By contributor Sean Carey
I am driving along Mile End Road in east London around midnight with a Bangladeshi friend. I am giving him a lift home, after we had paid a brief visit to a “gentlemen’s club” located on the border between Tower Hamlets and the City, the so-called Square Mile, London’s preeminent financial district. “Well, I can now say that I am not very keen on lap-dancing clubs,” my friend informs me.
We had just spent around 45 minutes in the club. The venue opened two years ago. It is one of 11 currently licensed lap-dancing clubs in Tower Hamlets. Only those 18 or over can cross the threshold. The club opens in the late afternoon and closes at 3AM, Monday to Friday. Young, predominantly white men –- “City boys”, as they are known — with high levels of disposable income sit either at the bar, tables or in armchairs –- and can either talk amongst themselves or engage in conversation with around a dozen “girls” who are looking for clients. For a fee of £20, a striptease can be performed in an alcove at the back of the club. A “private” room is also available. The club takes a proportion of the women’s earnings and, along with the sale of alcohol, is a key revenue stream. “Do you ever have any trouble,” I ask the owner. “Never,” he replies. “Everyone is as good as gold. In any case, we have really good security.” He then indicates two very large men, one black one white, at the club’s entrance. He pauses and adds: “The only trouble we have is with the local authority.” More on this later.
My friend is nominally Muslim –- he visits the mosque only occasionally and is largely secular in outlook. He likes the U.K. and London in particular. Apart from his early years, he has spent most of his life in Tower Hamlets. He very much admires open and tolerant multicultural societies. “Each to his own,” could sum up his personal outlook in terms of how people organise their personal lives. But perhaps he has reached the limit of tolerance after a visit to the lap-dancing club. And even a relatively weak religious identity clearly plays a part in how he evaluates such cultural forms. “Everyone likes to have a good time, have a drink and meet people, but perhaps it would be better to meet somewhere else.” He paused for a moment to reflect. Because we had also visited a Bangladeshi-owned “Indian” restaurant earlier in the evening he then added: “On the other hand, running a restaurant which serves alcohol is also prohibited in the Koran.” He was obviously wrestling with the metaphysical problem of adjudicating between making a living from two types of businesses that according to Islamic law are forbidden (haram).
I asked: “From a Koranic point of view which is worse: running a restaurant which serves alcohol, or running a lap dancing club?”
“Difficult to say,” he answered. “Both are bad.”
I felt the issue could be explored further. “All right, but leaving aside for the moment how you view it, tell me how most Bangladeshis, either in the U.K. or in Bangladesh, would see the situation? Would they see owning a lap-dancing club as worse, the same or somewhat better than owning a restaurant which serves alcohol?”
Put this way, my friend was able to answer very quickly: “Oh, in both countries they would see the lap-dancing club as worse.”
How did my friend and I end up making our first visit to a lap-dancing club? We had been visiting a Bangladeshi-owned “Indian” restaurant in the Aldgate area to talk about my friend’s recent move to Sylhet, Bangladesh, to set up a business in the part of the country from which he originates. He wanted to run some ideas about marketing and branding past me.
His return to Bangladesh is a sign of the times given the steady flow of second generation British Bangladeshi professionals who are leaving the U.K. to return to Bangladesh. Its capital city, Dhaka, and other parts of the country are experiencing an economic boom.
Although, the perception of Bangladesh for many in the West remains that the country is something of a “basket case,” the reality is quite different. In 2005, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan, and South Korea were designated by analysts at Goldman Sachs as being in the “Next 11”, to follow the BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – that are believed to have the potential to become economic powerhouses in the 21st century.
In the last fiscal year, Bangladesh’s GDP grew by 6.7 per cent, and next year’s forecast according to the Central Bank of Bangladesh will be 7 per cent.
My friend was on one of his periodic visits to the U.K. to catch up with family members (including his wife and children) and friends. In the latter category is the lap-dancing club owner. The venue is a few hundred yards away from the restaurant, so its owner was invited to join us for the meal. Reciprocity was in play and we were asked to pay a visit to the club “for a drink.” As an ever-on-duty anthropologist I was curious to see a gentlemen’s club serving City workers at first hand.
