By Jean Lane, Unison activist in Tower Hamlets (pc)
A public meeting was hosted in Tower Hamlets on 11th October by CAPE – the Campaign Against People Exploitation. It was billed as a balanced debate about whether Tower Hamlets council should have a policy of “nil sex establishments” in the Borough. It was nothing of the sort.
I went to the meeting having not entirely worked out what I think about lap dancing clubs. Sympathetic to the concerns of local residents about noise and anti-social behaviour in and around their estates, the idea of women having a job for which the sole function is the sexual arousal or gratification of men also makes me feel uncomfortable.
At the same time, however, I live in Whitechapel. Street prostitution has been a reality here for many decades. The lives of the women on the street are brutal. It is not caused by lap dancing clubs, a relatively new phenomenon to the area. Does the existence of sex clubs represent a driving of more women into sexual exploitation? Or does it provide a haven where women can at least organise and acquire some safety in their lives? I was looking forward to hearing, with a fairly open mind, both sides of the debate.
The arguments in favour of a total ban ranged from “lap dancing does not enhance the power of women” as stated by Bea Campbell journalist and 1970s Stalinist, to “it’s disgusting!” from Ruhan Ali of TELCO (The East London Communities Organisation, often mistakenly but understandably called the east london CHURCHES organisation).
However much the supposedly intellectual speakers attempted to use the language of ‘empowerment’ and ‘emancipation’ of women, it all boiled down to this: lap dancing clubs cause an increase in rape statistics, drug taking, alcoholism, debt, prostitution, the breakdown of the family, the sexual exploitation of children, the loosening of the moral fibre of our menfolk and the loss of dignity of our women. All of which rather begs the question; would all these ills disappear if lap dance clubs were closed down?
One speaker, Dilwara Begum, billed as ‘a writer’, spoke vehemently about the evils of lust, proclaimed that “the boys and girls of England are not for sale!” and begged us to look to China where all such clubs are banned! Are women not prostituted in China then? Is the moral fortitude of Chinese men intact? Another, Safia Jama, of the Somali Integration Team, demanded to know, “how can we allow women to take off their clothes?”
The heavy moralism towards the end of the long list of platform speakers was overwhelming, punctuated by incisive statements from Respect, the organisers of CAPE, “we do not want these clubs next to our schools and places of worship”, the Labour Party, “lap dancing causes the sexual exploitation of children”, the SWP, “what kind of world do we live in?” going on to bemoan the fact that human sexuality is distorted and unfree. This is true. I suspect, however, that the desire to close down lap dancing clubs has more to do with the comrade’s desire to be part of a campaign than to unshackle the chains from around the sexual desires of the working classes. Still at least she did not mention the war.
What was very clear was that most of the speakers in the room were actually against sex, and in particular, sex carried out by women. I had mistakenly wandered into an 1830 meeting of the British Temperance Society.
There were two interventions from the other side. Kirsten Neil, former stripper of the Nags Head, considered herself a performer, well paid and better treated than when she worked as a PA in the city. “If anyone treated me badly I could call security and get them thrown out. I wish I could have done that in my office job”. A male sex worker and GMB organiser attempted to speak out about the need to unionise sex workers rather than criminalise them, but was closed down by the chair, Cllr Rania Khan (Independent, ex-Respect) insisting that he ask a question, though no-one else did. Only one speaker from the floor raised the problem of giving governments, local or otherwise, the power to ban things.
I came away from the meeting knowing very well that I was not with the moralists. But I was not entirely happy with the other side either. I cannot believe that all women sex workers are well paid, secure and happy in their work, or that trafficking and coercion do not go on. I also do not go along with the idea that women are raped in supermarket car parks and women are exploited in the office, so what’s the difference? For sure if Tower Hamlets council are concerned about the sexual exploitation of women they would do better to tackle domestic violence. But they can do that and tackle the clubs.
The question is how? Drive them underground and push more women onto the streets of Whitechapel? Or control them through licensing and get the unions in to organise the workers?
The consultation is going on in Tower Hamlets not long after attempts by a radical minority within the muslim community to ban the Gay Pride march and to prevent sex education in local schools. Respect and the SWP have nothing to say about that but champion the shutting down of sex clubs in a way that locks them in with these ultra-right wing elements.
The church, the mosque, the independents, the Labour Party, Respect and the SWP all pronounced themselves on the side of the ban in the interests of either family values or women’s rights.
The council, the great defender of women’s rights, as shown by the cuts they have made in Children’s services, Sure Start, social services and youth clubs, will be given a mandate to shut them down. Domestic violence, street prostituion, drug and alcohol abuse will continue to rise as the cuts take away people’s lifelines. And lap dancing clubs will move to the next Borough over, but we don’t care about them do we?