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Strip
Part 1

There is no queue and the bouncers are unusually courteous. In North America, the exterior walls are often daubed with neon: manga women posed provocatively, their bulb breasts flashing on five-second timers, or signs that say things like 'Pleasure Palace' and 'Garden of Eden', the words scrawled with ecstatic abandon, like lurid graffiti. Inside, the moist air slithers across your skin, cloyed with the sweat-tinged scent of hour-old perfumes. You pay with a credit card, assured the bill will read 'Cherie's Seafood Restaurant', and descend into a nether world of carnival heat, where men with teenage daughters goggle open-mouthed at the catlike contortions of Ukrainian pole artists, 18 plus. You are the catch. Dancers with filmstar smiles drink you with dark, sultry looks, or glide past trailing their last vestiges of modesty. And when the sculpted brunette of billboard beauty playfully claws at your chest and purrs in your ear, you know it is because she wants you, and you willingly oblige, tucking dollar bills into her suspender belt - a tawdry little transaction before the dance begins. Your hands encircle her muscular waist and you feel her writhe like a snake in your grasp, her tanned flesh burning copper in the halflight.

Strip clubs are in the ascendant, globally. Once the prerogative of sleazy no-hopers from insalubrious neighbourhoods, they have shaken off some of their old taboo, if not acquired a degree of respectability. Today's titillated are not to be found in the basements of New Jersey dive bars or East London pubs, but in the swanky surroundings of Fifth Avenue and the West End. Big business has been responsible for the glamorising facelift, but the net result has striking similarities with the London coffee story. Back in the eighties, Londoners would buy their morning coffee in a greasy spoon, and it was invariably instant, cheap, drunk from a chipped, stained mug and altogether unsatisfying. But city workers who had travelled in foreign lands had a dream - a dream of smooth lattes and frothy cappuccinos, served by smiling waitresses, instead of fat cooks, in an environment conducive to conversation and relaxation, where artwork adorned the walls and the kindergarten chairs had given way to plush settees and polished Scandinavian furniture. Starbucks moved in and the dream became reality. Everybody was happy, until one day they realised that the menu never changed, the waitresses' accents were identical and the picture on the wall was always the same. In short, they couldn't tell whether they were in Bethnal Green or Pimlico, and cracks started to appear.

It will be years before this excess of cultural homogenisation pervades the market in strip clubs, but the foundations have been laid. For the time being, though, the club-going public are seeing more of the benefits and fewer of the disadvantages of corporate involvement. On central London's Tottenham Court Road, the crowning glory of the strip-club establishment is an American export called Spearmint Rhino's. Glitzy, brash and expensive, it stands in relation to the strip clubs of yesteryear like a luxury, desert-island villa to a Costa del Sol shack. Only the bouncers look the same.

•••

My first experience of strip clubs turned me off this peculiar sub-genre of entertainment for a period of four years. I was 21, a recent graduate skirting his career path. I had spent the summer of 1995 boxing nappies and other sanitary products for a company called Molnlycke, saving my earnings for a trip to Egypt. By the end of a six-week stretch I had pocketed enough for a trip to Cornwall, and so I rounded up three friends - one of whom was blessed with a car - and the four of us drove to Newquay for two weeks of burger-chomping, beer-guzzling bliss - on the coast, in the sun. Oasis and Blur were competing for the number-one chartspot in what became known as the Battle of the Bands, and our evenings were usually spent bopping to Britpop in the town's pubs and clubs, trying it on with girls from back home who had spent their summers working for Next, saving their pennies for trips to Ibiza.

One night, Matt suggested we break with tradition and visit a different type of club, for men only. We were easily persuaded, but on arrival I wondered how. In the dimmest, dirtiest room imaginable, a pack of shifty punters prowled the perimeter, an edginess in their gait, licking lager-wet lips as they bayed for the main event (which turned out to be the only event). When the solitary stripper appeared it was to a fanfare of wolf-whistles, but the crowd went sex-starved silent with the start of her routine. As she cast off her clothes it became apparent that she had danced this circuit many times before. No matter. The pack closed in. The girl flung her panties to one side and flopped on to the sticky floor like a wet rag, splaying her privates with wrinkled fingers. A scrummage of droolers hunched over and stared with studious intent, like biologists examining a newly discovered species. The moment was about as erotically charged as the act of vivisection. But there was something else too - something about the faces of those snarling males. A look of wild hunger in their predatory eyes. Lascivious. Hormonal. The prelude to an instinctive aggression. We left immediately, never to return.

•••

If big business has supplied the current crop of strip clubs then it has certainly generated the demand for them. The euphemism of Gentlemen's Establishment panders to the droves of stockbrokers, traders, dealers, analysts, consultants and bankers who together make up the majority of a club's customers on any weeknight and spend way beyond even their bountiful means. These are the trend-setters, the early adopters. Just as they convinced the laggards that wine bars were an upmarket alternative to pubs in the materialistic eighties, smoothing the way for the later appearance of popular chains like All Bar One and Yates's, so they are persuading today's aspirational wannabes - its stag weekenders and wide boys - that modern strip clubs have considerably more to offer than the decades-old stripogram. But what got them hooked in the first place?

Chris is employed as a dealer for a blue-chip financial institution in the heart of London's financial square mile. He finished his university education several years ago and is still young and single with no dependents and a disposable income that equals the full salaries of men 20 years his senior. Most of his colleagues are drawn from the same socio-economic background and the organisation's working culture is fuelled by the shameless machismo and juvenile antics of these peers. The company employs few women and almost all have been staffed in secretarial positions, selected on the basis of their youthful good looks and skirt sizes, not for their abilities to type and use shorthand. Chris and his friends were teenagers during the mid-nineties, when club hedonism was at its zenith and the Ibiza rave had spawned the curious crossbreed known as the ladette. They were weaned on a literary diet of FHM and Loaded - of bottom-shelf porn - and a nutritional one of alcopops and e.

If you were writing a recipe for the ultimate strip-club punter, the previous paragraph would list the main ingredients.