Bristol is set to become the biggest city in the country to ban lap-dancing clubs in a move campaigners claim will help undermine the sexist cultural norms that lead to violence against women.
The city council’s licensing committee last week voted to consult on proposals to introduce a “nil-cap” for sexual entertainment venues. Bristol currently has two lap-dancing clubs.
Margaret Hickman, leader of the council’s ruling Labour group, said evidence suggested sexual entertainment venues were linked to violence against women. “We can’t ignore the fact that casual street harassment of women and domestic homicide are one of the biggest social issues that Bristol has to deal with,” she said.
The radical policy, which is supported by the city’s Labour mayor, Marvin Rees, as well as Avon and Somerset’s police commissioner, Sue Mountstevens, puts Bristol at the forefront of municipal efforts to use equality laws to clamp down on lap-dancing and strip clubs.
Sasha Rakoff, chief executive of Not Buying It, which campaigns against the sex trade, said councils had a duty to promote sex equality: “Bristol is ending the ‘strip clubs on the high street’ phenomenon because they recognise that this breeds and feeds the very attitudes that leads to harassment, abuse and ultimately violence against all women and girls.”
The Bristol proposals state the council has a duty to eliminate harassment and discrimination under equality legislation – and may risk legal challenges if it allows the city’s lap dancing clubs to continue trading.
Helen Mott, an expert in gender equality from Bristol Fawcett Society, said: “The offer in our city right now is that from the age of 18 as a young man you can go down town and pay for a woman to strip for you,” she said. “It is hampering and undoing the council’s own efforts to advance equality between women and men.”
Although councils have had the power to limit the number of sexual entertainment venues since 2010, only a minority of cities have introduced bans. These are thought to include seven councils – North Tyneside, Swansea and Exeter among them, where no lap-dancing clubs are permitted, and nine London boroughs. Last month Blackpool decided to refuse all new applications for lap dancing clubs and not renew existing licences. Officers in Bristol did not find any evidence from councils that operate bans that the sex industry had been driven underground.
Rakoff, who won a landmark judicial review case against Sheffield for failing to apply its equality duty when licensing lap-dancing clubs, called on other councils to follow Bristol’s lead. “Even if it’s a perfectly run club with no sexual contact and the punters are all gentleman, it is still harmful,” she said. “Allowing these clubs to remain open signals women can be objectified and bought.”
She added the women in the industry would need help finding other careers. “There needs to be exit support so lap dancers, who actually have to pay to work in strip clubs, are redeployed into safe, alternative work with full employment rights – including in former strip clubs reimagined as bars, clubs and restaurants.”