Interview with feminist campaigner and former lap dancer Jennifer Hayashi Danns
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
3 May 2012
The first lap dancing club in the UK opened in 1995. Since then lap dancing has become part of mainstream culture, with the 300+ lap dancing clubs nationwide visited by well-known figures such as Stephen Hawkings and Rihanna.
Jennifer Hayashi Danns, 28, worked as a lap dancer for two years whilst studying at university. She spoke to Ian Sinclair about the industry and her new book Stripped: The Bare Reality of Lap Dancing, which she co-authored with Sandrine Leveque from feminist campaigning group OBJECT.
What factors have driven the rapid increase in lap dancing clubs in the UK?
Many feminist groups believe that the rise in lap dancing clubs is related to a piece of legislation that allowed lap dancing clubs to open under the same licensing regulations as cafes or karaoke bars. However, this can only be part of the reason for their proliferation. In order for the clubs to function they need female dancers, and there appears to be no shortage of woman choosing consciously to work in this industry. The legislation has now changed and councils have the opportunity to set a nil limit on lap dancing clubs in their respective areas; which functions ultimately as a ban. Although I am against lap dancing clubs, as my book clearly articulates, I am wary of banning anything. As lap dancing is just an effect of a society that does not truly value women and, as hard as it may be to accept, a society in which women do not value themselves and what they could offer society other than their bodies. It is becoming increasingly difficult to solely blame the patriarchy; women must take responsibility for their actions too.
The lap dancing industry and parts of the media present lap dancing clubs as harmless, safe, titillating entertainment akin to visiting a nightclub. How do you respond to this description? What is your general critique of the industry?
The reason that I ended up writing this book was because of my perception of the depictions of the lap dancing industry in the media. I wrote a dissertation on the lap dancing industry in the UK at university, a year after I had finished working in the industry. During that research I rarely found any media content that resonated with my own experience. Could I be the only woman who had been part of this industry and found it harmful and damaging in hindsight? I found it disturbing that women would only have these positive messages of empowerment, financial independence and a life of luxury to base their decision on entering this world. The sole intent of my book is so that women can make a fully informed decision whether to enter this industry, as I believe the mainstream covers all the so called positives of this industry. My book is intentionally a criticism of the industry, or as one critic succinctly put it, it has bias running through it like a bar of rock! As human beings we have the often underused ability of reason. In this age of short, fast information, people read one article and think that they then are fully informed on an issue. I would urge people to of course read my book(!) but also read other literature about lap dancing and come to your own decision of whether or not you think this industry is of value to our society.
Several women in the book make a distinction between the ‘good old days’ of lap dancing where working conditions and pay were better, and the ‘bad times’ of today. Do you agree there has been a change in the industry and if so what does this mean in practice for lap dancers?
The reason I included those statements that appear positive are so that readers can hopefully understand why women remain in this industry and don’t just leave. As in any human interaction we can find both positives and negatives. In the club I worked in I found a great friend who is still my greatest friend today. When I first started dancing I was at the end of a ‘boom’ time. I could be confident of what I would earn, there was a feeling of community amongst the dancers and the manager was happy because the club was making money. Then as society started to suffer financially so did the lap dancing industry. In lap dancing your sole purpose, however many friends you think you have made or however well you get along with the management, is to make money. Dancers do not receive an hourly wage; all of your income is dependent on performing private dancers for individual customers. The product you are selling is yourself. If you can’t make money, it feels like no one wants to see you with your clothes off, or that you are not as attractive as the other girls. As the amount of money being spent in the lap dancing clubs decreased so did the validations of this industry. It is extremely difficult to feel empowered when you are begging men to take you for a dance. Also as the customers recognised this power, instead of treating women like queens they would often play their upper hand and criticise the dancers on a personal level – “You are too fat”, “Your tits aren’t big enough”, or as was said to me “I don’t like black girls.”
Therefore, I would say that the ‘good old days’ were when women felt that they could be certain of a regular income and the shift was to having to fight for customers and an income. The clubs responded by hiring more girls so they could still turn a profit from the house fee each girl paid, from £50 to up to £120 a night. As described in the book this meant for many that dancers would perform more explicit dances, engage in far more explicit conversations with men and the environment in the club turned from some kind of community to dog eat dog. In this dancers are faced with what they are prepared to do for money, I thought my boundary was a no contact topless lap dance; I didn’t want to talk dirty to strangers, or insinuate that I may sleep with them or ‘accidently’ touch them during a dance, but my own standards slipped when after a couple of weeks of not earning enough money to break even after my travel expenses, house fee and other costs, for example, beauty products and alcohol, I went for the first time to work in a club that was full strip, and as I describe in the book, “The first time I pulled my knickers down I felt my soul fall out.”
Those who oppose lap dancing clubs often argue the financial reward of lap dancing is generally low, pointing to the fact dancers usually have to pay the club a ‘house fee’ to perform and how they are in competition with the other dancers. However, a couple of the testimonies in the book contradict this view. For example, ‘Waitress’ notes “the majority of workers made a decent living from the job” with “a few making extravagant amounts.”
