The York Feminist Network have compiled a petition to shut down York’s Strip club ‘Upstairs’ on the basis that is a detriment to women through exploitation. Helena Horton believes that this is one step too far for The York Feminist Network.
The sex industry undoubtedly has many exploitative qualities: It’s not a good thing to have women being forced into sex work and financially dependent on a job that (some of them) feel degraded doing. However, trying to get the license from a strip club removed, where many women earn the money to pay for their rent, their studies and their food, is not the way to go about ‘liberating’ these women.
It’s patronising, for someone to say to the workers that what they are doing is feeding the patriarchy and the male gaze, and that it is degrading and debasing or ‘selling’ their bodies. They are not selling their bodies – they are selling a skill. If they are selling their bodies, then so are the plumbers who use their bodies to fix your leaky tap or perhaps even your dentist or doctor who use their hands to fix you when you are sick.
More importantly, if the aim is to help these women ‘escape’ from the admittedly exploitative trade, surely the first thing to do would be to work with sex work charities and women’s shelters to make sure that the conditions in which they were working were reasonable and that no woman was being forced unnecessarily into it. If we wanted to help these women, we could make sure that there were alternative jobs that they could take if they wanted to leave the sex industry, run workshops to help with CVs and interviews for those who wanted to leave it and give them support with all the hoops they’d have to jump through to get JSA if they couldn’t find a job straight away.
Another perhaps radical idea would be to go to the people who work in ‘Upstairs’ and ask them how they feel about where they work and their job; instead of sitting behind a computer screen and sending angry letters to the council about how outrageous it is that these women are dancing for money. I actually know a dancer from the club pretty well, she’s from York University, and she loves her job. She finds it empowering and fun and it pays bloody well, enough for her to fit around her studies and not have to worry about money all term. She can make £300 in a night. She also argued that perhaps that it is people like herself who are exploiting men by harmlessly using her womanly allure to get hundreds of pounds off the patrons without even having to touch them.
I asked the women who want to get the license of Upstairs removed, and whether they had spoken to any of these ‘oppressed’ women before deciding to remove the way they put food on their, and for some their children’s, plates: I was met with a resounding silence.
It’s all very well having all of these political theories, but you can’t put them into practice without checking the practicalities first. You can’t just assume that all of these women feel oppressed without asking them. These are real people, whose employment and, indeed, lives are being toyed with, without even considering whether these actions will be harmful.
And real harm could come to these women. Driving the sex industry underground and out of the city centre to seedy bars in more desolate areas can only make it more likely for these women to be harmed, and perhaps ‘oppressed’. It has been asked why these women can’t get other jobs. Well, as one of my sex worker friends said – it’s very difficult to get employment when you have a massive, unexplained gap on your CV and it would probably be a bit awkward in a job interview to say “I was a stripper for that amount of time.” Regardless of this, if people want to do a certain job, they should be allowed to and we shouldn’t be making it dangerous and difficult for them to do so.
In my opinion, this petition – which I am not going to link as I don’t want to drive any support at all to it – is ill thought out, and ignorant. The York Feminist Network haven’t listened to the views of the people who they are claiming to support and are trying to force women into unemployment without giving them any help after they are ‘freed’ from this very well-paid ‘oppression’. It doesn’t sound very much like helping and liberating women to me.