Stripping the illusion…

Last month I had the pleasure of participating in the launch of Stripping The Illusion, the campaign against lap dancing by Object – a group set up to challenge the ‘sex object culture’ in the UK.

We attended a discussion at the House of Commons on the harms of lap dancing and the inadequacy of the 2003 Licensing Act, then staged a protest in Parliament Square, complete with a mock-up pole-dancing pole, banners and much singing.

The discussion was kicked off by Sandrine Levêque of Object, who illustrated the three main illusions that people have about lap dancing and strip clubs:

“Lap-dancing clubs are not part of the sex industry”

A sex establishment is a place where people pay money for other people to sexually stimulate them. For example, sex shops and cinemas must be licensed as sex establishments – lap-dancing clubs do not. As Philip Kolvin, legal advisor to the Fawcett Society, said later in the discussion, it does not make sense that sex on the page or on celluloid is controlled, but sex in the flesh is not. We are calling for a category of ‘sexual encounter establishment’ to be extended countrywide, to include lap-dancing and strip clubs, giving local councils, representing the public, more power over the establishments which already exist or are planned in their constituencies.

“Lap-dancing clubs are harmless, glamorous fun”

Let’s be frank about this. Lap-dancing clubs reduce women to sex objects. In a wider context this leads to gender inequality, which in turn leads to violence against women. To be harmless, Levêque pointed out, there would need to be conclusive proof that these establishments have no effect on the wider context – and we believe that this proof simply does not exist.

“Buying a lapdance is no different to buying a cappuccino or going to a karaoke club”

By allowing the licensing of lap-dancing clubs as leisure establishments rather than sexual-encounter establishments, we are saying exactly this. Any intelligent person knows that this is not the case and, before the 2003 Licensing Act, local councils had more power over the planning, licensing and regulation of these clubs. Now they are obliged to treat them in exactly the same way as they would a cappuccino bar or a karaoke club. This is simply unacceptable. Lap-dancing clubs clearly have a totally different social impact. The problem is that the Act has made it easier for clubs to open and harder for local councils and the public to have a say.

Linda Waltho, MP for Stourbridge, spoke next, sharing with us her experience of the Act. She began by telling us directly that the 2003 Licensing Act “is not working” and how it has made it very hard for her local authority to monitor and control lap-dancing clubs, and impossible for them to take the views expressed by constituents into account.

Commercial sexual exploitation has steered us dangerously off course

She gave the example of the club ‘Heaven’ in Stourbridge. More than 50 objections to the club were lodged with the council, which then had to explain that they could not be taken into consideration. The legislation has not only taken away the council’s power to act on behalf of constituents, Waltho said, but has also taken away the feeling of safety and the ‘ambiance’ of Stourbridge. She gave examples of many young woman students from King Edward’s College who had been affected, who at her clinic at the college had registered their discomfort at having to pass the club on their way to and from their studies. She finished by stating powerfully “I object… that there is no power for constituents. I object that residents can’t have their views heard. I object to the exploitation of women. I object to feeling like I can’t do a thing – not a place a female Labour MP likes to be!”

Kat Banyard of the Fawcett Society spoke passionately about the progress of women’s equality. Since Millicent Fawcett, she said women have been making not only an uphill journey, but one which is badly signposted and littered with traps. Now, she said, we are in uncharted territories as campaigners. Women are dehumanised, divided up into body parts and put on display as sex objects. She explained that local authorities are legally obliged to promote gender equality – but that the problem with the 2003 Licensing Act is that they are required not to discriminate, that authority regulation of lap-dancing clubs must relate to the four licensing objectives (public safety, public nuisance, public order and protection of children from harm), so there is little scope for refusal on gender-equality grounds. Their hands are tied. Women have fought hard for equality, she said but we are not there yet. Commercial sexual exploitation has steered us dangerously off course. She called for the government to untie councils’ hands and allow them to perform their basic statutory duty of promoting gender equality.

Next up was Professor Rosalind Gill of the Open University, whose research interests are sexualisation and culture. She agreed that there is a “really compelling case” for a change in the law, and that the whole discussion raises important questions and identifies the growing normalisation of sexual exploitation through mainstreaming and the re-sexualisation of culture. Lap-dancing clubs are now presented as “normal and respectable”, with such descriptions as ‘elegance’, ‘affluence’ and ‘glamour’. They have deliberately sought to re-brand themselves as respectable – aided by legislation. This mainstreaming silences the voices of protest and points to a general sexualisation of culture. This resurgence in sexual objectification, she said, makes the stuff of the 1960s and 1970s that our second-wave foremothers fought so passionately against, look tame by comparison. These things, she said, point to an overall “pornification of culture”, with both men and women encouraged to see women in this way.

A dancer who does not break the ‘no contact’ rules won’t get a private dance and, in an industry where there are more dancers than customers, she must fight to make money

Next came the inimitable Julie Bindel. She talked about the research study, ‘Profitable Exploits’ she did in 2004, commissioned by Glasgow City Council. Though her research was done four years ago, she said, the situation has not improved – in fact it has only gotten worse. She visited lap-dancing clubs posing as a “disgruntled secretary”, dragged there by her boss who had promised to “show her a good time”. She spoke to not just the women working in the clubs but also the customers, focusing on how the women were treated and the perceptions by both the men and the dancers. Always, she said, the dancers were doing it because they were desperate for money. They had convinced themselves that “at least it’s better than prostitution”, some were waiting for their big break on TV or in music, some said they were doing it to pay their way through uni – even though in most cases, most were not managing it.

