The government of Iceland has outlawed all businesses that profit off of the nudity of employees, most notably strip clubs, leading the Guardian’s Julie Bindel to proclaim it “the most female-friendly country on the planet.” Meanwhile, strippers, sex workers, and sex worker advocates across the world are wondering where our opinions fit in. According to Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir, an Icelandic specialist working in the field of human trafficking and prostitution prevention, it is “highly unlikely” that the strippers at the centre of the debate were consulted for their views on the proposed change in legislation.
“Sex workers seldom take part in public debate,” she tells us. “There is no formal spokesperson or union. Most likely, this is because most women working in the sex industry are forced to live double lives in a small society like Iceland.” This seems like a poor excuse for failing to take into account the perspectives of the population of women who will be most impacted by the ban.
According to Guðný Gústafsdóttir, spokeswoman of the Feminist Association of Iceland, a survey made on a large group of strip-dancers in Iceland showed that “…their accommodation was poor and their income in the clubs low. Not to mention the long and hard working hours.” Perhaps if these dancers had been included in the conversation around the proposed ban, they might have pointed out that such conditions apply to many types of employment. In this recession economy, many strippers and other sex workers are struggling and having to work long hours to make ends meet, but many choose to continue working in the sex industry because the pay and conditions are still preferable to other jobs available to undocumented immigrants with few formal qualifications, as many of Iceland’s strippers apparently are. This is particularly true for women, since the sex industry is one of the only industries in which women are able to earn more than men.
Being taken seriously as a stripper is an uphill battle
In parts of the world where strippers have united to stand up for their rights, they have generally attempted to improve working conditions by voicing their opposition to labour violations, such as lack of basic wages and benefits, and illegal fees and fines charged by club managers. In no cases have strippers fought to shut down the strip club industry altogether. Fríða Rós Valdimarsdóttir thinks that current attitudes in Iceland would make it hard for strippers to have much success in organising to improve working conditions.
“Sex work is not considered a real or ‘proper’ job in Icelandic society,” she tells us. “I remember one interviewee telling me about a stripper that was trying to find out to which labour union her employer had paid the fees he subtracted from her salaries. Whichever union she rang she was simply laughed at. This indicates that the view in Iceland is that it is ridiculous to get the rights and benefits you deserve as an employee if you work as a stripper.”
Being taken seriously as a stripper is an uphill battle all over the world, and certainly in some cultures more than in others. It is perhaps not surprising that Iceland’s strippers don’t have a formal union or spokesperson, considering the increased stigma and risks that sex workers, who are also undocumented immigrants, face in coming out and publicly standing up for their rights. However, it is the responsibility of the feminists who claim to be speaking on their behalf to fully consider the potential impact of this legislation on this marginalised group of women, rather than using their lack of political clout as an excuse not to seek their input.
A black and white distinction
Debates about the ban have centred on the issue of whether it will drive the strip club industry underground, with Matthew Yglesias at Think Progress pointing out that this is unlikely to happen within Iceland, since it is such a small country that it might actually be possible to monitor and control the industry in this way. Similarly, Jill Filipovic writes on Feministe that the ban is unlikely to lead to “an epidemic of underground strip clubs” and that she’s “not sure that strippers will now face the kinds of immediate dangers that sex workers who sell sexual services negotiate every day” in countries where prostitution is banned.
Such a black and white distinction between strippers and prostitutes, however, demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fluid nature of sex work. Many strippers sell sexual services beyond just taking their clothes off, whether within strip clubs or outside work, whether with clients they meet in strip clubs or with clients they meet outside work. Banning strip clubs merely limits women’s options for where and how they can make money selling sexual services.
A class issue
Whether or not the ban drives strip clubs—or sex work—underground within Iceland, it seems highly unlikely to stop anyone from working in the sex industry. If the women working in Iceland’s strip clubs were trafficked, they have debts to pay to their traffickers, who are not likely to wait around while they pay them back by doing whatever low paying jobs exist for undocumented immigrants in Iceland—they will likely be trafficked to another country to work in the sex industry, probably accumulating more debt in the process. If these women migrated to Iceland by themselves to work in the sex industry, they will find a way to migrate to another country to work in the sex industry, spending their own hard-earned cash or getting themselves into debt—or possibly debt-bondage situations—in the process.
It seems that Iceland’s strip club ban is more of a class issue than a women’s issue. The middle class politicians and activists of Iceland don’t want the sex industry in their own back yards as a daily reminder of gender inequalities. They do not seem overly concerned with the livelihoods or wellbeing of the immigrant women who work in these clubs. Guðný Gústafsdottir’s proud claim that “the ban is one step on the way to eliminate sexual violence in Iceland” only makes this clearer. Does she really believe that the women who will lose their jobs as a result of the legislation and likely end up migrating to work in the sex industry elsewhere will be any safer from violence as a result, or is this legislation really intended to benefit the “good” women who don’t take their clothes off for money?
It’s no wonder that many sex workers doubt that the mainstream feminist movement has their best interests at heart.
Rachel Aimee was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of $pread Magazine, a U.S. publication by and for sex workers, from 2004 to 2008.
Katrin Redfern is a New York City-based freelance reporter, feminist, and sex worker rights advocate.