TORONTO — A municipal ban on sexual touching in strip clubs is putting sex workers at risk, hampering their ability to make money and denigrating their autonomy, according to some activists in London, Ont.
Arguing that adult women should be free to consent to touching and being touched, they want the long-standing prohibition lifted as a new business-licensing bylaw winds its way through City Hall.
"We're talking about continuing on with consensual touch,'' said Julie Baumann, with the sex worker collective SafeSpace. "And consent-based touch is how a lot of women make money — good money.''
The ban on touching drives willing women away from clubs that have security guards and panic buttons into more vulnerable, private situations, Baumann said.
There are a lot of young women that are coerced by management — and we know who runs these establishments.Coun. Maureen Cassidy
Bylaw enforcement occurs in spurts, the women say, with fines of $75 or $100 levied against them or the clubs, which in turn recover the money from the dancers. In some cases, the patrons might also end up charged.
The arguments in favour of allowing consensual touching rub those who support the ban the wrong way.
"To say that every single woman in these clubs is giving their free consent to some of the things that take place, that's completely not true,'' said Coun. Maureen Cassidy, who chairs the community and protective services committee. "There are a lot of young women that are coerced by management — and we know who runs these establishments.''
Other activists, such as those from the London Abused Women's Centre, want the touch ban to stay in place, Cassidy said.
Differences among municipalities
Critics of the ban note an inconsistency in the current situation: Sexualized touching is allowed in body-rub parlours. But Cassidy notes that the recent killing of a sex worker occurred in such an establishment, which is why the bylaw is being updated to mandate panic alarms in every room and having a supervisor on site.
Another issue is that bylaws differ among municipalities.
Toronto, for example, changed its flagrantly disregarded no-touch rule in 2012 to prohibit physical contact with "uncovered breasts, buttocks, genital, pubic, anal and perineal areas of a patron or any other person.'' Montreal bars touching within the pantyline. But other jurisdictions don't have such regulations.
"A lot of the women here will travel to Niagara and other places regularly where the bylaw doesn't exist,'' Baumann said.
That's the same thing as saying all sex is bad because sexual assault is so widespread, so let's make all sex illegal to get at sexual assault.AnnaLise Trudell, Western University researcher
Complicating the debate is federal legislation that prohibits buying sexual services. Cassidy, for example, said that allowing touching in strip clubs could expose patrons to criminal sanction.
AnnaLise Trudell, a researcher at the University of Western Ontario who works with Anova — a sexual assault centre and women's shelter in the city — said some people want the clubs shut down altogether and the real impetus for the bylaw is moral.
Trudell acknowledged that trafficking of women and coercion does exist in the strip club world, but said the no-touch rule isn't the answer.
"That's the same thing as saying all sex is bad because sexual assault is so widespread, so let's make all sex illegal to get at sexual assault,'' Trudell said. "It's a false understanding.''
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