" Others blatantly ask me for a fuck. One man persists throughout the evening, then pops up outside my taxi at the end of the night, rapping on the window. The driver is waiting to turn the corner outside the club, and in that time, the customer opens the taxi door. He runs away when I start screaming.
It isn't the only time I feel unsafe. On one occasion, a customer bites my ear so hard that I'm genuinely afraid his teeth will go right through it. It lasts about a minute and a half, and in that time, I sit there silently, afraid of aggravating the situation, and scared that if I pull away, my ear will rip. The DJ's already announced the last song of the night, so I rely on the lights coming up to bring an end to it. I burst into tears once the guy has gone.
A week later, I'm bitten again, this time on the shoulder. Again, it's a prolonged bite, and I'm afraid to move. Afterwards, the customer looks at the raised red circle made by his teeth and says, "well at least you'll have something to remember me by in the morning." I report him to security, who throw him out, but then I spend the rest of the night scared he'll be waiting outside for me.
There is one club that makes sure the women leave by a different door to the customers, and provides security to walk them to their cars or cabs. The majority of clubs, however, let the lap dancers leave by the same door as the customers, and do nothing to make sure they get away safely. This means the women pass pissed-up groups of lads on the street, who've just seen them in a lap dancing club in their lingerie. I, for one, feel extremely anxious.
It isn't all sex and violence. One guy goes through his phone, showing me pictures of his wife and kids, and another one gets out his Kindle, and we take it in turns to read aloud. On one occasion when I've really run out of chat, I suggest playing 'the name game' which, (as I explain it to the customer) is when you say someone's name, eg Theresa May, then the other person says a name beginning with the first letter of the surname, eg Margaret Thatcher. The guy ends up paying over £200 an hour to do this.
The guy ends up paying over £200 an hour to play 'the name game'.
Some clubs exploit the lap dancers financially, taking around 50% of the money they make, on top of the £20-£85 'house fee' the dancers pay to work there. It's possible to go home after an eight or 10-hour shift, having earnt less than the minimum wage (or literally nothing at all). Performing on stage several times a night is compulsory but unpaid, so if the lap dancers don't earn any money from the customers, then they go home empty handed, despite providing the club with free entertainment — and having paid to work there.
In some clubs, this financial exploitation is compounded by managers withholding payments that a customer has made by card, keeping the sum (or part of it) for themselves.
The club that takes the smallest cut of the lap dancers' earnings, is also the one that most effectively looks after their well-being at work. It is the only club to enforce the no-touching rule, and it ensures the customers treat the dancers with respect (when I report a guy for telling me to "fuck off" he's escorted off the premises immediately). This is the club where security walks the dancers to their cars and it is also the busiest of all the clubs I investigate, with the women seeming to make good money every night.
The customer opens the taxi door. He runs away when I start screaming.
Would all the women work there, getting their kit off, if they could make the same money while wearing a nice bit of knitwear, working sociable hours? Probably not (although more than one woman tells me she loves it). But if women are working in lap dancing clubs for want of other options at a decent rate of pay, then we need to address the reasons for that, whether it's the gender pay gap, the glass ceiling, taking time out to have kids, finding jobs that fit in around caring for children or relatives (tasks that tend to fall to women), or the social conditioning that ill-equips women to ask for pay raises, or apply for the top jobs.
Saying 'lap dancing clubs exploit women' simply makes a scapegoat of that industry, when it's society as a whole that upholds the conditions that make women vulnerable to exploitation.
Some names have been changed. The lap dancing venues pictured are not necessarily those referred to in the feature.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.