HERE WE ARE, in Metropolis, a brand new strip club on rugged, grubby, gap-toothed Cambridge Heath Road, just north of Whitechapel Road - close enough to the City of London for posters advertising it to be wired on to the railings at the exits of commuter Tube stations.
You thread your way through the scavenging clump of adolescent boys outside, walk down into the basement bar. The barmaid smiles when you order your drink, and already you can sense the unique strip-joint atmosphere - the smile is measured, professional, furtive; it acknowledges your shame, your self-loathing. You're not really a guy who wants a beer; you're a guy who's gone out of his way to peer at girls as they take their clothes off. A question is permanently hanging over you: why?
The stripper, Louise, has taken off her spangled bra, making the usual business of it, turning round, showing you her back, undoing the clip, holding the undone bra in place for a while, discarding the shiny little garment with a flourish, a bit of drama. Now she's off the stage, loping round the room with the face of a predatory animal, creeping up to men, moving her tongue around. The men, mostly loners, a few in little support groups of three or four, are standing paralysed, terrified. They're rooted to the spot, suddenly more interested in their bottles of Molson Dry, their horrible cheap shoes, the video screens on the walls pumping out silent pictures of girls doing what men like them to do: standing naked, nipples erect, in waterfalls; kneeling, pouting, sticking their bums out, touching themselves, looking like they're desperate for sex.
Louise jiggles, her small breasts following her movements, and she creeps round the side of a pillar and extends her leg, and the guy two away from me jumps, he's shocked, Louise is wrapping her leg around him, and his face is a picture of utter misery and shame, he looks like he's been caught with his trousers down, the mouth pursed, the eyes glazed, not looking at anything. And Louise squeezes his cheek and passes on, while a couple of guys roll their eyes and cough into their beer.
And now she's swivelling round, right up to the guy next to me, and she jiggles to the hefty pumping beat of the music, thrusting her crotch parodically, thrusting and grinding, in and out and round and round, and she grabs the guy's tie with a gloved hand, makes a ferocious face, and licks her lips and puts the end of his tie in her mouth, and then a bit more of the tie, masturbating the middle of it, twanging her fingers, her breasts still jiggling, and he's standing there petrified, not really knowing what posture to adopt, held up at nipple-point, powerless. And Louise sashays away, and the music fades briefly, and eight or ten men pepper the air with weak applause.
There's a gap now, with just music to listen to and dirty videos to watch, this one about two leggy lesbians who meet in a glass lift and travel up the side of a skyscraper pulling each other's clothes off and burying their predatory heads in each other, ending up in a tangle on the floor, writhing in their fishnet stockings and suspenders. And do the guys like it? They lift their faces to the screen, creased hatchet faces, broiled pub faces, and they convey no emotions at all. The guys in little groups talk about sport, money, crime; they pretend to be interested in beer.
Here's another girl, slinking up to us, wearing a dress that fits like a condom, holding a beer glass out in front of her. She's 'on the jug', going around the punters asking for money. She's blonde, 19, thrifty with her charm; she needs to move on, to get more money. 'It's different now,' she says. 'When I started stripping, 18 months ago' - and here her face lights up, a programmed smile, a flirtatious tweak of the mouth - 'there was a lot of money around. People would put notes in the jug. Fivers.' The glass has an inch of minor silver, a few quids in there, fifties. Nothing much.
She looks up at me, and I chuck a quid in there - after all, I have just been looking at her without any clothes on; after all, she has gone to the trouble of taking her knickers off and sticking her bottom in the air, and then she . . . and then she . . . On stage she was brazen, confident: she got out of her straps and pouches quickly. Rather too quickly, in fact - like a lot of novice strippers, she hasn't quite learned that the whole point of stripping is to concentrate on keeping your clothes on, keeping something in reserve. In person she's shy, wordless, an awkward Cockney girl.
Behind the stage, another stripper, half-naked, makes her way towards the ladies for a costume change; she's covering her breasts, hanging her head. She doesn't want all these men to see her without any clothes on, does she? Not unless she's stripping.
IT'S GREAT, going to a strip joint. For five minutes. At first, this stuff can't fail to be interesting: women taking off their clothes and thrusting at you the parts of themselves that you're not supposed to see, that it's usually a privilege to see. And then something happens. One of the people you're with makes a mildly interesting point, something about the Premier League and its intricate financial structure, and you're distracted by this, and you look down and there's a girl with no knickers on kneeling in front of you, spreading her genitals with her fingers, and you've seen her do this twice before, so you turn around and say: 'What - you mean sponsorship?'
