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A lap dance is a type of sex work performed in some strip clubs in which a dancer performs an erotic dance either in immediate contact (contact dancing) with a seated patron or within a very short distance of a seated patron. The dancer may be nude, topless or scantily dressed, depending on the laws in the jurisdiction and the club's policies. With full-contact lap dances, the stripper may engage in non-penetrative sexual contact with the patron, such as "grinding" his or her body against the patron. Variant terms include couch dance, which is a lap dance where the customer is seated on a couch, and bed dance where the customer lies down on a bed. In some places, a "block session" of lap dances (usually half an hour to an hour) can be booked in a "champagne room", which is a private room usually located in the back of a club. In many clubs, the duration of a lap dance is measured by the length of the song being played by the club's DJ. Charges for lap dances vary.
Depending on the local jurisdiction and community standards, lap dances can involve touching of the dancer by the patron, touching the patron by the dancer, neither, or both. In some clubs, any touching by the patron is forbidden. On the other hand, absent any oversight by the club, various levels of contact may be negotiable between the participants. Clubs vary widely with regard to whether they enforce their rules or turn a blind eye to any violations.
Critics of lapdancing allege that some club owners, by installing dark private booths and charging dancers steep stage fees, are covertly condoning and encouraging the sale of sexual acts between customers and dancers. This can be a concern if, as for instance in the United Kingdom, the club has a Public Entertainment Licence rather than a Sex Establishment Licence, and in jurisdictions where brothels are illegal. According to the UK paper The Guardian, "Research shows that the majority of women become lap-dancers through poverty and lack of choice."
Lap dancing clubs are a later development of earlier strip clubs, where strippers danced on stage and were paid a wage. In the 1970s, New York's Melody Theater introduced audience participation and called it "Mardi Gras". The Melody Theater became the Harmony Theater and operated in two locations in Manhattan for over 20 years until it was closed down in 1998.
In 1980, San Francisco's Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theatre changed its policy so that customers could have dancers come to sit naked on their laps for a $1 tip. The practice quickly spread. It suited club owners, because it brought in more customers, and it meant that the club could pay the dancers less. This then evolved into lap dancing. A San Francisco DA's decision to drop prostitution charges against lap dancers in the city changed the sexual culture of San Francisco and the entire country.
In some areas of the U.S. and Canada, local authorities began cracking down on lap dancing after reports that some clubs allowed customers to engage in sexual intercourse or other sexual activity with dancers during lap dance sessions. Various strip clubs have wide-ranging rules on how customers should interact with strippers.
In 1973, an upmarket Vancouver bar called "Gary Taylor's Show Lounge" employed showgirls and strippers as waitresses who gave a free dance with every drink. The club was raided by the police under the guise of obscenity legislation, but, in 1974, Judge Jack McGivern ruled that dancer nudity was not obscene, which started a trend of nude dancing in bars. No contact between dancers and patrons was allowed at the club, but Gary Taylor's had a boxing ring where the girls performed revealing acrobatics after stripping off and then earned tips. Americans from Washington State made the trip to the club from the United States, which at the time had stricter laws.
In 1994, in a ruling which was to have an impact throughout the English-speaking world, a Canadian judge (Judge Hachborn of the Ontario Court, Provincial Division), in the case of Pat Mara and Allan East (the owner and manager of Cheaters Tavern), ruled that lap dancing did not contravene laws on public decency, and the judge defined what lap dancing should mean. A number of conflicting judgements were issued in the years that followed, including decisions to close certain bars in which sex acts took place on the floor of the club and other rulings in which patrons were allowed to touch the dancers as long as an actual sex act did not take place.
Finally, in 1999, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a typical lap dance did not constitute an "obscene" act within the meaning of the Criminal Code of Canada. The Crown did not argue that lap dances constituted "prostitution" and therefore the court did not address the possible issue that the typical lap dance may contravene one or more anti-prostitution laws. This led to the displacement of strip clubs and table dancing clubs in Canada by lap dancing clubs.
Lap dancing arrived and spread to every major city across much of the UK. A court ruled in 1996 that full stripping at a Liverpool club, Angels Paradise, was acceptable, as long as the dancers were not touched at all by the client and that dancers remained 12 inches (30 cm) away from clients at all times. From April 2010, local authorities gained powers to respond to the concerns of local people regarding the number and location of lap-dancing clubs in their area.
