As the effort to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace gains steam, California has recently passed two bills that would prevent silencing sexual harassment victims. The bills, currently pending California Governor Jerry Brown’s signature, are both aimed at assisting men and women who seek justice after suffering sexual harassment by their co-workers or employers and protect them from binding confidential settlement agreements. Similar bills are currently circulating around legislatures in 16 states and have already been enshrined in law in Arizona, Maryland, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington. While such pieces of legislation are certainly valuable, it remains unclear whether they pose a big enough deterrent to sexual harassment in the workplace and the silencing of victims.
There is no doubt that both bills constitute positive developments, and will hopefully encourage legislators elsewhere to adopt the same approach when it comes to protecting sexual harassment victims. That being said, it remains unlikely that such legal action is sufficient in combating sexual predators who seek to silence their victims. One issue is that bills adopted on the state level only protect victims within the boundaries of those states (currently a mere fraction of the entire country).
Bills of this type generally protect victims who have made the decision to come forward and hold their aggressors accountable; a step many are hesitant to take in the first place. This directly ties to a broader issue, which is the general failure of the political and justice systems to foster an environment in which sexual harassment is truly discouraged and in which victims feel sufficiently empowered to come forward and seek prosecution. When across the country politicians, legislators, and judges continuously weaken protections for women and members of the LGBTQ community, and place under doubt their right to their bodies and lifestyles, it becomes ingrained in the national psyche that they are, for lack of a better term, ‘fair game’. It therefore seems that serious gaps exist in the U.S. legal system when it comes to protection of sexual harassment victims and their ability to properly pursue their cases.
What, then, could fill in such gaps and provide an extra support to those seeking to come forward? The answer, perhaps not so shockingly, is tech. Numerous technological startups and innovations have been launched in recent years to support victims of sexual harassment, particularly in taking the first, arguably most daunting step, of coming forward. Stopit, which started as an app designated to assist victims of school bullying report their abuse, has now evolved into a tool for people to instantly and anonymously report abuse or harassment. The app currently operates within educational institutions, businesses, and government agencies. Callisto is an online sexual assault reporting platform, which operates across college campuses as well as various business industries. Through Callisto, victims may insert encrypted information regarding their harasser while their name and contact information remains private and confidential. The report is then decrypted by a Castillo Options Counselor (a lawyer), who provides support and practical information regarding the different legal paths victims may take to win justice. The app also provides a “Matching Escrow” service, which alerts the counsellors whenever two or more people were abused by the same individual, consequently helping identify (and hopefully prosecute) serial offenders.
This isn’t to downplay the role of laws and regulations in the fight against sexual harassment. The first bill passed in California, titled AB 3080, is set to outlaw confidential agreements in sexual harassment cases as well as prohibit mandatory arbitration agreements in employment contracts, both of which discourage many victims from pursuing their legal cases. The other bill, SB 820, would ban agreements that prohibit “disclosure of factual information” in sexual assault and discrimination settlements. Among other stipulations, the bill would allow the name of the victim to remain private but require that perpetrators’ names be made public, thus encouraging victims to come forward without fearing the consequential public recognition. According to Senator Connie M. Leyva, one of the bill’s sponsors, “Legislative approval of SB 820 sends a resounding message to victims that we will do all we can to make sure that their perpetrators are held accountable for their reprehensible actions.”
The introduction of these bills shows that the legal system is waking up to its duty by providing better protection for victims of sexual harassment. In the same breath, the flaws and limitations of the justice system in preventing such abuses and prosecuting perpetrators should be acknowledged, and technological advancements ought to be adopted to complement the legal tools available to victims.
Amid growing restrictions of women’s rights policies in Western democracies, moves made by ‘women’s rights’ organisations to shut down strip and lap dancing clubs around the U.K. are exposing the dangers of allowing exclusionary campaigns to influence local government policy. Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEV) licensing legislation differs throughout the U.K., but many local authorities are pressured by anti-stripping campaigns (under the general title of SWEFT, sex worker exclusionary radical feminism) to give way to the Nordic Model.
