Earlier this month, when the BBC unveiled its plans for this year's fund-raising extravaganza, Sport Relief, on 15 July, it included a new attraction called Strictly Come Pole Dancing. The prospect certainly appealed to the tabloids, which loved the idea of famous women getting their kit off for the lads - and for charity, of course. Zoe Ball's name was mentioned - one red-top hailed her as "brave Zoe" - while the BBC website directed visitors to an interview with the chat-show host Patrick Kielty, who salivated over the idea that newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky might get involved.
"Natasha Kaplinsky sliding down a pole," Kielty exclaimed in a piece of audio available on the BBC website two days ago. "Come on, like a snail on a lamp-post - we all want to see that!" Oh, really? Not only do I not want to watch female celebrities gyrating round poles for a blokeish audience of sports fans, I'm sure many other people will be alarmed by this evidence that raunch culture - the commercial sex industry selling demeaning male fantasies as sexual freedom - has invaded the BBC.
Pole dancing is the supposedly respectable end of a huge industry which ruthlessly exploits women. There are persistent allegations that dancers are encouraged, or even expected, to have sex with customers, and that they are abused by staff such as doormen. "Despite celebrity advocates promoting pole dancing as harmless fun, we must not forget that it has inextricable links to the sexual exploitation of women," Denise Marshall, chief executive of the charity Eaves Housing for Women, told me.
Her organisation oversees the Poppy Project, which with Home Office funding runs the UK's only refuge for trafficked women. The male bonding which accompanies big sporting events, such as this summer's football World Cup, has a dark side that expresses itself in visits to sleazy clubs and massage parlours, where men are increasingly likely to have sex with trafficked women.
The combination of sport, booze and sex is a huge problem, encouraging degrading attitudes and sometimes actual violence towards women. Premiership footballers boast about activities such as "roasting", promoting the idea among fans that such behaviour is manly; and a string of young women, some of them only schoolgirls, have approached the police with allegations of gang-rape.
With the football World Cup soon to take place in Germany, anti-trafficking organisations, EU justice ministers and the Council of Europe are up in arms at the prospect of 40,000 women being imported for the "use" of visiting fans, a scandal that is only just beginning to receive the attention it deserves. "There are so many people, particularly in eastern European countries such as Ukraine, where they have very few education and unemployment opportunities, where they face terrible discrimination and they are really very, very vulnerable indeed," the Labour MEP Glenys Kinnock observed recently. They are also, ironically, just the kind of people that Sport Relief - set up by Comic Relief and BBC Sport - is supposed to help.
The scale of the problem is breathtaking. During a Council of Europe debate last month, one delegate made the startling claim that there are virtually no young women left in some villages in Moldova; they have all been lured to western Europe with promises of jobs in bars and restaurants, only to find themselves working as pole dancers, prostitutes or even sex slaves. "It is completely inappropriate for Comic Relief to sexualise women in the name of sport," Denise Marshall told me, "especially at a time when we know that thousands of women are being trafficked to Germany to meet the sexual demands of football fans."
The BBC's response is predictable: when I call on Friday, a press officer insists it's all a bit of fun. Yes, she admits, Strictly Come Pole Dancing was announced at the launch of Sport Relief but "we're not going to call it that and we're still working on the format". I point out that it's still called Strictly Come Pole Dancing on the BBC website and read her the quote from Kielty's interview, which she dismisses as just "Patrick's bit of fun".
"It's intended as a light-hearted, fun way of raising money," she says. "It's an entertainment show. We're not making any comment whatever on any issues." Is she aware, I ask, of research suggesting links between strip clubs and prostitution, confirming their status as an integral part of the commercial sex industry? She isn't, and calls me back to ask whether I know that lots of women go to pole dancing classes as a form of exercise.
More to the point, I think, is the fact that research carried out in London by the Lilith Project suggests that "lap-dancing networks have links with other aspects of the sex industry, and more troublingly, with the traffickers who often supply this industry. This is the darker side of the slickly marketed, slightly naughty night out". The researchers also point out that the presence of strip clubs in a neighbourhood draws potentially violent men and unlicensed minicabs, putting women at risk.
In 2001, the female rape rate in the London Borough of Camden, which then had seven clubs sited mainly in residential areas, was three times the national average; the researchers say that since 1999, rape of women in Camden has increased by 50 per cent and indecent assault by 57 per cent . In 2002, a report from the council's environmental health department recorded that some streets had turned into "a no-go area for female shoppers and male passers-by who are often accosted by pimps and other strip clubs offering sexual services and favours".
At the BBC, the sports press office is still insisting that none of this has anything to do with the corporation's exciting plans for 15 July. "Everyone seems to be assuming we're getting women to do this," she says. "It hasn't been decided yet. We're not just talking to women." She tells me that the event has got a new name, which isn't yet on the website but gets round all the problems I've raised about sport and the sexual exploitation of women. Go on, then, what is it? Er... Strictly Dirty Dancing.
No connection with strip clubs or raunch culture there, then. I'm not surprised, on Friday evening, to get another call, informing me that Strictly Dirty Dancing may get the chop. I just wish I could be sure the BBC's got the message, rather than trying to avert a PR disaster.Reuse content