One of the reassuring things about being an educated, liberal, thirtysomething feminist is that there aren't many things that one isn't really sure about. My opinions on most things are pretty certain. Fox-hunting: bad. Boris Johnson: disgusting. Homophobia: stupid. Gender equality: a lovely idea. So it's rather disconcerting when I find myself on the fence.
Last week's academic report about the lap-dancing industry will put a lot of people in this uncomfortable position. The preliminary results of a year's study by Dr Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy at the University of Leeds, it showed that many women who work as lap dancers are smart, happy and earning lots of money. A quarter have degrees, more than three quarters are "happy" or "very happy" with their work, and not one of the 300 said she was coerced into the job. It makes it hard to trot out the obvious line that we object to lap dancing because the women are being exploited.
And yet I do, viscerally, object to lap dancing – and among my thoughtful and tolerant female friends I am not alone. We are not prudish, we're not generally judgemental and we haven't got where we are today by having a tantrum at the merest hint of sexism or smut. But, in my narrow and admittedly baffling experience, men can't see what's wrong with a strip club, and women can't understand why they think it's OK.
There are logical and legitimate reasons why these places make women feel uncomfortable. Research by the Lilith Project in 2003 found that the numbers of reported rapes near to lap-dancing clubs are three times the national average. "In the years following the opening of a lap-dance club on Tottenham Court Road," the group found, "reports of female rape increased by 50 per cent." I'm generally against making automatic assumptions about groups of people based on their gender or appearance, but in this case it looks as if women's instinctive reactions are right when they concern boozed-up men who have just paid for the right to treat women as sex objects.
I know that decent men go to strip clubs, too. (Although I don't believe that most of them tell their wives and girlfriends.) And, just because I don't get it, doesn't mean that I should necessarily disapprove. I don't understand why (mostly) men gather to watch football any more than I understand why they go out together to look at boobs, but I wouldn't want to stop them doing either. And yet, in the case of the latter, I do ....
I have been told by men that a lap dance is not necessarily a sexual experience. But since the clubs were reclassified as "sex establishments", allowing neighbours greater powers to oppose them, this argument is at odds with the law. I've also heard them extol the lap dancers' strength, agility and skill. (So why aren't men queuing up to watch ballet?) But when a story about this research appeared on The Independent's website on Friday, a reader's comment reinforced my distaste. "who wants a pole dancer with brains?" it read. "just give me a dim with great Tits [sic]".
I congratulate the women who make more money than I do out of a job they say they enjoy. I am grateful to them for making me think about what I think. But I still know what I feel about lap-dancing clubs and the men who visit them: at the very best, they're sad and slightly creepy.
Writer's cramp: Words, words everywhere, nor any stop to think
When you read a story like last Sunday's, about the world's 10 richest authors earning a collective £174m a year, it's tempting to think, "I could do that". I speak as someone who plans my book launch party like some little girls plan their weddings – despite the fact that, with no publishing contract, no dusty manuscript in my bottom drawer, no outline and no idea, it's one of the things that I'm even less likely to do imminently than get married. It's quite reassuring, then, when an author makes me see why I couldn't do that. So thanks, Jonathan Franzen.
The bestselling, critically-garlanded, multi-award-winning author of The Corrections has told Time magazine about the extreme conditions in which he wrote his new novel Freedom, which will finally be published next month after nine years of writing. He wrote in a bare room containing just a table, a chair and a basic computer – and so he still couldn't be tempted by the siren internet, he superglued an Ethernet cable into his laptop and sawed its head off. "We are so engulfed by the technologies we've created," he said mournfully, "and by the barrage of so-called information that comes our way."
It was also revealed last week that internet distraction is highest at 4pm on Wednesdays, when workers go online shopping. I doubt that Franzen often turned away from his manuscript thinking, "OMG! Where did you get that playsuit?" but it does make me wonder how many unwritten masterpieces can be blamed on the Sisyphean necessity of checking Facebook, emails and online news. Perhaps aspiring writers should invest in typewriters. You can buy them on Amazon... unless there's an Ethernet nobbin superglued into your computer.
I can't chuck a chip to a pal like Liz
Whatever you make of the crazy world of Liz Hurley, you have to admire her honesty. While the diet industry makes millions selling low-cal snake oil and other models bleat about how they just can't gain weight, Hurley is upfront about how she keeps her figure. She is thin, she says, because she barely eats. Last week she revealed that she always skips breakfast, surviving till lunchtime on hot water, the odd espresso and maybe an oatcake or two mid-morning. In the past she has talked about her "watercress soup" diet, the one-meal-a-day plan and the times when, if she really felt faint with hunger, she would allow herself to have a raisin.
The unappealing truth about how to look like Liz is very obvious and very boring. I said that I admired her honesty; not that I fancied an evening out with her.
What's the Spanish for 'lazy Brit'?
A friend's bilingual daughter has just been on holiday with her maternal grandparents in Spain. She returned saying English sentences with Spanish prepositions and rolling her eyes at her dad's rubbish accent. " Papa, yo hablo español," she chides. She may be only two but she has a point: Brits are an embarrassment when it comes to speaking other languages. And she'll no doubt cringe at the news of the decline of language GCSEs. Do our teenagers have no plans to go anywhere? Forget for the moment the implications for English-speaking graduates in a saturated job market. Try landing at Heathrow with four words of English and watch the reaction. And then try not to be ashamed when you turn up in Spain with only " dos cervezas por favor" and are politely received nonetheless. ¡Que vergüenza!
Janet Street-Porter is away
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