It’s the sort of story that news outlets like to report with a bit of a smirk – “Spearmint Rhino strippers halt traffic during protest march to save Sheffield club from closure” was the Sky News headline, and you can only imagine the sniggering that went on when the report came in.
The story is straight forward enough – strippers from Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino took to the streets – in the rain, no less – to protest against objections to the local council renewing the club’s licence, after video footage obtained by private investigators allegedly showed ‘sex acts’ taking place within the club. Since the last Labour government bowed to a coordinated moral panic from campaigners and moralising media outlets and passed a law requiring ‘sexual entertainment venues’ to be licensed by local authorities – licences that can be refused or withdrawn for the most trivial reasons (moral objections are officially not supposed to be valid, but any objector knows how to couch the complaints in the right sort of words). Clubs across the country have been refused licenses on the basis of location (too near schools, churches, or practically anything else) or on the grounds of ‘objectification’. Some of these venues were operating without a problem prior to the law change, and despite the claims of the objectors, there is absolutely zero evidence to show that strip clubs cause any increase in criminal or anti-social behaviour – not that this stops protestors making that claim regularly, and local press repeating it unquestioningly.
The use of private investigators – to try to persuade dancers into stepping beyond the rules and then film them doing so – is a new weapon for those who want to close the clubs down. It’s what did for the Windmill in Soho, and has also been used effectively elsewhere. Of course, we might ask why a venue that has been licensed for ‘sexual entertainment’ should not be allowed to provide it, or why arbitrary rules on how far a dancer has to remain from a customer (the term ‘lap dancing’ is a misnomer, as no British strippers are allowed anywhere near the customer’s lap) somehow make thinks safe and acceptable. But no one seems interested in that.
Whether or not the footage exists, and what it might show, remains unknown – and as Sheffield Hallam University’s women’s officer, Gabby Willis points out, if it does, it is an invasion of privacy for the performers. And even if individual dancers have been induced into breaking the rules, we have to question why the club as a whole should be punished.
These unpleasant moral campaigns – much like those advocating the ‘Nordic Model’ for sex workers that supposedly shifts the legal onus onto the punter rather than the prostitute, but in fact just punishes both – dress themselves up in the cloak of feminism and the protection of women (often protecting them from making the ‘wrong’ career choices, it seems), but in fact they don’t give a damn about the women. The campaigners will happily throw them out of work, force them into menial, less well paid and more degrading work or just throw them on the scrapheap, because all they really care about is shutting down expressions of sexual freedom and demonising both the men who enjoy this sort of performance and the women who carry it out.
So while it might seem like a storm in a teacup, cases like this matter. No one has the right to shut down a club and make people unemployed because of their own religious, political or moral hang ups, or because they want to flex their muscles and exert power over others. We need to get over our sexual hangups and stop enforcing moral rules that have no evidence to back them up. If strip clubs, or sex shops, or swingers clubs or whatever offends your sensibilities, then tough – your feelings should not be able to trump other people’s freedoms. And if you believe that the women who work in these clubs have no personal agency, and that their protestations are nothing more than false consciousness, then I’d suggest that it’s you who is both sexist and condescending, reducing grown adults to the status of helpless victim.