In his Mythologies, the French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote: 'Woman is desexualised the moment she is stripped naked,' and you can see the implications of this point. He asks you to imagine how much less titillated the audience would be if a stripper simply walked onstage with no clothes on. The point is that striptease is about wanting, in a fantasy world, what is denied you. But what do the strippers themselves think? Some I spoke to got the point, and mostly disagreed with it. The most articulate response I got, from an American girl with a degree in drama, was: 'Yes, stripping does endorse a view of women as sex objects, as men's toys. But that's how things are anyway - what we do is provide a little sexual release for a lot of shy, inadequate men.' And then you should have seen what she did . . . I asked Jackie Martine, who runs the Rainbow agency, what she says to people who disapprove of stripping, who say that it's dangerous pornography. 'I'd make them sit down and watch 20 or so girls and then see what they say,' says Jackie pertly. 'It's not pornography. It's easy on the eye.'
What kind of women do this for a living? 'There are two kinds,' says Jackie Martine. 'The stayers and the fly-by-nights. You can tell almost straight away.'
She's right; you can tell. Strippers are women who would rather make, say, pounds 50 a day than not prance about showing their bodies to a scrum of sad, leering men, and it's the fly-by-nights who tend to be the better-looking; students or nurses or single mothers who need a quick fix of cash, who imagine that soon they will be able to get on with their lives, to do the next thing. The stayers are the ones who can't quite be models or star in dirty videos; they're almost at the bottom of the pile of the sex industry, marginally senior to peep-show girls.
STRIPPING is dirtier than it used to be, more explicit, 'harder'. In the Sixties, when there wasn't much porn around, people would pack into a bar just to see a girl take her bra off for a couple of seconds before she rushed off stage. Now strippers have a lot to compete with - the full range of explicit stuff on the newsagent's top shelf; soft-core videos, absolutely legal, in which quite beautiful girls writhe about with no clothes on, available from your local filling-station; hard-core videos, illegal but easy to find, in which you can see almost anything you want. And now there's a new gimmick, explicit sex-advice videos which you can buy without any subterfuge or embarrassment (The Lovers Guide 2 is at number one in this week's video chart). So strippers can't just take their clothes off and run away any more. Now you get to see them doing all sorts of stuff, from all angles; they crawl, they kneel, they contort, they come off the stage and interact with the punters.
'It's a hard job,' says Jackie Martine. 'You have to go round and beg for money. People can say anything they like to you. Some girls make pounds 100 a day, and more, and they work hard for it. It's a job that breaks you down.'
And she's right: you can see it in any of the strip clubs around the edge of the City of London: in Brown's, the White Horse, the Spread Eagle - women in their thirties, haggard, stretched, with their blurred faces, their grey-white skin, cellulite rippling their thighs, lying on their backs on the high stage, opening their legs, thrusting their genitals towards the hopeless glazed faces. They do it again and again, day after day, the same few routines; you can see them with their little selection of records, negotiating with the DJs beforehand. Some of them look disconnected, like they're doing it in their sleep. Sometimes they prance on and the men begin to drift away.
'You've got to show them that you're enjoying yourself,' says Scarlett, the girl with a degree in drama, who is pert and trim. 'My act,' she says, 'is very athletic.' She says it's embarrassing going to the doctor when she gets injured - stripper's knee, stripper's elbow. But she has told her parents, which most girls haven't, and her boyfriend is OK about it, although he gets embarrassed when the subject comes up at dinner parties.
It's lunchtime, and we're in the Spread Eagle, dingy but not unpleasant: narrow bar, quiet middle-aged men, tabloid newspapers, a big dog. At one end is a stage; at the other is a door with 'NO ENTRY PISS OFF' written on it in chalk. Scarlett walks through the door; 10 minutes later she comes out again, wearing stiletto-heel shoes, fishnet tights, a tight mock- leopardskin top, a tiny skirt, and a studded dog collar. She gets up on the stage. The first bars of 'Get It On' by T Rex blast out of the speakers.
She really puts herself out, this girl. She pulls the skirt up straight away, gyrates her pelvis, slides down onto the floor and sticks her bottom out. Then she digs her nails into her buttock and scratches her hand along the flesh, leaving four marks. Then the top is off, and suddenly, she's pouring moisturising lotion over her breasts, down into her black lace panties . . . and this is just the beginning. This is before she has been around the room, getting men to grope her breasts (most were embarrassed; one old guy even refused); before she has taken her belt off and asked a few guys to spank her bottom with it (they do it tentatively, as if brushing off crumbs), before she has rushed off to get into her thigh-boots and PVC two-piece and has taken up her six-foot whip, before she has whipped herself . . . and so on. The third time that she comes back through the door marked 'NO ENTRY PISS OFF', she's wearing tiny shorts and holding a teddy bear. 'My act,' she had said, grinning, 'is quite explicit.'
The men in the Spread Eagle hang their heads towards their beer, wondering if it's safe to look up yet. Scarlett, the only woman in sight, comes round with her 'jug', grinning, working hard, the teddy bear under her arm. The men throw their money in, trying not to catch her eye, looking away, looking at each other with that male mixture of shame and pride, paying her to go away, to go away from them and take her clothes off again, so they can stare into their drinks and pretend not to notice.
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