The first academic research project into lap dancing has found that, rather than being uneducated young women who have been coerced into the industry, one in four dancers has a degree and has been attracted by the money.
Dancers took home an average of £232 a shift after paying commission and fees to the club, with most working between two and four shifts a week – giving them annual incomes of between £24,000 and £48,000 a year.
The researchers found no evidence of trafficking in the industry, and concluded that career and economic choices were motivations for dancing rather than drug use or coercion.
Aspiring actresses, models and artists used exotic dancing as a career strategy which fitted alongside their other work, training or studies.
Unemployed new graduates – mainly with arts degrees – were also dancing because they could not find graduate jobs and found that lap dancing paid much better than bar work.
The research by Dr Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy, from the University of Leeds, found the vast majority of dancers reported high rates of job satisfaction.
The main attraction of the work was the flexibility it offered to combine different work options and studying.
However, the researchers also found dancers' welfare was often disregarded. They called for better regulation to improve dancers' safety and security, including the banning of private booths in clubs, arguing that women could be in danger when alone with customers or that standards could be lowered by women offering more than was allowed in dances. Dancers were also open to financial exploitation by the clubs who could impose charges and fines.
One dancer told researchers: "There's not enough security. I know of girls who have been raped and abused at work. You cannot go to the police as you are a stripper, so there's no legal standing."
The research comes at a pivotal time for lap dancing clubs. After an explosion of clubs across UK high streets, a change in the law earlier this year saw their reclassification as sexual entertainment venues, giving local authorities more powers to limit the number of clubs in their area and to take objections into consideration.
The change in the licensing laws governing lap-dancing clubs came after a campaign by the Fawcett Society and Object, the women's rights organisations. They have welcomed the change in the law but called for it to go further, saying "lap-dance clubs are a form of commercial sexual exploitation and promote the sexist view that women are sex objects".
Dr Sanders said she had been surprised at the "endless supply of women" wanting to be lap dancers. She said: "These women are incredibly body confident. I think there is something of a generational cultural difference. These young women do not buy the line that they are being exploited, because they are the ones making the money out of a three-minute dance and a bit of a chat. You have got to have a certain way about you to do it. They say 80 per cent of the job is talking. These women do work hard for their money – you don't just turn up and wiggle your bum.
"But there is an issue about whether these women become trapped in the job because of the money. I think people often stay longer than they want."
The preliminary findings of the year-long study, which will include interviews with 300 dancers, reveal that all the women interviewed had finished school and gained some qualifications.
Most (87 per cent) had at least completed a further education course, while one in four had undergraduate degrees.
Just over one in three dancers were in some form of education, with 13.9 per cent using dancing to help fund an undergraduate degree, 6.3 per cent to help fund a postgraduate degree, and 3.8 per cent using it to fund further education courses.
Some women begin dancing after graduating from university and not being able to find work. The researchers found arts degree graduates were most likely to report that they had turned to dancing after being unable to find other work. Others used dancing to provide a more steady and reliable income when working in more unstable arts jobs.
One dancer had been doing a law degree which included a work placement during her third year. While working, she got used to earning a good wage, decided she would struggle when she returned to university without an income, and began dancing as soon as she went back to finish her degree.
Case study: 'It's your job to flatter men into buying dances'
Amber gave up a career as a financial journalist seven years ago, and now earns around £40,000 a year working as a stripper in pubs in London's East End.
The 32-year-old, who has three A-levels and a journalism degree, said: "I had always been fascinated by the idea of being a stripper. I was disillusioned about the work I was doing. I think many people who have worked hard at school and university get out into the real world and find it's not what they expected. Someone I knew had a partner who worked as a stripper, so I went to see her perform at a pub in the East End.
"I think it's everyone's dream to be self-employed, to not have a boss and to work as much or as little as you want. In journalism, it didn't matter how many hours of overtime I put in, I still got paid the same. Now I can work really hard one week and earn good money, and then I can have a week when I don't work so hard and don't earn so much.
"At first, I combined the stripping with my office job, but then I thought I could come back to sitting behind a desk when I'm older. I've started to move away from pub stripping now, moving more into burlesque and pole and podium dancing.
"I've tried the big clubs, but it didn't suit me. In a funny way, I'm not money-motivated enough. I don't like flattering people's egos if I think they're a bit of an idiot. In a club, it's your job to flatter the men into buying private dances. It's a sales job, and the girls who do that job do it really well. You have to suss out someone's body language, look at their clothes and watch to suss out how much money they've got, and look at how they behave in the group they're in.
"I enjoy a proper strip show. I get to choose my own music, my own clothes and perform my own show. In the pubs, I pay £15 on average as a house fee, then you make your money by collecting £1 from everybody. There's no typical earnings – it depends how many people are there.
"It doesn't surprise me that dancers are well educated, although in my experience they tend to be from not traditionally academic families. One personality trait most share is being very driven. You need that to get good qualifications if you're not from a traditional academic background.
"I've met dancers who have degrees in astrophysics from top universities. They've pushed themselves hard to get those qualifications and now they're pushing themselves to be successful dancers."