Tacky, tasteless and degrading to women? Perhaps, but lapdancing clubs are sweeping the country and their clientele is far from exclusively single and male. Corinne Sweet reports on a new kind of voyeurism for the liberated Nineties
"I HAVEN'T DONE this before," confesses Ben, a computer technician in his twenties, on the doorstep of Secrets, a club in Hammersmith, west London. "I'm just following Dave - he knows the club." Dave is beckoning furiously from the door, irritated by his mates' delay. "My girlfriend wouldn't like it," confesses his friend Steve, 26. "But then," he adds pragmatically, "she's not going to know, is she?"

All three are about to part with a pounds 20 entrance fee; once inside, a tenner tucked into a garter will secure a "beautiful girl who will dance, fully nude, especially for you at your table" (or so promises Secrets's brochure). Secrets is typical of the new brand of American-style lapdancing clubs which are springing up throughout the UK. There's at least one club in most major cities (Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Bristol), and several in and around London. And battles are raging in usually sedate places like Hove, Sussex, where local residents are resisting lap-dancing clubs opening. "We fear drunken, steamed-up men will pour out on the streets in the early hours and kerb crawl, assault, or even rape women," says one angry female resident.

The lagered-up lad in search of cheap thrills may well be the sterotypical punter, but these new-style sanitised strip clubs are also attracting a quite different sort of customer. Liberated young couples, gay and bisexual girls and crowds of mixed clubbers have also made business boom. "I'm offering a nice sexy dance along with good food and drink," says Alan Whitehead, formerly the drummer with Seventies band Marmalade, who insists on using the term "table-dancing" instead of the more salacious "lap-dancing". Whitehead established Secrets 18 months ago. He is planning to open at least three more clubs in London soon - and there are plenty more in the pipeline. Proprietors like Whitehead are following the lucrative trend originally set by Peter Stringfellow, who boasts being the first to import lap-dancing from the States to his London club in July 1996.

How legal lap-dancing is seems to come down to rules about touching and, of course, soliciting. Clubs like Secrets, which are licensed for public entertainment by their local authority, have house rules which state "there shall be no physical contact between the customers and performers except for the placing of money in a garter". Plus "a minimum distance of three feet [is] to be kept between performer and the seat of the customer". But as lapdancers, punters and the police confirm, these rules are often broken. "They're certainly very difficult to enforce," explains Detective Superintendent Jaucht of the Met's Vice Squad, "because we hardly go round with a yard rule". He remembers Peter Stringfellow "inviting our team to the States to see just how innocuous lapdancing is". Jaucht assures us that the Met declined. He keeps a watchful eye on the burgeoning clubs. "In the main they're reasonably well run as they tend to be at the more legal end of the sex industry," he says. Nevertheless, lap-dancers report that business cards and phone numbers are slipped into garters alongside the tenners, though new club owners such as Whitehead are eager to stress the "straightness" of their business. "We run a very tight ship," explains Joy, Whitehead's assistant. "Any drugs or prostitution and that's it, the girls are out." ("They would say that," responds DS Jaucht drily.)

But some punters react angrily to the notion that they are craftily looking for paid sex. "I have been to a lap-dancing club several times," says Richard. "I would never dream of propositioning any of the dancers. I don't need to: I've got a girlfriend, she is perfectly aware that I go to these clubs occasionally and she is curious about what they are like, certainly not annoyed with me! I went along the first time out of curiosity and found that in fact it was a good night out; if you're having an evening with male colleagues or clients, what harm does it do?"

Stringfellows and the infamous Windmill Club made it quite clear to me that single women were not welcome on table-dancing nights ("It's a boys thing, you see," explained the doorwoman at the Windmill apologetically, "they like to do boys things in a boysy way and you'd sort of put them off.") So when I visited Secrets, I took my husband as a calling card, saying it was his birthday treat. Inside, past rippling bouncers, the club could well be a downmarket Holiday Inn: wooden floors, cool mint walls, tasteful prints and a scampi-in-the-basket-type menu with pricey drinks. Only the silver pole, rocking horse and spotlights on stage in front of a wall of mirrors betrayed the club's true nature. A booming bass on the sound system (it was Seventies night) was supposed to set the pulses racing. Heavily made-up "girls" fluttered by in strappy, shiny mini-dresses, fur and sequins and as suited punters arrived (no jeans or trainers, club rule one) and bought their first drink (club rule two), the women descended on their prey, eager to start the chat-up line leading to the personalised strip. My husband was enthusiastically offered the "birthday special" of being tied up and blindfolded on stage with his shirt and trousers undone, while three women stripped for pounds 20 each. He politely declined (of his own accord).

