Strip clubs have become a familiar landmark on British high streets, although they have also been the subject of increasing controversy in recent years.
For example, in early 2021, Bristol City Council decided not to renew the sexual entertainment venue license necessary for the city’stwo strip clubs to remain open, following pressure from campaigners who argued that they enforce “the sexist cultural norms that lead to violence against women.”1T.Wall, The Guardian (14.03.21) Gender equality activists hail Bristol council’s vote on ban for strip clubs
The backlash to the decision has been predictably fierce, with opponents citing arguments that also tend to centre on gender discrimination, and women’s rights to work and earn a living however they choose. Lap dancer Kayleigh Hide, who worked at the clubs for three years, said the ban would be “irresponsible” and would “drive the industry underground”, where it would become dangerous:
“This will create a void that could be used by some to exploit vulnerable people who would otherwise have legitimate jobs in the clubs. The women want to be there. It’s their choice, it’s their job, and we all pay our taxes. It’s not this seedy place where people lurk in the middle of the night.”Kayleigh Hide, Lap Dancer2BBC (05.03.21) Bristol Strip club dancers speak out against ban proposal
Hide’s arguments seem reasonable enough on the surface, though a closer inspection of the nature of strip clubs reveals that many are in fact dangerous, exploitative and seedy.
In strip clubs, performers are “living pornography”; their individuality is obliterated and they become fantasy sex objects. Turning a person into a commodity crowds out feelings of empathy and arguably causes us to act towards them without due respect.
“Under a sexually objectifying gaze, women’s bodies momentarily become the “property” of the observer – whether they have consented or not.”Sam Carr, Lecturer in Education and Psychology, University of Bath3S. Carr, The Conversation (01.11.17) How pornography removes empathy – and fosters harassment and abuse
Men on top
In strip clubs, being sexually harassed often constitutes part of the job description. Men look on: they pay the money and they ‘call the shots’. Being surrounded by sexually-objectified women who exist only to please and arouse customers risks making men feel a dangerous combination of power and entitlement.
“Strip clubs provide the perfect learning environment for sexually toxic attitudes and behaviours. Leering, jeering, sexual touching, and lap dancing are everyday occurrences in strip clubs throughout the world.”Dan O’Bryant, Harvard University4D.Bryant (07.2017) Inextricably Bound: Strip Clubs, Prostitution, and Sex Trafficking Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 2: Iss. 3, Article 9. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2017.02.03.09
Strip clubs deliberately create the illusion that the performers are there to fulfil the customers’ sexual fantasies. This explains why they have strict ‘no contact’ rules – although these boundaries (necessary for legal reasons) are in reality often stretched and broken.
“The sex industry makes money from fantasy and escape from the real world where men are held accountable for their behaviour.”Patrice Opplinger, Girls Gone Skank5P.A.Oppliger, Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture, McFarland & Co (1 April 2008)
Two major studies into the UK strip industry have found that verbal abuse, alongside groping and touching, is the norm.6Sanders et al ‘The Regulatory Dance: Sexual consumption in the night time economy Initial Findings In fact, according to a report by the campaign group Not Buying It, ‘for many lap dancers, verbal, physical and sexual assault, constant propositioning for sex, sexual contact, sexual acts and sex’ are often part and parcel of the job.7Not Buying It: What is a lap dance? Sometimes, this leads to police investigations and club closures, but mostly it’s ignored or played down.
“Every day someone forced me in some way – either licked, bit or poked me, sometimes even penetrated me, held me down, hurt me. Then there was the verbal degradation, by the customers and even ourselves.”Stella, Former Strip Club Performer“8Stella”: Dancing Pornography in M. Tankard Reist and A. Bray (eds): Big Porn Inc: Exposing the Harms of the Global Pornography Industry (North Melbourne, Victoria Spinifex Press, 2011, p..144
Performers in strip clubs turn themselves into sex objects by shutting down their sense of self and repressing their own thoughts, feelings and desires. Performers are not some special breed of women exempt from the psychological stress of having to cope with the unnaturalness of being half-naked in front of strangers, enduring unwanted (near) sexual contact, and providing foreplay in public. Pretending to enjoy themselves and to find punters attractive, the women are forced to mechanically override normal, self-protective instincts and feelings of vulnerability, humiliation and revulsion.
