“This was T’s Massage on Great Eastern Street, it used to be pink now it looks like dirty skin. Sex clubs aren’t perfect but they are a lot safer than working in the street,” says Hackney artist Stik. Photo: Claude Crommelin

Local business owners have criticised  new proposals to restrict licences to sex shops and strip clubs.

As reported in the Citizen last month, Hackney Council is currently carrying out a consultation its new draft document on sex establishments, which introduces a ‘nil’ policy such that new licences will not normally be granted and existing ones will be less likely to be renewed.

Although the move will be welcomed by some, others claim that it will result in the closure of legitimate businesses during a recession and that it may force those employed in such businesses into unlicenced sex trade activity. Hackney currently has one licenced sex shop and four premises that are ‘licenced to provide live performances or displays of nudity solely or mainly to sexually stimulate audience members. All but one of these are located in Shoreditch, which has many clubs and bars with late licences and a limited number of residential buildings.

Expectations, on Great Eastern Street, is Hackney’s only licenced sex shop. It is open during normal business hours and does not have an explicit fascia. Yet, under the new policy, this business is under threat. Chris Graham-Bell, a director of the Millivres Prowler Group which owns Expectations, said: “We are contesting the policy. It is stupid to lump sex shops and clubs together as we are completely different.

“We have been going 30 years and until five years ago there was no question of us having a licence at all – we didn’t need one. We chose to get a licence so we could stock R18 DVDs, we were not forced to get one. We have no objection to having a licence, or the council restricting the number of licences it gives out. If necessary, we will withdraw the sale of the DVDs.”

Pauline Bristow, partner and licensee of the White Horse on Shoreditch High Street, has also voiced objections to the proposed policy. “You cannot turn around and say we cause more problems than discos that open until 4am,” she said. “We are open from 12 noon until 12 midnight, we have a 1am license but we only use it in December.”

A licensee for 25 years, Pauline has lived in Hackney for 32 years and has seen the borough change. “The problem is, the council are thinking ‘we are an up and coming area, we have all this stuff like the Olympics coming up, we don’t want these sorts of places’.

“If we have to close, 75 people will be out of work including bar staff, the girls and security. In Hackney overall we reckon it will be 300. It is not going to help the unemployment figures in Hackney, which the council considers a deprived borough. They will also lose money from the licences, about £5000 per venue. It’s not going to help anything at all. Our livelihoods will be threatened.”

There are fears that closing licenced establishments will not only lead to more unemployment, but may force the workers into more dangerous, unlicenced venues, some of which operate as brothels. This is a prospect Pauline is well aware of. “If we close, there are a lot of unlicenced venues where the girls will be encouraged to do much more than dance,” she said.

The question of the illegal venues and brothels is not directly addressed by the policy, but such establishments could be affected by it. Thierry Schaffauser, 28, has been a sex worker in Hackney for more than a year and thinks a ‘nil’ policy will not lead to a net reduction in the number of establishments, merely an increase in the number of ‘underground’ ones.

Schaffauser also believes the policy is out of touch with the views of with the populace: “I think the council is afraid for the reputation of Hackney. But I am sure the majority of Hackney residents have no problems with the few clubs which are for the most concentrated in Shoreditch, a non-residential area.

“Even if they stop the licence, the owner will just change it into a bar or another night club so all the issues around noise, people drunk will remain the same.”

Opponents of lap dancing clubs often object to the way they commodify women, but not all agree. Chique, 30, has been a dancer in the Hackney for eight years. “I choose to dance because I like it and it pays my bills,” she said. “I am an adult, I come from happy family. I love my mum and dad, I am not a crack-head or anything. People say it is degrading but I don’t think it is and there are a lot worse jobs out there”.

Have your say on licensing sex establishments in Hackney. The consultation runs until 13 December.

Related stories:

Hands Off: women speak out over Hackney strip clubs

Strippers and vicar unite to fight cleanup campaign

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

‘Sex establishments’: the other side

Let’s talk about sex, says Hackney Council