New report says strip clubs harm women, increase crime and are a gateway into prostitution
Recently, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) launched a report on the harms of the strip club industry, titled Not Just Harmless Fun: The Strip Club Industry in Victoria.
Written by Dr Meagan Tyler, Professor Sheila Jeffreys, Natasha Rave, Caroline Norma, Kaye Quek, Andrea Main and Kathy Chambers, the abstract reads:
This report shows the burgeoning strip club industry in Victoria, Australia, harms women and communities. Strip clubs harm the physical and mental health of women who strip, as well as the opportunities of all women who want equal sexual relationships with men. Strip clubs create no-go areas for women, and are responsible for increasing violence in the community. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) argues that strip clubs need to be understood as part of the industry of prostitution and regulated in the same way as brothels. This means that they would be licensed, subject to planning restrictions, unable to obtain liquor licenses, and owners would need criminal record checks. To ensure that strip club are not seen merely as entertainment venues, like other night clubs, they should be regulated as commercial sex venues
Caroline Norma is a lecturer in the School of Global Studies, Social Science and Planning at RMIT University. She’s also a friend of mine and a contributor to a new book I’m co-editing, Big Porn Inc: Exposing the harms of the global porn industry, to be published by Spinifex Press in September. I asked her about the new report.
What were the main findings of the report Caroline?
CATWA found that the sex industry in Australia is increasingly investing in strip clubs as a way to make profits by circumventing the restrictions on the serving of alcohol that are placed on brothels. In other words, sex industry businessmen offer women for ‘sexual services’ through strip venues or ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ that are licensed as nightclubs or hotels. This allows them to attract men to their venues under the guise of ‘entertainment’, or for corporate functions, which include sexual services while evading brothel licensing fees, planning restrictions, and alcohol bans. As a result, stripping has grown as a sector of the Australian sex industry from 12% in 2008 to 17% in 2009.
Most people don’t see a connection between the strip club industry and prostitution. Why do you think that is? Has the industry been particularly clever at having strip clubs be seen as merely entertainment rather than being linked with or providing the full range of prostitution ‘services’?
CATWA surveyed the websites of 12 strip clubs in inner city and suburban Melbourne, and found that the clubs were surprisingly upfront about the sexual services they provide. For example, one club offers shows where men can pay to see women penetrate themselves with bananas and other items:
Your stripper uses not 1 but 2 or more toys!!! Combine the 2 vibes a string of pearls (hidden safely away) or maybe a banana or some other weird & wonderful item that can be safely inserted or removed…
Most of the clubs had ‘private rooms’ where men or groups of men are able to pay for naked strippers to dance on their laps to the point of orgasm. For example, one club has the following advertisement on its website:
See a dancer that tickles your fancy? For as little as $20, why not have her all to yourself in a private dance room – or share her with 3 of your friends!
This service is advertised despite the fact that the Victorian Prostitution Control Act defines lap dance activity as a sexual service, which means the venue would have to be licensed as a brothel. The Act includes masturbation as a sexual service and it defines this to include, ‘whether or not the genital part of his or her body is clothed or the masturbation results in orgasm’.
An example of the brothel-like status of strip clubs in Victoria comes from a 2008 application to Glen Eira City Council (in suburban south-east Melbourne) for a two-storey stripping venue that proposed to accommodate ‘170 patrons to watch nude dancers on a main stage and on six raised pole-dancing platforms on the ground floor’. The application included plans for a bar and spa downstairs and five private rooms upstairs, three of which were to have en-suite bathrooms.
How does the strip club industry contribute to violence against women? What are the specific harms it causes?
The former Victorian Consumer Affairs Minister Tony Robinson said in 2008 that strip clubs provide ‘perhaps not the full suite of sexually explicit services, but a fair component of them’, so CATWA sees strip clubs as equal to brothels in promoting the violence of prostitution. Prostitution has been empirically shown to inflict a serious level of psychological and physical harm on women who are used for sex, and these harms also apply to women in strip clubs, particularly because strips clubs serve alcohol to groups of men who then buy strippers for private lap dances. In 2006, for example, the Weekend Australian reported the rape of a woman whilst she performed a private lap dance for a man at a King Street strip club (The Australian, 2006). The man ‘lunged’ at the woman, ‘digitally raping her and refusing to let go even as she struggled and screamed’ (The Australian, 2006). In 2003, the managers of a now defunct King Street strip club were charged with rape and assault, and were accused of using fear and intimidation as a management tool against 24 strippers. These dangers of the strip industry have been acknowledged by the Victorian State Government’s Prostitution Control Act Advisory Committee, which in 1997 found that ‘incidents of physical and sexual violence, sexual harassment and stalking were common’ in strip clubs.
How does stripping act as a gateway into prostitution?