“It took longer to learn to hustle, to leave aside my humanity and erect that false façade of the happy whore, to become that simpering shallow shell of a woman we call a stripper: part air hostess, part sex slave.”Stella, Former Strip Club Performer
The dehumanising nature of work in strip clubs takes a heavy psychological toll, causing women to suffer a host of mental health problems. Dissociative disorders, where the mind disconnects from the body, are commonplace, as are anxiety, depression and PTSD.
Many women turn to alcohol and drugs in order to anaesthetise themselves to the demands of the job, which only increases their vulnerability and risk-taking. It’s also common for women in strip clubs to feel acutely self-conscious about their bodies as a result of constantly being judged as a sex object, which can lead to body shame, eating disorders and the decision to undergo cosmetic surgery.9A.Anklesaria and J.Gentile (10.2012) Psychotherapy with Women Who Have Worked in the “Sex Industry” Innov Clin Neurosci. 2012 Oct; 9(10): 27–33
“The one and only time I went to a strip club, a lady giving me a lap dance whispered the words “I hate my life” while leaning over me right next to my ear. No joke.”Anon, posted on YouTube Comments10YouTube, College Humor (7.07. 2016) Strip Clubs Suck: cf. comments section
In the light of the #MeToo movement and the progress we’ve made in acknowledging the profoundly harmful consequences of sexual objectification and sexual harassment, why is it that strip clubs haven’t come under increased scrutiny? The answer probably comes down to the notion of choice: the idea that women who work in strip clubs freely choose what they do, and either like it or at least don’t seem to mind it.
Firstly, though, we need to ask why it is that some women choose to work in strip clubs. There are usually a number of different factors at play:
- Vulnerability. Many women who choose to work in strip clubs have had some form of negative experience of sex. Many have suffered systematic sexual abuse or exploitation, often in childhood; others are victims of rape or abusive partners. These experiences erode women’s sexual boundaries. The process of a woman’s body being abused as an object opens up the way for it to be commercially commoditised. This explains why many women feel (at least initially) empowered by sexual objectification: they feel more control than they do in situations of rape and sexual abuse.
“Every dancer I met had experienced some kind of abuse in life… emotionally, physically or sexually.”Sammy, Former Strip Club Performer11Not Buying It: Objection to Spearmint Rhino, Sheffield by Sammy Woodhouse 2018
- Financial need. Women who work in strip clubs are often young and impoverished, and are therefore attracted by the prospect of quick, ready money. Strip club work often holds out the promise of more money than other minimum-wage jobs; cash becomes both the incentive to work and the sole motivation to continue, even when things become difficult.
- Hypersexualised culture. Popular culture is hugely influenced by the sex industry. From advertising to pop music, girls are surrounded by the message that their worth lies in their sex appeal. It’s little wonder that so many internalise this ideology and become conditioned to associating their sexual desirability with self-esteem, particularly if they have been inured to objectification by previous negative experiences.
Secondly, we have to ask: if something is known to be harmful, does individual choice trump a person’s right to be kept safe and well?
Due to hypersexualisation and the normalisation of strip clubs, most women don’t recognise the profound, long-term harms or risks of working there before they start.
“As a vulnerable and impressionable young female I was not aware of the damaging implications this would have upon my development and self image over the years.”Anonymous Strip Club Performer12Not Buying It: It’s a Choice
Once the women are in the industry, many find it hard to exit. What’s more, women will often resort to powerful psychological strategies to defend their choices, rooted in a desire to feel more in control of a situation which leaves them fundamentally disempowered.
“When you are in prostitution, you internalise the violence. You hear the same repulsive things over and over when you are being called a slut, a whore, stupid or disgusting. But still, you defend your ‘free choice’ and say that prostitution is just ordinary work, because realising the truth is so depleting.”Tanja Rahm, Sex Trade Survivor
Would we respect a desperate individual’s choice to sell herself into slavery? To stay with an abusive partner? To sell her organs for cash? Even in our neoliberal world, individual rights have limitations because we recognise the importance of protecting the most vulnerable in society from exploitation.