In an ideal world the money aspect would be irrelevant, but we don’t live in an ideal world and certainly in a capitalist society that values economics and profit above all else the issue of money and personal earnings in lap dancing are key points of contention. Yes there are women who work in lap dancing that earn more in two nights then a person working 9 to 5 on the minimum wage does in a week. And certainly there are women who make even more money than that in the larger established clubs in London that are frequented by celebrities and bankers. On the other end of the spectrum it is also true that there are women who barely break even, or make just enough to get by in life. In either situation how much money is enough to make to validate the fact that you are selling yourself to another person? You are selling intimacy, sexuality and your body. Even without any physical contact lap dancing is a sexual exchange; someone is paying to look at your body naked for their gratification, whilst they remain fully clothed. The dancer is not in control. If you need money you don’t really have a choice of who to dance for. It is highly unlikely that you will spend the night dancing for men that you are attracted to. In fact the reality is that often you will be stripping naked in front of a man (or woman, but still predominantly men) that you find repulsive. Repulsive for a myriad of reasons – they remind you of a family member, they are so much older than you or they are just generally creepy and make you feel uncomfortable. This was the main reason that I could not work without alcohol.
I believe that this industry warps something that is fundamentally beautiful and pure – the relationship between men and women (the majority of exchanges in lap dancing are based on heterosexual norms). Of course men find women’s bodies attractive, but instead of celebrating women’s bodies lap dancing reduces them down to a single commodity. If we have lost the ability to be able to differentiate celebrating women’s bodies for the beautiful things that they are and humiliating and reducing women’s bodies down to a miserable three minute exchange for £10, then we really are, as a society, in trouble.
Can you talk about how being a lap dancing influenced your view of men – both the punters themselves and men more generally?
My good fortune in life is that I have always been surrounded by beautiful men; within both my family and friends and now my husband. I love men and this industry hasn’t taken that from me, although I do know of women who sadly don’t share my experience. What lap dancing showed me was the ugly side of human behaviour, regardless of sex or gender. I have observed both women and men behaving like animals. This is what the sex industry can draw out of us all if we are not careful. It appeals to our base nature, that side of us that without monitoring can make us uncivilised. Our responsibility as human beings is to aspire for more and create a greater society than the one we first entered. I feel that I completely failed in this. I was drawn to lap dancing for my own personal gain, without a care in the world about the effect on anyone else, I didn’t care about the men and if this was healthy for them, or how hurt their wives or partners could be. I didn’t even care about myself. I fell hook, line and sinker for the hard sell of consumerism; I was worthless without money or the ability to buy material things. Even saying I was using the money for university was a lie – it sounded more honourable than I want money to feel that my life has meaning. I am only 28 but I have learned the very hard way what happens when you live driven by your base nature.
What do you propose as a solution to the current status quo?
In the book Sandrine Leveque and I suggest a more comprehensive sex education programme in schools that includes themes of self esteem and respect, and also at a later stage for teenagers, information about the sex industry. Our world has changed. With smartphones teenagers are now interacting with the sex industry through pornography on their phones and it could be reasonably suggested mimicking that behaviour with the latest phenomenon of sending each other sexually explicit images of themselves. Sex education programme must change to accommodate these changes in how young people are learning about sex and sexuality. With the intent that young men will not grow up and want to buy women and young women will not grow up and want to sell themselves (again I am focusing on heterosexual relationships).
Do you think the current feminist-driven campaigns opposing lap dancing clubs by organisations such as UK Feminista and OBJECT are approaching the issue correctly? Would you do anything differently?
I think that it is sad how feminism has become associated with man hating prudes who want to dictate other people’s sex lives. I am a feminist and the fact that I have worked as a lap dancer is no contradiction of that. True feminism is about equality of men and women. Feminism that excludes men will never achieve its goal of equality. I was recently at an event co-organised by OBJECT that was challenging the porn industry, I was happy that there were many men there who felt that the depictions of women in porn are not acceptable to them. Therefore I support both UK Feminista and OBJECT because they include men. Also, because of the mainstream depictions of feminism I had some doubts when I first contacted OBJECT. Although I had read their website and felt that we could work together, the stereotype that they may try and control me and try and get me to express my experience in a way that suited their agenda was a genuine concern. However, when I first met with Sandrine we got on like a house on fire and she treated me with nothing but respect, this has continued with my interactions with both Kat Banyard who founded UK Feminista and Anna van Heeswijk who is now CEO of OBJECT. I think that both organisations are clear in their goal of being against the lap dancing industry. I think it is important that people are able to access different viewpoints on this issue and then through the different perspectives available make up their own minds.
What would be your advice to men reading this interview who are interested in reducing the harm done to women by the lap dancing industry?
I would strongly urge men to not give in to peer pressure, if you don’t like how some people are talking about women, lap dancers or any women! Please have the courage to say something. To paraphrase a frequently cited expression, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to say and do nothing. If you don’t want to go to a lap dancing club, don’t go. It does not have to be a normal part of stag dos etc. You have a choice. If you don’t want to look at porn on someone’s phone, or in a magazine, just say so. It can be hard, especially for younger men, as consuming women in these ways has perversely become associated with being a ‘real man’. A real man knows his own mind and is comfortable enough in his own skin to simply say “No, I am not interested in that.” Cherish the women in your life, respect their bodies and treasure their minds and tell them every day that they are important. We have to be patient but eventually all of our individual actions will transform our society.