On Tuesday, Sheffield council’s licensing committee voted to renew the licence of the Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing club until next April. Lap-dancing clubs in the UK are legally required to reapply for their licence, and the city’s Spearmint Rhino has been successful in doing so every year since it opened in 2003. But this year, what is usually a routine procedure became a lightning rod for highly charged debates around sex work and feminism.
Over the past 12 months, the Spearmint Rhino has been the target of a coalition of feminist groups who have campaigned against its licence being renewed, on the grounds that strip clubs sexually objectify women and act as a prostitution grooming ground for vulnerable young women.
Last February, the Women’s Equality party and Not Buying It paid men to go into Spearmint Rhinos in London and Sheffield, buy lap dances and film naked women without their consent. This footage was then presented to Sheffield council as proof of multiple breaches of the club’s code of conduct. The council’s licensing committee subsequently launched an inquiry and found that six dancers had sexually touched themselves, each other and/or the customers. But despite these breaches, Sheffield council agreed to renew Spearmint Rhino’s licence.
The tactics employed by the club’s opponents are well established and – unlike in this case – usually successful. Campaigns to revoke the licences of strip clubs on the grounds that they exploit women and attract sexually depraved men are nothing new. One of the earliest campaigns was led by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice which was established in 1873, and targeted burlesque theatres, calling them the “habitats of sex crazed perverts”. Anti-vice activists would sneak into the clubs and report the “disorderly” and “lewd” acts they saw on stage to the licensing committee, demanding the venue’s licence be revoked.
They finally succeeded in their mission in 1942, when the licences of the last three burlesque clubs in Manhattan were revoked.
The tactics employed by the society and groups such as Not Buying It are virtually identical. But what has changed in the intervening 77 years is that the sex workers at the centre of these debates are finally being allowed to speak for themselves. And to the surprise of many feminist groups, it turns out that they do not want saving. Nor do they seem particularly grateful to their would-be saviours for campaigning on their behalf to do them out of a job. In fact, they appear to be downright angry about have-a-go rescue missions that involve secretly filming them naked, then outing them to members of local licensing committees.
She challenges his view of women who sell sex as victims in need of saving by their social betters
There’s nothing new about the rescue dynamic. Sympathy for the plight of the “fallen woman”, and a need to save her, was endemic in Victorian newspapers. Hundreds of charitable organisations were established throughout the 19th century to rescue and reform such women.
The voice of the sex worker is noticeably absent in much of this historical debate, but on the rare occasion it is heard, it frequently offered a very different perspective, as it does today. In a series of letters written to the Times in 1858, an anonymous sex worker, referring to herself as “Another Unfortunate”, challenges the widespread assumption that all sex workers are an “abandoned sisterhood”. The tone of Another Unfortunate is defiant, proud and attacks the paternalistic moralising of the groups who wish to save her. “You railers for the Society for the Suppression of Vice, you the pious, the moral, the respectable, as you call yourselves, who stand on your smooth and pleasant side of the great gulf you have dug and keep between yourselves and the dregs, why don’t you bridge it over, or fill it up, and by some humane and generous process absorb us into your leavened mass, until we become interpenetrated with goodness like yourselves?” she wrote.
The letter caused something of an embarrassment for Charles Dickens who was the patron of Urania Cottage, a home for fallen women. Dickens had not read the article in full and wrote to the newspaper’s editor to ask for the name of the author “with the view of doing good to someone”. Upon reading the article for himself, Dickens quickly retracted his enquiry, explaining that he was “immensely staggered and disconcerted by the latter part of it”.
In this brief exchange of letters, we can see the level of disconnect between sex workers and those who wish to rescue them. Rather than engage with Another Unfortunate’s experience, Dickens distances himself from her because she challenges his view of women who sell sex as victims in need of saving by their social betters. The Victorian press focused less on the genuine experience of the sex worker, and more on the moral agenda of those who wished to save her, and the same applies today. During Sheffield council’s hearing to review the licence of the Spearmint Rhino, Not Buying It was criticised for refusing to meet or talk to any of the dancers who are protesting against the closure of their club. Its chief executive later dismissed the positive testimonies of the women who worked there as indicative of the “stranglehold” Spearmint Rhino has over its employees.
The campaign to close the strip clubs has forced dancers to battle for their jobs, but they are fighting for so much more. They are fighting for the right to work, for bodily autonomy, against slut shaming, and for their rights to be respected, and this is a very old struggle indeed. In 1858, Another Unfortunate challenged the anti-vice groups in very similar terms to those employed by the dancers at the Spearmint Rhino today, when she wrote: “What business has society to point its finger in scorn, and raise its voice in reprobation? … Setting aside ‘the sin’, we are not so bad as we are thought to be.”
• Kate Lister is a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University