Recent changes in the licensing laws for lap dancing clubs should be welcomed, albeit cautiously. The clubs have been reclassified as “sex encounter establishments” and can no longer pretend to be simply a cafe or a restaurant.
The reform means that local authorities will have more control over where the clubs are situated – and opens up the possibility of local people having more of a say as well.
This is not censorship, it is a step forward for women’s rights – lap dancing is sexist and degrading.
The number of lap dancing clubs has doubled since 2004, meaning there are now about 300 clubs in Britain.
The growth of lap dancing has taken place in the wider context of the “pornification” of popular culture. This has become the hallmark of a generation – it is capitalism’s way of repackaging demands for liberation.
Across billboards, magazine covers and TV ads, there are images of barely clothed airbrushed women, which fit a very narrow and restrictive model of their sexuality.
We are told that sexism no longer exists, that women are now equal and that anyone who disagrees should lighten up.
It is in this context that lap dancing and pole dancing clubs have come out of the sleazy backstreets. What are essentially strip clubs are now supposed to be places of “fun for all”.
Business successes are celebrated with special package deals, and women and men who do not attend are seen as prudes.
Lap dancing and pole dancing are also held up as signs of liberation – the logical conclusion of the women’s liberation and feminist movement.
But the women’s movement of the 1960s and 1970s fought for people to be free to shape their relationships and sexual identity from all stereotypes and propaganda.
What we see today is a horrific inversion of this – a vision of women who should aspire to “make love like a porn star” as one best seller recently proclaimed.
And lap dancing is big business. Not only do corporate executives hold Christmas parties and “meetings” in such places, but the clubs’ profits are huge. In the year to June 2007, the Stringfellows club in London made £5 million in profit – a 70 percent increase on the previous year.
Meanwhile, working conditions for dancers across the industry are appalling. Lap dancers are self-employed and have to pay the clubs to rent space and “facilities”.
One 2004 study found that the typical charge was between £35 and £100 per night. On quiet nights the dancers may not make this money back, as they rely on commission and tips.
In contrast to the popular view that lap dancers are making big money, the study found that many were low paid and some were sliding into debt. Lap dancers have few rights at work and are not entitled to sick pay and other benefits.
The GMB union, which organises lap dancers, found that the women’s most common complaints concern inadequate changing areas, break times, sexual harassment and repetitive strain injury.
The changes in the law sends a signal that lap dancing clubs don’t simply provide harmless entertainment.
But state intervention in the sex industry is not ultimately the way to overcome the raunch culture and widespread sexism that exists in society.
This will depend on ordinary people challenging it, and the ideas behind it.
Students recently showed the way to do this when a Miss London University beauty pageant hit London colleges. Two entrepreneurs decided that this would be a great money making scheme.
Women students had their bust and waist measurements taken before being paraded in front of a mainly male crowd who had paid up to £100 for a ticket.
The winners of each college contest then went head-to-head to win the competition’s crown.
Protests accompanied every one of these events. Male and female students ran a campaign attacking the “Miss-ogynist” contest.
Coalitions of women’s society activists, feminists and socialists came together to put the argument that this cattle market is not what liberation looks like.
Despite the fact that women’s access to higher education has risen dramatically over the past 20 years,
the sexist myths and stereotypes that are held in wider society are now being peddled on campus.
The protests are inspiring because they show that not everyone accepts the idea that women’s liberation comes from lap dancing or pole dancing.
The challenge for us – and future generations – is to make true sexual liberation a reality for all.