Exotic dancers in Bristol are celebrating today after the council voted down a motion to ban strip clubs and other sex entertainment venues (SEVs) in the city.
A consortium of women’s rights organisations and community groups have been campaigning for Bristol to follow in the footsteps of Edinburgh and impose a blanket ban.
Bristol currently has a cap of three strip clubs in the city centre, although currently it has only two – Urban Tiger and Central Chambers.
Emotions were running high at a meeting of the council’s licensing committee on Thursday, where dozens of people on both sides of the debate put forward their views.
Tuesday’s vote was the culmination of a review stretching back three years, and two public consultations – one in 2019 and one in 2021 – that received more than 17,000 submissions between them.
WE DID IT!!! After a two year slog of campaigning against people with far more institutional power and privilege than a group of sex workers, we beat the nil-cap with a vote of 9-1. We are screaming, crying, throwing up with joy rn.
— Bristol Sex Workers Collective (@BristolSWC) July 28, 2022
Katy Taylor, a director at Bristol Women’s voice, argued that strip clubs and similar venues act as a “gateway into further areas of the sex industry, including prostitution”.
She said they can also be a gateway for men to buy sex, adding: “Research shows that men who buy sex are more likely to hold negative attitudes towards women and to perpetrate sexual and domestic violence.”
A representative of a trust set up in memory of Hollie Gazzard, a hairdresser who was stabbed to death by her ex-partner while she was working in 2014, said strip clubs promote “sexist attitudes that can lead to tragic results”.
Elsewhere human resources specialist Clare Meraz called for dancers to be helped into other industries, branding sex work as exploitative and insecure.
“There are a wide range of employment vacancies across the city, including council roles which tend to offer a secure range of benefits, including areas in which women are currently underrepresented,” she said.
But one dancer said she had taken up work in a strip club when she was unable to make ends meet as a circus performer.
“Stripping has allowed me to have a flexible enough schedule to pursue my dream career while simultaneously enabling me to live a comfortable life – not living in constant stress due to living from paycheck to paycheck,” she said.
Another performer, who gave her name only as Scarlett, said she suffered from chronic pain and fatigue, but stripping had given her a future.
“I have never seen a future for myself that didn’t end in poverty, hospitalisation or suicide, because I never thought I would be able to survive in a world designed for neurotypical, mentally well, able bodied people,” she said.
“Working in strip clubs has made me realise I do have the means to survive, and not only just survive, but provide myself stability and opportunities for the future.”
We are disappointed by the Council’s decision today to continue licencing SEVs. We will continue to raise our voice to help end all forms of male violence and harassment of women and girls.
— Bristol Women’s Voice (@BWV2) July 28, 2022
Ultimately, the council’s licencing committee voted nine to one to maintain the current cap of three licenced SEVs.
Various councillors remarked that it was better for dancers to have well-regulated licenced venues rather than forcing strip clubs underground.
Several also noted that there is little empirical evidence linking sex entertainment venues to violence against women and girls.
Green party councillor Guy Poultney received a round of applause when he accused women’s rights groups of arguing “we should discount the voices of some women in order to empower them and to restrict their choices in the name of equality and take away their jobs for their own good”.
He added they were acting “as if some women can’t be trusted to make choices for themselves”.
There was a loud cheer after the motion to maintain the current limit was passed, with several dancers in the public gallery bursting into tears of relief.
Following the vote, the Bristol Sex Worker’s Collective said in a statement its members were “screaming, crying, throwing up with joy”.
“Our members have been organising against this despite precarious working conditions, COVID-19 poverty, and a hostile system that set us up to fail,” the group said.
“It should never be this difficult for a group of workers to defend our right to safe working conditions.”
It added: “The dancers have been put through an incredible amount of stress over the last two years, not only having to defend their work rights but their humanity.
“They have had to listen while they were blamed for gendered violence. Their experiences dismissed as sex industry lobbying.
“We hope going forward Bristol Council take this into consideration, and collaborate with the workers to create an SEVs licensing policy that supports their rights, instead of hindering them. Up the f****** workers.”
Bristol Women’s Voice tweeted: “We are disappointed by the Council’s decision today to continue licencing SEVs.
“We will continue to raise our voice to help end all forms of male violence and harassment of women and girls.”
Bristol Women’s Collective said: “SEVs promote and profit from the sexist culture that underpins male violence. We cannot tackle male violence without addressing this culture.
“Today’s decision gives Bristol’s two strip clubs the green light to exploit the cost-of-living crisis and recruit more young women into the sex industry, and to open the door to sex buying to future generations of young men.”