Liberating lap dancing

Closing down Upstairs would be hindering people’s right to work

Kate Mitchell

Kate Mitchell

Feminism is a messy, nebulous thing, a movement in which arguments and counter-arguments are made for every possible position. “Is it feminist?” is no longer a question which has any answers, as every viewpoint will be attacked.

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising that ‘feminist’ societies are so quick to disagree over pretty much any issue regarding women. What is more concerning are the second-wave ideologies that still permeate the community, which promote a feminism concerned exclusively with middle-class white women. These feminists, keen to “save” sex workers, have been dubbed “neo-Victorianists” by author Ellen Willis, as they attempt to change legislation with no knowledge of how the industry works.

The York Feminist Network’s opposition to ‘Upstairs’, the Micklegate lap dancing venue, is a prime example of this. Sex-positivity is a key part of truly progressive feminism, and attempting to shut down a legitimate business is not helping anyone.

The fact of the matter is that lap dancing clubs are perfectly legal, as long as they have a licence to operate. On a purely pragmatic, capitalist note, there is a supply and demand system going on here: lap dancing fills a niche in the market, and there is demand for it. Hence the business thrives.

Lap dancing also allows women to be in control of their income in a way many other jobs don’t allow, working when it suits them. Ultimately it could be seen as a way of earning money without having to rely on other people. And as the old adage goes, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

On top of this, some may argue that, as working in the industry is a choice, decrying women for working as dancers denies their agency and attempts to invalidate the women’s decisions.

Shutting down the club would have cut off these women financially – and it wouldn’t have just made the women unemployed. The bouncers, security team and bar staff also would have all lost their jobs, contributing to the already woefully high unemployment figures across the country.

Besides the economic arguments in favour of lap dancing clubs, there is also a strong argument in favour of keeping safe spaces for women working in more physical professions.

Sex work has been a part of civilisation since ancient times – there’s a reason prostitution is known as the oldest profession. While lap dancers do not sell sex, they are still sex workers in the sense that they sell the idea of sex and female attention to men. Trying to close down avenues where women can do this legally and safely isn’t just unfeminist: it’s dangerous.

Most of the stories the media peddles about sex work, as something seedy and socially reprehensible, are due to the conflation of prostitution with sex trafficking – both of which are illegal. The difference is, one is a horribly damaging crime that treats people as objects or slaves, while the other is a profession.

Much of this ignorance comes from the industry’s lack of regulation. Performing any job illegally and without adequate provisions is a recipe for disaster, whether it involves taking off your clothes or not.

Closing down lap dancing clubs merely forces this kind of work underground. In a dedicated club, there are security provisions in place to keep the girls safe and create a good working environment. In illegal venues, it’s unlikely these women would be looked after the same way.

In a 2007 Nouse feature, three student lap dancers were interviewed about their part time jobs, and none of them had any concerns over their safety within the clubs. One of them, Lara, said: “You have to be able to handle people who have been drinking, and as long as you’re confident and firm with them then you can avoid any problems.

“It’s certainly not the sort of job where ‘the customer is always right’.”

YFN’s petition was aiming for 1,000 signatures: it only achieved 183. The concerns over a single privately-owned, regulated lap dancing club are essentially trivial. It does not affect York as a “welcoming, family-friendly city” as the group claims: it merely highlights York’s status as a city where people live and work.

If YFN really have a problem with Upstairs, they should go and find out about it. They should talk to the girls and the staff there. In short, they should do something that would actually help the people concerned.

Feminism means working to support women, in whatever they do – and if that happens to be lap dancing, we owe it to women to make sure lap dancing establishments are as safe as possible.

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