Since the Policing and Crime Act 2009 provided local authorities with more control over the location of lap dancing clubs, there has been much debate about whether there is a place for sexual entertainment in Britain. Here, Phil Hubbard considers the arguments against lap dancing, suggesting that frequent allusions to the negative impacts of lap dancing clubs on young people are suggestive of a risk-averse society that is convinced that young people and sexuality don’t mix, but is not sure what the harms of lap dancing are.
In 2012, we carried out a study of clubs and venues providing striptease entertainment in England and Wales which entailed a survey of all local authorities, analysis of the license applications made by all 241 sexual entertainment venues and an online and paper survey of 941 residents living in towns and cities with a lap dance venue. Interestingly, our survey suggested that only around 3% of respondents felt a lap dance club was a source of particular nuisance in their local town or city, a figure which was much lower than was the case for pubs, nightclubs or food take-ways, all of which were more frequently identified as causing particular problems of noise, anti-sociality and littering. Moreover, while around one in ten of our respondents appeared markedly opposed to the presence of lap dance clubs in British cities, the majority (55%) suggested they are appropriate in city or town centre locations. Against this, however, only 3% claimed clubs are suitable in residential areas. Tellingly, 46% felt clubs are not suitable near colleges or universities, 65% near religious facilities and 83% near schools.
Given this is the first Research Council-funded, extensive research on the impacts of sexual entertainment venues on the communities in which they are located, it is perhaps not surprising these research findings have been subsequently picked up a number of journalists. However, this reportage has not always been of the type we anticipated:
“It may seem obvious to some but a new £118,000 study has discovered people do not like the idea of strip clubs being outside schools. It took a whole year for the University of Kent’s School of Social Policy to reach the conclusion of their report which was paid for using taxpayers’ money”
(Daily Mail, 23 January 2013, ‘Council pays £118,000 for year-long study revealing parents don’t like the idea of strip clubs outside schools’, online edition)
As such, we stand accused of revealing the ‘obvious’: people are uneasy about sexual entertainment near children’s spaces. But we would counter by suggesting that ‘commonsensical’ ideas still demand explanation and critical scrutiny. Before we ban lap dance clubs in areas where children are present, should we not establish that it is a generally held assumption that this is the right thing to do? And do we not need to identify the specific nuisances caused by such venues before we decide how to regulate them? Apparently, we live in societies where such discussion is not required. This was demonstrated to us repeatedly in our survey: when we verbally quizzed people as to why lap dancing clubs should not be located near schools, the stock response was simply ‘because not’: it simply feels wrong.
But if we assume that children and minors are not allowed on lap dance premises, that any displays of nudity or pornography are not visible from the exterior of the premises, and that clubs can be required to open after a time when children would not routinely be on the street, it is worth questioning what harms are caused to children when such clubs are opened, and how these might be mitigated via their distancing from facilities used by children. Such questions are surely important in the context of politicians’ frequent pronouncements that our children are being damaged by the ‘hyper-sexualisation’ of society. They are also worth asking given the home itself is far from a safe haven for children, with ‘sexting’ via social media and the availability of adult online content as likely to have an impact on young people as the sight of a ‘gentleman’s club’ on the local high street. Quite what it is that children are vulnerable to here needs to be stated. Is it the idea that the presence of such clubs normalizes particular attitudes towards women’s sexuality? Or do we actually think that lap dance clubs are breeding predatory sex fiends from whom the young deserve protection? These are difficult questions to raise in the current climate, but they deserve consideration given that the sex industries provide a livelihood for many, with ‘over-regulation’ likely to displace this type of work into less formalized and potentially less salubrious surroundings (something that will have costs and benefits for owners and dancers alike).
Our research suggests that in practice, the licensing of Sexual Entertainment Venues in British cities is nonetheless informed by ‘commonsense’ assumptions that they are incompatible with certain other land uses, and need to be distanced or ‘zoned’ away from ‘family spaces’ of residence, education, leisure, and retailing. Local authorities adopt varying approaches here, stipulating premises are unacceptable within 200m (Hackney), 250m (Camden) or 500m (Coventry) of a school or other ‘sensitive’ land use. Indeed, where licenses have been refused, explanations have alluded to the incompatibility between sexual entertainment venues and such land uses. So, while the ‘dread fears’ of child sex abuse and paedophilia are not explicitly noted in council decisions, there appears an implicit acceptance that some degree of distancing of lap dance clubs from ‘family space’ is sensible, pragmatic and commonsensical. There is then a precautionary logic in play here given the lack of compelling evidence that lap dance clubs are actually associated with any more criminality than other licensed premises, but given we live in societies where we are all ‘riskophobes’ and actual risk is no longer a basis for decision-making, the adoption of a risk-averse approach is understandable. From a governmental perspective, ruling that lap dancing is illegal would be difficult given the impossibility of enforcing such a ban, and the potential allegation that this is an infringement of civil liberties: instead, ‘visible precaution’ is practiced, with public fears addressed through a licensing process that is able to consider these fears through a deployment of local, commonsense knowledge about ‘what belongs where’.
Distancing lap dancing clubs from ‘family spaces’ certainly appears unobjectionable given the imagined vulnerability of the child, but I would conclude that it is ultimately a form of social ordering that reaffirms the connection between commercial sex and the socially marginal, rendering it potentially more disturbing and constructing it as Other to the assumed moral codes of ‘family residential areas’. While it was not the stated intention of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 to push lap dancing premises away from wealthier, middle class ‘family’ spaces, that is a potential outcome. The fact that the spatial regulation and licensing of sexual entertainment reinforces dominant ideologies that connect property, propriety, and family life is surely worthy of investigation, no matter what the Daily Mail thinks.
Note: This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, Grant ES/J002755/1 ‘Sexualisation, nuisance and safety: Sexual Entertainment Venues and the management of risk’: the Co-I was Dr Rachela Colosi, University of Lincoln.