Curiously for a single male student living in Edinburgh I have only ventured into one of the city’s many famous lap dancing bars once. Inside an altogether mind-altering experience awaited me. As a stag group we were targeted from the outset. ‘Twenty quid a head, lesbian show, and we’ll shove a bottle up the stag’s arse.’ Needless to say an offer like this can’t be refused and we all saw some fascinating things. Speaking to one of the girls after it was clear that once abstracted from their profession these are remarkably intelligent people, many of whom use the job as simply a means to an end, occasionally to fund degree courses. After a lengthy search and a bundle of rejections I managed to find a girl studying Architecture at Edinburgh whilst working as a stripper willing to talk to me.
Expecting to be confronted with the same kind of silicone saleswoman I had seen in the clubs it took me a couple of laps around Starbucks to find a petite, befreckled girl ordering a skinny latte that answered my call. We moved the interview to her club, The Sapphire Rooms on Lothian Road, where another surprise awaited in the fact that the place just didn’t feel sleazy, it was actually rather nice. If this was a major organ in Edinburgh’s sex industry, where was the sex?
‘I hate that term, Sex industry. There’s absolutely no sex on sale here at all. It’s not like we don’t get offers. I was asked by a billionaire to go back to his hotel and sleep with him for £25,000. I turned him down because I would never compromise my morals, it just wouldn’t be worth it, well, maybe for the first few seconds, but no.’ Says Cortana biting her lip flirtatiously as she considers the prospect again.
Perhaps this attitude is due in part to the terminology and people think that anybody who operates in such an industry is open to sexual exploitation. However Cortana believes this really isn’t the case, ‘at the end of the day its all about the money and really it’s the customers who are being exploited here.’
Far from being a house of ill-repute and ‘sexploitation’ it seems that The Sapphire Rooms is more of a bastion of positivity in amongst the frowned upon. Unusually for a strip club they operate a selective attitude towards their clientele that Cortana describes as ‘probably more intelligent than standard strip club punters, I can always find an intellectually stimulating conversation on the floor here.’ Looking to draw upon the Edinburgh intelligentsia the club is running an event for the duration of the Fringe that offers an opportunity for the public to take a look into the normal routine of the staff whilst also exhibiting photographic work by some of the dancers themselves.
This positive aspect has stretched further than just Sapphire Rooms for Cortana. From the age of 11 she suffered from eating disorders and says that ‘dancing has had an extremely positive effect on my life and has cured me. It taught me to be comfortable with my body, it is something people readily pay money to see, so it must be beautiful.’ This comfort with her own look is something that she is able to work to her own advantage ‘I’m not interested in fake boobs and all that stuff, and actually I make more money because I’m different to most of the girls here, a bit more accessible to the customers.’
It became fairly clear that Cortana was motivated by money, something that explains why she started dancing in the first place. Explaining that ‘I left school at 16, went back to college at 18 and became totally sick of struggling to get by working 40 hours a week on minimum wage as well as studying. A friend suggested I give it a try, and at first I have to admit I was very prudish but made a huge amount of money in my first weekend and have never looked back since.’ With big money being able to made for little effort it’s understandable why many students finance their degrees through this kind of work. The prospect of what she describes as ‘graduating not just debt-free, but with a nice big nest-egg’ is alluring, coupled with the fact that she can ‘go to New York for a week on a whim and make the money back up within one weekend, easy’ makes me regret being born bearing the Y chromosome.
However, this security comes at a price. Given the nature of the work that she does Cortana feels that it has left her view of men somewhat skewed towards the negative. This presumably comes from dealing purely with lust as a commodity. The possibility of someone from her past cropping up in this capacity teases a light pink blush to A’s cheeks and leaves a certain sense of awkwardness. ‘I’ve had former teachers come into the club. But when I’m at work I’m a professional. It’s funny to give them a surprise and at first we’re both mortified but then have a good catch up chat. Although my biggest fear is having one of my Uni tutors come into the club.’
Due to preconceptions of ’the Sex Industry’ there are girls working as dancers who prefer to keep their occupation secret from family and friends. However this is not the case for Cortana as she has decided to be totally open with her friends and family, some of whom have even become jealous after coming to the club and watching her work first hand, although admittedly it’s not something that she shares with many people at University.
It seems fairly evident that Cortana’s success is down to a keen sense of balance. ‘The balance between work and study is perfect. Because of how much I earn I can take time off whenever I need it for exams and coursework. It’s not all late nights either, I do a fair bit of admin work for the club too whenever I can, which is really handy.’ Could this actually be the perfect student job?
Ultimately Cortana‘s story is typical of the majority of Scottish students born without a silver spoon in their mouth. Forced to make a choice between bankrupting themselves and their parents or scraping by on the offensively low level of support proffered by the Student Loans Company. Cortana reflects on this and feels that ‘the student funding system is really unfair. The government should be encouraging more people into University. It’s really hard to get by on just the student loan and I can see more students getting into this kind of work. Already there are more girls here who are students than not.’
Perhaps it can be argued that this isn’t really that strange a job, particularly for a student. At its most basic level it is the sale of a god-given product, manufactured at no financial cost. The hours are flexible enough to accommodate study, and there is no doubt that the money that can be made blows away any two-bit bar job. In the right atmosphere it can be a particularly rewarding job and can have superb effects on self-esteem, but is not to be entered upon lightly, Cortana advises me that ‘you really need to have a fair bit of life experience before considering it.’ Although it seems my own career as a Lap Dancer is utterly doomed I’m fascinated by the industry but remain humbled at the value that Cortana places on education.