NPN’s Jendi Reiter reviews an essay by Sherry Lee Short, “Making hay while the sun shines: The dynamics of rural strip clubs in the American Upper Midwest, and the community response”. This essay is published in Christine Stark & Rebecca Whisnant, eds., Not for Sale: Feminists Resisting Prostitution and Pornography (North Melbourne, Australia: Spinifex Press, 2004, pp. 306-30).
This is the seventh and last in a series of reviews of the essays in this book. For earlier reviews, please see our Anti-Pornographers Bookshelf.
Short, an activist who works on rural social justice issues and HIV/AIDS prevention, describes how the sex industry has infiltrated the rural Midwest, bringing with it an increase in crime, domestic violence, and exploitation of women and children. She also warns of how porn supporters misuse anti-censorship rhetoric to distract from the real issues.
An estimated 40 new strip clubs have opened each year since 1986. The general mainstreaming of porn, and the precariousness of the rural economy, have made these businesses more acceptable even in Midwestern small towns, formerly bastions of conservatism. Many rural communities can no longer support themselves through agriculture. The sex industry is drawn to communities facing economic hardship, whether here or in the Third World, especially those where women in particular have few opportunities for well-paying work. Poor women in isolated rural areas may not be able to afford transportation to the low-wage jobs available to them. Opportunities for higher education are similarly limited because of travel costs and family responsibilities. “This creates a pool of women vulnerable for recruitment into the sex industry.” (p.307)
Small towns tend to be caught off guard by the highly organized sex industry, believing that their old-fashioned values make them immune to big-city corruption. In fact, the sex industry’s exploitation of women neatly coincides with the dark side of social conservatism, namely the view of women as second-class citizens or property. This convergence of values lets proponents of strip clubs portray themselves as providing opportunities for women, while letting men’s complicity go unchallenged. (pp.308-09, 329)
The public debate quickly gets sidetracked into issues of free speech and “liberated” versus “repressed” values. Those who wish to resist the sex trade’s infiltration of their community find themselves cast as villains in a morality play that ignores the real power dynamics of the situation:
Regardless of the source, the arguments of pro-sex industry advocates and proponents have a common theme: the industry springs from a liberal mindset and frees women and men, sexually, politically, and spiritually. Part of this logic is that sexuality–particularly women’s sexuality–has been oppressed historically and that the sex industry offers women and men the liberating possibility of unbridled sexual expression.
This logic ignores the fact that the use of women in prostitution as well as other forms of human sexual commodification has existed for at least as long as there has been a historical record. Thus, if sexual commodification were freeing, then sexual oppression would be uncommon or, more likely, exist only as some curious historical fact…
Thus, ‘liberal’ support for the sex industry is only a mask for the traditional face of prostitution. A sexually freeing or liberating industry offering unique and new experiences of choice and revolutionary change for women and children would not be characterized by bodies being exchanged for money or other payment. Indeed, the exchange of bodies for money or other payment is a very old and un-revolutionary practice. Prior to sex industry rhetoric, this was referred to as bondage, slavery, or indentured servitude. (pp.309-10)
So what is wrong with strip clubs? Short describes how many of the women who work in North American clubs are victims of sex trafficking, forced to kick back most of their earnings to pimps and club managers to pay off their “debts”. (p.311) The typical rural strip club employee must work at a variety of far-flung establishments in order to cobble together a living wage. It’s understood that she has to provide sexual favors for anyone the club manager chooses, or else lose her job. (p.313) Underage dancers (12-16 years old) are more common in rural clubs than anywhere else. Law enforcement officials have identified some Midwestern states as key recruiting areas for pimps who seek child prostitutes. (p.313) Far from challenging the conservative moral norms that relegate women and children to servant roles, the stripping industry thrives on them. (p.314)
Short describes the political debates in several Midwestern towns over regulating the sex industry. In Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town of 8,700 people, representatives from the local crisis center testified before the City Council in 1996 that since the opening of the town’s second strip club, there had been a 96.6% increase in sexual assault and domestic violence complaints. Victims often reported that the abuse happened after their male partners returned from one of the clubs. (p.316) An increase in crime in the neighborhood, including two extremely violent fights outside the clubs, also aroused public sentiment in favor of regulating the clubs more strictly. However, the solutions proposed by the City Council, such as videotaping the dancers or penalizing them for touching customers, were less than helpful because they put the burden of compliance on the women, who had no power to affect their working conditions, and not on the abusive customers and managers. (pp.316-17) Ultimately, the strip club managers launched an effectively heart-tugging PR campaign portraying themselves as struggling small business owners, and the city government took no action. (p.319)
A similar battle occurred in Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city (population 90,000), in 1995 when a former strip club employee applied for a liquor license that would have allowed him to open an exotic dance bar. In response to citizens’ protests, his license was denied, and the city began considering an ordinance to ban strip clubs in establishments that sold alcohol. (pp.322-23) Meanwhile, a new group calling itself Citizens Against Censorship was formed to oppose the ordinance, while feminists and religious conservatives pursued separate strategies to shut down the clubs. (p.323)
In 1996, Fargo’s Planning and Development Director presented a report to the City Commission finding that “such businesses have a negative effect on the use and value of nearby property, on the quality of life on nearby neighborhoods, and ultimately have an effect on crime and violence near such businesses…the Planning Commission’s own experience with adult entertainment businesses has already shown a negative effect on potential land-use and value…” (p.324) After Citizens Against Censorship gathered a large number of signatures in favor of the strip clubs, however, the city put the ordinance on hold until 1998. During that hiatus, the clubs’ feminist opponents gathered evidence that dancers in strip clubs “routinely experience[d] a degree of sexual harassment and sexual violence unparalleled in any other workplace environment.” (p.325) But the better-financed pro-stripping group convinced local media outlets that regulation of strip clubs was the first step toward totalitarian repression of the arts and free expression. (p.326) Accordingly, the city only passed a modest ordinance requiring future strip clubs to be 1,250 feet away from residential areas, bars, and other strip clubs. (p.327)
Short suggests that the “anti-censorship” group was able to take control of the debate because the clubs used female managers and employees as spokespersons at every opportunity, keeping the men who controlled the industry out of the public eye. (p.328) This allowed the debate to be framed as a struggle within the women’s movement about women’s rights and choices. Male patrons, managers, owners and sex traffickers remained invisible. (p.329) But the sex industry would not exist without these people’s choices; it is not solely the women’s responsibility. “Rural strip clubs can not survive if there are not community members willing to run them and patrons willing to visit them. They can not survive without preexisting, entrenched patriarchal ideas regarding women’s roles and men’s rights. They can not survive without a poor class of women vulnerable for recruitment into systems of prostitution.” (p.330)
Small towns need to begin resisting the sex industry before an adult business opens. This includes boycotting businesses that sell porn, but also providing more educational and employment opportunities for women, and teaching respect for women and children in our families, schools and religious communities. (p.330) Short’s article challenges us to look behind the myths, be they liberal or conservative, that prevent towns from resisting the sexual exploitation of their most vulnerable citizens.