Insight: Glasgow’s lap dancing clubs face stricter regulation

Dani Garavelli asks some artistes if they feel exploited performing near-naked in bars – and learns of a sector in need of regulation

The Diamond Dolls club in Glasgow
The Diamond Dolls club in Glasgow

The voice on the loud-speaker is like a fairground barker’s. “Next on the stage” [dramatic pause] “Melinda.” Like most of the “girls” at the Diamond Dolls lap dancing club in Glasgow, Melinda is wearing a thong, suspenders and f***-me shoes with huge platforms at the front and stiletto heels that could kill a man.

She walks the few steps to the small white platform in the centre of the room and wraps herself round the pole. For several minutes she spins and twists, her long hair touching the floor as she tips upside down. Some of the men look on goggle-eyed, others barely glance in her direction. But Melinda’s performance is strangely self-contained; detached from the attention or inattention of others .

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Tucked away in Mitchell Lane, Diamond Dolls announces itself brashly with a vertical neon sign in which the two “Os” are jewels. A doorman explains the rules to newbies: “£5 entry. No touching the girls. No propositioning the girls.” Then he ushers us in.

The Western Bar in Edinburgh

We climb a flight of stairs. On the wall are two framed T-shirts. One – with a picture of a penis – reads: “Another satisfied customer”; the other bears the legend: “Diamond Dolls Showbar: Stag Party HQ.”

The club itself is neither particularly glamorous nor particularly sleazy. The bar – which today is offering cheap beer at £2.50 a bottle and shots for £1.50 – is back-lit in neon pink while retro mirror balls cast flecks of light across the ceiling and walls.

The clientele is mixed. A group of noisy young lads has commandeered one alcove; the remainder is mainly small groups of three or four. One man, who appears to have wandered off the set of The Inbetweeners, has come alone.

The girls are a mixed bunch too. I count 10 of them altogether. Most are Scottish and could be students, but there are also a couple of Eastern Europeans.

When they are not dancing, the girls mingle. The men buy them drinks, chat, then slip into a side booth or behind a curtain for a private dance after which the girls move on. It’s a complicated mating ritual, with no hope of consummation.

I find myself gazing at a woman’s splayed buttocks because – thanks to new legislation – “Lap Dancing: a source of empowerment or a form of oppression?” is once again a hot topic for debate.

Diamond Dolls is just one of many lap dancing clubs in Scotland. Glasgow has three more: Forbidden, Platinum Lace and Seventh Heaven; Edinburgh, of course, has the “Pubic Triangle” at the intersection between Bread Street and Lauriston Street, where Burke and Hare, Baby Dolls No 1 Showbar and the Western Bar all compete for business. Dundee has Private Eyes.

At present, such clubs are largely unregulated. Because they require only alcohol licences, local authorities are unable to attach conditions to the lap dancing side of the businesses.

This was tested after Glasgow City Council rejected a licence application from Spearmint Rhino – then running a venue on Drury Street – on the grounds that two of the women had removed their bikini bottoms and that there had been considerable contact with customers, both of which breached the licensing board’s code of conduct.

But in 2011 the Court of Session ruled the code of conduct had no statutory basis and that issues around the regulation of lap dancing had nothing to do with the sale of alcohol.

In the wake of this, the Scottish Government re-examined existing legislation. It believes that – like prostitution, pornography and human trafficking – lap dancing is a form of violence against women.

In 2015, it introduced the Air Weapons and Licensing (Scotland) Act which allows (but does not force) councils to introduce Sexual Entertainment Venue (SEV) licences and to cap the number of licences allowed in their authority area.

Putatively the cap could be set at zero. Cosla and several women’s groups support a ban, though any move to close existing premises would most likely be challenged through the courts.

The Act came into force earlier this year, with guidance published on 26 April.

Last week, Glasgow City Council became the first council to launch a public consultation into its lap dancing clubs. It is seeking views on whether to introduce SEVs and, if so, what conditions should be attached. It also wants to know how many – if any – lap dancing clubs should be allowed, and what issues should be taken into account in considering where they should be sited.

