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Nipple tassles and essay hassles

Stacking shelves at Sainsbury's or stripping? Caraline Macfarland talks to students who have chosen the more controversial of the two to fund their university degrees.

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Stacking shelves at Sainsbury's or stripping? Caraline Macfarland talks to students who have chosen the more controversial of the two to fund their university degrees.

If asked to imagine a stereotypical stripper, most people would come up with a picture of a busty, peroxide-blonde, 'Page Three' type female. The three strippers I know, however, are average-looking brunettes - and students at the University of York who have chosen to balance their studies with stripping.

When I talk to the three women about their jobs, it quickly becomes clear that the main reason they chose to enter this 'niche' area of employment is, fairly predictably, the money. Earnings in one night, I am told, can vary from £100 "on a really bad day" to the best part of £1,000 at the weekends. Technically self-employed, dancers pay an entry fee to work in a club and then keep around 70% of their earnings in the night. One lap dance, lasting around three minutes, is between £10 and £20, so potentially the girls can earn up to £140 an hour.

At the end of the day we're taking men's money and just doing is quick dance. There's two sides to the exploitation.
"To a certain extent it depends on your luck and how busy the club is," says Lara*, a third year Politics student. "The clubs I've worked in cater more for businessmen and the higher end of the market, so it's not unusual to find people willing to spend a few hundred pounds at a time."

In the last year, two lap dancing clubs have opened on Micklegate. Only one of the women I spoke to, however, works in York; the others only take jobs in cities such as Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester. Sally*, a second year nursing student, prefers to work in York because the early licensing laws means the clubs close at 3am, whereas dancers in larger cities may be working until 7am. The other two girls say that they would never work so close to home, in case someone they knew came into the club.

Only one of the women freely tells her friends and family about her controversial part-time job. Sally has told a handful of her friends, whereas even some of Lara's closest friends and housemates don't know how she earns her money. For Marie*, a third year History of Art student, people knowing isn't such a problem, but she still wouldn't work in York because "it's small enough as it is. I don't want to be walking past people on the street that I danced for the night before."

Marie first lap danced on her gap year in Australia to fund her travels, and she now finds lap dancing a good solution to student debt. "Students need money, fast, and we don't have much time. In that sense this is the ideal job." However, she does find that others are quick to make judgments about what she does. "People don't know about it like we do. They just create a picture in their heads of what it's like in a strip club. They don't know the half of it. I think it's easier to call us whores or slags than to understand it."

Whilst it may be "the ideal student job" in terms of money, what about the dangers of working in that sort of environment? The women all seem very sure about their safety, however: "I think the potential dangers are very similar to any sort of bar work" says Lara. "You have to be able to handle people who have been drinking, and as long as you're confident and firm with them then you can avoid any problems. It's certainly not the sort of job where 'the customer is always right' and we're obliged to do whatever they want."

People don't know the half of it. I think its easier for them to just call us whores or slags than to try and understand it.
There are strict no-touching rules in most clubs, bouncers on the doors and often camera surveillance. "In the club I first worked in, if a man so much as rested his hand on a girl's leg he would be physically thrown out by the bouncers, who would come at the smallest signal. Where I work now there are similar rules, but the bouncers and management are more relaxed so you have to draw the line yourself."

So do they find it enjoyable? "I don't get off on it, but it's easy money," shrugs Marie. "It's not amazingly glamorous, but in my experience strip clubs aren't the seedy, sleazy sort of clubs you see in the films," Lara says. "And it's the only job I can think of where you can just sit all night drinking champagne and chatting! On the other hand, I have met some of the most repulsive men. But that's just part of the job. The other girls are generally really nice and we all get on and have a laugh, it's not all bitchy and back-stabbing like you'd think."

I asked the women if they felt that the fact they are students helped or hindered the job in any way. They all perceived a certain divide between them and the women who choose to dance as a full-time job. "It does set you apart... I feel distanced intellectually because some of the girls don't have the same intellectual capacity... but that's like anyone you meet on a day-to-day level," Marie explains. It can be a hindrance in terms of interaction with the clientele, however: "The men don't like us to talk, they prefer it if we haven't got brains. I think we scare them because we're threatening when we're intelligent - they can objectify us if we're not."

To a certain extent, Lara agrees: "A lot of men want their classic 'stripper fantasy' and I can't really bring myself to act like a bimbo for over eight hours at a time. They always know straight away that I'm a student, probably because I don't sound like I'm from up north, and sometimes they say 'good on you, you're better than these other girls', but I do get the impression it sometimes puts men off. But many don't care, and then there's the times that being able to make intelligent conversation is an advantage. I've had men pay £100 just because they want to talk to me for another half hour... well, that's what they say anyway!"
It certainly seems like a fairly varied job. "I've seen it all!" Marie reminisces. "The guys never cease to surprise me. There was this guy who told all the other customers that he was my husband - it was so embarrassing! And whenever I gave him a dance he cried, because he was such a lonely man. And the things you hear, from stags who are supposed to be getting married in a week, or married men even, really undermines my faith in men."

