Social Justice and Strip Clubs: Are They Really Mutually Exclusive?

by | January 28, 2013
filed under Can-Con, Feminism

3965386394_11438bb510by 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)

, , , , ,

  • Patti K

    You are totally right jasmine. I think an even better lesson would be to get the students to think about this issue like they have, and then confront them with some of the realities about women and sex work, and see if their perspectives changed.

    • Jasmine

      Yes! I think that’s an important piece – because so many people disdain sex work and women in the sex work industry, but have no idea about the contexts in which these women live.

  • FA

    I think you’re right that these students are misguided, but this phrasing really, really troubles me:

    “this doesn’t allow for the fact that there are women who engage in these vocations because they are sexually empowered, sex positive…”

    We all have different feelings, ideas and boundaries around sex and suggesting that a woman could choose to do sex work because she is “sex-positive” or “sexually empowered”, conflates sex and sex work. There are certainly sex workers who enjoy and feel empowered by their jobs, but plenty of other people like sex, are happy with their sex lives, feel “sexually empowered”, but would be (or have been) deeply unhappy doing some or all forms of sex work, and so don’t do it. Implying that people are sex-negative or sexually disempowered because they don’t want to do a given sexual practice is, well, disempowering.

    I don’t think you really meant to suggest that any woman who really likes sex will want to strip or do sex acts for money, but this language is so loaded and has been used for so many ugly purposes that I think it’s important to take care what we say.

    • Jasmine

      Interesting point. I’m certainly not saying that someone who doesn’t do sex work is not sexually empowered. Simply that these choices can be made within that framework (as it is so often framed that sex work is somehow not a legitimate choice for some women).

  • I really like how well through through & well written your article on this was. I would like to republish it on my blog and link back to this site. What other topics do you like to write about? Would you be interested in becoming a contributor to my blog?

  • Marie Close

    I have so many questions about why anyone would seriously support gender inequality. I think support for the sex industry in general is completely misplaced. Could it be that the sex industry, including strip clubs, actually reinforces anti-woman gender inequality just by existing? In the case of strip clubs, men are fully clothed, paying women to remove clothing and sexually stimulate them visually and/or physically. Why do only the men keep themselves clothed during a lap dance? The poverty factor that people use to justify why a woman would turn to stripping/prostituting is interesting, since very few men go into sex work as a means of avoiding poverty compared to women. Is sex work really a viable solution to female poverty? Why are there so many opportunities for women to enter the sex industry and not men? Could it be because the sex industry caters specifically to a culture that sees women as inferior and subordinate to men and their socially constructed desires? A man does not need to remove his clothes and turn himself into an object of another person’s lust to earn a living wage, but a woman does? Seeing as the industry is dominated by the objectification and disposability of women, regardless if these women are freely choosing to be involved in it or not? When one woman (even by choice) chooses to exploit her sexuality and trade use of her body for money, or when she justifies the existence of the sex industry, is she not proclaiming the message that under certain circumstances, any woman’s body can be acceptably used as a commodity or tool solely for male pleasure, as long as they are paying her? Additionally, in a society that values gender equality, where men do not assume rights to a woman’s body because he is compensating her, where would strip clubs and prostitution fit in? And why is there more security at a strip climb than at a bank? Because of female sexual “empowerment” and “sex-positive” undertones?

  • Angela

    This article raises more questions than it answers. Like these:
    Why is sex work so much more available to women as a resource to overcome poverty?
    Why don’t men enter sex work in the same numbers that women do?
    Why are men the primary consumers of sexual commerce?
    Does supporting strip club culture reinforce the idea that under certain circumstances (like avoiding poverty) any woman can be for sale?
    If strip clubs are “sex-positive” and so empowering for women, why do they have more security and precautions than any other type of service job to protect the strippers from the customers?