The performers at Secrets (who pay pounds 50 a night to Whitehead for the privilege) told me about their regulars: the nice married man who always comes in when his wife is away; the overweight single man who desperately wants a baby; the middle-aged exec who can't get it up any more. "I listen to them talk before I strip," said Christina (not her real name) sweetly. "I feel sorry for them, really." The dancers I met wryly reported men falling in love with them regularly, sending them flowers, perfume, love letters, as if they were having a proper relationship instead of a quick strip for cash.

Cornering a couple of clients near the loos I asked how they were finding the club. Charles, an attractive middle-class man in his 30s with a live- in girlfriend at home, blushed and looked awkward. "I have to say I felt like leaving after ten minutes. It's like the girls are what you've always fantasised about as a man, but once you're here it's not very sexy at all." Would he be telling his girlfriend? "I've got nothing to hide. I didn't pay for a dance, not because I'm mean, but because it all seems so impersonal. It's not my kind of thing."

In the newer-style clubs, while male clubbers may be in the majority, women or mixed couples are by no means unknown. "I know a group of about ten people, mostly straight couples, who really enjoy going along to this kind of club," says Helen, 23. "They are a clubby crowd, all of them young and professional. For us it's a really social thing, a bit of a laugh. There is something quite enticing about an atmosphere where anything goes - but you don't have to join in if you don't want to. Not all the men are ogling, filthy, depraved perverts! I've never had any feeling that because my friends watch the dancers they've got any less respect for me personally." For Caroline, 27, an advertising executive, watching lapdancing is an erotic experience. "I'm bisexual, and though I'm in a long-term hetero relationship, I enjoy going with my boyfriend occasionally to strip joints," she says. "I'm not ashamed to admit that I find lapdancing extremely sexy. I don't think that's an unusual response from women, it's not as if all girlfriends tag along just because their boyfriends go. My straight girlfriends admit to getting turned on as well."

Table-dancing, lap-dancing, call it what you will: why is it suddenly gaining so much ground? According to Dr Sidney Crown, "we are seeing an explosion of explicit sexuality where people are challenging social codes and ethics more than ever before". Dr Crown believes there has been a significant cultural shift in the past few years. "There's a sense of pushing back the sexual boundaries on all fronts: in the theatre, on the street, in sexual relations."

Agony aunt and Relate counsellor Suzie Hayman agrees. "The more we see and the more is available the more relaxed we are in our own attitudes towards sex, though the difficulty lies in

defining where erotica becomes pornography." She believes that, when men go in groups to lap-dancing clubs, the exercise is as much about male bonding as about sex. "Men find it difficult to talk intimately, so instead they have activities they do together - football, racing, tinkering with engines. I would think that the whole thing is as much about 'Phwoar, look at us being men' as about 'Phwoar, look at her!'" she says.

Psychotherapist Gladeana McMahon, however, believes that clubs like Secrets attract the inadequate. "The guys who go regularly usually have deep psychological problems because they can't form real relationships with women," she says. "There's something missing in their lives and they fill it with an addictive fantasy relationship." She likens this to stalking, when the stalker convinces himself that his obscure object of desire actually adores him.

But not all relationship experts condemn lap-dancing. "We have to have a society of live and let live," says relationships counsellor Mo Shapiro. "It depends on the way dancers are treated and looked after, whether the ground rules in the clubs are adhered to. But if they are, then we have to give people space to be themselves." As for couples who go, she says, "as long as they are both consenting adults and enjoying themselves, well, good luck to them! It's very easy to get on to the moral high ground over this kind of thing. We need to loosen up, start treating people as adults."

Alexandra, 25, a former air stewardess, now a dancer, says she has no complaints about her job. "It's all down to the management. The rules are very strict where I work: any touching at all and the bouncers have them straight out of the fire exit. And there's no bitchiness; everyone has to work as a team, if any of the girls are bitchy to each other they're got rid of. The men I dance for aren't perverts. The majority are lovely, decent guys out for a good time; they want to chat and be entertained by a beautiful girl. I enjoy it; it's my social life as well as my work." Most dancers, she says, don't expect to do it for too long anyway. "I'm earning perhaps pounds 150 to pounds 200 a night and I'm using it to pay for a college course. A lot of girls go in, work hard for a while, save a bit of money, then get on with their lives."