Stupid Dolls: Lap-dancing, Joan Smith and Polar Disorder


After hearing soundbites of Joan Smith’s latest tirades, I knew I would have to read her new book, The Public Woman. Partly because my research is on lap-dancing clubs, and partly because a friend assured me I would want to rip it up. I’m a glutton for that sort of book.

Each chapter would make a blog post in themselves, here I will focus on Chapter One Narcissism and Chapter Two, named Polar Disorder (yes, really).

Chapter One sets the scene that celebrities are vacant, uneducated chavs, who cannot make choices, because they are too thick to know what they are doing. This line of argument is frequently rolled out when talking about decisions some women make that other women don't agree with. It is especially evident in debates around sex work, "they have limited choice", "it's not a real choice" "they don't understand what they are doing" "it's not about their individual choice but the effect it has on women as a whole". I never hear these arguments about male behaviour.

When I read books I dub Plastic Feminism, or what Maggie McNeil calls Neo-Feminism, I am always aware of pop statistics and flawed evidence being used to cement the case. These authors are highly intelligent women, they know how to set their case up. Imagine my surprise when several times Smith refers to Katie Price and Peter Andre having two daughters from their marriage… any 3 second google search would tell you that Price and Andre and a son and daughter (and Price also has a son from a previous relationship). How can such a well-known fact be overlooked, why wasn't it checked? You may think "so what" but when such an obvious oversight has been made for a celebrity Smith spends a lot of time writing about, then what else has been misrepresented or misquoted? The disgust for Price is hardly contained, nor is the mocking of Alex Reid, Price's second husband, who Smith calls “a transvestite cage-fighter” (Smith, 2013, p17).

Of course choice is also considered, given that it cannot possibly be a woman’s choice to aspire to be a celebrity, or to be a glamour model, or a lap-dancer.

“Choice is the holy grail of unfettered individualism, so much so that it doesn’t actually matter if someone’s choices are spur-of-the-moment or downright unwise” (Ibid, p.19).

The class hatred of ‘celebrity chav’ women is barely concealed, “Like Diana, they’re known by their first names – Katie, Cheryl, Jade, Alesha, Kerry, Victoria, Tulisa – and like her they tend to come from backgrounds where education isn’t valued” (Ibid, p.19).

“There’s an undeniable snobbery behind ‘Essex girl’ jokes but there is also a problem about a system of values based on little more than unquestioning admiration for youth, beauty and wealth” (Ibid, p.23).You see, it’s their fault. Yes chav-bashing is a bit bad, but what do they expect? Their values are so low.

Celeb Youth UK is an Aladdin’s cave of thought-provoking writing on the trivialisation of celebrity culture and assumptions about young peoples’ aspirations. Though I wouldn’t have expected Smith to read it.

This chapter leads neatly on to Polar Disorder. Get ready for more pop facts, here supplied by Object, where the germ plasm of lap-dancing clubs has allegedly spread at a shocking rate.. “The number shot up to around 300 by 2009″….(Ibid, p.35). This is a common tactic of such books, frame the threat as multiplying at an alarming rate. In fact the number of lap-dancing clubs as remained pretty constant (some close, others open in their place). There is no constant increase.

Another feature of these books is cherry-picking, and I wouldn’t expect anything less here. Dr Kate Hardy, Dr Teela Sanders and Rosie Campbell undertook the largest ever study into lap-dancing clubs, The Regulatory Dance: Sexual Consumption in the Night Time Economy (2012) which Smith uses as a chance to hijack their actual findings, and present only the few negatives from the findings, hardly a balanced debate. The Findings Summary from the report actually said that dancers liked their work, but they did not like large house fees and unfair fines. Dancers frequently experienced verbal abuse but this was usually supported by managers and security, and on the whole dancers felt safe working in the clubs. The research actually smashed many of the previous myths about lap-dancers and lap-dancers.

