Iceland’s Strip Club Ban: Maternalism in Action

by | March 28, 2010
filed under Feminism, Politics

by E. Cain

The government in Iceland recently passed a law making it illegal for any businesses to profit from the nudity of employees. This law will effectively lead to the closing down of the sex industry in the country.

The response to this law within Iceland, as well as internationally has been extremely positive. Iceland is being hailed as the most feminist and ‘female friendly’ country on the planet.

Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland\’s Prime Minister

I strongly disagree. The assumption made with this law is that women (both the strippers and those in the general society) will be both better off and protected from harm in the absence of a sex industry. This bill just reeks of maternalism – I use this term instead of paternalism because women dominate the government in Iceland. The Prime Minister is female and almost 50% of the seats in government are held by women.

Can some tell me what happened to free choice? Are we denying that there are women who voluntarily enter the sex industry? For many women stripping is a form of livelihood and a means to expand options and life choices. So, with this ban, what happens to these women? What are their options? In all this talk about women and feminism – no one seems to be addressing these questions.

Miley Cyrus uses a stripper pole as a prop

It is no secret that sex workers are stigmatized worldwide. They are viewed as the ‘worst of the worst’ and this is not justified. Sex work is not the only profession where women use their bodies to make money – look at models or popular music entertainers. Is there going to be a ban for these industries as well? In addition, while there is no doubt that the sex industry can be dangerous, I believe this argument is better used in support of increased monitoring, regulation and protection in the industry – not in favour of a ban.

Quite frankly, I have a hard time viewing this government action which denies women agency and destroys an important livelihood as feminist or female friendly.

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  • Rebecca

    I have to disagree with you– I think you are overlooking something very important. The women working in these strip clubs in Iceland aren’t Icelandic- they’re imported. They’re desperate. And very few (if any!) are expanding their life options.

    I think you need to give an argument for how the sex industry gives women agency or is empowering. Yes, there are a handful of women who chose to be there. But most do it as a last resort: for most women it isn’t a choice.

    Furthermore, my understanding of the wording of the law is that it leaves open the possibility of forming cooperatives. So those who are empowered and want to work in the sex industry can work for themselves.

    The sex industry is complicated and full of problems that really are bad for women. Iceland’s new law is a groundbreaking attempt to remedy a problematic situation. It may not work, it may have unforeseen consequences, it may need to be modified in the future, but I think it’s too soon to write it off as maternalism and am interested in seeing what happens.

  • E. Cain

    Your point about foreign women working in the sex industry is well taken.
    But I still dont think its right to generalize about all women (foreign or not) engaged in sex work. I came across an interesting article. It is about the cultural myths surrounding migration in the sex industry. The thesis is that these myths are made so that the state can regulate female sexuality. Whether or not you agree, its an interesting read.

    In an ideal world, I agree that most women would probably not choose to be strippers. But when I talk about free choice and women voluntarily entering the sex industy, what I mean is that for many women who dont have a lot of skills, the sex industry is necessary for them to earn a decent amount of money towards building a better life and having opportunties. Yes, there are problems in the industry – just as there are problems in the music industry and with modeling – but my point is that the answer isnt just to eliminate the industry. Because what happens to the women who work in the industry? What is the government going to do for these women (most of them who dont have a lot of skills) to ensure that they continue to make the same amount of money? Maybe in the long run it will be better for these women and for the greater society – but in the here and now when people are trying to feed families and survive, this doesnt seem like the right answer to me. It is also interesting that none of the news reports I saw dealt with this question.

    What you mentioned about cooperatives is intersting – I havent seen anything written on this.
    It seems like a fair compromise. But I thought the whole point of the bill was that businesses couldnt profit on nudity.

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  • thesuperfreaks

    Keep your laws off my body! This is not feminism it is Lutheranism, puritanism and classism. Restricting women’s employment options never benefits women. If these women really cared about the status of women they’d be fighting to allow females to serve as ministers in the Lutheran Church of Iceland or for more women in high banking positions. No. This lame attempt to castrate their husbands will send their men underground to escort services and massage parlors. I am a freedom lovi g American who has chosen to strip for a living. I have had a great time and made a decent living doing so. I am proud of my beautiful feminine body. Peace!

  • I think feminism is about choice and removing that choice isn’t what the goal is. Some women enjoy stripping and they’ll have to work elsewhere.