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Dances with media

A look at the lap dancing controversy in Toronto

Copyright 1995 by Lynna Landstreet. This column originally appeared in Xtra magazine. Published by Pink Triangle Press, 491 Church Street, 2nd Floor, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4Y 2C6.

oronto just wouldn't be Toronto without a moral panic of some sort going on. Currently, the focus is lap dancing. As of my deadline, the city has banned it, but the ban is expected to be overturned by the courts. Our newly elected Conservative government is making noises about banning it province-wide, but that will probably take a while, so the debate doesn't seem like it's going to end in a hurry.

Lap dancing, in case you've spent the last year or two in an ashram or space colony, consists in theory of a stripper straddling a customer's lap and writhing to the music. In practice, it reportedly involves (at least in some clubs) a lot of groping, finger-fucking, and the like, with the dancer being expected to administer at the very least a hand job -- more in clubs that have private cubicles.

The opposition to lap dancing comes from two very different camps. The first is the usual: right-wing politicians and columnists who feel it's obscene, immoral, violates community standards, and so on. Essentially, they object to it for the same reasons they object to the rest of the sex industry: because it involves sex.

The other camp is a little more surprising: many of the dancers. They've been one of the loudest voices organizing to have lap dancing banned, and have gotten a fair bit of media attention -- a refreshing change in a political climate where sex trade workers are generally painted either as villains or voiceless victims.

There are, however, other dancers who don't agree, and think jerking off the clientele is a fine way to pick up a bit of extra cash. They are joined on the pro-lap dancing side by, of course, the club owners, who are in favour of anything that will make them more money; the customers, most of whom are delighted to get their rocks off for a fraction of the street price; and most sexual libertarians.

To many, including much of the gay community, the ban is merely another instance of Big Brother trying to control our sex lives, and is to be opposed as vehemently as Customs censorship, bathhouse raids, and other anti-sex crusades. Personally, I'm not convinced it's quite that simple. While I usually tend to fall on the pro-sex side of these issues, I think this one's a bit different.

For one thing, in most of the sex debates, the sex under discussion is clearly consensual. Here, that isn't so. While some dancers may like it just fine, an increasing number are speaking out against it, particularly against clubs with private cubicles -- which some of the dancers call rape rooms. Dancers who don't want to turn tricks are simply told they can't work. For a woman without the skills to get another well-paying job, or with kids to support, it's basically fuck or starve.

The other reason is that I'm not so sure there really is a pro-sex side to support. The pro-lap dancing arguments often seem to be rooted in the stigmatization of sex trade workers -- since strippers are already "fallen women," who cares if they fall a little further?

Donna Laframboise, in a recent Toronto Star column, argued that market demands, and not strippers' wishes, should be allowed to dictate exactly how much access customers are granted to the women's bodies. On the surface, a perfectly amoral, capitalistic, argument that makes no distinction between fucking and pumping gas. But she showed her true colours with the claim that banning lap dancing "isn't the way to get women out of the sex industry." Apparently, according strippers the right to decide what they will and won't do will only encourage them to stay strippers, and we can't have that!

So, is there a middle ground for those who want to support strippers' right to define the terms of their work without giving in to the moral majority set? I think so. The most crucial thing is to support the dancers' efforts at self-organization. Another thing that might actually help is decriminalizing prostitution. If actual sex was more readily available elsewhere, there might be less pressure on strip clubs to offer one-stop shopping -- particularly if there are two different types of licenses for strip clubs and fuck clubs, to ensure that women have the right to decide which type of work they're willing to do. All this is bound to take time, but it's the only realistic long-term solution I can think of.

In the meantime, I hate to give the government any more control over anything, but I can't say I'll shed too many tears if the ban does stick.


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