And then of course the obligatory conflation of lap-dancing with prostitution. Placed on a ‘slippery-slope’, that dancers provide “extras” in mysterious ‘private rooms’. This serves to tarnish lap-dancers, and further stigmatise and demonise them. It acts as a form of exclusion. The source for this allegation comes from Julie Bindel’s report ‘Profitable Exploits: Lap dancing in the UK’ (2004, p.49 cited in Smith, 2013, p. 43). Bindel states that “Two of the officers were offered sex with women at five hundred pounds for thirty minutes in a private room” (Ibid). I cannot state that no dancer has ever cajoled a customer into handing over money under the pretence of an extra, nor can I prove that ‘extras’ never ever happen, but the same can be said for any job, where some women will provide sexual services either for monetary gain or to step up the career ladder. To take one alleged incident, and proclaim this is commonplace, is nonsense. Most lap-dancers are livid if you suggest they provide sexual acts/ ‘extras’. I have heard many anecdotal tales of ‘private rooms and ‘extras’, knowing that the clubs they talk about don’t have a private room, and that these myths become recirculated as truths.

Of course I am not suggesting that prostitution/ sex work is bad, rather that all those campaigning against lap-dancing clubs constantly place the issues together.

Smith then mentions Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap-dancing, written by Jennifer Hayashi Danns and OBJECT advocacy officer Sandrine Levêque in a way that makes it sound that Hayashi Danns alone wrote the book and collated the testimonies, not a powerful and financially strong campaign group. Stripped… does much of the same if you’re interested, mixing women whose boyfriends forced them to work as prostitutes with those who claim they were exploited as lap dancers. I do not wish to dismiss any woman who has been forced into prostitution, or who was unhappy lap-dancing, but the book is framed as a portal to the reality of all lap-dancing. If the authors are so concerned with exploited women, they could choose to single out the factors of exploitation, not denounce the whole industry.

And then the final ingredient… female empowerment. “This is a far cry from the rhetoric of female empowerment used by supporters of pole and lap dancing” (2013, p.46). Now Smith, who thinks that critics of sex work have been caricatured as puritans (Ibid, p.38) wants to caricature all academics and researchers of lap-dancing who hold it as genuine labour, to be avid supporters of lap and pole dancing itself, rather than defenders of workers’ rights and realists who want to protect women working in precarious and stigmatised labour markets.

“Clubs closed up and down the country but their supporters, including a handful of academics, continued to emphasise their role in female empowerment” (Ibid, p.38).

Why this constant empowerment discourse? Should work have to be empowering? Do we constantly question whether cleaners are empowered? Or care home staff? Or child minders? Or canteen staff in schools? Or teaching assistants? Or any other job that is low paid and mostly made up of female workers? Are these jobs not perpetuating gender roles and gender inequality? Does these women not deserve support and campaigning for?

“…Perhaps the strangest thing of all is the way it’s been misinterpreted in popular culture and by some academics”. (2013, p.47).

Ah, well that’s me stuffed then.

The most disturbing thing to me about this book is the subtle reinforcement of the idea that women’s bodies cause, or have potential to cause, men to harm women. “It isn’t difficult to understand why the prospect of drunk, aroused and quite possibly resentful men emerging from a club at all hours of the night and day goes down badly with local people” (2013, p.46). Given that lap-dancing clubs are not in traditional ‘family’ residential areas, (those with city centre apartments will have a range of establishments selling alcohol) I am not sure what this is meant to imply. “All hours of the night and day” is again inaccurate. I imagine drunks coming out of any establishment cause annoyance, I don’t know why commentators single lap-dancing clubs out, as if the sexual element somehow follows them out the door and contaminates the street.

The idea that drunk aroused men are prowling the streets looking to rape or otherwise harass women was first solidified by the oft-cited Lilith Project report. The idea that lap-dancing causes rape is unproven (and extremely dangerous in my opinion). Are men emerging from ‘normal’ night clubs not drunk and perhaps resentful? This essentialist idea that men need sex and cannot control their arousal is offensive and harmful to our understanding of the debates surrounding sex work. It also plays right back into that old-school myth that women’s clothing causes men to rape, or their behaviour.

Thoughts/feedback/comments are always welcome, either comment on here or tweet me at @princessjack. Thank you for taking the time to read.