Monday 12 March 2007

A Modern Profession?

A few feathers have been ruffled down in Newcastle-under-Lyme lately. At the beginning of the month, a new lap dance club opened on one of the main approaches to the town centre, just off a popular open and less that 150 yards from one of the local infant schools. Ever keen to promote closer links between Keele academics and progressive movements and organisations in the North Staffs environs, Keele Alternative Globalisations Forum in conjunction with the Centre for Law, Gender and Sexuality organised an afternoon symposium on sex work this last Thursday to mark International Women’s Day.

Organised into three sections, the first addressed the local lap dance debate directly. Suzanne Jenkins opened the session by presenting her research on young women’s attitudes toward the sex industry (based on a series of one-on-one interviews with 20 third year undergrads). The aim was to explore why students are over-represented among exotic dancers and glamour models. She found most of her sample were okay with this level of involvement in the sex industry; indeed two of the respondents had previously sent off pictures to a glamour agency. On lap dancing some of the students felt it had been promoted in women’s magazines as the new keep fit – a few thought it could be liberating and esteem-boosting. As sex work goes most believed there is a distinction between exotic dancing and prostitution, the difference turning on physical contact. A minority felt there was no real difference: in both cases it was essentially men paying women for a sexual service.

The next speaker, Emma Cheadles, was an interesting choice. She is the manager/house mother of Lace, the club at the centre of the controversy. Her time was taken up with questions and answers. From her responses we were painted a wonderful picture. Lace does not discriminate in terms of the women who work there, they can earn good money (£10 for a three minute dance in which all clothes are removed), there is no physical contact between the woman and the man (for it is overwhelmingly men who go there), there is intensive security inside and outside and everyone is watched. The women who work there do so at the time of their choosing and for however many hours they wish to perform. And lastly, all the women are self-employed. The men pay them directly for a dance. In return each worker pays the club £20 a night rental space. Summing up, she argued Lace was a clean, safe and modern workplace that was instep with contemporary trends.

It is unfortunate Cheadles and her boss (who was in the audience) didn’t stick around as local protester, Leslie Foulkes, and Louise Rogers from Rape Crisis made the case against. Foulkes looked at how Lace was granted planning permission. There was no public consultation prior to the licensing application; the first anyone heard of it was when Lace filed the relevant paper work. Furthermore instead of being overseen by the full licensing committee, an all-male sub committee of councillors more or less granted the application on the nod. To compound matters the license granted Lace only allows it to operate as a pub, whereas it is in fact a club. Rogers argued that aside from the planning shenanigans, the opening of Lace evoked issues of power, equality and sexuality. The dancers are the young, the working, and the pleasure-givers. The men on the other hand are the older, the consumers, and the pleasured. This is in contrast to the image sold by Cheadles earlier, who tried to portray lap dancing as empowering. In fact the cash nexus ensures their sexual service is one of performance over mutual pleasure and authenticity. In conclusion; lap dance venues essentially boil down to men (and nearly all the owners are men) making money out of sex and the sexual objectification of women. Therefore in what sense could they be described as “modern”?

After a short break we moved to the national dimensions of the debate. Bernadette from Stoke Citizens Advice Bureau talked about its befriending initiative to assist the increasing number of female asylum seekers settling in North Staffs. Part of this is to help them overcome obstacles of language and local prejudice, another is to ensure loneliness, isolation and economic compulsion does not drive them into prostitution.

Isabel Robson of the London-based Lileth Project presented the research the group has done on lap dance clubs and sexual attitudes. They estimate there are between 270 to 320 lap dance clubs in the UK, of which there are about 70 in London alone. Typically the average age of a customer is 25 (a massive drop from the figures of a decade ago) whereas that of a dancer is 19. In the opinion of the group and herself, lap dancing is far from harmless fun: it is fundamentally a human rights issue. One such “harmless” effect is the creation of an illusion of sexual availability. If we take as gospel the claims by club owners that their dancers are not harmed by the punters, the same cannot be said of women living in the immediate vicinity. Robson reports an increase on average of 50% in reported rapes and sexual assaults, increased attacks on local prostitutes and an increase in danger as perceived by women wherever a club opens. On the workers themselves, the project found they had few rights. As self-employed workers, dancers have little or no recourse to workplace legislation. Also because women rent their space from the club, they can fall into the trap where they haven't earned enough money in an evening to pay and so can end up in debt to the club. This need to cover the rent and earn enough to live encourages competition among the women to offer an edge vis a vis the others. The tendency is to offer ever more extreme performances, some going beyond the 'no touching' rule.

