Ban lap-dancing in Tower Hamlets

Ema Globyte

A consultation into a ban on lap-dancing in Tower Hamlets closes on Monday so locals have only a couple of days in which to express their views. If the ban goes through, the eleven lap-dancing establishments in the borough will have to close.

The difficulty that the borough, and campaigners who are against lap-dancing, face is that ”moral and equalities” reasons cannot legally be used to justify such restrictions. Under the rules, sex establishments can be curbed only on the basis of the locality being “unsuitable” and community support is required to institute a ban.

But isn’t morality one of the foremost drives against sexualized culture and similar businesses in general – not only in East London, but all around the world? And shouldn’t the issue of women’s objectification in these clubs be a strong enough basis for opposing such venues?

Object”, a human-rights organisation dedicated to challenging ‘sex object culture’, supports the policy and is encouraging residents of Tower Hamlets to participate in the council’s consultation. But their motives go far beyond the ‘unsuitability of the locality’. They insist that the issue of women’s objectification in such clubs is not just an additional point in the ‘equalities’ debate. It is a critical issue because objectification causes women to suffer: if not physically, then verbally. The existence of strip clubs creates an environment where this abuse can be justified – all because it is paid for.

A few years ago, Guardian reporter Rachel Bell, interviewed a former lap-dancer who had worked in London strip clubs.

Elena (not her real name) talked about how the club management would take on more women than are needed in a night, creating a ‘dog eat dog’ environment. She was subjected to verbal abuse and dehumanisation. Men would be in complete control and pick the dancers they liked, verbally humiliating the ones they did not choose. Many men would try and persuade her to come back to their houses or book a room for sex.

The club she worked on maintained a “veneer of no touching”, yet touching was more standard than not, Elena said. If the rules were broken, more money was made. Hence, when one girl makes more money, pressure is on others to do the same.

Elena’s experience only confirms that the line between ‘harmless fun’, and providing sexual services for money, is very thin and blurred.

Many might object, saying it’s a woman’s choice to work in such establishments. Of course, they are not forced against their will, but the subject is far from being that straightforward. Research shows that majority of women become lap-dancers not because they have aspired to but because of poverty and lack of choice.

Pro-sex establishment groups then may ask: how will closing down of such venues affect the owners and the dancers? Isn’t putting an end to these clubs inconsiderate of people who have put much effort into establishing their businesses?

And that is when the other side of the issue comes in. Some define such venues as just another business with a high market value, a way to endure in a capitalist society. Isn’t the right to make profit applicable to all, they say? Yet when the majority of the community thinks otherwise, club owners will most likely have to rethink their ways of profit making and come up with a more widely supported and less exploitative business plan. And in terms of the women employees: if becoming a lap dancer wasn’t an option, women would find other jobs – and most likely less emotionally damaging ones.

These issues cannot be addressed by Tower Hamlets Council as reasons to close down sex establishments. If they could be, then the case would be clear and the end of their existence would be just a matter of time.

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