The Damaging Myths of the UK Sex Industry
The government seems obsessed with preserving the illusions of stripping and prostitution rather than improving the reality lived by sex workers. Why is legislation such a mess?
We are remarkably dishonest when it comes to the sex industry. And as much as conversational objections to nakedness-for-cash can blur into vague, emotive statements with very little actual meaning, so too does legislation.
"Farcical" and "dangerous" are two of the words I heard used last week to describe the UK's licensing of sexual entertainment, and those words are absolutely accurate: the situation is a mess.
The reason the issue has been hurled back into the spotlight is because Scotland have been holding parliamentary debates on whether to bring in a single policy to regulate sexual entertainment venues (SEVs). Currently, live sexual entertainment in Scotland isn't licensed in its own category – instead, it falls under the Licensing Act 2005, which regulates alcohol licences.
Now, it seems likely that strip clubs are going to be slapped with some new legislation. The question is, what form should this take?
If you're searching for a model of SEV legislation that isn't working, you don't have to look further than England and Wales. Here, in a nutshell, any venue offering lap dancing, pole dancing or striptease is classified as a "sex encounter venue". Local councils have the power to veto licences for SEVs and, if they wish, declare a "nil" policy, meaning no SEVs whatsoever on their turf.
In reality, this translates to councils up and down the country granting or denying licences inconsistently. They're given and revoked for no apparent reason, licensing fees are topsy turvy and, in some authorities, restrictive policy is such that councils are effectively trying to ban what is a lawful activity.
Moral objections to SEVs – if, for instance, you think the industry is gross, ungodly or degrading to women – should not, legally, be used as grounds for refusing a licence. Instead, councils must argue that a venue will cause a public nuisance.
Of course, this creates problems in itself, as definitions in this realm can be very subjective. In its draft Sexual Entertainment Venue Policy, Tower Hamlets suggested that SEVs are not appropriate in "parts of the borough associated with commerce, family, retail and entrepreneurship [...] residential areas or areas frequented by families and children". So nowhere, then.
In neighbouring Hackney, a nil limit was imposed, despite more than two-thirds of local respondents to the council's consultation being against the policy. Nil limit has been imposed by a raft of councils across the country.
Lack of clarity means that silliness happens all the time. Last year, Oxford strip club The Lodge failed to get its licence renewed. The club simply reopened by classing its acts as so-much-more-palatable burlesque dancers.
Meanwhile, even the widely used term "lap dancing" is confused.
"The definition of a lap dance is a contact dance, grinding in someone's lap, which is against the law and the licensing conditions," says stripper Edie Lamort, a member of campaign group the East London Strippers Collective. "But of course it goes on, and we all know clubs that turn a blind eye to it. So the law defines us as lap dancers, but then contradicts itself, as lap dancing is illegal in the UK. Clearly the law was drafted by people who know nothing."
Professor Phil Hubbard of the University of Kent, an expert in sex work legislation, was part of the parliamentary panel in Scotland last week. His message to MSPs was, to paraphrase: legislation in England and Wales is bullshit; please avoid repeating.
"I'm not fan of regulation, but if it's inevitable it needs to be fair and proportionate, and apply to all local authorities, not just some," Hubbard tells me. "I have suggested ways in which Scotland's legislation can be improved: no nil limits, clearer definitions, mandatory licensing and a much clearer sense as to what are valid grounds of refusal. In England and Wales, the law allows councils to be illogical."
While moral objections to strip clubs can't be used as grounds for licence refusal, it's hard to suggest they don't play a part. The most vigorous campaigns have come from feminist groups who usually couch the argument in terms of female objectification. More salient reasons, such as the suggestion that strip clubs make the area dangerous for women, have not been backed up by evidence. A much quoted report linking strip clubs to rape was debunked by Brooke Magnanti, while a study led by Hubbard found that only 3 percent of respondents felt strip clubs were a source of public nuisance – a figure much lower than those recorded for pubs, nightclubs or takeaways.
This isn't to say that all is peachy within the industry. There are excessive house fees, unfair fines, sub-standard facilities, over-staffed shifts and bullying mangers. So sort this out, say the dancers, but don't use it to erase SEVs from the map. "It's frustrating," says Lamort. "Every wrong thing is simply used as ammunition to close down the entire industry."
Lamort says the climate of fear around licensing is allowing badly run clubs to proliferate. "We've been silenced by this climate of moral panic," she tells me. "We can't call out bad managers because it will result in the whole pub getting closed down."
Punitive licensing never increases safety. Our unwillingness to confront the realities of the sexual entertainment industry causes real harm. As with strip clubs, so with sex work, for which bizarre laws mean that women are not allowed to work together, despite the fact this would clearly increase safety.
"In the UK, sex work falls under a grey and murky area," says Jet of the Sex Worker Open University, an organisation seeking to empower the sex worker community. "Paying for sex isn't illegal, but most things around it are open to interpretation and prosecution. This puts anyone working within the sex industries in a precarious position, whether from the state, local authorities, the police, violent clients, immigration officers or exploitative employers."
The renewal of debate around SEV licensing is a chance to look again at how illogical the wider legal framework is for sex work. Hubbard thinks the SEV category should be extended to include brothels, meaning women working together would no longer be illegal.
"We have massage parlours up and down the country, some of which offer sexual services," he says. "These are brothels in a legal sense, but regulators ignore this as they say they are licensing these spaces for massage only, and any other activities are private transactions between individuals. The premise manager must deny knowledge that sex is being sold on premise. It's a farce. Why not recognise these are spaces where sex is sold, licence them as what they are and ensure they are good working environments?"
All these categories of dishonesty: "lap dancing" clubs where you mustn't touch laps; massage parlours and saunas that sell sex, except we all have to pretend they don't; legal sex work that nevertheless makes it nearly impossible for anyone to run a safe, functioning business.
This legislation seems to rank the preservation of an illusion above the betterment of a reality. It's sex work in Wonderland. But you know what? The industry is a reality, and as long as laws are set up to favour the myths over women's safety and decent working conditions, our legislation deserves to be called a farce.
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