Comment Editor Freya Wainstein considers the contentious feminist debate surrounding strip clubs, arguing that whilst for now the priority should be protecting the right of strippers, the existence of strip clubs cannot help but perpetuate harmful ideas about women

Written by Freya Wainstein
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Images by Korng Sok

For the modern feminist, an undeniably contentious and complex debate surrounds strip clubs. Buzzwords such as ‘empowering’ and ‘degrading’ seem to be thrown around, with a lack of consensus on which is the more appropriate description. On the one hand, there are feminists who advocate a right to choose stripping as a profession as an exercise of autonomy over one’s body and understandably many strippers resent others claiming their victimhood. On the contrary, feminists like myself are concerned with the potentially exploitative environment sex work and the objectification of women that strip clubs undeniably perpetuate. Whilst I recognise the value of a female right to choose, I cannot help but see strip clubs as a space which legitimises the idea that female bodies are vehicles for male enjoyment.

These sorts of concerns are why, in 2010, Iceland placed a ban on strip clubs. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the country’s first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian head of state, introduced a law making any commodification of nudity illegal, thus implicating the closure of strip clubs. This move was hailed as a feminist decision, and one which would hopefully be a catalyst for changing attitudes towards women: ‘I guess the men of Iceland will just have to get used to the idea that women are not for sale’, said one Icelandic politician. The ban was not a particularly controversial move either, as a 2007 poll revealed that less than 10% of Icelanders were opposed to the criminalisation of paying for sex in brothels or strip clubs. Seemingly, there is more consensus between Icelandic feminists than there is in the UK, where the choice-feminism argument stands strong against the position that stripping is exploitative and degrading.

The women of the East London Stripper Collective are particularly vocal about their right to choose the profession, with one member arguing that feminists who label strippers as victims are no more objectifying than the men who attend strip clubs. According to another, ‘all the dancers I’ve ever met over the 20 years I danced for are self-possessed, independent and took a logical choice’. So, the victimhood of strippers can and has been contested, and the idea that under-privileged and desperate women are the majority of those who find themselves in the profession is arguably nothing more than a common misconception. In reality, a third of strippers are students supporting their education and a quarter are university graduates. Perhaps, then, concerns that strip clubs are a vehicle for exploitation are misguided.

If you are going to be seen as a sexual object anyway, why not get paid for it?

What’s more, many reasonably argue that at its core, feminism should make granting women choices and self-determination over their bodies a priority. As strip clubs are an opportunity for women to do just this, banning them runs contrary to the movement. One stripper objects that ‘if I have the confidence and the courage to use my body, then why should anybody have the right to take that choice away from me?’ Some may also go further, arguing strippers are actually working to challenge the way that dominant sexual norms have kept women from owning their own sexuality and exercising autonomy over their bodies. On top of this, I can recognise an incredibly empowering irony behind women choosing to profit from the fact that many men will pay money to objectify their bodies. Indeed, if you are going to be seen as a sexual object anyway, why not get paid for it?

However, social change cannot only be concerned with the individual, and I think this is where a feminist argument against strip clubs is well-founded. The problem is not the choice of individual strippers, but rather what the legality of strip clubs expresses to society at large. Strip clubs are an environment in which men are able to legitimately reduce women entirely to their bodies and partake in flagrant sexual objectification. That establishments which invite this kind of behaviour exist is of course troubling in itself, but perhaps more problematic is what their existence communicates. The legality of strip clubs undeniably perpetuate, if not promote, the idea that the female body exists only for the pleasure of men and that women’s value lies primarily in their looks. Further to this, since money is involved, another dangerous message is clear: female bodies are for sale. So, even if strip clubs are not harming individual women, or are even benefiting them, the problem is what strip clubs are doing for the wider female population and feminist movement at large. 

Strip clubs are an environment in which men are able to legitimately reduce women entirely to their bodies and partake in flagrant sexual objectification

Whilst some might doubt the difference the existence of strip clubs actually makes to how our society view’s women – noting them as a symptom rather than a cause – statistics taken after four strip clubs opened in the London borough of Camden paint a stark picture. In the area surrounding the strip clubs, instances of sexual assault went up 57% and rape 50%. This is not altogether surprising: to commodify female bodies, reducing them to nothing more than an object for entertainment inevitably legitimises harmful attitudes toward women. Whilst on an individual level feminists are plausibly resistant to deny women full autonomy over their bodies, we must remind ourselves of the influence of their choice on how we see women in society more broadly.

In any case, I am sceptical about stripping as an empowering practice for the individual. Whilst it is true that many strippers report finding the experience of stripping as liberating and powerful, and I do not wish to undermine their testimony, I wonder why is it that women are ‘sexually liberated’ in the exact format that men have objectified them. Kimberly Nicole Foster rightly questions why ‘so many of the images that we elevate as being the epitome of empowering look exactly like images that come out of the male imagination. We have reclaimed these things without questioning them.’ In other words, it seems suspicious to me that the way in which women have been taught to feel empowered looks exactly the same as the highly sexualised ideal that has historically been for men. Besides, in the context of stripping, women cannot help but pander to male interest since it is the men paying their wage. It seems it is the men who hold the power in this context, then. Indeed, one former stripper told The Guardian, ‘the men just see you as an object, not a person, and whether you are equally engaged in their desire is irrelevant… the game is set up, so [that] all the power is with the customer.’

I wonder why is it that women are ‘sexually liberated’ in the exact format that men have objectified them

Similarly, I am unsure whether women have been conditioned to view stripping as a choice, in some cases forgetting that this is choice burdened by its existence within a patriarchal structure. Yes, women can choose to earn money from stripping, but it is our sexist society in which the objectification of women is commonplace which has crafted that choice. If women were not seen as sexual objects who exist for male pleasure, would the choice to strip for money still exist? Perhaps it might, but I cannot help but be doubtful. 

Moreover, the unfortunate reality of stripping in the UK today is that it is often unsafe and exploitative. Admittedly, the fault lies largely with newer licensing laws, such as the 2009 Policing and Crime Act, which meant many clubs were forced to close, hence leaving a surplus of strippers with less job opportunities. In turn, this has meant worse working conditions for strippers, including more restrictions on when they are allowed to approach customers, stricter dress codes and higher fees to perform – often between £60 and £80 for the night – making it more likely that strippers will lose money rather than turning a profit. Hence, even ignoring the inevitable perpetuation of the idea that objectification of women is acceptable, it is not as if the choice of stripping is a particularly secure or expedient one either.

Yet, the result of criminalisation will likely be worse. Unlike Iceland, where a small population of 320,000 makes a thriving secret industry implausible, the same is not true in the UK. A ban on strip clubs will likely drive them underground, meaning the limited protection that exists for strippers disappears and exploitation becomes more likely. This alone leads me to hold that as it stands, we should not criminalise but rather regulate strip clubs. Ultimately feminism is about protecting and empowering women, and in our current – admittedly bleak – reality, this seems to entail ensuring rights for women who choose to pursue stripping. For example, the United Sex Workers aim to establish ‘worker’ status for strippers, ensuring them rights such as sick pay, a guaranteed basic wage and the right to be represented by a trade union.

This being said, I disagree that keeping strip clubs open, only with tighter regulations and legal protections, would be the feminist victory that some proclaim. Although I do not doubt that stripping can be empowering for the individual, the reality is that we live in a society that already sees women as sexual objects for male pleasure and strip clubs cannot help but perpetuate these harmful and degrading norms. We must ask ourselves, then, if there would still be a place for strip clubs in a society that lacked wider problems concerning the sexual objectification of women, and if not, whether we want them to exist in ours? 

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