Stripping the Tories

10:11 pm - September 17th 2008

by Laurie Penny    

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stripperLuckily enough for the Tory party, quite a few international markets went boom on the day that this story broke. Strip club vouchers offering discounts for Tory delegates, in with the brochure for the upcoming Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham.

What angers me about this sordid little story isn’t the fact that Tory MPs might enjoy visiting strip clubs. Statistics suggest that well-paid, powerful white men will number most patrons of these newly-licensed ‘entertainment establishments‘ (A legal loophole means that since the introduction of the Licensing Act 2003 lap dancing clubs currently only require a Premises Licence for the sale of alcohol to operate, despite being part of the commercial sex industry.

The number of lap dancing clubs across the UK is estimated to have doubled since 2004). There is always, always going to be a market for the more culturally and fiscally powerful to buy sex. What adds insult to time-worn injury, however, is the fact that it’s a buyer’s market. This was not an advertisement, but a voucher: a voucher offering conservative delegates a 66% reduction in entry price to Birmingham’s Rocket Club.

Now, these are bloody hard-working girls. The women who staff strip-clubs and brothels don’t do it for kicks, whatever the makers of Secret Diary of A Call Girl may say. They do it for the money, and they earn every penny of that money by laying the most intimate parts of their personhood on the line and risking their physical and mental health every day within a profession that earns them ostracization from friends and family. These women deserve better than to be offered up as discounted goods. These women deserve to be treated with respect.

In the vast majority of cases, women don’t become sex workers – prostitutes, lap-dancers, streetwalkers, strippers or porn stars – for the kicks. No, they do it for the money. They do it because there is simply no other way to earn that scale of living wage as a woman under 30 in the current UK job-market.

In the Guardian today, most commenters seemed to miss the point of a heart-rending article by a prostitute and single mother. Her point was that she became a prostitute because her former job as an office PA was not paying her enough to support herself and her two children and was, at the same time, taking up so much time and energy that she barely got to see them. Her decision to go into full-time sex work was, as it is for many women in her situation, entirely an economic one.

We need to start respecting women’s work, whether or not they have made the difficult decision to enter the risky world of sex-work. If Tory MPs such as Anne Widdecombe really feel that the inclusion of the voucher in the brochure represents the party ‘throwing every value out of the window,’ if they don’t want to face the escalating realities of sex work for women of every class and background in the economic real world of contemporary Britain, then maybe they should start to analyse why women make these choices.

Eighty three per-cent of sex workers, according to recent studies by Object and Fawcett, want to leave the profession; but thousands of women every year make that career choice, and they make it because the country in which we live is currently fostering a gruelling long-hours culture in which women make up the bulk of lower-paid, exploited workers. Women are still paid 17% less than men in full time work and 33% less in part-time work, and when they get home they are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic chores, especially if they are single parents, as many sex workers are.

But the Tory delegates who have been so warmly invited to enjoy the bodies of the low-paid women of Birmingham at a discount price do not think this is a priority. In fact, a key part of current Tory policy proposes an end to equal pay audits, insisting that ‘only those firms which lose sex discrimination cases will be subject’ to them. Until the Tories get serious about offering low-paid workers decent living wages, then any paltry statement blaming the City of Birmingham for putting entirely appropriate adverts in the back of their brochures will be crass hypocrisy.

Until that day, they may as well schedule complementary sessions with hookers into the official programme and stuff a few fivers into Lady Thatcher’s pearly g-string whilst they’re at it. Any less is pure hypocrisy.

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About the author
Laurie Penny is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a journalist, blogger and feminist activist. She is Features Assistant at the Morning Star, and blogs at Penny Red and for Red Pepper magazine.
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Reader comments

Tory Family Values!

Her decision to go into full-time sex work was, as it is for many women in her situation, entirely an economic one.

The woman in question is a graduate, who made the choice to leave her well-paid CIty job (yes, I know she was a PA, but City PAs make £30-50k per year) not on sheer economic grounds but on the grounds that her old job barely gave her any time with her children.

That suggests that in the case you cite, the only ways in which gender comes into play are 1) women object more than men to not spending time with their kids and 2) an averagely attractive man is much less likely to make £40k a year from a couple of hours’ shagging than an averagely attractive women.

Yes, low-paid workers need more money and the employers of illegally low-paid workers need a good kicking, but Lara’s example has sod-all relevance to either point.

God damn those happy sex workers putting flies in the ointment!

“well-paid, powerful white men”

Is Laura’s problem with “well-paid”, “powerful”, “white” or all three ?

