In large parts of Britain it's now as easy to open a lap dancing club as it is a coffee shop. But now campaigners are directing their fury at Parliament and demanding a change in the law.
With its terraces of imposing, white stuccoed Georgian houses, the inner London enclave of West Kensington has a grandeur not typical of most residential areas. But the expressions of outrage being voiced by this group of denizens are no different to those resounding in town halls across the country.
"My main concern is what it's going to do to the area," says one. "How can they stop drug users and prostitutes from coming here?" asks another. "Of course the industry's linked to human trafficking," declares a further voice.
The small group of residents are bunched on a street corner, pointing at a covered building site. Under the green tarpaulin and within the whitewashed walls, is the target of their anger - a bar.
But unlike a pub or a nightclub, this is a lap dancing venue.
Residents, two MPs and a councillor, who oppose a lap-dancing club in Kensington
The very idea of a lap dancing club where performers casually strip while performing erotic, or what defenders of the practice call exotic, moves on poles on tables, is not to everybody's taste.
While anxious to stress they are not prudes, this group of concerned residents believes lap dancing is not appropriate for their back yard. Infuriated by the idea of nude and semi-naked women gyrating for paying clients just a short distance from a library and two schools, they've started a campaign to stop the plan in its tracks.
They're not the only ones to feel like this. Similar campaigns have sprung up in Birmingham, Newquay, Blackpool and many other communities.
"It is inappropriate for the area," says Kensington resident and mother-of-two Rachel Marlowe. "The venue will not serve the community. People are worried prostitutes will be attracted to the place and start coming here from other areas."
Kyle Verwers worries about a possible link between lap dancing clubs and crime in areas where they have opened.
But what shocks them most is how easy it seems to be to set up an "exotic dancing" club. Under the Licensing Act 2003, plans for lap dancing clubs in England and Wales are treated no differently to those for restaurants, coffee shops or ordinary bars.
Under the one-size-fits-all legislation, clubs just need a premises licence, giving them permission to sell alcohol. And residents can only object on specific grounds:
protection of children from harm
prevention of crime and disorder
prevention of public nuisance
Opposing a lap dancing club because one might find the activity distasteful, degrading or out of character with a neighbourhood, is pointless. Councils have to reject such appeals.
I don't think a residential area is suitable - the whole point is for the men to get excited
The issue has prompted a surge of interest in Parliament. The Conservative Party has carried out its own consultations while, in September, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith pledged to give communities a stronger voice. A Home Office spokeswoman said this would happen at "the earliest legislative opportunity".
Women's rights campaigners are losing patience. On Tuesday, the Fawcett Society and Object are staging a meeting next to Parliament, which will call on government to tighten the law. It claims 300 lap dancing clubs have opened since 2004, although the Lap Dancing Association, which represents club owners, puts the figure at 150.
'Exotic clubs used to be just that - exotic' (first broadcast April 2008)
The groups want such clubs reclassified as "sex encounter establishments" - the stricter category for sex shops and sex cinemas. The regulations are much tighter, the local authorities have more power and a licence costs a lot more money.
The current rules have confused Pamela Keep, who has lived in Kensington for 20 years. She doesn't understand why it has become easier for clubs to open in "unsuitable" areas.
Well-run, older clientele
"I don't think a residential area is a suitable area for a place where sexual gratification is classified as entertainment," says Ms Keep. "The whole point is for the men to get excited."
But at least one official voice - that of the police - rejects residents' concerns that such clubs attract trouble.
Lap dancing encompasses table and pole dancing too
Last month, Ch Insp Adrian Studd of the Metropolitan Police told MPs "there is no evidence [lap dancing clubs] cause any crime and disorder, or very rarely".
"[T]hey tend to be fairly well-run, they tend to have a fairly high staff ratio to customers, the people who tend to go there tend to be a bit older, so they don't tend to drink so excessively and cause... problems outside."
A spokeswoman for Passion Nights Ltd, which is behind the plans for the Kensington club, says there is no physical contact between clients and dancers. It is planning stringent security measures.
"We're spending money on security cameras on surrounding roads which will alleviate petty crime, and raise the tone of the area. We are hiring qualified door staff too. It will bring jobs in and we expect a higher class of clientele."
She says the company has followed protocol and kept to the letter of the law.
Yet not all councils are as powerless as the law might suggest.
Blackpool, an entertainment hotspot, has seen a decline in lap dancing clubs. A spokesman for the council says clubs know they "will be inspected regularly and checked to every letter of the law. We only have four or five now; last year we had a dozen."
The Lap Dancing Association says residents are letting their personal morals get in the way of objective decision making.
