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A Feminist State? Or Simply an Opportunity for a Case Study in Sex Culture? Iceland’s Recent Banning of Strip Clubs

April 2, 2010

Last Tuesday, March 23rd, the Nordic island country of Iceland banned strip clubs. With the exception of two abstentions, the vote in the Parliament was unanimous. Most interestingly, it wasn’t a measure taken in close-minded, religious prudery but in the hopes of bettering the lives of Icelandic women. As Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the Left-Green politician who initiated the bill, told the press on Wednesday: “It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold.” The news spread quickly online, sparking new versions of the long-time running “anti-sex” vs. “pro-sex” debate.

Sex work has always been a contentious point in feminist discourse. There has been a long history of exposing the way women are treated in such work, from Gloria Steinem going undercover as a Playboy Bunny in 1963 before recounting her trying experiences as a waitress at the company’s New York club in a journalistic expose for Show magazine to Ariel Levy tagging along for Spring Break in 2004 with the film crew of Girls Gone Wild, interviewing both the producers of the videos and the girls who stripped for their cameras, at times voluntarily, at others liquored up, and at still others under extreme coercion, for her book Female Chauvinist Pigs. Radical Feminist Andrea Dworkin is known for taking her concern to extremes, having argued in her 1987 book Intercourse that all forms of heterosexual sex and particularly sexual penetration degrade, objectify and violate women. At the same time, however, self-identified “sex-positive” feminists have sought to defend women working in the sex industry from stigmatization, claiming that professions such as prostitution, stripping and pornography can be empowering for women and safe should the proper measures be taken. Today, in reading feminist blogs, attending women’s studies classes and reading related works of academia, there appears to be a plentitude of self-identified feminists who work either in or closely to this field. Perhaps the most well-known American sex worker activist is Audacia Ray, who, as a writer and educator co-founded the organization Sex Work Awareness, served as the executive editor of $pread Magazine and currently runs and writes for the blogs Sex Work 101 and Waking Vixen as well as teaches at Rutgers University, has sought to make the voices of actual sex workers heard.

It is my guess, however, as is the case of most polarizing political debates, that a vast majority of us lie somewhere in the middle, neither possessing the familiarity of those practicing sex work nor fundamentally opposed to it’s claiming of a significant slice of our culture. We are simultaneously intrigued by its potential for self-discovery and -expression as well as concerned by the potential negative effects it seems to at times have on both the individuals working in the field and on society’s expectations for young women. Primary points of contention remain the agency, health and safety of those working in the multivalent sex industry: Is performing such work a choice or a result of class-based limitations? Is there a support network for these women, and do they have access to effective physical and psychological care? How much do the politics in this line of work really differ from that of other positions in the service and entertainment industries? It seems almost needless to say, but the answers to these questions vary due to the age, race, class, sexuality, nationality and activities of the sex worker. For example, as of 2000, the Netherlands was the only country to have legalized prostitution for the sake of the safety of its sex workers.

And yet, in recent years a series of European countries—including Norway, Sweden and Iceland—have banned it for the exact same reason, citing the prevalence of human trafficking and child abuse in the field. As of last week, in Iceland, a small but relatively women-run country, this policy has been taken step further, as the legislature banned strip clubs. On March 23rd, the “Alþingi” or Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament, which is currently made up of 42.8% women, voted that—as of July 1st, 2010—any employer benefitting from the nudity of his/her employee will be operating an illegal business. Furthermore, a vast majority of the population, especially the female population, supports the bill. The Guardian article on the ban cites a 2007 poll that found that “82% of women and 57% of men support the criminalization of paying for sex – either in brothels or lap dance clubs – and fewer than 10% of Icelanders were opposed.”

Julie Bindel’s March 25th Guardian article, which sports the title “Iceland: the World’s Most Feminist Country,” has sparked a fair amount of controversy, as bloggers have sunk their teeth into her relatively simplistic examination of the nation’s “feminism.” Salon.com’s Tracy Clark-Flory was quick to point out the irony in the country earning such progressive titles through their prohibition of women’s actions, concluding, “It may not be a religiously motivated move, but it sure is a dogmatic one.” And on Monday, Feministing’s Miriam Perez argued blatantly and boldly that the ban on strip clubs was “not a feminist victory.” A feminist victory, according to Perez, would develop, “a highly regulated industry that made sure dancer’s rights were protected.” She would like to see sex workers gain the rights to unionize, attain benefits and set the limits with their clients. Some, such as Bindel or Swedish anti-prositution activist Gunilla Ekberg, however, would claim that such an ideal system is unachievable in Iceland or elsewhere at the moment, and the fact of the matter is that it is an undesirable profession for which women are frequently trafficked and forced into prostitution on the side.

My question is: does this issue demand such a dichotomous and dogmatic debate? Can the subject of strip clubs or more extensive sex work be discussed in a manner that isn’t so polarizing? Personally, I too am hesitant when it comes to prohibitive measures being taken on women’s lives and certainly don’t see the move as unqualifiedly feminist. I am also prompted to ask though: if this is something that the country’s citizens, especially female citizens, want, why shouldn’t parliament give it to them? Why are we all so quick to jump at the throats of other nations’ decisions? As an American, to see a vast majority of a population behind a national bill aimed at citizens’ well being seems rather refreshing. And when our own government officials are spending their supporters’ funding on topless dancers in West Hollywood, it’s practically inspiring to see another’s discussing the morals of sex for money in a public forum. Whether or not one agrees with the legal decision to ban strip clubs or is in theory a “pro-sex” or “anti-sex” feminist, can’t we agree that this is an interesting contestation being waged for women’s benefit?

Iceland is a country of 320,000 people. The patriarchal family structure of taking of husbands’ and fathers’ last names has never been a regular part of Icelandic culture and was even (gasp!) banned in 1925. For identification purposes, girls acquire the last name from their mother and boys from their father, but most Icelanders are known simply by their first name. Last year, they elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir to be their Prime Minister, and she became the world’s first openly lesbian head of state (the government’s website—linked above—even refers to her partner via civil union Jónína Leósdóttir as her spouse). Their legislature is nearly 50% women. Icelanders certainly seem to have made some innovative choices in government and policy in the past. Just as the ban was voted into place, it could be quickly reversed. To me, it appears to be a great opportunity for a case study in sex culture, the primary question being: will the lives of women in Iceland be improved or won’t they? That seems to me to be what is most important. Doesn’t anyone else agree?

2 Comments
  1. Colleen Hodgetts permalink*
    April 4, 2010 6:11 pm

    Fantastic article. I completely agree with your final statement: the measure of success of this legislation will be the improvement (or lack thereof) of women’s lives in Iceland.

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