Dancers must pay to rent their ‘spot’ dancing in a club, which can be anything from £10 to £100 – for women who are already financially vulnerable this can be huge. Add to that the fact that dancers must pay for their own refreshments, and many women come home with less than they went out with. There is no chance of moving upward – in the sex industry you don’t get promoted, only demoted.

Not only that, she said, but the women were without exception treated appallingly. Most clubs have no staffroom – the dancers must use the toilets. There they change, take refreshments, eat – there is no other space for them outside of the ‘shop floor’. She talked about private dances – one of the only ways for dancers to break even. No photography is allowed inside the private dancing room – but it happens, and thus the dancer is turned into a pornographic actress with very little say. CCTV is meant to monitor the private dances but, Bindel said, more often than not there is no tape in the camera. In theory, in a private dance the customer must stay three feet away from the dancer, the dancer must not expose her genitals and there must be no touching – but all these things happen. The dancer simply wouldn’t get a private dance otherwise and, in an industry where there are more dancers than customers, she must fight to make money.

Sex acts are technically not being sold on the premises, but club owners still allow, and even encourage, customers to expect that they will be able to have sex with the dancers

Private dances are offered to everyone – Julie said she was offered one: “A German Shepherd would be offered a private dance if it would pay.”

If the dancer can bear it she will take money for sex – outside the door of the club. Thus the owner can say he is not breaking the law – sex acts are not being sold on the premises – but can still allow customers to expect, even encourage customers to expect, that they will be able to have sex with the dancers. She peeked inside the VIP room (a room for customers to pay a large amount for a ‘one on one chat’ with a dancer), which contained a sofa, condoms – it was very much like a brothel.

The dancer feels that she is treated like a prostitute anyway, so “why ever not cross that line?” She finished by declaring that there is “nothing good to be said about these places” and if she had her way, not only would the licensing law change, but we would “close the bloody things down… They are not just a front for prostitution, they are prostitution.”

The next speaker was professor Marion Roberts of Westminster University. She told us how ironic she finds it that the legislation was set up to “modernise ‘archaic’ licensing laws… for creating more family-friendly venues!” She explained that most of the debates around the Act centred around things like alcohol-fuelled violence, crime, litter and street fouling, and that there had been very little debate about the sex industry. This so-called liberalisation of licensing laws has actually made it more difficult to monitor lap-dancing clubs. She talked about the way that planning and licensing should be joined seamlessly, but that in practice, they rarely are, and said that local authorities should be doing more to ensure that the views of women are taken into account, to create a country where women can go out without fear of embarrassment, harassment or threat.

Gill Mitchell from Brighton and Hove City Council, spoke next, and introduced herself by saying she was objecting on behalf of many, many councillors who were ‘rendered helpless’ and finding it hard to explain to residents of the city that they are powerless to act against lap-dancing clubs regardless of residents’ objections. She cited Spearmint Rhino as an example, saying that the club in Worthing had opened after over six hundred letters of objection. She has been campaigning for two years and Brighton and Hove has now put aside private funding for its own private bill – but that would only apply to Brighton and Hove itself. She and the other councillors want this power to be national. She finished: “I’m here with all of you to keep up the pressure. We most continue to object.”

Philip Kolvin, mentioned earlier, had a fresh approach to the Act. He said that the arguments for extending the definition of ‘sex establishment’ legally to include lap-dancing clubs was “neither radical nor complicated”. He said that councils have the power to regulate sex shops and sex cinemas, but not strip clubs, as sexual-encounter establishments, and pointed out how illogical this state of affairs is. He called for the government to give local councils the right to regulate all sexual-encounter establishments, as part of the basic democracy which this country is founded on. In a democracy, the peoples’ opinions are given voice and fair consideration through their elected representative, and he insisted that councils are given the power to choose and exercise control in the public interest.

The last speaker was Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for the City of Durham. She said that the Ten Minute Rule bill, seeking to close the loophole in the 2003 Licensing Act which allows lap-dancing clubs to be licensed as leisure establishments rather than sex establishments, would be going through “within the next four weeks”. She pleaded for all of us to write to our own MPs asking them to back this bill, and to start making these views heard. I would extend that to readers here, having heard the compelling argument for a change in the law so that lap-dancing clubs are legally seen as sexual encounter establishments with regards to the law, to write to their own MPs as well, asking for their support on this matter.

Thus the discussion was over, and Sandrine thanked us all for attending, reminding us that the day was not yet over – Object’s own photo-stunt in Parliament Square was yet to be staged. So down we all went, risking our lives to cross the road, collecting on the lush green grass under London’s midday sun. It was a glorious day, just right for a good old sing-along, and sing we did! The women from Object erected a pole (obtained, I heard, from one of Tesco’s ‘pole dancing for kids’ kits before they were withdrawn from sale), covering it with mock paper money and we arranged ourselves behind it with banners, placards and most importantly, our voices. Apparently the chants were a group effort, concocted at Object’s last meeting, and, though sometimes they had taken slight liberties with their poetic license (and honestly, it must be pretty difficult to work the word ‘objectification’ into a chant, so kudos to them) they were wonderful. Someone suggested we started up a feminist choir but, all jokes aside, we put on a pretty good protest. There were numerous TV teams and photographers, the expected honks of cars going past in support (and sometimes because they couldn’t resist honking at a group of people obviously gathered in protest) and of course, the age-old dissenter – a young man with his mates who felt the need, after hearing us sing “And we won’t be for sale, no more!” to yell “Yes you will!” Sigh. There’s always one isn’t there?

Photos copyright of the author, used with permission

Quinn Capes-Ivy is a radical feminist, blogger and co-organiser of South Coast Feminists whose interests include rats, collecting books, eating as much as possible and trying to raise her son into a well-indoctrinated tool of the matriarchy