by Jasmine Peterson
A class of Social Justice 12 students at Charles Best Secondary in Coquitlam have, as a final project for their class, taken it upon themselves to confront a social issue in their area – they are petitioning for the closure of the Paramount strip club in New Westminster. I think it’s admirable that these students are engaged and moved to action, but I think that these students have not been given a fully nuanced picture of the issue.
I really must emphasize my appreciation that youth are actively seeking to make changes in their communities. Engagement with social and political issues in adolescents is a wonderful thing. I appreciate that their teacher has inspired them to think critically about social issues and is providing them with the skills and knowledge to actively address the things in the world around them that they are passionate about.
However, while I think they are coming from a genuinely concerned place, these students’ efforts seem to me to be somewhat misguided. One of the students, Ryan Leppert, stated:
“Men can go in there and treat women as objects and it isn’t fair to them. We don’t believe it is [their choice], we believe it is a desperate attempt to get money or a lot of them have been forced into it.”
And this is true. For some women, many women even, economic position forces them into vocations they might not otherwise choose. But at the same time there are many women who choose to dance or strip with a level of agency. Any vocation can be something that a person is forced into out of economic desperation (I know I don’t continue working at a call centre for my love of being yelled at, called names, and hung up on), so the conversation is much more nuanced than whether or not women are dancing for the financial benefit.
I have known women who genuinely love dancing or stripping, and that needs to be part of the conversation, as well. There is a general perception of all forms of sex work as being experienced negatively or as inherently degrading to women, but this doesn’t allow for the fact that there are women who engage in these vocations because they are sexually empowered, sex positive, or genuinely enjoy the experience.
But more concerning to me is that, while these students recognize and acknowledge that sometimes it is economic disadvantage that forces women into such positions, what would happen to these women if their place of work is closed down? Would this not leave them more financially desperate than before? And then where will they turn? It seems remiss to me to consider only the sexual objectification of women and not their lived circumstances. Again, I truly admire and appreciate these students’ desire to engage actively within their community; it is inspiring to me to see youth wanting to create change for a more socially just world. While it might be a much larger task than an end of term project could encompass, it makes greater sense to address the social issues that lead to dancing out of necessity – like the wage gap, inequality, and the pervasive objectification of women at the cultural level.
The owner of the nightclub was blindsided by this petition to shut down his club. It’s rather concerning to think that a conversation was not facilitated between the students and the nightclub owner and workers before proceeding with a petition. It is great to teach students to be socially engaged, but critical thought requires examining multiple angles of an issue, and listening to the opposing views of others.
The nightclub owner, Steven Mountford, who was upset that he wasn’t first contacted by the Social Justice 12 students noted that “the students are going after regular people who have mortgages, car payments, and child care costs to meet, and they’re all concerned for their jobs”:
“I don’t know what the agenda the school teacher has,” said Mountford. “That’s an injustice to teach children not to explore options and talk to people.”
I applaud the students for their effort and I am glad that high schools are offering courses that teach students not only to think about the social and cultural issues but to actively engage with their communities and the world. However, it is important to teach balance and effective critical thought. It’s common to approach sexual objectification as inherently bad. And certainly the effects of pervasive sexual objectification can be profoundly negative, but at least for some women who opt to work in this industry, the individual effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The disadvantaged economic position of women is a real and serious issue. Pervasive objectification is a serious issue. These are things that need to be addressed, but we need also to recognize individual choice and sexual and personal agency when discussing and acting on these issues.
(photo by Scalpel3000 via Flickr)
About the author
Jasmine is currently a graduate student in Clinical Psychology at Lakehead University (Ontario), and a feminist activist.