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TV review: Strippers smashes the glamour-girl image

'Do strippers have feelings?' one punter asks. The answer is yes, and it would seem they also have degrees, plans, money in the bank and certainly more sense than that lusting chump could hope for.

Strippers (Channel 4) is the first in a three-part documentary about lap dancing, set in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and the show was all about confounding expectations.

I didn't expect to have much empathy with the girls who dance at Diamond Dolls given that my idea of a good night out is to stay in but, by the end of the show, I felt like applauding them for their sheer confidence and guts. Behind those feathery eyelashes are some tough young women.

I had expected them to be harried and put-upon, shoved into a degrading job by desperation but there was nothing of the kind. The women - at least, those who featured - were bright and confident and glowing. People who say lap dancing cheapens women would be better turning their ire on the fashion industry where the women resemble ghost-eyed addicts. I've read of models who eat tissue paper to take the edge off their hunger, inviting girls to glory in the sad horror of anorexia. If you asked the feisty women in Diamond Dolls to nibble a hanky you'd be told to get lost.

Yet, the politically correct discourse is that lap dancing is demeaning, but this programme showed us brave and beautiful women who were enjoying themselves, were superbly fit, earning money and making plans.

In fact, the show's title seems chosen to remind us of this discord between self-righteous public perception and the reality. It's called 'Strippers' but the women are never actually referred to as such. They're called 'the dancers' or 'the girls'. It's the public who call them 'strippers', and the public who expect their lives to be seedy, but the show invites us to think otherwise.

We meet Kim, who says lap dancing is simply a job. 'It's like selling perfume in Fraser's,' she says, 'except I'm selling a dance.'

Kim is not a victim. She was a gold-medal gymnast but chose to leave that career as her life was being ordered and dominated by her father. No-one scowled at her when she used her body as a gymnast, yet they'd be quick to judge now she's using it as a lap dancer. Kim says she has a job where she can be sociable and dance and earn decent money. I can't accept she'd be better off in a low-wage call centre.

Laefena is a nursing graduate from Estonia who is dancing her way across Europe to pay off her student debt. She will practise nursing but for now she is earning money, travelling the continent, and clearing her debt. I can't accept she'd be better off stacking shelves in Asda.

When the women are interviewed about their aspirations they are often on a sofa in flimsy lingerie, but the conscious decision to film them in this pose underlined the programme's radical message: you look at them and see 'strippers', but listen to them and you'll see something else. You'll see women who are earning money, making plans and moving on.

It was impossible to watch this particular documentary and see the women as sleazy or exploited. In fact, the only person on screen for whom I felt pity was the sad figure of Colin. He's a middle-aged businessman who can be found in Diamond Dolls almost every night. 'It's like family,' he says. After work, he drives to the club, stopping at a petrol station to buy bags of Malteasers for the girls. He sees himself as their friend, but it's a skewed friendship when you have to pay for company. So, the misguided and the wretched were indeed present in this documentary, but they certainly weren't women.

For so many young people there is little option these days but the call centre or the checkout. The women featured had chosen this job, and were using it as a means to an end: to make a break, to build a career, to pay off student debt. Are we to believe they'd be better off in McDonalds, working for a gross multinational for an insulting wage? The question of exploitation would hang heavy there, but it would have little to do with clothing.

Admittedly, Laefena did warn that if you lap dance for a long time it can change your personality. Well, working years in a call centre, chapping doors to flog cheap kitchens, or stacking shelves till midnight, day after day, and year after year, without hope or a decent wage, can alter your personality too. With lap dancing, the girls were at least in control, stockpiling their cash, and plotting their next move whilst their customers were still staggering out to the taxis.

I resent the years I wasted doing the miserable round of Glasgow call centres, often too scared to resign incase the next job was even worse, becoming ever more timid and unhealthy. Perhaps I would have been spared some of that if I'd had but a fraction of the courage and gumption of these 'strippers'.

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