Gentlemen’s clubs: licence to thrill?
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Gentlemen’s clubs: licence to thrill?

Gentlemen’s clubs are suddenly a thriving part of the local nightlife industry. Kristina Chetcuti and Patrick Cooke paid a visit.

As a young woman gyrates suggestively around a pole in the skimpiest of underwear, other scantily clad women mill about – some seated by the bar, others chatting to customers or among themselves.

This is not Las Vegas but Paceville, close to the beach where several foreign students were arrested and fined for offending public morals while swimming naked last summer.

Yet gentlemen’s clubs have proliferated, with seven now located in the heart of what is the country’s most popular nightlife district – an area frequented by youngsters – and The Sunday Times found dancers offering fully naked private dances for €70.

This newspaper visited seven gentlemen’s clubs in Paceville and one in Sliema on two Friday nights between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. to witness what goes on behind the darkened doors.

The clubs are not difficult to find as their employees are out in full force on the streets of Paceville, handing out flyers and enticing revellers inside. Tourists are even given a taste of them on aircraft before their arrival, with full page adverts inside in-flight magazines.

Entrance to all the clubs was free and although they all had a visible security presence, there did not appear to be any clear signage prohibiting entrance to under 18s.

The ambience inside was not dissimilar to any other nightclub: dimmed lights, loud music and a bar. But unlike other establishments, patrons were sitting down, leaving the dancing up to the ‘girls’.

Although prices varied somewhat, in several clubs the journalists were quoted €15 to €20 for a private basic lap dance, €40 for a private topless dance and €70 for a private nude strip dance. Private dances take place in either lockable booths or curtained-off areas.

There was no sign of police monitoring any of the clubs on the nights in question. Patrons – and dancers – were smoking openly inside all of them. The journalists were offered a light and an ashtray by either a bartender or a dancer on more than one occasion.

Despite licensing laws permitting premises to stay open no later than 4 a.m., dancers in two of the clubs said they typically finished work at 7 a.m. at weekends – around the time the last customers leave.

None of the clubs were packed but clients were predominantly local and western European males aged between 20 and 50. Female customers were rare.

The vast majority of dancers, meanwhile, appeared to be eastern European, although this newspaper did speak to one Maltese dancer from Lija.

At the club in Sliema, the journalists witnessed a dancer running out of a private booth and a client escorted out by the bouncers.

In each location, The Sunday Times was approached – but not harassed – by the dancers within minutes of entry into a club and offered private dances.

In two clubs, dancers encouraged the journalists to buy drinks for them at €6 each, with one girl explaining she received commission from drinks bought for her.

Generally, the women did not give the impression they were there against their will. Indeed, there seemed to be a certain ‘camaraderie’ between them – at one club, the dancers sang an impromptu ‘happy birthday’ to one of girls.

But behind the smiles, one Hungarian dancer admitted she wished she could do something else – but she needed the money.

Are these clubs legal?

There is no specific classification for gentlemen’s clubs in terms of licensing – they are licensed by the Malta Tourism Authority as regular bars, discos or nightclubs.

The type of entertainment offered in a bar, nightclub or disco does not need to be specified when apllying for a licence, meaning owners are free to change their premises into a gentlemen’s club if they abide by the conditions of their current licence.

Maltese law is clear on two counts: no brothels and no indecency. But it does not distinguish between an entertainment nightclub and a pole or lap dancing club.

In 2005, the police arraigned a club owner and dancers over indecency, but the magistrate’s decision was clear-cut: being skimpily dressed did not amount to indecency.

The Attorney General has ap­pealed against the decision but the case has stalled because the dancers have since left the country. However, a similar case is pending before another magistrate.

Lawyer Jose Herrera said the situation needs to resolved: “It is irresponsible of the government not to take the matter into its hands and regularise the position. This is a social matter not a legal one.”

Such clubs have no defined parameters and limits – it is not clear what is permitted and what is not. There is not even an age limit for entry to these clubs. If the normal bar regulations are followed, it means that anyone can enter, whatever their age, as long as they do not buy alcohol.

Dr Herrera said the state should not be afraid to face the reality of the situation: “Since these clubs are mushrooming we have to be realistic. These clubs are the norm in the western world, we cannot be too conservative, but they have to operate within a regularised framework.”

When presented with the facts about the current situation by The Sunday Times and asked whether the government has plans to amend legislation, a spokesman for the Home Affairs Ministry said: “Without prejudice to the pending court cases mentioned, the ministry is currently examining the laws regulating this sector with a view to determine if further regulation is required.”

The police did not respond to questions asking how they monitor gentlemen’s clubs.

What it takes to become a dancer

‘Girls wanted,’ read the sign on the noticeboard outside the Sliema gentlemen’s club. When the female journalist called the advertised number, it was answered by a woman with an eastern European accent.

She said dancers change all the time and when she needed a new girl she would call back, adding that no dancing experience was required, dancers are paid a basic salary and working hours are from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m.

The website www.exotic-angels.com advertises jobs at gentlemen’s clubs in Buġibba and Paceville to foreign women. It promises no nudity, stage shows in a bikini, a basic salary of €32 per night, 50 per cent commission on the cost of a table lap dance, 15 per cent commission on the price of drinks bought for them and accommodation at €97 per month. It also says airfare is no longer paid by the clubs, suggesting it once was.

Fit for a gentleman?

On the recent boom in gentlemen’s clubs, one owner said: “You know what it’s like in Malta – when we see something successful that someone else has,we want it as well.

“Drinks are not expensive and we offer a nice alternative to normal bars and clubs, which makes us popular. Our club is clean, there is waitress service, the music is not too loud and generally it is more of an upmarket environment. That means we attract different types of people – not just men but mixed groups, women, gay people... our club is for everyone.

“Dancers are contracted at our club – it is like hiring a barman, there is no difference. Girls are aware of their duties and regulations... I don’t want to go into detail about ‘no touching’ regulations and things like that because legally it is a grey area, but our club is very clean and law abiding and we look after our staff.

“Unfortunately, perhaps not all clubs in Paceville obey the law and that means we all get unwarranted attention from the authorities.

“No one is allowed in our club if they are under 18 and security is strict about checking anyone who looks even 18.”

But not everyone subscribes to the view that these clubs are open to everyone and fit for gentlemen. Lorraine Spiteri from the Women’s Study Group said: “Calling them ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ gives the impression that the establishment is giving a service to one particular gender, thus excluding the other. Personally, I don’t think a real gentleman would step into such a place where women are seen as just a (sexual) device.

“International research (not conducted in Malta) has revealed that lap dancers can suffer considerable sexual harassment, humiliation from the club owners and customers, as well as threats of physical violence. They can be encouraged to drink alcohol onsite and expected and sometimes pressured to offer or agree to offer sexual services.”

What happens in the booth?

*David Borg, 18

“I was out with the lads celebrating my 18th birthday. A host of one of the gentlemen’s clubs approached us and encouraged us to go in.

“The boys paid for a private dance for me – €25 for the duration of two music tracks. The dancer was perhaps about 25 years old. She was wearing hot pants and a bra – and didn’t take them off at any point.

“Halfway through the dance, I started touching her. She didn’t move my hands away. The dance lasted about three minutes.

“I often go to these clubs, but don’t always buy a private dance. It’s like a bar, but one where you’re surrounded by beautiful women.”

(*name changed)

(The Sunday Times)

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