This model, some feminists argue, protects women from violence and poverty by criminalising those purchasing sex, rather than sex workers, and banning strip clubs allegedly increasing demand for this. Yet, in Ireland, the introduction of Nordic-style legislation with the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 has since seen increased crime and abuse reported by users of sex worker safety app, UglyMugs.ie, and the recent criminalisation of two vulnerable migrant female sex workers in Kildare, who were sentenced to nine months in prison. Many are quick to report on such matters as the latest schism in modern feminist thought, with an unbridled scepticism reserved for strippers’ views and lived experiences.
Comparatively few, however, seem as concerned with the hypocritical ethos of influential anti-sex work campaigners, as their refusal to engage with or ever set foot inside their workplaces compounds a willingness to overlook the autonomy and safety of dancers. One such group, Not Buying It, was revealed to have paid for male private investigators to enter Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino and film dancers working semi or fully nude without their knowledge earlier this year. Apparently left with “no choice” but to resort to “drastic measures” to get the club’s SEV license revoked, Not Buying It, with Women’s Equality Party (WEP) Sheffield branch leader, Charlotte Mead, presented this to Sheffield City Council as evidence that a Nordic style ‘nil-cap’ policy on SEVs be should enforced.
Although the WEP has since declared it was not part of the sting, it nevertheless teamed up with the campaign to present footage drawing parallels to revenge porn as a misogynistic method used to intimidate, harass, and manipulate women. The argument that such tactics have any place in a feminist struggle against patriarchal oppression is an undoubtedly alarming one. A feminist trade-union representing sex workers alongside migrant, low-paid, and vulnerable workers, United Voices of the World, attested to this in its statement aligning the ‘harmful’ actions to the WEP’s “misguided campaign to abolish strip clubs for the imagined benefit of the women involved”.
Teela Sanders, Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester and researcher on stripping and sex work, asserts that “other feminists doing this to women […] is as damaging as the misogynist policies found in other labour environments that the women’s movement has been working so hard against”. In turn, Sanders locates the “harmful speech, influence and actions by so-called women’s organisations” as reflecting a wider trend: “We see across the globe the stripping back of rights for women, most recently in the abortion laws in the U.S. What we see in the U.K. is feminist organisations attacking other women for the work they choose, under a range of circumstances and real-life options, to make a living from”.
Those campaigning for strip and lap dancing club closures insist strippers are treated solely as ‘sex objects’, that the choice of women to work in SEVs is mere ‘myth’ or illusion, and that these women are either victims or in denial of their circumstance. This “cowardly” approach, declares Sanders, whereby “sex workers, marginalised, stigmatised and sometimes vulnerable, are denied platforms to rebut claims of victimhood which many do not recognise as their experience”.
In Scotland, where the government considers stripping and lap dancing forms of ‘commercial sexual exploitation’, calls for a Scottish Model that criminalises sex work clients could gain greater influence over local legislation. In response to Glasgow City Council’s current consultation on SEV licensing, GMB Scotland deemed the process an “opportunity” for female strippers and sex workers to be heard by “a political establishment that, so far, has tried to exclude them from the conversation”. GMB Scotland Organiser, Rhea Wolfson, stresses that “the council must realise what is at stake here: hundreds of jobs in Glasgow could potentially be lost. The real consequences of ending club licences would be that workers no longer have access to their trade union and the industry would continue unregulated and underground”.
The refusal to listen to, engage with, or empower the legitimate concerns of strippers and lap dancers exposes the inherent hypocrisy, harm, and hierarchical control of anti-sex work campaigners. As the United Voices of the World (UVW) Union emphasises that “dancers are best placed to advocate for their own rights and safety at work” and GMB Scotland supports “the regulation of clubs with workers’ safety at the core of any regulatory scheme”, better ways to protect strippers are clearly to listen, respect, and support their own, self-led campaigns for workplace equality.
Indeed, often lost in a surge of dogmatic, sensationalised stances on the morality of sex work are solid suggestions as to how regulation could safeguard strippers from the precarity of working as self-employed while sometimes being expected to pay steep house fees to perform at their club of choice. Banning clubs completely limits any opportunity for the decriminalisation of sex work to be guided by strippers and their unions, shaped by experience, and vested in the interest of protecting dancers’ employment rights, job security, and safety above all else.