A rare victory for sexual freedom in the ongoing moral panic.
Traditionally, Edinburgh had a more liberal view of sexual entertainment than most of Scotland, which often seems gripped by a Presbertarian prudishness when it comes to any sort of pleasure. So it was a shame to see the city’s leaders throw all that aside in an effort to appease religious and RadFem busybodies and declare – without any evidence of harm being caused – a change in policy to having a ‘nil-cap’ on Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs).
Under the rules of the SEV licencing legislation – itself the result of a campaign of misinformation about the spread of lap-dancing clubs, even though such venues were already covered by all manner of licencing restrictions on what could or (more likely) couldn’t happen at each venue and where they could open – a local council can decide how many such venues – not just strip clubs but swingers clubs and any other venue primarily used for ‘sexual entertainment’ – would be allowed to open in their jurisdiction, ostensibly to stop endless numbers of SEVs from swamping the city – or even an area of the city. A ‘nil-cap’ means what you might think – that the council had decided that the appropriate figure for their vicinity is ‘none’. This means no new licences will be granted. It also means that any existing venues would be refused new licences when their current ones expire, thus putting the livelihoods of everyone involved – from the venue owners to the dancers, bar staff and whoever else worked there – on notice. In the wake of the severe hit to their incomes caused by the lockdowns, this seems especially cruel.
Thankfully, the strippers, strip clubs and sex workers of Edinburgh decided to not just sit back and take this attack on both their careers and their reputations. After all, this wasn’t just about not allowing people to enjoy sexual entertainment. It was part of the Scottish government’s campaign against the sex industry in general, hidden behind a desire to protect women and girls – from violence that launched in 2019 and identified a link between this and the existence of prostitution, lap dancing, stripping and pornography while failing to provide a single scrap of evidence backing up this claim. Indeed, they felt no need to – they knew that there would be no questions asked from a compliant, erotophobic media and politicians.
But it turns out that you can’t just destroy livelihoods on a moral crusade without evidence that doing so is in the public good. The Edinburgh SEV industry and employees launched a judicial review against the decision and this week, the ‘nil-cap’ was declared unlawful. In an 82-page decision, Lord Richardson said that “the committee was wrongly advised that in the events it made a nil determination… that would not constitute a ban on SEVs.” Yes, amazingly, the local council had tried to argue that ‘nil’ did not mean ‘none’ and allowed a rebuttable presumption. Well, that wasn’t fooling anyone.
As Rosie Walker, partner and head of litigation at Gilson Gray – which acted for the United Sex Workers (USW) union – said “if it had been upheld, the council’s nil-cap decision would have resulted in the closure of all strip clubs in the city. That would have meant many of USW’s members losing their livelihoods or having to move away from their homes and families to find work elsewhere.”
Of course, as with all such victories, we’ll wait and see how it pans out, not just in Edinburgh but across the UK. Lots of councils have ‘nil-caps’ in place and I doubt that one case will be enough to change that. What we really need is an end to the SEV licencing laws, which single out such venues for harsher treatment than any other form of entertainment. Just as sex shop licencing and the Video Recordings Act are pointless hangovers from moral panics of the past, so this needs to be confined to the dustbin of history.
Images: USW Union
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