Bahar Mustafa writes on debates among feminists in Oxford over a lap dancing club
Oxford Brookes University sells itself as a modern, business-orientated institution which boasts a hefty contribution of £1 million every single day of the year to the UK economy.
As impressive as that may be to many people, some friends and I thought it odd that such a reputable institution, with its myriad of student organised societies, should be fiercely lacking in a space where gender inequality is highlighted and challenged. So earlier this year, an enthusiastic group of us of varying backgrounds, genders and sexualities, founded the first Feminist Society at Brookes; aka: OMFG! Organised Multicultural Feminist Group.
Our main objective was to create a free space for the students and local community to be able to express their experiences, to debate about ideas without fear of intimidation and to network with other groups in the area so that we may build a stronger movement in solidarity with women, and all people, to challenge sexism within the university and area.
So we were delighted to hear that other local feminist groups, such as OFN (Oxford Feminist Network) and WOMCAM (Oxford University’s Women’s Campaign) who had become aware of us, had been waiting fervently for a society like ours to spring up at Brookes for a while. As exciting as this was at first, it had become patently clear why they were so eager to work together.
For the past several months, they had been gathering support from the universities and colleges of Oxford to aid them in a campaign to stop a local night club turned lap dancing club from extending their licence to 5am, as part of a wider campaign to rid the area of the club altogether. And they needed us to get Oxford Brookes on side. I couldn’t help feeling deflated and a little used. Why would a group dedicated to the extrication of women from all forms of oppression and sexual violence, think it advantageous to the women hired to work at the lap dancing club to shut the place down and drive them out of the area?
I was pretty abashed to say the least; naive as this may sound, I was always under the impression that feminists’ interests were in building solidarity with other women, and men, to eradicate gender inequality. All this said, I did not want to make any hasty judgements, so I made some investigation in to the details of the campaign, and was even more stunned to discover the farcical nature of the way in which this operation was being executed.
The initial campaign began in 2009 when the local night club, known as Thirst Lodge, released plans to introduce lap dancing in to their establishment. Riled up and outraged, locals found in OFN and WOMCAM a platform to express their repugnance at thought of their wholesome, dignified community suddenly being defiled by such a squalid and shameful bar. Now, by locals, I mean the predominantly white, middle-class and privileged – and of course, the church.
Yes, suddenly the Evangelicals of St Ebbe’s Church and the feminists were unified in a fierce battle against the sordid and perverse managers of Thirst Lodge (oh, and of course the lap dancers who were to work there). Maybe it’s just me, but I find it rather disturbing that women’s rights activists are reaching out for help from the very same people who openly object to abortions and maintain that marital rape is not really rape. Suddenly, the very same institution that has repressed people’s sexuality for centuries and relentlessly attested to the divine and holy importance of the heterosexual nuclear family was pretending to give a damn about women’s bodies being objectified by leering deviants.
Hmm, something smelled like holy crap. The church needed the influential connections that the feminist groups had to the students of Oxford to impose their twisted “morals” and keep their town “clean”, and the feminist groups saw St Ebbe’s as their link to Oxford council. And their agenda is not so different from the Evangelicals’; it seems that they, too, want to impose their conservative sexual morals on to other women. (I wonder what the words “Pro choice” would mean to these feminists.)
The ludicrous hilarity of this display was still to come; after the previous battle between St Ebbe’s and the managers of Thirst Lodge, the church was left with a legal bill of £12,000 as the judge dismissed their appeal to stop the lap dancing venue. Mark Abraham, the church manager, it seemed, had suddenly had a change of heart and decided not to publicly object to the club’s presence – thus retracting their support to OFN and WOMCAM, and other local feminists. He was quoted saying, “We still hold our firm line that we don’t want them here but it wasn’t something we thought we could object to. As good neighbours we thought it’s good to turn the other cheek.” How very Christian.
Feminists objecting to Thirst Lodge incessantly persisted with questionable claims that insist on a direct correlation between lap dancing clubs being introduced to an area, and sexual violence against women. Some of these studies claim such figures as 30%, some 50%. However, it’s hard not to think these results dubious when it has been left unclear where they had come from. There was no real reference on any of the websites, Facebook groups or petitions that were circulated during the campaign. But, what had me really stupefied was their failure to explain the reality that the most common perpetrators of sexual violence and rape are husbands and partners, and that rape occurs most in the family home. This happens to 1 in 4 women (as explained in Kate Painter’s 1991 Wife rape, marriage and law).
So, there probably is some truth in the statistics reported in the campaign against Thirst Lodge, however, they were disingenuous in failing to mention that this happens in all areas, regardless of whether or not there is a strip club or lap dancers nearby. The Facebook group opposed to Thirst Lodge is titled, “I can’t believe we are still protesting this crap!” and I couldn’t agree more.
Supporters of this campaign also claim that stripping and lap dancing eroticises the subjugation and degradation of women, which leads to the normalisation of sexual violence. Whilst I cannot deny there is some truth in this, I disagree with the notion that the sex industry is the cause of the objectification of women. Therefore, ridding an area of a club where the women are economically dependent on it can have a far more adverse effect on their lives. The sex workers’ rights movement have had some victories whereby prostitutes and street workers have organised themselves and formed unions that demand to have the same basic human rights, legal protection and respect that other workers have.
However, for the feminists and sex workers united in the struggle that promote slogans such as, “Sex work is real work,” it appears much of their efforts fall on deaf ears amongst the more conservative feminists who are more interested in disparaging the women who choose sex work. Being coerced or trafficked into selling sex is more likely to happen in areas where prostitution is illegal, as it would become a black market with no regulation, therefore a fight to eradicate strip clubs or lap dancing clubs would inevitably lead to similar outcomes, and the women’s lives would be in far greater danger.
The sex industry is not the source of women’s sexual exploitation, but a by-product of an already sexually oppressive, sexist, patriarchal system which in itself has added to the proliferation of the normalisation of sexual violence against women. We should be attacking the cause, and not the symptom. These cases involve real women whose material conditions mean that they are economically dependent on the establishments such as Thirst Lodge. Do not get me wrong; I am quite aware that the sex industry is plagued with exploitation and heteronormative values that can have harmful effects on the self-esteem of both women and men, but so do many institutions and forms of work.
Protests such as boycotting these clubs, or gaining support from the local public to abolish them, is a futile position diametrically opposed to solidarity with other women. If only these feminist groups put more of their passion and energy in to improving the working rights of strippers and lap dancers. If only they would recognise the deeper social inequalities embedded in our capitalist system which perpetuate women’s exploitation, so that they might channel their fiery vigour into smashing these state-inflicted norms and reshaping the attitudes of society. The feminist struggle cannot be separated from class struggle.
As much as this report has come across as disparaging towards some of the feminist groups in Oxford, I cannot deny other good campaigns they are involved in and how well organised they are. For example, WOMCAM and OFN are integrally involved in the annual Gender Equality Festival, as well as Reclaim the Night demonstrations. We have invited some of the group’s members to our meetings for a discussion about their campaign against Thirst Lodge in particular, their views on sex work, and the effectiveness of such campaigns to the feminist agenda. Although our tactics may be different, we are united in our ambitions to eliminate all forms of women’s oppression, so we need a space where we can challenge views we may be opposed to if we are to work together in future projects.