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The renewal of the licenses for two strip clubs in Bristol in March reignited debate in the city about the presence of sexual entertainment venues – are they legal and safe businesses that adults should be free to patronise and work in, or do they contribute to gender inequality? Here’s two takes on the issue.

Illustration: B. Mure

NO

“There is a social culture which believes that women in the sex industry are unable to make their own decisions and speak for themselves”

 

Words: Alice, with help from Melissa, both founding members of the Bristol Sex Workers Collective

As a dancer from Bristol, I was thrilled to hear that Urban Tiger and Central Chambers had been granted the renewal of their license for another year. However, this news is bittersweet as the charade of applying for these licenses, which are both expensive and difficult to obtain, must begin again next year. It has become a source of constant consternation for the women who work in these clubs. As one dancer remarked, “We’re safe… for another year anyway.”

There is a social culture which believes that women in the sex industry are unable to make their own decisions and speak for themselves. This attitude is reflected in the language used when sex workers are discussed: women in the sex industry are often referred to as ‘girls’ and are deliberately excluded from discussions which concern them. What is most upsetting is that groups with this kind of attitude will often refer to themselves as ‘feminists’ and yet they continue to perpetuate the belief that one can legislate a woman’s ability to choose what she does with her body.

“It has been proven that adding legislation to the sex industry increases stigma for the workers”

There is so much power and weight behind the opposition camp that they no longer even need to provide accurate statistics to support their cause. Avon and Somerset police stated their opposition to the license renewal by reporting that there was an increase in sexual assault “in the vicinity of these clubs”. However, in this context, the ‘vicinity’ counts as a 300-metre radius, which in a small town centre like Bristol encompasses a lot of different areas – including, but not limited to, Park Street, Baldwin Street and Queens Square – not to mention that this is circumstantial evidence as there is not enough information to link the increase in assault in these areas to the presence of either club. On the other side of the coin, evidence from dancers who do choose to speak out in defence of their work falls on deaf ears, and they are informed that their experiences are anecdotal and unusable.

On a larger scale there are an estimated 80,000 men, women and trans* people employed in the sex industry in the UK, from legal work such as lap dancing to work that is currently illegal, including prostitution. They come from all walks of life and they work for many reasons. In my limited experience, I have worked with many single mothers, students and entrepreneurial women who are building their own businesses. The flexible hours provided by this line of work are ideal for women who are trying to support another major aspect of their life. I have also danced with women who simply enjoyed their work and feel they shouldn’t need their bodies to be policed by the higher-ups (i.e. the council or the government) when they have the right to free choice and freedom of expression.

The other justification which is often used for the criminalization of the sex industry is the fear of people trafficking. However, further criminalization has been shown to drive people working in the sex industry farther underground, making it harder for victims of trafficking to be discovered, and harder for those who genuinely need help to ask for it. It has also been proven that adding legislation to the sex industry increases stigma for the workers, which exacerbates many other problems such as access to work reforms and welfare. Currently, if police raid sex worker venues and find women who have been trafficked into the country, they will remove all of their possessions and place them in a deportation centre to be sent back to their home country, sometimes splitting up families in the process.

In addition to this, pro-abolition groups also grossly exaggerate statistics and tell emotive stories about the victims of trafficking which make it impossible to speak against in any capacity without being perceived as ‘backwards’ or ‘evil’. In the English Collective of Prostitute’s parliamentary symposium, they reference Professor Nicola Mai’s study of immigrant women in the sex industry – this found that only 6% had been trafficked into the country. Another symposium participant, Paulina Nicol, described defending sex workers who have been caught up in police raids where they were looking for victims. Many other institutions suffer with problems of trafficking, but none stir up as many emotions as the sex industry. Instead of banning these institutions, we create new work reforms to prevent trafficking and, perhaps most importantly, support those who have been victims.

I am far from the first or last sex worker who support decriminalisation of the industry, and although my personal experience is restricted, I am appealing for councils, legislators and policy makers to take the time to visit women in the wider sex industry and discuss what they want for their safety and their future. It is time to take the rights and welfare of these women seriously.

“To dismiss anyone who sees a connection between the sex industry and negative attitudes towards women seems to me to be completely missing the boat”

YES

“We have to balance the right for some to earn a living with the rights of all women”

Words: Kate Jerrold

I was pretending to work recently, so clicked on to Twitter for a bit of distraction. MP Thangam Debbonaire was commenting on the then-upcoming licensing review of Bristol’s strip clubs. We exchanged a couple of tweets. Cue, of course, the tweets accusing me of not supporting women’s rights to do what they want and wishing women harm.

