Book recommendation – ‘Dirty Dancing? An ethnography of lap-dancing’


I have read quite a lot of books on lap-dancing now, not to mention journals, articles, media pieces, forums. As someone who has worked in the industry it is very frustrating to read a majority of it which is ill-informed, has a clear agenda (i.e. funded by an anti-lap dancing campaign) or shows a clear lack of even visiting a club, never mind working in one. So this book, ‘Dirty Dancing? An ethnography of lap-dancing’ by Dr Rachela Colosi, was soothing and relieving. It is an easy-read, but informative, realistic and beautifully written.

I was particularly pleased to see “My positionality is central to this ethnography and has been significant in the process of both analysing and writing about lap-dancing after my fieldwork ceased and I withdrew from dancing altogether” (2010, p. 3).

I do not believe in an objective position, and the researcher should clearly state their standpoint. This is where the books opposing dancing or sex work annoy me, and let down the books themselves. It is unethical to hide your position, and to only include the evidence that you want to, cherry-picking and ‘ideological contamination’ are ploys that are rife in this area of research.

Erving Goffman stated:

“No one is in quite as good an observational position to see through the act as the person who puts it on” (1959, p.17)

Working in the sex industry in any form (or arguably any mode of labour) requires a performance. There are nuances and codes that any an insider would be privy to and would understand. This capital cannot be ignored or dismissed.
Research into lap-dancing and the sex industries must reflect the voices of the workers.

The issue on conflating consensual sex work with abuse and force is expressed clearly “Public discussions about sex work fail to distinguish between voluntary and cooerced sexual exchange, a distinction every bit as salient (and problematic) as that between consensual sex and rape” (Nagle, 1997, p.2 cited in 2010, p.6).

My recent blog post ‘Mean Girls & Slut Shaming’ highlighted the underlying attitudes towards women who choose to work in the sex industry. Issues of morality are hidden under a cloak of concern and fear of danger. Colosi touches upon this when she states that protestors outside the call she worked at were screaming “Sluts out” (2010, p.45). I think the attitudes of those who actively campaign against lap dancing clubs, sex workers, Page 3 models would make a PhD study in themselves.

Colosi does a wonderful job of outlining the different feminist approaches to ‘sex work’.

“Chapkiss refers to what have come to be known as ‘radical feminism’ and ‘sex-radical feminism’. In an attempt to make sense of the complexity feminism prsents Chapkiss (1997) argues that each of these perspectives can further be divided. ‘Radical’ feminism, it is suggested, comprises ‘pro “positive” sex feminism’, in which ‘sex can be divided between its “positive” expression in passionate love and its violent articulation in pornographic objectification’ (p.13)’ and ‘anti-sex feminism’, where all forms of ‘sex’ are a manifestation of male domination.

In contrast, withing ‘sex-radical feminist’ thought ‘a distinction can be drawn between those most closely alligned with the extreme individualism of libeterian ethics and politics, and those who explicitly situate sex (and the individuals enacting it) within structures of power and privilege’ (Chapkiss, 1997, p.21).

The more ‘libertarian’ position understands sex, including pornography and prostitution to be a site in which women are empowered.

In contrast, other sex-radical feminists are argued to acknowledge that sex, and the sex industry, and produced through and a consequence of social inequalities (patriarchy) but am simultaneously ‘sites of ingenious resistance and cultural subversion’ “ (Chapkiss, 1997, p.29 cited in Colosi, 2010, p.13).

The idea of dancers, or indeed models, or sex workers being passive objects is something I find both problematic and reductive. Colosi writes of the power a dancer has over her customers (2010, p.74) and continues with the topic of power on p.96 where she utilises Foucault.

“…power and knowledge directly imply one another… there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations” (1997, p.27 cited in Colosi, 2010, p.96).

Those who campaign against lap-dancing often cite the dancers lack of regard for one another, but my personal experience is the opposite of that. Colosi talks of the mentor-figure (2010, p.97) and the very close bonds formed between dancers. The dancers are part of a subculture and very close friendships are the norm, not the exception.

I think what this book does best if shows how an dancer-researcher is well placed to facilitate voices of this industry.

Colosi, R (2010) Dirty Dancing? An ethnography of lap-dancing, Oxon: Willan Publishing

For those who are interested in this area of research, I will be compiling a list of resources in the near future. Keep checking back. As always, I welcome constructive criticism, feedback, questions, and offers of collaboration or guest blogs. If you have any thoughts, please let me know, either here, or @princessjack on twitter. Thank you for reading.