The consultation is to last 12 weeks in the hopes of gathering as wide a range of views as possible. The council appears to be treading carefully because it knows the issue is likely to prove contentious.

The Scottish Government is by no means alone in its view of lap dancing clubs as inherently exploitative. In 2010, Iceland became the first country in the world to ban lap dancing and strip clubs for feminist rather than religious reasons. Under prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, it became illegal for any business to profit from the nudity of its employees.

Such views are prevalent in Scotland too. When a lap dancing club called Sin was given the go-ahead to open in Kirkcaldy last year, former SNP councillor Marie Penman formed the group Women Together Fife to fight it.

Penman believes lap dancing fosters the sexually-entitled attitudes of some men, including those who regularly cat-call her 16-year-old daughter.

“I had strong opinions on this anyway, but then the local MSP [David Torrance] said if it brought jobs to the local area he thought it was a good thing,” she says. “It really riled me he thought being a lap dancer was a decent job with no contract, no fixed pay, no pension – it seemed outrageous.”

Not everyone agrees, however. There are plenty of women, including lap dancers, who see it as a positive way to express their sexuality and earn a living; they believe a ban would be an erosion of personal choice.

Mandy Rose Jones first started lap dancing in Glasgow in 2009, came away from it for six years, then went back for a year between 2017 and 2018. The first time round, she kept her job a secret, but, now the consultation is under way, she feels it is important to be forthright about her opposition to a ban.

“I started because I was a student and wanted to earn a bit of extra money,” she says. “I found it a positive working environment, there’s a sisterhood among the girls, and I was working a lot less hours than my friends.

“People seem to think it’s a massively misogynistic environment and that is not my experience.”

She says a ban on lap dancing clubs would leave many of those who work there on the poverty line. “Those women could end up in precarious situations because they have lost their jobs,” she says.

This is how most lap dancing clubs work: the women pay a nightly fee to work in the club; then they dance round the pole for free to entice customers. They receive only the money spent on private dances: usually £10 or £20 a shot.

Everyone agrees that on a good night, lap dancers can make good money. But on a very bad night they can go home with nothing. The evening I was in Diamond Dolls, there seemed too few customers for 10 girls. The club can’t lose. If it charges each dancer £80 a night (much more on weekends) then it has guaranteed takings of £800. All the risk is on the girls.

As far as contact with the customers is concerned, the dancers I spoke to were adamant the rules are strictly enforced and that there was no cross-over from lap dancing to prostitution. There are cameras in every booth, they said, and in any case, if the girls were willing to be escorts, then why would they bother with lap dancing?

But health workers I spoke to weren’t so sure. They said the cubicles for private dances were so small touching was almost inevitable and that they have encountered women who have worked as both lap dancers and escorts.

Elizabeth Row, 28, is a student at the Glasgow School of Art creating work around cultural concepts of femininity and the male gaze; but for around a decade, she worked in lap dancing bars in Edinburgh.

“I came from a nice, middle-class background, so I suppose it was that element of being constrained in a traditional and conservative household,” she says. “We never talked about sexuality. I always knew my sexuality and my body wasn’t wrong because obviously it existed for me as a biological fact, but I didn’t like that it felt wrong so I was intrigued by the prospect of being in an environment that seemed to me quite liberating. An environment where I wouldn’t be judged and where I could earn the money I needed.”

So did it prove as liberating as she’d hoped? Well yes. And No. “I consented to being objectified in the context of the lap dancing clubs – and I enjoyed it,” she says. “I think maybe the reason I enjoyed it is because there are so few examples of women being unashamed of their body, and confident in their sexuality, so it felt novel. When I am giving a guy a lap dance, it’s almost like he is just a prop for my self expression. I’m not necessarily aroused by the situation, but I enjoy being naked and the moving of my body to the music. And I suppose, as I dance, I am a prop for him too.”

Yet the potential for female self-expression is undermined by the way the clubs are run and by culturally-embedded misogyny which shapes the way the women who work there are perceived.