My friend may not have to wrestle with the theological problem of the relative sinfulness of owning a restaurant which serves alcohol or a lap-dancing club for much longer -– at least in Tower Hamlets.
Tower Hamlets is the second poorest borough in London and the third nationally. It is also home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the U.K.
Tower Hamlets recently launched a consultation with residents whether any of the current licensed lap-dancing clubs should continue to operate. The results will be announced shortly. But is widely known that Tower Hamlets, which has been headed since 2010 by the first directly elected mayor, Lutfur Rahman, a British Bangladeshi, is aiming for a “nil” policy towards “sexual entertainment venues” as lap-dancing clubs are now categorized under changes to the Policing and Crime Act 2009 and the Local Government Act 1982.
Why such a restrictive policy? One reason is that the East End of London has traditionally had extremely strong bonds of community based on family and employment networks. This is true for long-established white, working-class Jewish, Anglican and Roman Catholic residents as well as predominantly Muslim migrant groups like Bangladeshis and more recent arrivals like Somalis. Although there has been a long-standing “alternative tradition of gay and straight sex, which attracted London’s West End bohemians to the docks during the 1950s and 1960s, for example, and which gay male Bangladeshis and gentrifiers unwittingly and very discreetly continue in Spitalfields” (Professor John Eade, personal communication 2011), the culturally dominant pattern of a working-class, “heterosexual, familial East End” (Eade 2000:159) lends itself very easily towards hostility to the sex industry, especially where it is visible and clearly defined as in lap-dancing clubs.
A second factor concerns social change. Parts of Tower Hamlets have been and continue to be transformed by an influx of well-heeled newcomers –- the gentrification of the western edge of Spitalfields by those working in the creative industries –- art, music, design and an ever increasing number of digital advertising and games companies — has been remarkable but unsettling for many long-standing, working class residents. Also, of concern has been the construction of an abundance of new, “luxury” housing in the east and south of the borough for those working in the Square Mile as well as Canary Wharf, another financial district in the borough located on the Isle of Dogs, which has amplified the much-heard grievance that social housing for locals has not kept pace with demand. It is these “outsiders” employed in the financial services sector who are perceived (accurately according to my ongoing ethnographic research in the borough) to be the main patrons of “gentlemen’s clubs.”
A third factor is the coalition between those who hold traditional, secular feminist narratives regarding the “commodification of the female body,” and others who adhere to local and global Muslim sensibilities about the unacceptability of public displays of nudity, especially female nudity. The main vehicle by which this overlapping objection to the “pornification” of contemporary western culture has been accomplished is through the offices and elected representatives of the Tower Hamlets Labour Party, although the views of independent councillors and other pressure groups are also important.
In a recent interview with Bloomberg, American cultural anthropologist Judith Hanna, senior research scholar in the department of dance at the University of Maryland, has defended lap-dancing as a form of art comparable to ballet and other dance forms. “Exotic dance shares with virtually all dance genres the fact that it is a purposeful, intentionally rhythmical, culturally patterned, nonverbal, body movement communication in time and space,” she quotes from a forthcoming book, Naked Truth: Strip Clubs, Democracy and a Christian Right. Lap-dancing and associated dance forms, which evolved from traditional striptease in the U.S. in the early 1980s, are protected by the First Amendment according to this interpretation. Hanna makes a further point. “Patrons of gentleman’s (sic) clubs aren’t just there to look at nude bodies,” she says. “They want to read into it. It’s not just the eroticism, it’s the beauty of the body, and the fantasy they create.”
Apparently, this kind of post-modern argument, based on academic hermeneutics, which simultaneously appeals to classic, mainstream aesthetic sensibilities, has proved extremely useful in some parts of the U.S. in defending lap-dancing clubs from tax, regulation and closure. It will also be used as part of an appeal in New York’s highest court next year. It will be interesting to measure its impact in legal terms in another of the world’s major financial centers.
One thing is for sure: as a rhetorical and legal device to defend contemporary sex entertainment venues, such a narrative would gain little traction in a culturally, socially and politically contested space like Tower Hamlets.