When the Playboy Club re-opened in Mayfair on Saturday night, after a 30-year absence, it wasn't – as you'd expect – welcomed by all. More than 100 protestors, from groups including UK Feminista and Object, gathered outside as the suited and booted, bunny-eared and bob-tailed entered the multimillion pound club, smiles fixed to suggest they were oblivious to the angry feminist chants.
So does the club have a place in London today? Is it (as Hugh Hefner would have us believe) a hark back to a simpler, more glamourous time, or (as the protestors and some female columnists would have us believe) just a backwards step into a seedy world of sexism, where women are dehumanised and demoralised on a nightly basis?
The interesting thing about the feminist movement(s) – which have always sought to give women equality and choices – is that, throughout, some women have not chosen what feminists wished they would.
And the women now working at the Playboy Club, those 80 waitresses and croupiers aged between 18 and 40, have most certainly chosen it. They each did battle with 3,000 plus applicants to land a job that will pay them a salary of up to £30,000.
You can argue that the Bunny Girl 'career' exists only as a symptom of a society where women continue to be seen as sex objects, decoration or playthings for men with cash to flash, and many lay the blame for this at the door of today's booming porn industry. Kat Banyard, director of UK Feminista, blames it all on Hefna himself. She said: "When it comes to today's pornography industry all roads lead back to Playboy."
But I think there is also the argument (and I know I'm at risk of making myself unpopular here) that it has always been this way. Base differences between men and women (if you want to be really black and white about it, men's desire and women's knowledge they can manipulate that desire for gain) were at the root of this particular gender dynamic long before modern-day pornography started banging away at people's TV screens and monitors. For centuries, if not forever, women have used their feminine wiles to attract a mate or a lifestyle, to make an impression or a living.
I think what gets missed quite a lot in debates of this nature is the argument that women are sexual beings too – and some, if not many, enjoy being admired by men. There are lots of girls who happily work in nightclubs around the capital, strutting their corseted stuff as they welcome guests, and there are probably even more gorgeous young things who just go out of an evening in London wearing little more. They're not being paid to wear next to nothing, so it's not silly to assume they do so because they enjoy the male attention. Is it right that they do it? Who's to say? It is a choice women are free to make in this country.
As iconic as their costume is, it is not silly, either, to assume the new Playboy Bunnies applied for those sought after jobs in the first place because they thought they would enjoy it too. The BBC quoted 27-year-old Sara, who said: "Of course I am academic, (and) I consider myself an intelligent, articulate person but I am also allowed to have fun and to feel like a woman." She doesn't sound like an degraded woman. So far anyway.
A great deal of the furore about the Playboy Club in particular is to do with the sleazy demeanour of 85-year-old Hefna himself (now engaged to a 25-year-old woman who he says "deserves to be his widow"), his business in its entirety and its very questionable ethics regarding putting the Playboy logo on children's pencil tops and pillow cases (and a big blurggh to that). Indeed, the 'Eff off Hef' campaign is not a protest about the club per se, but about a "multimillion pound, multinational porn empire which makes its money out of exploiting and degrading women".
I'm strongly opposed to any kind of adult marketing to children – and frankly everything I ever read about Hugh Hefner makes me feel icky – but as for the rest of it, there is a bit of an issue with the fact that, in a survey a couple of years ago, more than six in 10 women said they watch porn themselves. Okay, it's not as many as the nine out of 10 men who apparently do, but it's still a sizeable proportion. It's also notable that of the 850 memberships already paid for at the Playboy Club, 350 belong to women. Playboy, porn, promiscuity, flirtation, titillation – they are not solely for the pleasure of men.
There are women within the sex industry at large who are exploited and mistreated (not exclusively by males) – there is no denying that. It's a complicated issue, where the line of 'choice' is crossed to become pressure or necessity. I also wonder, when it comes to general opinion on this topic, what part is played by the grey area of tastefulness? If the Bunny Girls are okay in that flashy, wealthy environment, are the women who walk topless round a sticky pub, delivering drinks and periodically asking men to put two quid in a pint glass any worse?!
Various forms of sexism continue to be rife, but that's not only down to the porn industry. As human beings, we don't like to think of ourselves as animalistic but, to a degree, we are. Sex 'innocently' sells everything, from cars to cosmetics, and sexual attractiveness is considered important by both men and women, with regard to themselves and each other.
The Playboy Club of 2011 does not hark back to an old man's 'halcyon days' of the 1960s (a time when women still had many hurdles to leap in terms of equality), nor is it a modern den of sleaze and female degradation. While ever there are keen customers (men who will part with wads to be served scotch by a busty Bunny) and keen waitresses (some women who are happy to make a crust wearing ears and a bobtail) the Playboy Club and many other establishments like it will have a place. And – even as women yearn for and demand equality in important areas of life where we do not yet have it (in the UK's boardrooms for example) – it's just naive to think it will ever be otherwise.