A Decade of Resistance: The impact of Sexual Entertainment Venue Licensing

Is what is going on here fair and balanced? (Picture: Elena Mozhvilo, Unsplash)

Most businesses require some form of licence to legally operate, but how many employees do you know that need to have an in-depth understanding of municipal law and the regulations that govern their workplace?

Since the introduction of SEV licensing over 10 years ago, strippers across the UK have been required to learn and challenge strip club regulation (on top of work, raising children, caring responsibilities, going to university etc.) in an attempt to save their jobs and fight the eradication of the stripping industry.

It’s a rare person who enjoys looking deep into licensing law, however luckily for us here at the Coalition, we have Stacey Clare, co-founder of the East London Strippers Collective who has first-hand experience of the harms of SEV licensing as a stripper, which she discusses in her book The Ethical Stripper.

We also have Dr Jess Simpson, sex work researcher and university lecturer in sociology. Together they give us the low-down about the licensing situation, how it came about, and the ongoing effects on strippers today.

How was the stripping industry regulated before 2009?

Stacey: “Licensing used to be more relaxed and local authorities could decide their own policy. There was already a licensing regime in place prior to 2009. Before SEV licensing, local councils decided when to give out licences at their own discretion. This could lead to nepotism and backhanders, of course. They could charge more for these licences and there were conditions like nudity waivers which led to mad stories in the early '00s of places paying the council a nudity waiver”

Can you tell us more about SEV licensing, what is it and why it was introduced?

Stacey: "Around 2003, Object was formed and along with the Fawcett Society they started organising against Spearmint Rhino and other strip clubs. This lobby were pushing for the eradication of strip clubs all together – that’s when Sasha Rakoff and Julie Bindell and a lot of the radical feminists started using strip clubs as a pivotal point to organise around."

Jess: "Campaign groups fought for new regulatory powers to stop new strip clubs from opening and gained support from the likes of Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods (have you noticed the white, middle-class, cis-woman pattern yet?). Clauses were added to the Policing and Crime Act 2009 which meant that local authorities were given the power to decide how many strip clubs they considered to be ‘appropriate’ in their local area. Local authorities might consider no strip clubs to be appropriate – known as nil cap policy – and refuse to ever grant/renew SEV licences, which effectively bans the regulated stripping industry in that area. There’s not usually a logical explanation for why they grant a specific number either (e.g., 4 clubs), so it’s all very arbitrary."

Stacey: “As a result of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, there was no way you could offer sexual entertainment without an SEV licence. The immediate effect of the new law was that a lot of venues had to stop booking strippers. Before that, you had all sorts of pubs and social clubs that used to have strippers itinerantly, not every night. So that had to stop, and then it became a national thing, like a streamlined policy for local authorities all over England and Wales to adopt clear practices. The new licensing regime could also determine practices in strip clubs including restrictions around advertising, the 3-foot rule, the no touching rule etc.”

But who decides how many strip clubs is ‘appropriate’? Is this a reflection of local values or are there other issues at stake?

Jess: "It’s important to remember that the people making these decisions are a committee of elected councillors who supposedly act on behalf of the local community and who often claim to ‘know’ what is ‘best’ or ‘appropriate’ for their local area. This means that the decisions can be heavily subjective. Committees are granted considerable discretion and can interpret the ‘facts of the case’ as they wish. To make matters worse, strippers and strip club owners have little right to appeal any decisions made by local authorities. So long as correct legal procedures are followed and refusals are ‘justified’ - again, this is down to subjective interpretation – the discretion of the local authority is almost always total and final.

Even when an SEV licence is granted/renewed, venues not only have to go through the same laborious process again 12 months later which brings extended risk, cost and worry, there is also an ever-present threat that licences could be revoked with immediate effect.

"In 2019, campaign group Not Buying It! (linked to the Women’s Equality Party) led a series of sting operations in strip clubs across London, Manchester, and Sheffield by hiring men to pose as punters and secretly record women at work. The campaign group claimed to have footage of women breaking the no touching rule which they showed to local authorities arguing it was evidence of the ‘extreme harm and abuse’ taking place in strip clubs. United Voices of Workers likened the sting operations to revenge porn because the recordings were taken and used without dancers’ consent leaving women at risk of losing their jobs and being publicly out."