Strip club owners and operators are behind a push to blur the boundaries between stripping and prostitution. There is evidence that strip club operators ‘pressure strippers to engage in practices they would rather avoid, such as lap dancing or prostitution’ (Jeffreys, 2008). The strip industry is engaged in glamourising the degradation of women. The clubs market themselves as mere entertainment, rather than prostitution providers. They promote themselves to potential women workers as glamorous venues, rather than as quasi brothels, and so induct new generations of young women into Australia’s sex industry. The websites of the strip clubs cultivate an image of a homely, caring environment in which women will be well looked after. Recruitment information on strip club websites emphasises the fact that women do not need to have any experience in strip. One website states, for example, that ‘no experience is required, we are more than happy to train you – all you have to do is be yourself’. Women need not have anything more than a ‘love of partying, love of entertaining and a love of earning money’ to qualify for a job as a stripper. One club directly appeals to ‘ordinary women’ by holding a regular Amateur Night (Hustler). The emphasis on not needing to have experience in stripping and the provision of on-the-job training enables strip clubs to act as a gateway to the sex industry. One Club (Kittens) advertises that it recruits women through the strip tease classes that it runs – ‘Learn the art of ‘tease’. All welcome. No nudity. Employment opportunities. Erotic exercise. Lots of fun’.
Do many women work in both stripping and prostitution?
The stripping sector in Australia is dominated by ‘out-call’ or ‘mobile’ stripping services, which include strippers being sent to events like bucks and birthday parties. Strip clubs in Queensland also allow the practice of ‘non-contact ‘Dating’ Services’ as well as outcall striptease services from the clubs. Customers may take a dancer on a ‘date’ outside the club. There are guidelines that say sexual contact should not take place in the conduct of these services, but in reality women are extremely vulnerable to solicitation for prostitution in both of these situations. The fact that men may buy women for lapdances in private rooms within strip clubs also makes women vulnerable to solicitation for prostitution, either inside or outside of the clubs.
How does the Victoria strip club industry compare to the industry in other countries?
The UK government in 2009 introduced stricter planning and licensing restrictions for stripping venues, so they went from being licensed as ‘pubs’ or ‘cafes’ to licensing as ‘sex establishments’. Iceland banned strip clubs in 2010. The Scottish government has taken active steps to suppress the proliferation of strip clubs in that jurisdiction this year as well. Victoria has had large-scale ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ even longer than the UK, but has taken no action to suppress their proliferation and industrialisation. Some venues in Melbourne now hold 1000 patrons, and they have been recently established in suburbs like Northcote.
Is there a regulatory model you would like to see adopted in Victoria (and other parts of the country?)
For the time being, CATWA calls on the new Liberal-National Victorian government to licensed strip clubs as brothels, because sexual services are being provided in the clubs. This would mean the clubs could no longer serve alcohol. In other words, we request that the government simply apply its prostitution regulations evenly across all sectors of the sex industry. In the longer term, CATWA campaigns for the eradication of the sex industry in Australia, which would mean that men could no longer buy women for prostitution at any venue, including strip clubs. We call for the ‘Swedish model’ of anti-prostitution legislation to be introduced by the Australian federal government so that prostitution buyers, pimps, and traffickers are criminalised as sex offenders, and women in the sex industry are given housing, job, education, and training assistance to leave prostitution.
The Nightclub Owners Forum has billed your push to strengthen laws against them as a “moral and religious” crusade. How do you respond to that?
Strip clubs were banned in Iceland in 2010 primarily as a result of feminist campaigning that raised awareness of their links to prostitution and other forms of violence against women. CATWA is similarly concerned about strip clubs from a feminist anti-violence perspective. However, the campaign against strip clubs that CATWA is leading aims to mobilise all concerned women—from all sectors of the Victorian community—to demand that the government take action against strip clubs, and the sex industry in general. Women who oppose men’s sexual rights in any form are frequently dismissed as ‘moralistic’, but there is an increasingly large population of women in Australian society that is concerned about the extent to which men’s participation in prostitution, pornography, and stripping is harming women’s equality and destroying the chance for girls to lead dignified and safe lives in Australia in the future.
What has been the wider response to the report?
News of the report was carried in a number of major Australian newspapers. CATWA members were interviewed on radio, and a number of women’s organisations have contacted us for copies of the report. CATWA hopes that the report will spark a sustained conversation about strip clubs in Australia, like that which has taken place in the UK. Groups like ‘Object’ and the Fawcett Society have worked hard in the UK to pressure the government over strip clubs, and CATWA hopes our report will lead groups in Australia to take up similar campaigns. CATWA’s position on strip clubs already enjoys the support of the Victoria Police who currently oppose the renewal of strip club alcohol licenses in VCAT, and a number of local councils who try to stop strip clubs opening up in Melbourne’s suburbs.