On Tuesday, Sheffield council’s licensing committee voted to renew the licence of the Spearmint Rhino lap-dancing club until next April. Lap-dancing clubs in the UK are legally required to reapply for their licence, and the city’s Spearmint Rhino has been successful in doing so every year since it opened in 2003. But this year, what is usually a routine procedure became a lightning rod for highly charged debates around sex work and feminism.

Over the past 12 months, the Spearmint Rhino has been the target of a coalition of feminist groups who have campaigned against its licence being renewed, on the grounds that strip clubs sexually objectify women and act as a prostitution grooming ground for vulnerable young women.

Last February, the group Not Buying It paid men to go into Spearmint Rhinos in London and Sheffield, buy lap dances and film naked women without their consent. This footage was then presented to Sheffield council by the Women’s Equality party as proof of multiple breaches of the club’s code of conduct. The council’s licensing committee subsequently launched an inquiry and found that six dancers had sexually touched themselves, each other and/or the customers. But despite these breaches, Sheffield council agreed to renew Spearmint Rhino’s licence.

The tactics employed by the club’s opponents are well established and – unlike in this case – usually successful. Campaigns to revoke the licences of strip clubs on the grounds that they exploit women and attract sexually depraved men are nothing new. One of the earliest campaigns was led by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice which was established in 1873, and targeted burlesque theatres, calling them the “habitats of sex crazed perverts”. Anti-vice activists would sneak into the clubs and report the “disorderly” and “lewd” acts they saw on stage to the licensing committee, demanding the venue’s licence be revoked.

They finally succeeded in their mission in 1942, when the licences of the last three burlesque clubs in Manhattan were revoked.

The tactics employed by the society and groups such as Not Buying It are virtually identical. But what has changed in the intervening 77 years is that the sex workers at the centre of these debates are finally being allowed to speak for themselves. And to the surprise of many feminist groups, it turns out that they do not want saving. Nor do they seem particularly grateful to their would-be saviours for campaigning on their behalf to do them out of a job. In fact, they appear to be downright angry about have-a-go rescue missions that involve secretly filming them naked, then outing them to members of local licensing committees.

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Today’s sex workers, like their Victorian sisters, don’t want ‘saving’ by Kate Lister

Sept. 20, 2019