Strip clubs are often in the news; whether that’s the issue around licensing laws, new evidence on how clubs may effect the communities they are set in or documentaries exploring strip culture. But how often do we hear from the dancers themselves?
Layla, the second novel from Brighton-based author Nina De La Mer, gives voice to an ordinary Brighton girl working in a London city strip club. The novel is driven by a strong female voice and raises issues about body image, porn culture, the breakdown of family and young mothers.
I caught up with Nina to talk feminism, stripping, bi-sexuality and sex culture.
Why did you write a book in which the central character works as a lap dancer; what inspired you to write Layla?
Well I write about those who don’t have a voice, those who are not so represented in the media and I gave a girl from a working class background a voice through my fiction.
As to why I set part of the book in the lap dancing club, well, I called in a few years ago to Radio 5 Live when they were having some discussion about sexism and I said my piece; they then contacted me a while later and asked if I wanted to go to a lap dancing club (turned out to be Platinum Lace in Brighton) and speak to the owner and one of the dancers and they were meant to sort of persuade me that this club was not part of the sex industry and that it was empowering for women.
The dancer was very tall and beautiful but had a hardness to her, she said it was empowering for her because she looked down at the clients who came in. I don’t know about that feeling of power through someone else’s suffering or by looking down on them as less than you. We have to think about how society is affected by men objectifying women.
…It is a feminist book for lots of reasons…
Is Layla a feminist book?
I am a feminist. That is how I define myself, when I wake up till when I go to bed. It is a feminist book for lots of reasons. By simply the fact the novel is driven by a strong female voice makes it feminist, it’s a woman’s experience from her point of view. I wanted to keep the industry part real and many of the characters are not feminist in any way but the reader is taken through the story by Layla and her experiences and we see the effect of society, celebrity culture, and the club has on her image of herself.
…It is a constant struggle…
Is Layla a feminist?
No she is not, because she would never describe herself as a feminist. Many young women do not identify themselves as feminist although they might hold feminist beliefs. For a long time that word was a dirty word and I heard many women saying that now we have equal rights so feminism is in the past but we do not! And it is not. Just for one, we do not have equal pay and it is a UK as well as a global thing, of course. It is a constant struggle. There are divisions within feminism and it means different things to different people, and I do believe that negative attitude towards feminism is gradually changing.
…their industry damages women…
“Real feminism should defend women’s choices. It is not about a privileged few thinking they know what’s best for the rest of us.” What do you make of this quote from a working lap dancer?
I think that feminism can offer different things to different people and so there’s no such thing as ‘real feminism’. For me, and I do identify as feminist, it’s about women striving for sexual, workplace and social liberation. While researching Layla, I spoke with – and read about – lap dancers who were anything but privileged who’d argue that their industry damages women and that its rules, regulations and practices are not in their best interests. I agree that women are free to make their own choices but that doesn’t mean I always like those choices, just as I wouldn’t expect anyone to like every choice that I make.
…better protection for women…
In 2009 the law changed and any venue offering lap dancing was reclassified as a ‘sex encounter venue’. Plus all lap dancing clubs had to apply for permission to continue trading after April 2012.
10 local authorities in London voted to adopt nil policies, refusing any new venues. Tower Hamlets wants to be the first council in London to ban clubs completely.
What are your views on banning strip clubs?
In an ideal world I would like them not to exist. But I do understand that it is a choice for some women to work in them, and so I believe what we need is better protection for women. The wider problem of the effect it has on men and those that perceive women as items that can be bought is difficult. But they can’t ban clubs because it isn’t that simple they would just go underground and that would not help the women.
…it can be confusing for your sexuality…
Layla flirts with the idea of being a lesbian but then this is quickly dropped. Why was this and why wasn’t it explored further?
In my mind she is bi-sexual. There can be a danger in cramming in too many issues into a book but I wanted to touch on this. Bi-sexuality is a no man’s land, you are not accepted by either community. In the club there is a lot of titillation around lesbian shows and you see a lot in porn and I was thinking of the effect of that on Layla, that it can be confusing for your sexuality if you are sexual with women. I wondered what that would do to her head as she is discovering herself. She sees thing in black and white and society tends to say you are this or this but you can be anything and anywhere on that spectrum as a bi-sexual.
…Just because you’re in a relationship does not mean you get sex on tap…
The male characters in the book tend to be emotionally absent or abusive is there a link between the way male characters have treated Layla and her decision to go into and stay lap dancing?
It was both men and women in her life that lead her to the decisions she makes. She also saw a glamour in dancing and was flattered to be picked, as if it was a kind of validation.
With Colin it is a power struggle. He has this sense of entitlement that some men have. He thinks she owes him something. Just because you’re in a relationship does not mean you get sex on tap, just because you pay a dancer does not mean you get to stalk her home and demand more from her.
…I did want a positive female relationship in there…
And then the female characters aren’t much better. There is no network of support for her. Apart from Ivana, one of the dancers.
My female voices are louder than the males. I was writing about women at the club and that effect on them. Men are more important to Ayesha and women’s status is measured on looks and relationships. In that environment there is a distinct pecking order which doesn’t include intelligence or how nice you are. But I did want a positive female relationship in there, as female friendship can be so nurturing and positive for women.
The book is set in 2007 when licensing laws changed and the clubs were becoming ubiquitous and the competition in the clubs was fierce which is when you get some girls giving not just lap dances and that’s what Layla is right in the middle of.