“People who loudly advocate that sex work is real work so it should be decriminalised or legalised completely, say it is the stigma of sex work that makes it dangerous. This is false. It is not the stigma that makes it dangerous. It is the males who are violent because they feel entitled to women’s bodies that are dangerous, whether as a buyer or as a pimp, because the sex industry is inherently violent.”
On 17th June 2021, Glasgow City Council launched a consultation on their draft policy for the licensing of Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) in the city. This draft policy follows an earlier round of evidence gathering meetings with stakeholders that included SEV owners, managers and performers, those men who use the clubs and a wide range of agencies including police, fire service, child and adult protection services, and NHS. The Licensing Committee also took evidence from ‘sex work’ organisations such as ScotPEP and Umbrella Lane, as well as those services in Glasgow that provide support for women and girls who have experienced all forms of sexual violence, abuse, and exploitation.
All the organisations and individuals who gave evidence to committee had a vested interest in putting forward their stance on this issue. Violence against women (VAW) organisations have been active in Glasgow for over 40 years and have wide experience of the impact sexual violence, abuse and exploitation trauma has on the lives of women. Our interest lies in challenging men’s demand for access to women’s bodies, in reducing the impact of trauma already experienced by women and girls, and preventing further trauma from occurring. Those running the SEVs, the performers and the ‘sex work’ organisations have a vested interest in maintaining the current situation and indeed in expanding the number of SEVs where and when demand exists.
SEVs (lap dancing clubs, strip clubs etc) are part of the wider movement towards the acceptance of commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) as ‘real work’ and ‘empowering’, and the legitimising of sexual exploitation through licensing and unionisation. Organisations supporting dancers/performers are raising their voices in support of the sexual exploitation of predominantly women and girls with a ‘sex work is work’ mantra and accusations of being a sex worker exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF) are directed at anyone who dissents.
Far from being empowering and liberating, many women who are involved in the sex industry become extremely traumatised and seek out ways to cope with that trauma. Those living with sexual violence trauma use many, often maladaptive coping strategies, predominantly drugs and alcohol. These strategies help them cope with the abuse they have experienced, or are experiencing and the social, health, wellbeing, psychological, family and economic impact of ongoing and increasing drug and alcohol use can lead women further into exploitation and prostitution. And the vicious cycle continues.
A 2004 study by Gail Gilchrist in Glasgow showed the correlation between involvement in the sex industry and addiction with previous trauma including childhood sexual abuse, with other factors in links to addiction being a history of being looked after or accommodated, experiencing domestic abuse, homelessness and other forms of traumatic abuse experienced whilst growing up. This is a complex issue that is being dressed up in woke-speak for the benefit of those who profit from the exploitation of women’s bodies.
In 2004, Glasgow City Council commissioned the Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit at London Metropolitan University to carry out research on lap dancing . The report was welcomed by the council and the organisations across the city who were supporting survivors of trauma, abuse, and exploitation and those working with women who wanted to exit the sex industry. In the introduction, Councillor Jim Coleman, then deputy leader of the council, wrote, “Make no mistake, this is sheer exploitation of women – sexual and financial.”
The work is precarious and offers no job security or guaranteed income. Performers are self-employed and can be ‘dismissed’ by the club at any time by simply being refused shifts. The nature of the business model for lap dancing clubs is that women have to pay fees to the club to perform, with their earnings coming from the ‘private dances’ requested by the customers. These dances are performed in closed booths. In these highly exploitative working conditions where (as the 2004 study in Glasgow revealed) at times performers outnumber customers, the chances of earning from ‘private dances’ are reduced. This can drive the women’s earnings below the amount owed to the club for their fees, so the chances of women agreeing to ignore the ‘no touch’ policies of the clubs and carry out sexual acts for money increase accordingly.
It was presumed by all agencies working on the VAW agenda in Glasgow that GCC had a clear policy and analysis of sexual exploitation, recognising the harm it does to women and girls and clearly defining it as violence, abuse, and exploitation. Yet the committee produce a policy (albeit in draft form) that is so full of holes that it is useless. The draft policy, should it be adopted as it stands, would only further endorse the ‘sex work is work’ position, to the detriment of women and girls in Glasgow.