(She was a bit melanin-challenged herself last time I looked)

Laban, you should know that well-paid powerful black men are famously more respectful towards sex workers.

Last I checked, rather a lot of people went into work for purely economic reasons. In fact, doing it for other reasons seems to be very much a luxury. There is a hidden value-judgement in the claim that sex-work is somehow unique in any other way than that it easily shades into illegality which makes it more dangerous than other work (in exactly the same way as selling recreational drugs is made unnecessarily dangerous and violent because it too is associated with illegality).

6. Mike Killingworth

When they (women) get home they are still expected to perform the bulk of domestic chores, especially if they are single parents – Laurie, a single mum by definition doesn’t have anyone else to do her housework for her. Or are you pining for a world in which single men would have to do women’s housework as a condition of citizenship, or the right to go on living, or something?

I know, I know. Part of the trouble with men is that they don’t get any self-esteem from doing housework. Actually, I have a mate who does, and despite being good-looking and intelligent (and straight) he’s still a bachelor. But then, of course, it’s all men’s fault that women pick the wrong men – that goes without saying.

Still, roll on the change in the law Patricia Hewitt wants, making it a criminal offence to buy sex. Then I shall be able to say to a woman – “I’d love to buy you dinner but I can’t ‘cos I fancy you”. Or have I missed something?

Nick and Laban: I say well-paid, powerful white men because that’s mostly what Tory MPs are. Fact. I’m not making a value-judgement about race here and I’m not sure why my own race should come into it. (I’m white, yes, as Laban pointed out, although I don’t know where he’s ‘checked’, and he got my name wrong to boot). Most people who visit strip clubs are rich, powerful white men in the same way that most people who visit strip clubs will be reasonably unreconstructed. It’s a category description, not a judgement.

My point about sex work being an economic choice was to make clear that choosing sex work in preference to other types of work is a financial decision. Women do it because they can get paid more for having sex with strangers than they can anywhere else. And according to research published today, that’s not likely to change.

So no, Lee, it’s not about hookers being ‘happy’. In fact, happiness has nothing to do with it. That’s the point. These women enjoy the money, not necessarily the work, where ‘enjoy’ means ‘appreciate earning a living wage with’.

‘ Laurie, a single mum by definition doesn’t have anyone else to do her housework for her. Or are you pining for a world in which single men would have to do women’s housework as a condition of citizenship, or the right to go on living, or something?’

Not at all. I’m pining for a world where a woman doesn’t have to work gruelling hours in order to earn enough to support herself and two children. I’m pining for a world where state support, or paid child support, is enough that a woman can work and still have energy to spend time with those children. I’m pining for a world where motherhood is respected and remunerated as it should be.

And yes, a lot of men enjoy housework. In my experience, that doesn’t mean they do an equal share of it; maybe that’s why they enjoy it so much! Don’t believe me? Have some statistics:

“Most people who visit strip clubs are rich, powerful white men in the same way that most people who visit strip clubs will be reasonably unreconstructed.”

Culturally-defined selective assumption followed by value judgement. In this context the use of ‘most’ to despecify is intended to distract from the innacuracies of the construction and the hidden contradiction of the author’s own political standpoint.

Laurie – you assume that lap dancers make lots of money. This is a myth, and one that suits the sex industry very well.

As Object point out: “Performers have to pay to work in clubs, have to buy or rent expensive ‘house dress’, are fined for any breaches of codes (such as the wrong dress code) and frequently pay retainers for the days they do not work. ”

They quote one former lap-dancer: “Urban legends surrounded the amount of money it might be possible to make in the club. In reality no one ever seemed to make that much money. it’s the only job I’ve ever had where some nights I could end up paying to be there.”

The Object research is all at


You seem to imply that giving Tory delegates a discount on the price of admission is ripping off the women who work at the club in question.

People who run businesses do not give discounts out of the generosity of their hearts, or out of a desire to exploit their workforce, they do so in the hope that a larger volume of trade (even at a slightly lower profit margin) will leave them better off because their fixed costs overheads (such as the rent on the club and the cost of the security) can be spread between a larger number of transactions.

I grant you that this means that the women in the club will be doing more dances but a) they might choose to dance more often in a single night in order to have more nights off b) it is perfectly feasible that more women work on the night in question so that more women make the same amount of money by doing the regular amount of work. Moreover, it is entirely possible that the the price of a dance went up for the duration of the conference, more than off-setting the revenue lost on the door charge.

