Of the lap-dancers by surveyed recently by Leeds University one in three were working to fund education. Photograph: Anna Gordon
Joy Nilsson is a student protester, but not as we know it. She has just started an MSc at a London university. Today she is bundled up in a puffa jacket and a fluorescent waistcoat outside Hackney Town Hall, marching along with a group carrying signs and shouting through megaphones. But this protest is not about tuition fees or higher education funding cuts. These women are here to oppose a plan to clamp down on east London's menagerie of strip and lap-dancing clubs. If the plan goes through, Nilsson says she will struggle to be able to pay for her postgraduate course, because she is funding it with her job as a professional lap-dancer.
"If they close the clubs many women will drop out of higher education," she says. "I don't want to owe £50,000 when I graduate, and I know other women feel the same. I love my job and I'm very proud of what I do – it fits perfectly with my studying, it's very flexible and you get your money up front. What other jobs give you that kind of freedom?"
Lap-dancing for degrees is becoming a common phenomenon. A recent study of over 200 lap-dancers carried out by Leeds University found that one in three of those surveyed were working to fund education. The majority of these were younger women, with 14% working to fund undergraduate study; 6% were on postgraduate courses and 4% in further education. At a time when fees are about to increase, there is widespread expectation that more women will turn to this industry to fund their studies.
Patricia Barnes is one example. A 19-year-old in her first year at Southampton Solent University, she started dancing at a local club, Aqua Lounge, to pay off debts that started mounting when her student loan arrived three months late. With no space available in over-subscribed student halls, Barnes rented a shared house in the private sector, which cost a good deal more. She maxed out her overdraft and credit card in the process. Her mother had already got into debt trying to help her, and Barnes says there was no way she could ask for more. Now when her mum asks where she's getting her money, Barnes simply tells her she's working part time for a communications company.
"No one wants to see their kids doing it, but I know why I'm here," she says. "In my last job I wasn't guaranteed £20 for three hours; here I could make £200. I've paid back the deposit on my house, started paying back my credit card and kept up with my rent. I can make my rent in three days here. Without that I'd still be in a lot of debt."
Barnes says she got into dancing during a night out. She and some friends went into the club for fun, and got talking to one of the dancers. When her eyes widened after hearing that it was possible to make £300 a night, the dancer said they were looking for more women, and introduced her to the manager.
"I had to audition on a client in the club, but I practised on one of the girls beforehand. She gave me some tips, like doing more floor work. You have to be completely naked. That was the worst part – getting comfortable with everything. I practised on my housemates, too, after a few drinks – I figured if I could do it for them it was OK. I was embarrassed at first, but that went away. The girls are great, and my manager is excellent."
Barnes has mixed feelings about what she is doing. "At work I'm proud of dancing, but out of work I feel a bit ashamed," she says. "People can judge you – it's the picture it paints: she's a stripper so she's a slag … I haven't told anyone apart from my best friends, and my mum's religious so I definitely wouldn' t tell her."
The club's manager, Vicki Andrews, also paid her way though university as a dancer, working for eight years before she opened Aqua Lounge in 2005. Now she says she's in a position to provide opportunities for others, and would give priority to students looking for work. "We've had a lot of inquiries from younger girls since the [student] protests started," she says. "From 18-year-olds who think they'll be off to study soon and they need to do something to help fund it. Some are worried about paying for accommodation, and many parents are not in a position to help. We rarely turn anyone down, but if we reached saturation point I would prioritise those who felt most hard pushed trying to fund their education."
In the research study by Leeds, most women worked between two and four eight-hour shifts a week, and the average earni ngs were £232. However, there was huge variation between clubs, reflecting the diversity of work available. While Barnes generally makes £60-£80 a night to help fund her degree dancing privately for individual clients in her underwear, Nilsson can often earn up to £200 a night for her MSc by putting on collective shows for large audiences in a strip club that offers something much closer to burlesque entertainment.
Three quarters of all the dancers surveyed reported good job satisfaction, but interviews took place only in clubs where open access to staff had been granted by the management, so a high rate of satisfaction could be expected.
"Dancing is a strategy," says Dr Kate Hardy, who helped to undertake the research led by Dr Teela Sanders on behalf of the Economic and Social Research Council. "A large proportion of the women we spoke to were dancing to continue education or to balance inconsistent work, often in the creative arts. Most saw it as a bit of fun because it wasn't for ever – after studying, the idea is to move and get a graduate job. The money isn't easy, but 80% of the women said they liked the work because they earned more than in other jobs and 88% said that they liked the flexibility – there's no need for them to go in when exams or essays are due in."
The hours mean that students are able to lead something of a double life, engaging with lectures and studies during the day and working evening shifts late into the night. "I don't think anyone has any idea what I do," says Nilsson with a smile. "Sometimes I go to lectures with a bag full of kinky outfits so I can go straight to work. During the day I don't even wear any make-up. It just shows that you never know."
But Nilsson insists that her decision to keep her dancing secret has nothing to do with shame. "I'm an artistic performer not a sex worker, and I'm very proud of what I do," she says. "It doesn't make me feel cheap or used."
For some women, doing this work gives them a sense of independence. Twenty-eight-year-old Jen Richardson, who works at Brown's club in Hackney, started lap-dancing when she was a student at Oxford University studying English and French literature. "I'm not a brazen hussy or a bad person, I just don't like borrowing money," she says. "When I was a student, money was an immediate problem and dancing offered an immediate solution. I didn't want to ask for more handouts from my parents, and I was under a lot of stress trying to pay the rent. I can't speak for women in all clubs, but I'd much rather pay my own way."
Tuition fee increases
The department for Business Innovation and Skills did not want to speculate about whether the rise in fees would push more women into lap-dancing establishments, simply reiterating that "students do not pay anything for their tuition upfront". Oxford Brookes, London South Bank University and Southampton University declined to comment on their students' choices of part-time work. Portsmouth expressed concerns that some women "may be involved in working in these clubs". Oxford University pointed to its generous bursary schemes, and a spokesman for Southampton Solent encouraged any women who were concerned to "contact their university careers service, who can identify student jobs available both on campus and in the region", or to talk to the student support team for extra funding.
But Olivia Bailey, the women's officer for the National Union of Students, says this issue does worry her. "Obviously there is a concern for the welfare of the women," she says. "It's outrageous that any student feels forced into sex work to fund their studies, and students should know they can talk to their women's officers if they have any concerns or visit www.hiddenmarks.org.uk.
"I'm worried that as women find it harder to fund their studies they may feel forced into this kind of work."
The Leeds study also picked up on concerns from lap-dancers themselves. Irregular hours and high levels of commission being taken by managers were the chief sources of complaint, with women frequently being charged between £20 and £100 just to get into the club to work. On-the-spot fines for anything from turning up late to chewing gum were also reported by some women, some of whom have been known to leave work with less money than they started with.
Today the pressure on dancers continues to grow. Nineteen-year-old Barnes says that she's hoping to give up lap-dancing next year by transferring to another university that will allow her to live at home. But she's worried that other female students will look for different ways to fill the gap. "Women can do a lot worse than dance to make their rent. But I've heard of girls in other clubs being offered to do "extras" for more money. That's really horrible, but if my money problems got worse I can imagine being tempted."
All students' names have been changed