Film Strip Productions presents Hands Off © Winstan Whitter

Hackney Council’s consultation on its licensing of sex establishments closed yesterday, but the debate continues.

In response to Hackney Council’s consultation on its licensing of sex establishments, Hands Off, by local filmmaker Winstan Whitter, provides an insight into the views of some of the people who work in Browns, one of the venues concerned.

The council’s licensing committee is responsible for regulating sex shops, sex cinemas and sex entertainment venues such as lap dancing clubs and erotic dancing venues. It recently drafted a new policy to determine whether and how to grant sex establishment licences in Hackney.

This new document proposes a ‘nil’ policy, which would mean that no licences would be granted to strip venues, lap-dancing clubs and sex shops in Hackney.

Speaking in the film, a local solicitor Bill Parry-Davies  said: “The future of a business and the livelihoods of hundreds of employees, most of whom are women, will turn on the recommendation of a single council official or even on the single vote of one committee member who sways the committee.”

Andrew Boff, Hackney resident and Conservative London Assembly Member, said: “The rights of the individual to appeal to a higher court have effectively been taken away. It goes against the very basics of law that a public official should be challengeable if you feel their decision has been partial in some way, and in all other cases of licence applications an applicant at least has recourse to the law to say the decision is unjust for some reason. Under this ‘nil’ policy, they will have no such right of appeal.”

Hackney currently has one licensed sex shop (Expectations) and four premises that are “licensed to provide live performances or displays of nudity solely or mainly to sexually stimulate audience members”. If the licences are refused on the grounds of a nil policy, each of these businesses will be affected.

While this may not seem like a large number in the grand scheme of Hackney’s nightlife, Mr Parry-Davies also points out that there will be consequences for other local traders, for example those in the business of costume making. Mr Boff suggests that the policy will also impact on local residents who might be employed at the venues themselves.

In contrast, OBJECT, a group which campaigns nationally against the porn and sex industry, supports the proposed ‘nil’ policy, saying: “OBJECT urges councils to set nil policies in relation to lap dancing clubs as part of their commitment to promote equality between women and men. Lap dancing clubs are often sites of commercial sexual exploitation, they promote sexist stereotypes of women as objects, they make sexual harassment seem normal, and they create no-go zones for women who feel unsafe walking past them at night.

“Councils across the country are considering setting the limit for lap dancing clubs at zero to stem the sexualisation of women and to take a stand against the ‘sex-object’ culture that lap dancing clubs promote. This is a crucial opportunity for local authorities to take action to help end commercial sexual exploitation for generations to come.

“Lap dancing clubs are not harmless fun. They are often sites of sexual exploitation, they make sexual harassment seem normal, and they create no-go areas for women and children who feel unsafe walking past them at night. Setting a nil limit on seedy and exploitative strip clubs is an issue of equality, it is taking a stand against the negative messages that lap dancing clubs promote about women and putting a stop to the sexual abuse which takes place inside and outside of clubs.”

This view contrasts with that of some of the dancers featured in the film, one of whom says she feels “much more sexually assaulted in daily life than in her own club”, whilst another dancer says that she finds working there “empowering”.

Denise Chandler, the owner of Browns also talks about the safety within a licensed establishment, and that without such measures the trade would be forced underground.

Costume designer Milina Berg agrees: “If this nil policy does come in, it will definitely push business underground and then people will be getting used in all sorts of ways – everybody from the dancers to the customers. It used to happen in Soho and then they cleaned that up. It’s better to have it licensed properly, fair and decent.”

In a recent interview with BBC news, feminist journalist Laurie Penny said that she believes that more fundamental issues need to be addressed in the sex industry: “We’re not going bring down the patriarchy just by preventing new lap-dancing clubs,” she said.

“Even in the legal clubs, women are subjected to ridiculously exploitative working practices and are in great danger.

“Rather than just banning them, there should be a proper investigation into the working practices that take place there,” she said.

The owners and the performers at the Hackney venues concerned have pointed out that they do not offer lap dancing, and establishments such as Browns has a strict hands-off policy.

Some other councils, such as Camden, decided to consult residents and businesses before proposing a new policy on the licensing of sex establishments.

Mr Boff is concerned over the lack of consultation with groups who would potentially be adversely affected by the proposed policy, and also with what he sees as the way the council is fomenting ‘moral outrage’ rather than facilitating the making of informed decisions.

Ms Chandler points out the benefits for the council in the revenue that licensed premises generate for the borough, and says that the funds that they might lose could be spent on increased security measures for people and places that need it, not banning somewhere which is “perfectly under control, has no police, fire or residents’ objections.”

Islington Council received 114 responses to its consultation on its draft Sex Establishment Policy which was published for consultation between 4 October and 25 November 2010.

Of the 104 online responses, 85% respondents were in favour of the council limiting the number of sex establishments operating in Islington.

71% were in favour of setting the limit at nil with an exemption for premises currently operating as sex establishments.

32 respondents submitted comments to support their views.

Ten direct responses were received, four were from businesses and six from members of the public.

Eight respondents were in favour of the council limiting the number of sex establishments operating in Islington and setting the limit at nil, with an exemption for premises currently operating as sex establishments.

One resident who did not live in Islington, was opposed to the proposals.

The other response was from researchers from the University of Leeds who are currently undertaking research on the erotic dance industry.

Islington Council adopted schedule 3 Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982 on 2 December 2010 which means that from 1 April 2011 it will able to license sexual entertainment venues (e.g. lap dancing premises).
The draft policy will be referred to the Licensing Committee for approval on 7 February 2011.

It has been amended regarding limits on the number of licensed premises: the council says it “will not apply this limitation when considering applications for premises that were already trading with express permission for the type of entertainment which is now defined as sexual entertainment on the date that the licensing provisions were adopted by the authority subject to certain criteria.”

Note: This article was amended on 30 December 2010 to include quotes from Winstan Whitter’s film, Hands Off.

Related:

Strippers and vicar unite to fight cleanup campaign

Hackney TUC condemns council’s proposed ‘nil’ policy on sex establishments

Sex establishments: the other side

Sex club clampdown could backfire

Let’s talk about sex, says Hackney Council

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