Stripping the tears of bleeding-heart feminists and other sex abolitionists

Marlise Richter
Photo by Rick Hall via Wikipedia. (CC BY 2.0)
Marlise Richter

Are Cape Town city strip joints filled with sex slaves? Marlise Richter investigates.

Liberal feminist Emma Powell visited Mavericks Revue Bar to investigate two pressing questions. One was how “places like this” could exist under the South African Constitution. The second was whether the stripper “girls” looked happy. Her impressions were captured in a Daily Maverick article dramatically titled “House of the Rising sun, built on misery”. Her article and the flurry of irate responses to it call for some reflection.

New to Cape Town, I decided to see for myself. I am not a virgin to the sex industry. I have been researching sex work for the last five years and have interviewed male, transgender and female sex workers across South Africa. Strip clubs aren’t my particular area, but after Emma’s article I thought I should investigate this too.

I am also a “Sex Positive Feminist” – I believe that sex is an important part of human life, and that we should be able to talk about it without shame or mortification. Vitally, this means that those who choose to work in the sex industry (broadly including strippers, dancers, porn stars and sex workers) should be able to do so with the same labour, occupational health and safety rights and protections as other workers.

In short, we should de-exceptionalise sex. Those who sell a range of sex services should be allowed to do so without having to deal with other people’s indignation and stigmatisation, and especially without middle class imputations of shame or liberal feminist and Religious Right angst.

On a Saturday night in February, I visited Mavericks Revue Bar with my boyfriend. Three burly bouncers greeted us. The entrance fee was R100 each.

When we enter, I am surprised to find a spacious, elegant and relatively smoke-free club. Smoke is almost as harmful to human well-being as stigmatising moralism.

Well-heeled waiters and masseuses zip around tables scattered around a triple storey area, with dancing podiums suspended from the roof.

Ms Powell reads this as a “heavily guarded show room” – no doubt to keep the sex slaves inside against their will: clawing at the windows. I notice that there are no cages. There are no handcuffs or manacles. There is no orgy in a fire pit. There aren’t even naked virgins being sacrificed on a smoking altar.

There are, it must be said, pricey cocktails and sushi.

Several bevies of dancers in skimpy outfits lounge at tables, deep in conversation with each other or with some of the patrons. Two strip dance sessions happen simultaneously. I notice women of all colours, shapes and sizes – this, I assume, must be the “exotic” in “exotic dancers” advertised. My attention is caught by a large-boned dancer in a G-string shaking her cellulite-hugging booty at such a pace that I feel dazed. She is athletic, skilled and her moves are finely choreographed to elicit maximum titillation from the audience. She is also beautiful, seemingly unselfconscious, and proud.

I send her a mental high five for challenging Western notions of beauty with one swish of her naked buttock.

We sit at a table and have drinks. The patrons are mostly sharply dressed young to middle-aged men. No sign of the lecherous monsters or the “dribbling bunch of alpha males on a stag-night” Powell encountered. I am sure even those are a staple, and probably welcomed, if they follow the strict rules of the club – no touching and being respectful to the workers.

Seven hipsters in the booth behind us (five of them women) request a lap dance. The dancer looks Asian. She suggestively gyrates on each person’s lap. After two songs, she promptly pulls up her panties, puts the R300 to R400 cash in her wallet and saunters off to another table.

We sit through more strip acts capitalising on a range of pet male fantasies. I need to go to the bathroom. I find it filled with dancers! This would be the ideal time for them to slip me a tiny piece of paper in the stalls, urging me to save them from their “misery”, ”personal violation” and “sexual exploitation”, to phone their embassy and arrange a rescue raid.

I wait with 007-like bated breath for a scribbled cry for help or an anxious wink, but only see dancers powdering their noses, chatting up a storm in various dialects, making small talk with some of the female patrons waiting for the loo, and talking on cellphones. They have their own cellphones!

Neither my boyfriend nor I could ferret out any sex slaves or deeply unhappy “girls”. Boredom strikes and we return home.

But I am left with a lot of questions. And like Powell my impressions are so far shaped by only by one visit. So I arrange to meet with one of the managers.

He is reluctant and I don’t blame him. After years of running Mavericks, he has grown tired of the barrage of bad press, religious curses and violent police raids.