Some jurisdictions in the United States outlaw lap dances and enforce a minimum distance between dancer and patron. One such minimum distance ordinance in Seattle was overturned by public referendum in November 2006.
In 2006, concerned about reports of sexual assault and illegal stage fees, San Francisco's Commission on the Status of Women recommended a ban on private rooms and booths at adult clubs in the city. However, a majority of dancers at the Commission on the Status of Women's meetings and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors' meetings protested against these efforts, fearing for their income and claiming that these rooms were safer than other venues.
The economic position of the dancers, as employees of the clubs, has also changed. Over time, most strip clubs have stopped paying the dancers. Stage dancing became a showcase to advertise the bodies of the dancers, whose money came from the tips – or standard charges, depending on the club – that the patrons gave them for lap dancing. In the majority of clubs, dancers are simply charged a percentage of their nightly takings. However, the latest development in many countries, including Britain, the United States and Canada, is that many clubs charge dancers a "stage fee" or "tip-out", which is an amount that a dancer needs to pay a club (usually in advance) in order to work on a given night, per shift. Given that dancers are basically paying for the privilege to be at the club, some clubs allow as many dancers as possible to appear on any given night, increasing competition among the dancers. Also, the vast majority of clubs will not waive this charge if a night happens to be slow. Consequently, the dancer either leaves her shift without any profit or builds a debt to the club.
In the U.S., most clubs treat dancers as independent contractors, thereby avoiding the need to pay minimum wages, overtime pay, income taxes and other benefits required by law. This status has repeatedly been challenged by some dancers. While labor commissions and the courts have for the most part ruled that exotic dancers are employees and deserving of reimbursement for back pay and stage fees, some court decisions have decided that an exotic dancer can be classified as an independent contractor. In June 2006, in Tracy Buel v. Chowder House (dba The Hungry I) an appellate court of California's first district ruled that dancer Tracy Buel, also known as Daisy Anarchy, was correctly classified as an independent contractor and that "Buel shall pay defendants’ costs on appeal". A publication called the California Employment Law Letter described the case as follows: "The dancer based her suit on the fact that she was an employee of the nightclub rather than an independent contractor. The appellate court, however, after applying a 10-factor test, upheld the jury's verdict in favor of the nightclub and its owners and found that the evidence weighed in favor of classifying the dancer as an independent contractor rather than an employee."
A UK study on lap dancing found that the overwhelming majority of those surveyed were satisfied with their work, because they got to choose their own hours, got paid instantly, got more money than in other available jobs, and had the opportunity to combine "fun and work" (e.g., socializing with other dancers and patrons). At the same time, the study revealed various disadvantages to lap dancing work, such as: the women never knew how much they would earn each week; the women had to try to keep their job secret from friends and family; the women had to face some rude and abusive customers. As well, while most felt safe, almost half had faced frequent verbal harassment and unwanted touching from patrons. Another issue raised by the dancers was their lack of labour rights in the workplace and the high overhead costs – house fees (or stage fees), commissions, fines (whether paid directly to the club's management or not), and tipping out (or paying a portion of their income) to DJs and bouncers.
The UK paper The Guardian gave a darker portrait of lap dancing in an article partly based on an interview with a former stripper. It states that "[r]esearch shows that the majority of women become lap-dancers through poverty and lack of choice," and that "academic research has linked lap-dancing to trafficking, prostitution and an increase in male sexual violence against both the women who work in the clubs and those who live and work in their vicinity." For example, a "recent conference in Ireland highlighted the use of lap-dance clubs by human traffickers as a tool for grooming women into prostitution; the clubs also normalise the idea of paying for sexual services." "[R]esearch on strip clubs in the US found that all dancers had suffered verbal harassment and physical and sexual abuse while at work; all had been propositioned for prostitution; and three-quarters had been stalked by men associated with the club."
In 2007, based on statistics from eighteen dancers over a period of 60 days, it was noted that female lap dancers earned the highest tips around the time of ovulation, during the most fertile period of their menstrual cycle, and the lowest tips during menstruation; the average difference in earning between those two times amounted to about $30 per hour. Women on the pill earned overall less than those not on the pill. The results were interpreted as evidence of estrus in humans: females apparently advertise their fertility status to males in some manner. This finding earned its authors the 2008 Ig Nobel Prize in Economics.