You want people to respect the work women do, whether or not it is in the sex industry? Try assuming that women in sex work make their “purely economic decisions” on the same rational basis that people of either gender do in any other walk of life.

George V: see the very reasonable comments made above by JG. Lap-dancers, in particular, really do not have access to the kind of workplace autonomy you’re talking about. Women are often exploited within the sex industry unless they’re entirely self-employed: lap dancers pay rent to the club and will sometimes come home with less money than they started with. And yet still, for some women, it’s the better option.

Even self-employed prostitutes like Lara do not make enormous sums of money and do not work any less hard than any other workers on any given day. The point stands, though, that we can’t know precisely what we’re arguing about until somebody phones up the Rocket Club and asks them how they were planning to cover the cost of the deal, and if the girls’ wages come directly out of the night’s takings.

If nobody else wants to jump to it, I’ll ring them myself when the night gets underway.

13. Mike Killingworth

Interesting graph, Laurie. If we redefine “like” as “derive self-respect from” then the question arises as to why women should like washing/ironing and men DIY.

Still, none of these graphs can show what you want them to – which is that the lower esteem “women’s” activities are held in is due wholly to male wickedness. Strange that something so obvious should be so hard to demonstrate objectively…


I’m sorry – what?

Firstly, nobody is redefining ‘like’ as ‘derive self-respect from’, not even to shoehorn in a sexist punch, which makes your entire first paragraph nonensical.

Secondly, where on earth did I say -where have I ever said – that ‘women’s activities’ are not valued because of ‘male wickedness’? I don’t believe there’s anything such thing. I believe that there is a lot of wickedness in the world, and if more women were in positions of power, more wickedness might be inflicted by them. I don’t believe that men are wicked. I believe that a lot of women are socially and politically and financially disenfranchised. That’s not the same thing.

Sorry, but which party wrote the 2003 Licensing Act? Ah, yes – it was a Labour Act. The Conservative-led Council in Birmingham, and the Lib Dem Chairman of the Licensing Committee, have pointed out this loophole, and are not happy with it.

I work for economic reasons, i also only get to spend 30 mins with my kids each day.

I dont even have the choice of sex work as no one would pay me a penny …. what about me ?

Fact-checking – The brochure is produce by Marketing Birmingham and given to visit to all conferences at the ICC.

The rest of the article is also bilge as the comments above have already shown.

Laurie – I suppose the point I wanted to make is that, while there may be a small minority of women who work in the sex industry as a purely rational response to the gender pay gap (or lack of flexible working etc), most are there through a lack of real choice. Or a perceived lack of choice.

I have heard many men justify going to lap dancing/strip clubs by saying “the women earn a good wage, better than they’d get anywhere else.” We should be working to challenge this myth, and I’m afraid your post seems to reinforce it.

On the question of the Tories – I imagine they’re pretty split on the issue of lap-dancing clubs. The social conservatives would oppose them of course, but there’s also the neo-liberal wing which sees all enterprise as legitimate. I believe Stringfellow’s a big donor to the party, for instance.

19. Allan McKinley

Sorry, but was the point of this post an attack on the Tories or an attack on lap-dancing? You can’t do both with this evidence, and to try to link the Conservatives to a support of lap-dancing, by pointing out that the bulk of their MPs is of the the same demographic as you claim goes to lap-dancing clubs, is basically misleading. Even if your assumption about the demographic of lap-dancing audiences is accurate (I suspect it is younger males than the majority of MPs, and in this country the white bit is unsurprising), “well-paid, powerful, white men” is a good description of the majority of Labour MPs equally, more so in that many are ministers and thus better paid and more powerful. I presume Manchester’s lap-dancing clubs should also look forward to an influx?

You can certainly attack lapdancing, and attacking the Tories is a democratic right. But it seems peverse to try and hit two birds with one stone and at best end up missing both. Judging by the majority of comments above you have succeeded in breaking your own window with the stone, as people are conviced by neither of your arguments. Perchance it would be better to target your fire either on the issue or the party, in which case you might convince me with a well-reasoned argument. Here it seems that either party politics/feminism lost out to feminism/party politics and the message was lost.

It seems that all these terrible things have been happening suring the last eleven dreadful years of a Labour government. And much of it is the fault of the 2003 Licencing Act which, like most of this government’s legislation, is so badly drafted that it is full of loopholes to be exploited.

All in all, a pretty miserable indictment of the pretty miserable government.