"Morality should have no place in objective law-making," says the association's secretary Kate Nicholls. "There are no laws broken in these clubs. If you don't like it, don't go in one."
Below is a selection of your comments.
I am sick to death of excuses being made for these places, such as Katie Nicholls saying 'If you don't like it, don't go in one.' Oh, all right then. I'll just ignore the fact these establishments are a cover up for prostitution (as exposed by a recent Channel 4 documentary, despite their claims to the contrary). I'll just ignore the fact this is yet another example of the mainstreaming of porn in our culture, where girls see writhing round a pole so men can judge their breasts as "empowering". Joanna, Somerset
I'm a woman who has been to a lap dancing club and found it to be a great evening out, nothing smutty about it at all. I think the last paragraph sums up the situation perfectly. Melissa B, Watford, Herts
Couple of these clubs in Manchester, never visited one but if they suit you then go on in, if they don't then stay away. No laws are being broken & whilst I can appreciate the moral aspect you can't change the law on purely moral grounds for these clubs. As long as they are properly regulated and cause no problems to the surrounding community they should be allowed to continue. Andrew Carson, Bury Lancashire
Of course the protesters are not prudes; they merely wish to apply their own social values to others, whether they like it or not. If they propose a link between legal strip clubs (which I don't frequent by the way and have no desire to do so) and crime, why don't they prove it? In this country we listen too much to the vocal minority and not to the silent majority. I'm very fed up with often retired or non-working individuals who spend time campaigning against things that provide a living for others, be it an airport, a motorway or even a strip club. Andy, Gatwick, Sussex
The Lap Dancing Association was set up to "protect the commercial interests of Lap Dancing Club owners". This is an organisation set up in direct response to campaigns to get the sex industry properly regulated and has NOTHING to say about the welfare of the dancers. The fact is the women they employ have no proper employment rights, no union, no one to support them in industrial disputes. Without proper regulation, what the government is saying is that these women are an underclass who, because of the work they do, do not deserve the rights and respect of the rest of the workforce. Imogen Black, London
Ultimately, lap-dancing clubs degrade women. Analyse the very term "lap dancing". It's paying a scantily-clad woman to push her body against a man's groin, for money. Sexual titillation for cash. I am in favour of legalising prostitution, but in a controlled non-residential environment like an industrial estate, not in the high street. The presence of these "clubs" in visible public locations gives the whole sordid activity a veneer of respectability it ill-deserves. The selling of sex for money is inevitable and needs legalising, however lap-dancing clubs bring this to the high street and should be removed to less visible locations as selling sex for money is not something that should be made visible or have any overtones of glamour or acceptability. Ben Smith, Brighton
We are not moral reformers, but the place for such an establishment is not a quiet residential area, inhabited by families with children and in which lots of young women live. The proper place is is a commercial district or shopping centre, or a high street.
The impact of such an establishment on the area is going to be severe and wholly damaging. First, the surfeit of cars to be parked on the neighbouring streets, already congested with parked cars. The 'club' would not be able to control the pavement outside the establishment - or in its immediate vicinity. This means a high probability of finding around, and outside, the club, a group of unsavoury characters, ranging from drug-pushers and unlicensed mini-cabs, to pimps or worse. Passing that corner by foot in the evening would be unpleasant and, possibly, dangerous. George Ross, London - West Kensington
"Morality should have no place in objective law-making," says the association's secretary Kate Nicholls. Wrong. Morality, otherwise known as right and wrong or fairness is the cornerstone of the law. Tom, London
I have been to many lap dancing bars and they are the safest most disciplined and well run establishments I have ever been in. There is nothing that smutty going on, it's fun that's all. Most of the girls are delightful and intelligent, you have a chat and a dance and a drink... who get's hurt? My wife knows that I used to go and if she hadn't approved I wouldn't have gone. I have pretty well grown out of them now so I don't bother... however if some friends were going to one I would happily join them. Trevor, Beaulieu sur Dordogne, France
No laws are being broken it's just the usual suspects who are moaning on about morals, exploitation etc. These people do not have to go into these clubs if they don't want to and as for the exploited girls? if the money they earn in these clubs is exploitation then I'll gladly be exploited as well. These "objectors" are always the same ilk and no doubt you'll find a "religious" element amongst them for whom the very word "sex" is enough to have them writhing in their piety. These councils should spend a bit more time cleaning our streets and emptying our bins instead of pandering to the 'holy marys and nimbys' of this world. Ed, Hampshire
Sadly a few elderly people or feminists with old fashioned views of these clubs seek to close them. If there wasn't a demand such places wouldn't exist. My wife is happy I visit them, its the same as her going to see male strippers like the Chippendales. Stephen, London
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