“In lap dancing clubs, you are technically self-employed, yet you are still treated like an employee,” Row says.

“You can be fined for being late, forced to work extra shifts, and they can suddenly change the amount they want to charge you because they feel like it’s been a profitable night – although it may not have been profitable for everyone.

“It is easy for things like this to be brushed under the carpet because “who cares about the sluts?” and no one complains because we feel like it is just the way it goes.

“The management will say: ‘You make so much money why would you care about having to pay a bit of extra now and again?’ but the issue is not how much money you are making but the fact you are being taken advantage of by a mainly male establishment which quite frankly wouldn’t have a business if it weren’t for you.”

Row says, in her experience, the clubs are mostly safe. “There are bouncers whose job it is to look after you,” she says, “but it depends on which club you are in. Sometimes bouncers are quite attached to the club and, if you are a dancer who is going to kick up too much fuss, you are less inclined to get the protection you need even though you are in the right. Or if a customer is a big spender they might not be removed from the club even if they have physically or verbally assaulted you, but again you can’t complain about it; no-one cares.

“Most of the time you are safe, though, because the other women will always have your back. A very deep bond develops between you, even though you might not be friends in other circumstances, because you all understand what it’s like to work in this industry.”

Row – who went back into education at 18 – says deep-seated sexism leads men to see women who are strippers as “damaged” and outside social norms.

“But the strip clubs are not the issue. If you try to shut them down all you are going to be doing is putting a plaster over bigger, more pressing issues. Men should not be horrible to women regardless of whether they are strippers or prostitutes; they should not be horrible to women full stop.

“We should be educating men, not taking away employment and employment opportunities for students and caregivers and women who refuse to work for minimum wage and who, quite frankly, just like having loads of money – and there is nothing wrong with that.”

Row was dancing in the now-closed Sapphire Rooms in Edinburgh when photographer Jannica Honey was commissioned to take photographs of the girls who worked there back in 2011. Honey, who is Swedish, spent four months getting to know them and taking pictures of them in the dressing room and while performing.

“Whenever people talk about lap dancers, it’s either sad-assed stripper or empowered woman; there’s never a middle ground,” she says.

“You hear about students at college making shit-loads of money, but I think it is a bit of a myth. I do know someone who made enough to buy a flat in Edinburgh at an early age. But I also remember a woman who had paid to dance and she wasn’t getting any customers. So she got more and more frantic. Then the customers said: ‘Oh, she is desperate’ so they weren’t interested and at the end of the night she was out of pocket.

“I’m Swedish. I don’t care about getting naked, but what kind of a job is it where you pay to go to work, you work all those late hours and you still could leave without making anything?

As for the prospect of cleaning the industry up, Honey is dubious. “One lap dancer said to me that men who go to strip clubs get turned on by the seediness of it, the secret shame-based element,” she says.

“I think that’s important. It’s a liminal space where anything can unfold so it can’t just be a regular job. It’s just not within its nature. It’s not what people subconsciously want.”

With so much heat in the lap dancing debate and, to be frank, no mounting public clamour for a crackdown, there is a palpable frustration over the Scottish Government’s decision to question its morality, while delegating all the tough judgments to the local authorities.

It is the local authorities, not the Government, that will be caught in the cross-fire between those who see the sexual entertainment industry as legitimate (if in need of increased regulation) and those who see it as an inherent wrong.

It is the local authorities that will have to pick their way through the complexities of human sexuality and power dynamics and mull over the philosophical questions of choice, self-expression and exploitation.

In the meantime, back at Diamond Dolls, Thursday night has tipped into Friday morning. The lad from The Inbetweeners is chatting intimately with one of the girls. Were it not for her outfit, they could easily be a couple.

As they head off for a private dance, I make for the women’s toilets which are used as a changing room by the girls. Beside the basins lies a cluster of toiletries. Hairspray, mouthwash, a few toothbrushes in a tumbler: all quotidian reminders of the ordinary lives behind the vampy personas.

By the time I return, the private dance is over. The lad is back at the bar. His girl has vanished; and he is, once again, drinking alone.