This post is utterly full of holes, as has already been clearly pointed out by several posters. I’m all for attacking the Tories, but to do so because a conference centre they are going to has a deal with a marketing company is absurd.

Points to remember:
1. Businesses offer discounts in the hope of making MORE money, not less. You would make more sense if you attacked strip clubs for *not* trying to drum up business when there are thousands of potential customers walking past.
2. Most strip bars work by charging the dancers and entry price then letting them keep their private dance money. Thus, by cutting the entrance fee it is likely that it is just the club that is taking the financial hit and financial risk…in the hope fo getting more customers and selling more drinks.
3. Most people in most professions work *for the money*. Yes, that’s right – we all prostitute ourselves to some degree.


You can’t have it both ways – you can’t say that women in sex work are making a rational economic decision to leave the world of office work and get into sex work and, simultaneously, that once employed in sex work they endure appalling conditions and make no money.

Either women in sex work are making a rational decision to accept the unpleasant conditions and insecurity of the sex trade in exchange for some combination of better money and shorter or more flexible hours, or they are being tricked, shanghaied or otherwise bullied into accepting a form of work that leaves them worse off than before – in which case their decision is not the rational economic decision you claim.

If it is the former then women in sex work are not victims and should be considered capable of making their own decisions about how best to wring the Tory delegates’ wallets dry. If it is the latter then the answer is the proper application of existing employment law. I recognise that the truth is that both sets of conditions can co-exist inside an industry the size of the sex trade but you should not confuse the two situations.

You may find it unreasonable that women have to make the choice between the crap conditions offered by many modern office and manual jobs and the crap conditions offered by sex work but, absent any other changes, removing one of the options does not make women better off. This was surely the point being made by the article you cite.

In case you hadn’t noticed Secret Diary of a Call Girl is based on a book. In case you hadn’t noticed that book was written by a call girl. I cannot vouch for authenticity, but it was claimed to be primarily autobiographical.

Have you ever actually talked to a stripper? I have had a couple of friends who stripped for a job. They enjoyed their work most of the time, one always said that many of her customers treated her better than her boyfriend did. She was doing a master’s degree at the time, so the stripping can’t have been that tough. A masters is phenominally hard work.

Have you ever been in a strip club? 66% off at the door is not very relevant. Most of the money is paid for dances, and that is where the girls get their money. They are not stripping for 66% off. In fact the management is reducing its cut to bring in respectable, relatively well-behaved customers who will spend money on the girls.

So is any of this post not written specifically to make the author look clueless?

“one always said that many of her customers treated her better than her boyfriend did.”

And do you not think that’s a problem Trevorsty? Do you not think that might say something about that person’s expectations of men and relationships?

JG, yes never let any comment go by without finding some way to turn it into an attack. Put down the Freud and accept that some relationships suck.

26. Allan McKinley

“And do you not think that’s a problem Trevorsty? Do you not think that might say something about that person’s expectations of men and relationships?”

Or something about the high level of respect she got from her customers. Anecdotal evidence has this awkward habit of being used both ways you know, so without a clearer indication I’d question your interpretation. Incidentally, I would expect a Master’s student to be smart enough to avoid abusive relationships and the like, or to leave them, so I suspect my alternative reading is marginally more likely, but would not like to put money on it. Incidentally, why are so many of these quasi-feminist arguments (appologies to the feminists who have the ability to put good arguments) based entirely on gut instinct and partial reading of the evidence? They do no-one any favours, but above all seem to undermine your points.

Hi F Wright – I’m not that into Freud, but I take your point. I wanted to demonstrate that the comment Trevorsty attributed to a lap-dancing friend could be interpreted in a number of ways – not all of them particuarly positive.

“Anecdotal evidence has this awkward habit of being used both ways you know” – Absolutely Allan. That’s what I was trying to show. Anecdotal evidence (such as Trevorsty’s) can be intepreted in lots of ways. What serious research there is on lap-dabnicng and the sex indutsry (available on the Fawcett and Object websites) seems to reinforce my stance on the issue.

Of course, there may well be a problem of publication bias since these organisations start from a position of opposing lap-dancing and may well sit on research which doesn’t support that view. If you have contradictory evidence, please point me to it.

28. Catherine Brown

Laurie’s description of the guardian article as “heart rending” is a grotesque distortion. The woman referred to in the article, suffers most from societies prejudice against her choice of work rather than the work itself.

Laurie also quotes figures from the heavily criticised “research” by Object – a lobby organisation with an anti sex, gender feminist perspective. It’s really nothing new. It casts ALL women as passive victims of male sexual aggression. A “slugs and snails theory” which perpetuates stereotypes, is hopelessly simplistic, divisive and counter productive.