He tells me how important it is for the club to stay clean, within the law, and on the straight and narrow. Mavericks’ profile brings many SAPS and Home Affairs officers to the premises. Cape Town Central Police Station is its closest neighbouring building to the north, and the Department of Home Affairs is its closest to the west.

We talk about the dancers’ conditions of service. Each pays a R2,400 a week levy to the club. For the rest, the dancers keep their earnings. Dancer earnings range between R30,000 - R90,000 a month after expenses. I ask about the suspicious on-site accommodation provided (Ms Powell describes it as a “security compound”). The manager shakes his head in amazement. He says the dancers are welcome to stay wherever they want. Many prefer to stay in the Mavericks-managed apartments next door to the club for convenience, but others live with their boyfriends, husbands or partners elsewhere. If they don’t like the work or the accommodation, they can leave at any time.

I ask to meet some of the dancers.

Early one evening, before their work starts, I sit with four well-groomed women. They are from the UK, Romania, Brazil and South Africa. I give them copies of Ms Powell’s article. (Yes, they can read! Yes, they have opinions!)

Indignation and annoyance reign. With voices high in irritation, they describe the advantages of the job. These include making lots of money, meeting a range of interesting and well-connected men, having fun, growing their confidence, and being appreciated.

Samantha has a degree in commerce and worked in retail. She tells me she is financially independent for the first time in her life. She wished she started dancing 15 years ago. She provides me with a well-argued feminist critique of stripping, and how she is empowered by her work. There are good days and bad days, but so it is with everything in life, they say philosophically.

With some trepidation, I ask if they have been trafficked. Elizabeth shakes her head. Vehemently, she explains how no one could be forced to dance here, since they would speak up. “You could just open the window and scream across the road to the police,” she says.

One refrains is: “Why did the writer not speak to us and ask?”

I went on to explore some comparable strip scenes with different target audiences in Cape Town. I also tried to track down male stripping venues, but there is no Chippendales anymore and XYPrive closed down in December 2013 because of “management problems”.

Drag shows, in contrast, seems to be rising in popularity. Although not strictly strip shows, I recall seeing a fair bit of penis peeping out from under an extravagantly frilly dress at Beefcakes Restaurant in Jozi.

I thus join a group of ‘Ladies Night’ friends for veg-burgers and a live show at Beefcakes in De Waterkant. The advertising and positioning are gay-orientated. But the restaurant seems to be taken over by a straight, ‘vanilla sex’ audience. Tanned, bare-chested and very buff youngsters with skimpy jeans take our orders. The accents are Rondebosch.

Our waiter, Adam, looks me in the eyes with a coy fluttering of lashes, and squeezes my arm every time he brings something to the table. The drag dancer performer’s show seems to be limited to making offensive remarks and crass jokes. There is, alas, nothing really to compare to the skilled pole dancing at the Revue Bar.

Yet towards the end of the evening, some excitement ripples through the air. ‘Body Shots’ sets in! Women get to request the waiter of their choice to lie sprawling at their table while they buy the privilege of licking a shot of spirits from his naval. Damage: R350 per shot.

I catch the arm of the youngster who has just emerged from such a foray and ask if I can ask him something. He still has stars in his eyes from the music, the clapping and the attention. He wipes his blonde fringe from his eyes and quickly rearranges his face into a David Beckham pout.

“Do you feel trafficked when you do Body Shots?” I ask.

“Not at all” he replies without missing a beat. “I like it! Especially if it is beautiful women”.

In my short investigation, I encountered a number of “happy girls” (and a couple of boys). I know because I asked them what they thought of their work. And I waited for them to tell me in their own words.

I found no trafficking victims. Rather, I encountered a number of people who make a living from providing entertainment to others, and do so by choice.

Of course I know that many in the broader sex industry have made their decisions under more constrained life circumstances. There is structural violence. Their experiences are vastly different.

Yet, here’s the point. Stigmatising middle class moralism victimises and degrades the voluntary participants and users of “Adult Entertainment” and other sex services. And this should be challenged.

Powell’s second and unanswered question relates to the Constitution and whether the sex industry should be allowed under it. Autonomy and dignity are at the heart of our Constitution. To anyone who values those, the answer is obvious.

Richter is a researcher with Sonke Gender Justice.

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TOPICS:  Human Rights

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