Opinion: Last chance for a lap-dance in Scotland?

Regular Deviance scribe Twinkle discusses a recent government consultation which could have serious consequences for Scotland's lap-dancing industry

Feature by Twinkle | 30 Oct 2013
  • Lap Dance

With a burlesque boom and the breakthrough of fitness-fad pole dancing, stripping has shirked off some of its seedy champagne-room reputation like an unwanted brassiere. Many women reclaim the pole as empowering rather than exploitative, embracing striptease as an art form. Even A-list female celebrities have been hitting the titty bars and have been papped raining dolla on twerking lap dancers.

Past time pole-dancing and celebrity endorsement may show stripping has gone mainstream, but the industry behind the velvet curtains remains a moral grey area for many. Talk of criminal underworld connections, fears of prostitution and rumour of human trafficking dominate public discussion about strip clubs in the UK. Rights campaigners wage war against the industry, viewing it as male-dominated, degrading and dangerous to the women caught up in it. Stricter regulation on the industry has now been proposed which could see strip clubs in Scotland close for good.

A Scottish Government consultation released in June 2013 has outlined how stricter regulation of strip clubs in Scotland might look. Currently regulated under alcohol licenses, the venues would also require a secondary license – the Sexual Entertainment License – under the proposed regime. Strip club owners would be required to apply for a new sexual entertainment license annually and local authorities would have rights to set limits on the number of strip clubs in their area. This would give councils the power to set their sexual entertainment venue limit at zero on any given year, which could lead to a collective eradication of the industry.

“Activities such as lap dancing are unregulated,” said Jan McLeod of Glasgow Women’s Support Project, one of many groups in support of a change in legislation. “Alcohol licensing was never an appropriate attempt at regulation. There is evidence of sexual harassment, stalking, assault, coercion and prostitution associated with these activities, although that is not to say that these concerns apply to every person involved nor to every venue. It is necessary for the government to look at what can be put in place to regulate these activities and to do what is necessary to reduce harassment and exploitation.”

The Women’s Support Project define adult entertainment such as lap-dancing as "part of a spectrum of commercial sexual exploitation [that] contributes to a culture in which women are viewed as objects available for sexual gratification" and say that it plays a role in "normalising sexual violence against women." White Ribbon Scotland, the Scottish branch of a male-run feminist organisation who campaign against gender violence, share this view point. Their response to the consultation spells out their wish to wipe out the industry in Scotland: "Sexual Entertainment Venues should not exist in a Scotland free of violence against women, and regulation on behalf of the state condones their existence."

While many Scottish strip club owners welcome further regulation of the industry, they reject accusations that their clubs are hotbeds of harassment, prostitution and exploitation. Steven McDonald, owner of Diamond Dolls Glasgow and Baby Dolls Edinburgh, is one club owner who has been an active campaigner and spokesperson for Scotland’s sexual entertainment industry in recent years. Steven is head of the Association of Adult Entertainment Venues (AAEV) which represents 17 strip clubs in Scotland, and was involved in the 2010 parliamentary process that saw a similar sexual entertainment licensing proposal rejected. Steven believes the consultation holds no weight and that attempts to close premises are the result of a perpetual smear campaign against the Scottish strip club industry.

“Our feeling towards the consultation is that it sets out to cause fear and alarm from the very first paragraph,” said Steven. “If you read the wording, most people outside the industry would perceive that there are these sorts of issues [trafficking, harassment] in clubs. I don’t blame the public for thinking like that when reading it, but there’s no proof of it as far as we’re aware, they’re creating a problem out of nothing.  It’s driven by women’s groups fuelled by the misconception of exploitation. I’d refute that. If you’re coming into this free of choice, earning money in a safe environment and you decide it’s not for you, you have the freedom to stop.”

Shane Manning, manager of Private Eyes Inverness, also refutes criminal accusations levied against the industry. Shane faced opposition from the Highland Violence Against Women Strategy Group and local religious groups when opening his club, the first of its kind in the Highlands, in 2013, but claims he gained a positive response from the rest of the community. He believes there is no weight to claims of criminality in the industry, and that the draft legislation is a question of morality and personal taste. “There’s no evidence. It’s a morality issue,” said Shane. “If you don’t like it or don’t want it, don’t come. It would be like vegetarians trying to close down all McDonalds – if it’s not your cup of tea, that’s OK, but don’t take away everyone else’s chance of entertainment or how they choose to be entertained. I’ve been involved in four clubs, and never – not on one occasion, have I encountered prostitution, illegal immigration, trafficking or anything of the sort. Not one occurrence.”

An estimated 350 lap-dancers work in clubs across Scotland in under 20 venues, and many have taken to social media to campaign against the threat of club closure and potential loss of jobs. As no ‘grandfather rights’ are set out in the Government’s proposal – rights that would give existing club owners special dispensation when licensing laws change – the likelihood of existing premises closing is heightened. The existence of similar sexual entertainment licensing in England and Wales may also encourage the Scottish Government to follow suit.

“There’s an apparent danger of experienced operators having to close as a result of changes to the law, despite premises operating without difficulty or injury to anyone for several years,” said licensing expert Stephen McGowan, partner and head of licensing Scotland at TLT Solicitors. “We’re talking about a small industry of 20 or less venues in Scotland who through no fault of theirs could be closed down due to individuals’ moral perception, regardless of police not having any issues with the premises. As for the industry, I believe the industry is used to and welcomes regulation. The operators of these premises don’t fear regulation, they fear being closed down because of a morally subjective stance.”