Two English feminist groups (The Fawcett Society and OBJECT) were celebrating this week, when their lobbying against lap-dancing clubs led to new legislation. Lap-dancing clubs in England must now apply to councils for a licence which has to be renewed annually. The venues are now classed as ‘sex establishments’ rather than as pubs or cafes, making it easier for people to say they are ‘inappropriate’. Licenses range in cost from £4,000 to £30,000 depending on the council. Councils will only be able to reject the application for a licence on the grounds of crime, nuisance or public safety – but not for ‘moral’ reasons. The new rules will be applied to Wales and the North of Ireland at a later date.
This ruling may satisfy the feminist groups in question, but I believe it further encourages the ‘not in my back yard’ attitude to the sex industry in general. I am sure it will do nothing for the working conditions and safety of the women who work in lap-dancing clubs.
Richard Kemp, deputy chairman of the Local Government Association, which worked with the Fawcett Society to draw up the regulations said: ‘We’re most concerned about places where they’ve grown up in suburban areas – where kids are going to school…..where they’re near churches and there are quite lurid displays.’ (www.guardian.co.uk)
The most vocal and politically active local communities tend to be middle class and suburban. If community groups in these areas achieve the removal of the ‘lurid displays’ of lapdancers from near their churches and schools, where will they go? I suspect that clubs that either can’t afford licences or have their license applications refused, will head to inner city areas, including run-down industrial and residential districts. Women who work in the clubs, not just dancers but cleaners, bar staff and receptionists, will be forced to walk home at night through badly lit streets with no ‘community’ centres or ports of call if they need assistance. Rather than pay licence fees and be scrutinised by local authorities, club owners may choose to operate without a license, further denying their workers’ chances of regulated working conditions.
I used to work on the same street as a Spearmint Rhino, ‘gentleman’s club’, in a busy cultural quarter near a major city centre. I remember being shocked by how young the girls looked, going into the club with their trolley cases ready for work. But I was glad they were visible, on a well-lit street with offices, bars and a cinema. If the people who campaigned against the Spearmint rhino gaining its license then had succeeded, the club would probably have opened in a less ‘desirable’ part of town, putting those young women at further risk from harassment and street crime.
The new ruling states that licenses can’t be opposed on ‘moral’ grounds, but all opposition to sex workers and their workplaces tends to be riddled with moralising and judgement. As a feminist who supports sex workers I oppose this legislation. I wish feminist groups such as The Fawcett Society and OBJECT would come out from behind their suburban curtains and actually find out what sex workers themselves are saying about their working conditions, their needs, and in some cases their version of feminist theory and action. They might learn something.
Originally published in GO Forth magazine, Ireland
The Fawcett Society http://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/
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