Tucked on a side road in a grand four-storey building a few minutes’ walk from Old Street station is 23 Paul Street, the first strip club in Europe to accept cryptocurrency as payment.
But as VICE discovered, the same awkward interfaces, user-unfriendly tech and lengthy periods of silence staring at a screen with a furrowed brow is just as prevalent when you’re using Bitcoin or Etherium to buy time with a naked woman as it is when you’re picking up a gram of contraband from AlphaBay.
Accepting payment in Bitcoin is a new thing for 23 Paul Street. In fairness, it’s a new thing for the sex industry at large, with only one other strip club claiming to do it – The Legends Room in Las Vegas.
"This is going to sound really bad, especially working in the sex industry," said Owen Planchart, the affable managing director of 23 Paul Street, when I met him in the club before it opened. "But it almost feels like, every time I do it, I’m breaking a hymen."
That metaphor hung there alongside my awkward laugh for a beat or two after he said it. I was unsure how to react, so he just carried on.
"There’s a threshold there that everybody involved knows that something that hasn’t happened before is happening for the first time," Planchart went on. "People here are trying to have a good time without accountants knowing about it, without partners knowing about it – that’s really important."
I visited the club an hour before it opened, so there were no women working yet. But even without the 35 or so stripping employees slinking around the building, the club has a strong Soho House meets Eyes Wide Shut vibe.
"We want to appeal to the straight-up technology guys. They’re the perfect client for a venue like this, because they’re socially awkward – more money than they know what to do with."
This is reflected in the quirky English townhouse décor, the big box of fancy dress in front of the second floor DJ stand ("A lot of the stuff that happens here is Burning Man-esque," explained Planchart) and the jaw-dropping prices.
Punters pay upfront for their time. On the second floor, which offers some privacy via slinky material hanging from the ceiling around comfy leather two-person sofas, the cost is £220 for half an hour or £420 for an hour. Head upstairs and you can expect to stump up £720 an hour before booze. Champagne is the most well-stocked drink in the mini-fridge behind the bar. This is definitely not the sort of place found in nearby Shoreditch that sends a bored lingerie-clad dancer around with a jar, into which guests are supposed to deposit £1 coins.
These kinds of prices generally herald the stomping ground of investment bankers from the City or commodity traders based in the West End, but 23 Paul Street reckons that by offering time with its women for cryptocurrencies, it can mine an untapped source of wallets that are filled to the brim with disposable money.
"What I really like to appeal to, and every now and then we do get them, is the straight-up technology guys," said Planchart. "They’re kind of the perfect client for a venue like this, because they’re socially awkward – more money than they know what to do with."
Planchart continued: "Where investment bankers have a lot of things they can play with, I don’t feel like anyone has really tapped into what the technology guys are entertained by."
The first Bitcoin sale was for the equivalent of about £1,200, a few months back. It was made by someone who does TED talks but wanted to remain anonymous, according to Planchart. In return for more time with the girls, the TED talking, bitcoin-paying strip club enthusiast agreed to teach the dancers about cryptocurrencies.
"I want these girls to be set up when they leave this club. We want to make sure that the net result of what we do is a positive one," said Planchart.
A noble statement – and while the club was too empty for me to check the veracity of the claim, there was a woman who showed me in when I arrived. She didn’t give her name, but said she had recently started dancing at the club after working there in a clothed role because she found it to be such a "safe, welcoming space".
Planchart took me through a dummy run of paying with cryptocurrencies. I used the Jaxx wallet on my mobile while Planchart used Coinbase – two of the more popular interfaces that I have used to transfer cryptocurrencies in the past. In a club that prides itself on its slick but convivial atmosphere, the process was painfully clunky.
There were numerous awkward silences as Planchart fought with Coinbase ("So I’m buying bitcoin," he said at one point. "Or am I selling bitcoin? No, I’m buying"). In the end the dummy transaction had to be abandoned well before the point of sale.
"The new Coinbase interface has baffled me there," he explained. "But [usually] we just tap phones and that’s pretty much it."
Lucky, really – no way a mere journalist could have afforded a dance there anyway.