"If we think about workers in any other industry, if someone experienced any form of abuse in the workplace, would you consider this to be ‘evidence’ that the entire industry they work in should be eradicated? Would you use their experience of abuse against them to advance your own political agenda? Or would you say that this is evidence that there needs to be better, safer working conditions for workers? The same campaign group argue that if strip clubs shut down, dancers could find ‘safer’ jobs in hospitality, but this argument ignores the massive amounts of evidence which shows that sexual harassment and abuse of women in hospitality is rife. Removing strip clubs does not remove the problem of male violence and assuming that strip clubs are unique sites of sexism or sexual harassment ignores the fact that male violence is structural."

Read what it was like to be targeted by Not Buying It!

in Sheffield here

Were strippers consulted about the 2009 law change?

Jess: "Despite the detrimental effects that SEV licensing has on the livelihoods of dancers, the voices and concerns of a minority of people outside of the strip club were prioritised while those who actually work in strip clubs and who would be directly affected, were ignored. "

Stacey: “At that point, there wasn’t an organisation for dancers to organise through, so it was quite hard [for local government] to consult with a particular group. Meanwhile, Object and the Fawcett Society set up organisations, charities, and NGOs to act and do advocacy work. Policy makers like to talk to advocates rather than the individuals themselves.”

What is this issue about not being able to object to a licence on moral grounds?

Stacey: “Moralistic arguments cannot be used as ‘evidence’ to deny a SEV licence. So all statements like:

  • ‘We don’t like that sort of thing’

  • ‘We want to improve the image of the area’

  • ‘Make it family friendly’

  • ‘That belongs in the past’

should be legally void. The amount of bashing that the SEV industry has taken in the press [highlights] respectability politics. Just look at the way it’s been reported. For example, a typical middle-class voice saying ‘Oh it’s just terrible, awful behaviour’ –i.e. working class behaviour – 'they get drunk and treat women like trash'. This culture of representing strip clubs as harmful places has created attitudes that call for criminalisation that are actually harmful to people in the sex industry. For us, criminalisation is equally unsafe, if not worse.”

Jess: "The role of the council in its position as licensing authority is to administer the licensing regime in accordance with the law and not in accordance with moral standing which legally have to be distinguished from one another. The council must recognise that Parliament has made it lawful to operate a sex establishment and such businesses are a legitimate part of the retail and leisure industries.

There are no specific places that SEVs can/cannot operate in close proximity to, this is subjective (as are the numbers considered appropriate). Objections to an SEV can be made if the council considers it to be inappropriate to the character of the surrounding area or for example the nature or condition of the premises for which the application is being made.

Council licensing policies (found on council websites) often include guidance about what is considered an inappropriate area for an SEV. For example, the Oxford City Council policy states that an application for an SEV will not generally be deemed appropriate if the premises where the entertainment is planned to take place is near or in locations containing any of the following:

• historic buildings or tourist attractions;

• schools, play areas, nurseries, children’s centres or similar premises;

• shopping complexes;

• residential areas;

• places of worship."

What are the effects of SEV Licensing?

Stacey: “The licensing changes have negatively impacted dancers by putting financial pressures on venues who in turn increase the house fees the dancers have to pay – it is even more of a money grab than it used to be. Working practices and conditions in clubs have worsened, because there are no smaller unlicensed venues anymore so [it’s harder for dancers to] work somewhere else. It used to be that dancers had a relative amount of power – if a place was badly run they could work somewhere else. Now there is nowhere else to work and it’s more difficult and more expensive to become a dancer”

Jess: "Campaign groups who argue that banning strip clubs will reduce violence against women are misinformed and ignore the fact that with fewer places to work, dancers’ will be pushed into unregulated stripping scenes with less security and few protections which increases risk. Other women will be pushed into low-paid service jobs where sexual harassment and abuse are also pervasive. Any claims that banning strip clubs improves gender equality ignore class differences between women and why women work as strippers in the first place and not in ‘mainstream’ jobs. We need to move away from moral panics around sex and the sexualisation of women and focus on sexism which is an issue of unequal power.

By banning strip clubs, disempowering, impoverishing and stigmatising dancers, I’m not sure how this is supposed to tackle the root cause of sexism or help women. Gender equality cannot be conditional and granted only on the basis that women wear certain clothes or do certain jobs that align with ‘respectable’ middle-class ideals. Until all women are respected, we will not come close to reaching any sort of gender equality."

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