When Emma Watson went to a strip club in LA back in 2011, the media collectively lost its mind. What was innocent Hermione doing in a bar full of naked women?
The truth is that in the US, strip clubs have long been an acceptable late-night option for women, especially in body-obsessed LA where nakedness is as ubiquitous as green juice. For Emma, who has since aptly become the UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, it was just a bar where there happened to be strippers.
It’s taken a while, but this American attitude is now migrating to Britain. Up and down the UK, strip clubs claim they’re welcoming growing numbers of female patrons, with many actively seeking them out.
Platinum Lace has clubs in London, Brighton, Norwich, Leicester and Glasgow. Director Paul Kennedy says women, either in single sex groups or with partners, account for up to 30% of clientele on Friday and Saturday nights.
I’ve never even come close to going inside a strip club. Not because I’m a prude, or disapproving, embarrassed, or think I wouldn’t enjoy it. It’s just that when I go out I want to swap stories with my friends while getting fall-down drunk. I don’t need or want to enter a fantasy land where women dance men out of mortgage payments.
But listening to Gemma, a marketing manager from Kent, speak so enthusiastically about nights spent in strip clubs makes me think I should at least see one for myself.
“They’re open late, the women are gorgeous, and they play great music – what’s not to like?” says Gemma, who is single and heterosexual. She adds that they’re a safe place to end up “after bars chuck out. I’m not saying I go every weekend, but there’s a great atmosphere. They’re not seedy, and there are women behind the bar, too… I’ve only ever been made to feel welcome.”
The issues surrounding the evolving cultural acceptance of strip clubs are much more complex than women finally feeling able to set foot inside. Aside from discussions about breeding misogynist attitudes or devaluing the female body, women occupying such male-focused environments has proved to be controversial in unexpected ways.
Over the past four years spent dancing in various strip clubs in Leeds, Janaki has noticed the increase in the number of female faces watching. “In theory I’m all for it,” she begins. “But I’ve had women being rude, like groups of girls who sit together and create too much noise so it's distracting.
“What they don't seem to understand is this is my job. I have to try and keep attention on me in order for men to have a private dance. That’s the only way I make real money. So, in a way, women being in the club ends up costing me money.”
While she’s not suggesting women go to strip clubs to pick up men, Janaki also raises the issue of female clientele chatting up blokes, which “takes the spotlight away from the dancers”. She adds: “But the worst is women who come with their boyfriend and treat it like a theme park. I find it disrespectful when they’re all over each other; it’s like they’re using me.”
Women’s presence in strip clubs has even given rise to conflict. At Ye Olde Axe – an east London example of that peculiarly British hybrid, the ‘strip pub’ – management recently banned female customers.
One employee, who would prefer to remain nameless, explains: “We had problems with women getting aggressive with the dancers. They’d call them sluts and whores, so we decided it’d be easier not to let them.”
It’s clear that women watching women is not a straightforward exercise in shared empowerment. But that’s not to take away from the experience of the growing number of girls who enjoy being a voyeur. Perhaps we should even celebrate the fact that they are welcome in establishments that were, until recently, exclusively male spaces. Some are still called ‘gentlemen’s clubs’.
“I’m straight but I find strip clubs really sexy places to be,” says Jessica, from north London, who has visited several clubs, often with her boyfriend. “I know they’re not everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoy it. I’ve even had a private dance once. I just wanted to know what went on.”
Whether women visit out of curiosity or desire, strip clubs today are unlikely to turn them away. In fact, they could be key to their very survival.
In the early 2000s, the number of people visiting clubs was in decline. Online access to porn meant men could see what they wanted on screen without the inconvenience of putting on clothes and leaving the house. Now strip clubs need all the clients they can get, as the owner of a strip pub (who wanted to remain nameless) confirmed: “At the end of the day we’re a business, so we welcome anyone through the door, men or women.”
In the name of research I visited an east London strip pub with a female friend. Having already spoken to some dancers to write this piece, I knew that far from being an exploitative industry, stripping was something they enjoyed – and which earned them tonnes of money.
It would have been hard not to be mesmerised by the parade of female beauty inside, but once I'd seen one hot hairless millennial, I felt like I'd seen them all. In truth, I struggled to forget just how completely motivated by money the dancers are. All of us watching were reduced to pound coin signs, and I couldn’t shift the episode of People Just Do Nothing where Grindah falls for a cash-hungry stripper.
In this post-Weinstein era, and following the Women’s March where millions protested against ‘pussy-grabbing’ Trump, it’s understandable that eyebrows are raised at the idea of women spending their hard-earned money in strip clubs. They remain a murky moral issue, forever linked to our sexual subjugation. But if a woman enjoys watching other women, and it’s consensual, safe, and Drake is playing, who is anyone to argue?
*Names have been changed