I am reminded of the scholar Mary Beard’s ‘The Public Voice of Women’ speech, in which she spoke about women’s silence in the public sphere, and how women’s voices are interpreted. Often when the discussion takes place of how sexualised we want our community, the discussion quickly becomes framed in terms of prudishness, envy and scorn. It is usually framed as a ‘woman’s’ issue (you know, somewhere in between the cost of tampons and the knee patting that us women are so touchy about).

Women are told that we can only have a voice if we have personal experience. We are also expected to divulge harrowing stories to legitimise our experience in a way we would never expect from any other ‘victim’ of crime.

Drawing a parallel between the shocking recent news headlines of sexual assaults within pretty much every large organisation in the UK and the commodification of women’s bodies, as I did in my tweets, seemed fairly obvious to me. Asking why the exchange of money somehow makes it empowering seemed a pertinent question in light of the shocking Oxfam news. Yet the debate is regularly framed as prudish feminists interfering with women just wanting to earn a living.

“I question how we will prevent a whole new generation of #metoo if we continue to see women’s bodies as yet another commodity, packaged for instant consumption”

Within a couple of tweets, the safety of women was bought up by those who worked in Bristol’s strip clubs, which did seem to suggest that strip clubs may not be the safest places for women to be, both for those who work inside them, and women who have to navigate around them. To dismiss anyone who sees a connection between the sex industry and negative attitudes towards women seems to me to be completely missing the boat. I also wonder why so much anger is directed at women who object, rather than the men who do the actual hurting. I would be angry if going to work meant a chance of preventable physical harm, but berating women for men’s violence seems misplaced if not futile.

And now we get to the heart of the issue. Surely by denying some women the right to earn a living, I am a ‘bad’ feminist (and probably some kind of middle aged prude to boot). Feminism is all about choice, and women should be able to choose whatever they want, it’s even empowering, right? I would suggest that ‘choosing’ to conform within a rigidly gendered structure is less an empowering choice and more a survival skill.

Strip clubs may be a way for a small group of women to earn relatively well paid employment but we have to balance the right for some to earn a living with the rights of all women to live, work and navigate our city free from violence and harassment. Whether or not a direct link can be drawn between sexual entertainment and violence against women is much debated, but there is little argument that women’s lives are severely limited by sexist stereotypes, harassment and violence. We know that the trafficking of women within the sexual entertainment industry is rife.

Strip clubs and other forms of sexual entertainment do not exist in a bubble. Often the charge against those of us that call for an end to sexualised entertainment is that we should ‘just talk to the women involved’ as if the women who are employed are a subset of women, not our sisters, daughters, mothers and friends.

We also have to look at wider society. To blame women who argue that the sexualisation and commodification of women is at the root of the inequality that women face again seems to me to be misplaced. I doubt that my call for an end to strip clubs is likely to affect women’s wages at the BBC, but we know that the men who make those kinds of decisions attend ‘President Club’ type of events.

And what of my choice or the choice of thousands of others not to live in a city where bodies are commodities? As if how women are viewed and treated in strip clubs somehow stops at the door and has no effect on our lives or wider society. That us dowdy middle aged women somehow just can’t bear young, pretty women earning a good living rather than that we see a logical connection between sexism and the sale of women’s bodies.

So, like most who object to strip clubs, I do not blame the women who work in them for all the ills of the world, nor believe that every man that visits them is a closet rapist, but I do question how we will prevent a whole new generation of #metoo if we continue to see women’s bodies as yet another commodity, packaged for instant consumption.

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  • T says:

    Kate Jerrold spends her whole article whinging that some people think she’s a “bad feminist” instead of providing any actual evidence for her view that strip clubs harm all women. Her only point, that supposedly strip clubs cause other women to be assaulted (hinting that sex workers are responsible for this), is supported only by “it’s obvious to me”.

    We’re talking here about women loosing their income, and potentially being put at greater risk of harm if the sex industry is forced further underground. It seems to me like that isn’t getting taken seriously. If her opponents are right and she is endangering women, then obviously she’s a bad feminist. If you want to shake that label, make a proper argument, not just insinuations against sex workers!

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