Gill Brown from Brighter Futures Housing Association spoke next. As someone who was active in the womens' liberation movement 30 years ago, she expressed amazement that there are still issues around sex and women's control of their own fertility. She cited a study of 3,200 girl guides, which found young women still perceived inequalities. Brown then moved on to lap dance clubs and reiterated many of the points raised by the previous speaker. She added that workers are often pressurised by the clubs to accept any drinks offered by punters to boost sales, regardless of the vulnerablities this exposes them too. Citing other research on dancers themselves, the main dangers perceived by them concern regular threats of violence, masturbating customers and actual assaults. If there was no contact, she asked, why is it clubs almost without exception have private booths? In sum, she concluded the clubs are not about girl power they're about abuse.

Mandy Screen was up next from Stoke's Women's Project, an organisation that works with 'at risk' women. She offered up some pretty shocking statistics: local prostitutes tend to be busier when it comes to kicking out time at the lap dancing clubs. 98% of Stoke's prostitutes have a drug habit, which can range from £70-80/day for heroin up to £170 if addicted to crack as well. These figures leave out the cost of supporting addicted partners. 90% of the women have been homeless at some point in the last 12 months and 85% suffered some form of childhood abuse. In response to those who argue prostitution is a choice, she asked what kind of choice is it for these women? The work of the project then is to provide help and advice to women involved in prostitution as well as support for those wishing to exit it.

The days final session heard from Sameena Dalwai and her study of the closure of lap dancing bars in Mumbai, India. This case study was particularly interesting because whereas here, all the feminist panel speakers were against their establishment, government moves in India to ban them has workers, owners and feminists lining up together against the state. The reason for doing so lies within the balance of contending forces. The government ban is dressed up in very patriarchal modes of discourse: here exotic dancers threatened to corrupt “the youth” (i.e. young men). Furthermore these “loose women” are an affront to the middle class morality that tightly regulates women’s sexuality: there is no sex outside of marriage and to speak of it in any context is taboo. The feminists in this case study felt the ban impinged on all women’s sexual freedom. Therefore at this point it was this that was the greater stake, that both the dancers in particular and all women in general had a common interest against the state’s moral policing.

All in all the afternoon was an excellent event. It was a pity there was little room for debate, except for a heated five minutes on whether prostitution should be decriminalised, and the image conveyed by panellists of sex workers as “victims” rather than agents potentially capable of liberating themselves. This is unfortunate as more heat than light was generated in the truncated time frame, though more lengthy debates on the left around prostitution and sex work has also had this tendency. Another point of concern was that despite the numbers attracted, men in the audience were a distinct minority: for the most part the male 'usual suspects' had given the meeting a wide berth. More's the pity: the fight for women's liberation is the fight for the liberation of all. To paraphrase a famous bearded German, a gender that oppresses another will never be free.

As for myself the symposium did challenge the way I thought about sex work and related issues. I am not convinced that prostitution can be eradicated by the present set up or criminalising the buyers of sex (as in Sweden and as adopted by the SSP as policy). Decriminalisation linked to a simultaneous decriminalisation of drugs offers the best way forward in my opinion, but ultimately this has to be linked with the struggle for a socialist transformation of society. On lap dance clubs and their ilk, this is more difficult. Personally I think socialists should have no truck with these establishments given the anti-social effects they have on their immediate surroundings, but neither do I think the left and feminists should be setting up pickets outside them. Our job is to find a middle way that empowers the workers while discouraging the growth of the industry. However, beginning to explore such a strategy is beyond the scope of this post.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post Phil. Do you know why a representative of the International Union of Sex Workers, which is a legitimate TU and part of the GMB wasn't on the platform? Surely their imput would have been essential to sucha a debate.
Also as you mention Sweden, as far as I know it was a feminist initiated law to criminalise punters and decriminilaise the selling of sex and by what evidence I can find it seems to work well there, for example trafficiking in women is minimal now as a result.
It also has the overwhelming support of the Swedish left and womens groups. Do you know what the CWIs important Swedish sections wiew is on this? It would be interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

Good point my cynical friend. I'll ask around to see what the Swedish CWI have said on this.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Phil, look forward to your reply to it. Had a look at Swedish CWI site, but its (unsurprisingly) in Swedish.

Anonymous said...

Wow comrade, you seem to have captured the essense of the varied perspectives precisely presented...