Glasgow City Council’s draft policy itself highlights their statutory licensing objectives (under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982) as:
• Preventing public nuisance, crime, and disorder
• Securing public safety
• Protecting children and young people from harm
• Reducing violence against women
Listed like this, as they are in the draft policy, it frames these points as being quite separate. And indeed, they may appear so if your frame of reference completely excludes the safety and wellbeing of women and children.
If you consider ‘Preventing public nuisance, crime, and disorder’ strictly within the parameters of noise creation, disturbing local residents late at night, street fighting or damage to property, then perhaps this could be monitored with adequate presence of stewards at closing time. However, if you consider these requirements within a public safety, and particularly within a women and children’s safety framework, there emerges more sinister and insidious harm that may never be apparent at the front doors of the clubs. Likewise, ‘Securing public safety’ or ‘Protecting children and young people from harm’, and ‘Reducing Violence Against Women’. The longer term, sinister and insidious dangers come from links to pornography and the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies to be bought, paid for, and used at will.
The policy states that CCTV should be installed in private booths, but this will undoubtedly be challenged on grounds of customer confidentiality or women will have to make arrangements for sexual services to be provided outside of the premises (thus further increasing the danger for them).
One of the respondents to the initial consultation commented that businessmen visiting Glasgow would expect to be able to visit lap dancing clubs and it would in some way be a detriment to the city to be unable to offer this ‘service’. Do we really need the dubious reputation of offering women’s bodies as a ‘service’ to men for their sexual satisfaction? What happened to Glasgow policy stance on sexual exploitation? Where has that gone?
In an unpublished survey in 2009, Glasgow and Clyde Rape Crisis found that 20% of the 1,690 women who responded to the questionnaire disclosed that they had been raped by their partner or ex-partner. Women spoke about their partners’ use of pornography and of having to ‘act out’ scenes they had been viewing on porn sites or risk further violence. It is not only women who have these experiences. The popularity of ‘Barely Legal’ pornography and the infantilisation of women, including dressing in school uniforms or as baby girls while dancing or on web cam sites or OnlyFans, highlights the danger to children and young people.
All forms of commercial sexual exploitation impact men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and increase men’s sense of entitlement to women and children’s bodies. In forums across the internet, women speak about their fears of saying ‘no’ to men who proposition them, from asking for a dance to asking for sex. The fear is real. Women report being physically assaulted, spat upon, verbally abused, sexually assaulted and raped because they have tried to exert their bodily autonomy. Almost all forms of commercial sexual exploitation portray women as sexually available, compliant, eager, powerless, eager to be hurt, humiliated, and violated. Those viewing such ‘entertainments’ become desensitised to the abuses and humiliations very quickly and want more, more violence, more humiliation, more compliance.
Why would we assume that men can visit such venues and view the women there as commodities to be purchased, objectified, used, and on leaving have a completely different attitude towards women and children that they live with, are related to, work with, socialise with or encounter daily? Because this objectification of women and girls is not only played out behind the closed doors of these clubs. It is systemic, it is portrayed in advertising, music videos, and on a range of websites from YouTube to Porn Hub.
Indeed, we may believe someone who is respectful of women would never visit such a club in the first place. But they might. There is a lot of peer pressure involved in ‘stag nights’, ‘work nights out’, ‘birthday parties’ and groups of young people who may subscribe to the ‘sex work is work’ mantra could easily find themselves in a lap dancing club. Instead of becoming more mainstream, we should be working towards a zero licensing policy for all SEVs across the city.
‘Sex work’ should not be glamourised nor should it be lauded as empowering or liberating when the sole purpose of it is to commodify women’s bodies for use by men who, because they have ‘bought’ a woman, feel entitled to use and abuse her as they please.
The legitimisation of sexual exploitation must stop, and large statutory bodies have a significant role to play in this. With this draft policy issued by the city’s Licensing and Regulatory Committee, we had the chance to ensure that Glasgow stood up for the rights and safety of women and children.
Please respond to the consultation on the draft policy:
2 Gilchrist, G. ‘Psychiatric Morbidity Among Female Drug Users in Glasgow’ (2004)
3 Bindel J. “Profitable Exploits: Lap Dancing in the UK” (2004); CWASU, London Metropolitan University
4 Survey undertaken in 2009 to mark 20th anniversary of legislation on rape in marriage.