Readers could be forgiven for thinking that ALL feminists share this biased and simplistic perspective. This is simply not the case… Feminist women are challenging such opinions vigorously. We are doing it because women suffer most from this jaundiced view of gender and sexuality and the damaging policies it fosters.

Catherine – The research on Object’s website has been undertaken by the Scottish Executive and London Met University (commissioned by Glasgow City Council). I would have thought that these were pretty reputable bodies.

However, your use of scare quotes suggests you see flaws in the methodologies used. Could you tell us what these flaws are? Or could you point us to the contradictory research which suggests lap-dancers earn very good money, aren’t at greater risk of abuse or violence than anyone else and that licensing terms aren’t broken on a regular basis?

As for being anti-sex, I would say the opposite is true. Most people who oppose lap-dancing/strip clubs on feminist/pro-feminist principles value sex as a very important aspect of human relationships – one that is only debased by such establishments.

30. Mike Killingworth

Labour have announced their policy on sex-trafficking, prostitution etc:

It falls some way short of the criminalisation of all “sex for cash” relationships (which is the case in the Irish Republic – curiously, the Government seems to have ignored the Irish experience whilst taking into account the Swedish and Dutch ones) that some (pseudo-)feminist outfits were calling for. Seems a sensible clutch of proposals to me, provided that the parliamentary drafters can make the definitions legally robust. In practice it will criminalise the lower end of the market while leaving the high class call girl to get on with it. Very New Labour.

Whilst I’m not sure that transactional sex is defensible in and of itself, the criminal law is a blunt instrument.

Yes…I saw that too, will be blogging about it no doubt…hooray for putting women in greater danger! I don’t quite see the “sense” that you do Mike 🙂

32. Catherine Brown


The object website only refers to the Bindel Report. This is a piece of journalistic not academic research (as you would expect from a journalist). The other researchers you refer to are presumably the Women and Violence research unit at London Met – hardly unbiased academics.

Sadly, a lot of the research in this field has been heavily criticised for selection bias, flawed methodology, ethical concerns and unrelated conclusions. Such research is dominated by a ‘women’s studies / gender sociology’ standpoint. Evidence is assessed through dogmatic filters which interpret much male sexuality and behaviour as violence against women.

A recent, related study was so flawed in its methodology that 15 academics submitted a paper to the Scottish Parliament, strongly criticising the methods, ethics and conclusions. Such a public rebuke by academics from numerous fields is exceedingly rare and should give some indication of the level of concern.

I’m not engaging in a debate about gender politics – its far too complex to do justice to in this forum – nor am I saying that all gender-feminist research is value-less, far from it. However, what I would like to see is more emphasis on the research emerging from the fields of evolutionary psychology, sexual health and cognitive science. Such studies are less likely to be subject to ideological bias, are empirical, peer reviewed and motivated by the desire to seek out the truth rather than find ‘evidence’ to support dangerous social (re) engineering by politicians.

Hi Catherine – thanks for your response.

I think some of your points about the Object research are valid – selection bias being the most likely problem.

However, the fact remains that this was research commissioned by a local authority and carried out under the auspices of respected university. That doesn’t make it watertight, but it is a lot better than mere anecdote (“I had a lap-dancer once…” etc).

Unless these dancers’ testimonials were actually falsified (which I don’t think you’re suggesting) then at they very least they should force us to question some of the myths surrounding lapdancing.

As nice as it is of you to look from the strippers point of view, you need to check your facts before you construct a whole argument around something thats incorrect:

The girls DO NOT give discount dances, the discount voucher is a reduction in the entrance price.

35. Catherine Brown


Sorry, but the research you refer to is heavily flawed. Just because it’s produced by a university doesn’t change that fundamental fact. It’s actually worse than anecdote as weight is given to the argument by virtue of the credentials of the host institute or the funders. Bad research is bad research whether it is conducted by a university, a government or a giraffe.

My fear is that we’re replacing one myth – the universally ‘happy hooker’ – with a new one, the trafficked, repressed sex slave. Neither are universally true, they are stereotypes and the reality is FAR more complex.

What we need is real research, conducted by academics with no axe to grind, with established and transparent methods, and open to peer review.

Until we get that, the sex industry (and human sexuality in general) will continue to be a political and ideological football with the consequent toll on the lives of those affected.

The politicisation of this issue would be fascinating, if the consequences weren’t so tragic!!

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