Thirdly, we have to consider that the existence of strip clubs is harmful to all women, not just to performers. In the area around strip clubs, drunk and sexually-aroused men spill out onto the street, carrying with them their antisocial, threatening and sexually-harassing behaviour. This creates a ‘no-go zone‘ in the local community, forcing women – and particularly underage girls, ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups – to avoid the area.13Not Buying It: Strip Clubs Create ‘No Go Zones’
“It’s like open rules here, cat calling, harassment and open hostility.”Anon – Submission to Enquiry on Street Sexual Harassment Around Strip Clubs14N.Kalms, The Conversation (August 9, 2017) No harm done? ‘Sexual entertainment districts’ make the city a more threatening place for women
A report by the Lilith Project, run by the charity Eaves Housing, which looked at lap-dancing in Camden Town, north London, found that “in the three years before and after the opening of four large lap-dancing clubs in the area, incidents of rape in Camden rose by 50%, while sexual assault rose by 57%.”15R.Bell, The Guardian 19.03.2008) ‘I was seen as an object, not a person‘
“If you allow some women to be bought and sold for men’s sexual arousal or entertainment, then you compromise the position of all women in a community.”Meagan Tyler, Sex Trade Survivor16NCOSE petition: Stop Glamorizing Sexual Exploitation in Strip Clubs – Hustlers Movie
Strip clubs are utterly at odds with sex equality more generally, since they’re places where women are treated as sex objects that men feel entitled to use, buy and control. They set up an environment that legitimizes the larger infrastructures of sexual exploitation and stereotypes women in general.17A. Pound, NCOSE (09.09. 2019) No, “Hustlers” is Not Empowering for Women
Strip clubs are the more acceptable face of the sex industry, placing themselves openly in towns and cities up and down the country. But beneath the facade, they are often very different from other respectable establishments such as bars and nightclubs.
Exploitation: Unlike the management staff, performers in strip clubs are usually forced to be self-employed, with limited employment rights and insecure contracts. It can be hard for the women to make much money, since competition is stiff and they have to pay expenses, a fee to the club, and fines from their earnings. This financial pressure means performers often resort to ‘rule breaking’, providing illegal ‘extras’ in private booths – for example, by offering sexual contact, or performing sexual acts, for extra cash18.L.Mount (19.02. 2016)“Behind the Curtain”: Strip Clubs and the Management of Competition for Tips Journal of Contemporary Ethnography Volume: 47 issue: 1, page(s): 60-87https://doi.org/10.1177/0891241616630608
Rule-breaking: The CCTV, bouncers and ‘House Mums’ that give the impression strip club managers are looking out for the women often fail to offer any real protection. Primarily focused on protecting their reputation in order to avoid losing thier licence, strip clubs are incentivised to play down reports of rule-breaking activity (anything from reported sex acts to sexual assault and harassment). CCTV can be wiped and has ‘blind spots’; bouncers and ‘House Mums’ can turn a blind eye; and owing to the type of contract women have (and because many don’t declare their earnings), the management knows it doesn’t have to respect their working rights.19Not Buying It:What happens at a Lap Dancing Club?
“It seems almost impossible to think a man who assaults a dancer in a strip club would be arrested. Bringing in the police would only make the club look bad and chase away other customers.”Patrice Opplinger, Girls Gone Skank20P. Oppliger (01.04.2008) Girls Gone Skank: The Sexualization of Girls in American Culture
Criminality: Studies show that in strip clubs, there’s often widespread use of drugs, drug dealing, drink spiking, underage dancers, suspected trafficking, prostitution, sexual harassment and assaults. The venues are attractive ‘safe’ venues for organised crime to flourish. According to a report by Dan O’Bryant Fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University: “No strip club survives where the promise of sex acts in back rooms, VIP rooms, or local hotels is not realized.”21D.Bryant (07.2017) Inextricably Bound: Strip Clubs, Prostitution, and Sex TraffickingDignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence: Vol. 2: Iss. 3, Article 9. DOI: 10.23860/dignity.2017.02.03.09
“People don’t realize that 70% of sex trafficking victims are trafficked into the commercial sex industry; that means they are working in the strip clubs, they’re working on the porn sites, they’re working for escort agencies… we can’t turn a blind eye to that.”Harmony Grillo, Founder of Treasures, for Women Exiting the Sex Industry
Strip clubs are premised on the notion that men can buy access to women’s sexualised bodies. In doing so, they nurture men’s sexual entitlement and dominance over women, which leads to sexual harassment, coercion and violence. As well as harming performers within the industry, strip clubs hurt sex equality and women’s rights and drive the demand for prostitution and sex trafficking.
“With workplace sexual violence and sexual harassment standards, how can we validate strip clubs as legitimate businesses [which] can provide support and protection to their employees? How can we acknowledge the harms of sex trafficking, sexual violence, and sexual abuse, while failing to acknowledge the hosts and perpetuators of such things?”Audry Pound, National Center on Sexual Exploitation22A. Pound, NCOSE (09.09. 2019) No, “Hustlers” is Not Empowering for Women