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.
Last week, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), the international trade show for consumer tech and innovation made headlines not only for the futuristic gadgets it showcased but for possibly facing allegations of gender-bias after it had banned a female sex toy from exhibiting in the show, even though the toy in question had won an ‘honouree’ award for its breakthrough design and innovation.
The smoothly curved grey Osé “is the only product designed for hands-free blended orgasms.” Describes the female-led company Lora Dicarlo, founded by Lora Haddock in 2017 with the mission of launching new physiologically appropriate women’s health and wellness products. In the product description, Lora Dicarlo boasts the intricate engineering work behind the toy, which uses what it refers to as advanced micro-robotics that “mimics all of the sensations of a human mouth, tongue, and fingers, for an experience that feels just like a real partner.”
A month after the announcement of Osé’s award in the Robotics and Drone category it was withdrawn by the CES’ organiser, the Consumer Technology Associates (CTA), claiming that it was selected by mistake, adding that the device was ‘immoral’, ‘obscene’ and simply does not fit within the specific category or, in fact, in any other categories of the trade show. In response, Haddock published an open letter on Lora Dicarlo’s website where she writes that “Two robotic vacuum cleaners, one robotic skateboard, four children’s toys, one shopping companion robot – looks like all of women’s interests are covered, right?”
Now it’s crucial to note that what the CTA regards as immoral and obscene isn’t at all sex-oriented tech, but female-oriented sex tech. Just last year, CES made headlines when it showcased Abyss Creations’ debut of its second RealDoll AI-sex doll called Harmony. Equipped with a shimmering blonde wig, soft pale skin, makeup and of course, a revealing cleavage of her perfectly perky breasts, Harmony is but a modular robotic head that can be fitted on a variety of robotic bodies, all customisable to the male consumers’ desire.
Two years ago, in CES 2016, VR porn company BaDoink teamed up with Kiiroo, who is “one of the leading pioneers in teledildonics” according to a press release, to create an immersive porn experience where users can ‘feel’ what they see. The experience, in fact, took up an entire room in the show and reportedly had been visited more than 1,000 times in its first day of opening. On show, as expected, was the usual male-oriented porn. Finally, in this year’s CES, the show had arranged for an unofficial shuttle bus to take people from the conference site to a legal brothel for a sex-video experience controlled by an Amazon Echo speaker.
Needless to say, the Osé was in no way out of place for its sexually-oriented technology. No. The Osé was simply out of place for the gender it caters to. On the one hand, we are witnessing a rise in sex-oriented technology and particularly a growth in fem-sex tech that tries to empower women through both sex education and pleasure. Yet on the other hand, when a tech fair such as CES fails to include and support products like Osé, it feels like that even in the forward-looking world of tech (or at least what is considered as such), there are still frictions that led to huge steps back in the quest for equality and female empowerment. We should only hope that it was the decision of a rather frustrated man sitting in the CTA boardroom which led to this otherwise unacceptable exclusion.