Which brings us to the issue that makes this particular job controversial in many people's opinions. Isn't the concept of taking your clothes off for money degrading to a woman, the feminist in me asks? The overall consensus is no: "If you've got it, why not use it to earn money with!" says Sally.

"At the end of the day, men are paying us to take our clothes off. But we are taking their money and all we're doing is a quick dance. There's two sides to the exploitation!" insists Lara. "At least its a fair exchange without any false pretences. To be honest I've felt far more degraded by the typical arrogant rugby boy who's only after one thing."

"It's only degrading if you let it be," says Marie. "As long as you don't let the job define who you are, then self-respect and dignity acts as a bodyguard." She maintains that the job can also be seen as empowering for women; "a power trip both ways". She does feel, however, that the job has changed her perception of men. "When I first started dancing, it did ruin my trust in blokes in general, but now that I'm older, and understand how the whole strip club thing works, I realize it's a certain type of man who come. I can't generalise or it would completely ruin my faith in guys."

None of the women would ever date someone they met at the club. It seems that the women are certainly not impressed with men who choose to frequent strip clubs out of choice (as opposed to say, going to a stag party). "A couple of weeks ago a guy was telling me about an FHM article that gave tips on 'how to pull a stripper'," Lara recalls. "Things like 'have just one dance from her, then talk to her friends for a while so she doesn't think you're too keen,'" she laughs. "As if I would ever go out with a guy who likes to pay to see a girl naked! Okay, there are some fanciable guys that come in, usually with stag parties, but it would be ridiculous to have a relationship with someone who first met you as a stripper. When it comes down to it we are dancing for money, not because we think its a good way to meet men, and the guys that think they have a chance are just deluded."

Whether degrading or empowering, does taking their clothes off for money change the way these women see themselves and their bodies? "I'm a very independent person, and always have been," says Marie. "To a certain extent doing this job has extended that independence, especially when I was alone in Australia at the age of 18. I think I'm more empowered, and nothing phases me now. I also pride myself on not being judgemental."

"I don't see myself differently because I don't think of myself as a stripper," Lara admits. "I still have issues with my body and go on diets and all the rest of it, even though I have dozens of men telling me I'm beautiful and practically falling in love with me every week. It's a bit of an ego boost though, that men willingly spend money to see me take my clothes off."

The women all keep their lives separate from work, creating a persona when they are at the clubs (they have stage names) and acting quite indifferently to the job itself. I ask, money aside, if the job contributes to their life in any positive way. "Actually, it sounds strange but there are skills to be learnt, or at least developed from the job," argues Lara. "If I had to defend my choice of work, say if a future employer ever found out, I'd be able to do so. We make our money by convincing men (and women sometimes) to have as many dances from us as possible. We have to be confident with communication and persuasion - it's like a sales and marketing pitch!"

Bizarrely, this line of work also seems to have good travel prospects. Sally recently went to New York for a week and worked in a club there. "After flights and the hotel I didn't actually make any money, but it was a good trip," she says. "The club was much seedier though."
"Some of the dancers I know have worked all around the world, in places like Tenerife, France and Denmark," says Lara. She is putting her earnings towards a gap year after she graduates this year, while Marie intends to use hers to fund an MA in Australia.

As much as the women are prepared to defend what they do, when asked if they would recommend the job to other students, the answer is a resounding "no". "My sister was thinking of doing it, and I told her not to," Marie explains. "I've seen girls who aren't as confident and comfortable with it cry and cry after their first dance."

"You have to have a strong character and be able to be detached from the job," says Lara. "It shouldn't be a last resort."

Since the money is almost definitely better than the average graduate job, I ask if any of them are considering a full-time career as a lap dancer after they leave university? "It's easy to get used to earning so much, and get sucked into the lifestyle," says Sally, who earned up to £40,000 last year. Towards the end of our interview, however, she admits that she is thinking of dropping out of her course, and cites her job as one of the reasons. Nevertheless, she intends to get a full-time job eventually, and dances only to pay off the mortgage on a house she has just bought with her earnings.

It would be understandably hard to go back to earning in a month in a graduate job what they can currently earn in one night. But they all maintain that they couldn't see themselves becoming full-time strippers, not only due to the physically demanding and unsociable hours but also because of the lack of intellectual skills required for the job. "I need to use my brain, or it's not good for the soul," says Marie.

"I'm very ambitious. I know what I want to do in my life, and I don't see myself following a career in stripping," says Lara.

"Even if the money isn't as good, I'd prefer a challenging career. But if I'm ever short of cash, this is always something to fall back on!"

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