Hermione Eyre: How did exploiting teenage girls become acceptable?

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A giant pole was raised outside Parliament on Tuesday. Sadly, it wasn't a maypole. It was a pole of the type that women gyrate around, semi-clothed, for money, and it was an angry stunt by women's campaign group Object ("challenging Sex Object Culture") to raise awareness of the fact that we now have twice as many of these poles in this country as we did three years ago. Yes, lap-dancing clubs have doubled since the Licensing Law 2003 came into effect in 2005, and Britain is a grubbier and less safe place for it. Meanwhile the BBC isn't helping stem the filth, either.

New Labour's vision of the future, where every lap shall have a dancer, began when its new licensing legislation bracketed adult bars with coffee shops and karaoke clubs, in what has since been described as a "legal loophole". Adult club proprietors have, as we know, a feeling for loopholes, and soon they were setting up in every market town. Object's report, A Growing Tide provides a litany of the sordid names: "Shakers" in Burnham on Sea, "Red Velvet" in Consett, "La Salsa" in Halifax, "Joker's Bar" in St Helen's. All of these were the first of their kind to be established in these towns.

Stourbridge never had a lapdancing venue; since 2006 it now has two dedicated clubs (one featuring 50 nude dancers and a giant US-style pole-dancing stage) and five pub venues offering – laughable misnomer coming up – "gentlemen's hours". Either they have been putting Spanish Fly in the water there, or supply has created demand.

In a fatal imbalance, it has been easy for the club-owners to apply, and hard for councils to object. Five local authorities who blocked applications were subsequently defeated on appeal. When Worthing looked set to "gain" its first club, 600 letters of objection from residents were not enough to stop it happening.

A laissez-faire attitude to this subject is just not good enough. The working culture within these clubs is often exploitative. Firm evidence is scant, but a recent Lilith Project report shows that 61 per cent of dancers had been abused by customers at work. Outside, the problems are more obvious. Streets become "no-go" areas for women; neighbourhoods decline. Why else would Bradford's National Museum of Photography Film and Television campaign so long, hard (and, it might be added, fruitlessly) to oppose the opening of a lap-dancing club near its premises? If these clubs are, as their proprietors insist, for looking but not touching, then their customers leave guyed up, often drunk and sexually stimulated, with a false sense of their mastery over women. The Eden Report of 2003 found that in areas around lap-dancing clubs, the numbers of reported rapes are three times above the national average.

The Object group and a cross-party coalition of members supporting their campaign (called Stripping the Illusion) are calling for these clubs to be reclassified as "Sex Encounter Establishments". This would be an essential amendment to the flawed primary legislation. Labour MP Celia Barlow, who is launching a private members' bill to curtail the spread of strip joints around Brighton and Hove, admitted on Newsnight this week that her party's legislation had been inadequate, while Jeremy Paxman, somewhat confusingly, asked the head of Spearmint Rhino three times if he "enjoyed" watching lap-dancing? His objective must have been to embarrass the man. But the debate has moved on from emotive questions of shame and morality. It is established fact that these clubs are bad for neighbourhoods.

When it comes to TV, however, we have no such data to hand, and we have to rely instead on our own moral Sat Nav. Watching Glamour Girls, the first of a new eight-part documentary series on BBC3, brought me out in hives of savage indignation. It was an entirely uncritical look at the industry, describing the Sun's page 3 girls as the industry's "elite", who have "made it to the top". The vocabulary was full of glossy superlatives, its music and tone positive and aspirational. According to the programme, two thirds of girls aged between 15 and 19 dream of being a glamour model. During the whole half an hour they found no synonyms for the work page 3 girls do, sticking instead with the industry's own glitzy falsehood, "glamour modelling".

With programmes like this on public service broadcasting, drip-feeding into the brains of teenage girls, we are going to need the activist work of groups like Object more and more. Otherwise young women won't be angrily chanting round giant poles outside Parliament. They will be dancing around them. There are, ironically, more lap-dancing joints in Westminster than in any other London borough.


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