Scranton, Pa

Where to Draw the Line: Strip Clubs and the Commercial Sex Trade

Posted: May 17, 2024

Flashing lights and bright signage unapologetically detail the “adult entertainment” provided inside strip clubs. Services are offered in public spaces through table dances, or in isolated parts of the clubs through private dances- which generate more money. Some clubs even offer food, bragging about happy hours and buffet deals, with one strip club even doubling as a steakhouse. Considered “part of the culture” by some, strip club visits may consist of birthday celebrations, bachelor parties, or as a right of passage for boys. These businesses are largely run by men and cater to the sexual fantasies of men. Women working in strip clubs are viewed as sex objects by male patrons who thrive off power, entitlement, and the fact that they will not be rejected. Monetary transactions, sex acts, and power dynamics are all at play within the walls of strip clubs, making it difficult to separate them from the commercial sex trade and sexual exploitation.

Strip clubs are often portrayed as the  “safest place to work” in the sex industry. However, this façade masks the inherent violence at play. The unfortunate truth is that women working in strip clubs have reported physical, sexual, and verbal abuse, and there are even cases resulting in murder by patrons. In a study of women working in strip clubs across the country, 44% of women reported men associated with the strip club had threatened to hurt them physically. The business model  behind strip clubs is built on the notion that men can buy access to women’s bodies, in turn designating sexual violence, boundary violations, and assaults as “work hazards.” Women working in strip clubs may also suffer from mental health problems such as dissociative disorders, depression, and PTSD, mirroring the effects suffered by people in prostitution. Further, abuse characterizes the work environment at many clubs; . work benefits at strip clubs are nonexistent, and most clubs dictate dancers’ schedules and prices, and then demand they turn over almost half of their income to pay rental fees and tip support staff.

The culture enforced by strip clubs does not only breed violence, but it also serves as a gateway to prostitution. Strip clubs are indoor venues of the sex trade providing a space where commercial sex acts may be purchased. In a national online survey, strip clubs were among the more common venues buyers utilized to purchase sex, along with street prostitution and illicit massage parlors. A study revealed that a majority of women working in strip clubs were asked to perform sex acts on men associated with the strip club for money, including customers, managers, owners, and staff. Commercial sex has been known to take place in club bathrooms, VIP sections, private rooms, or offsite in hotels or buyers’ homes.

The commodification of women’s bodies creates an environment that mimics aspects of the commercial sex trade. However, once the reality of the violence, the demand for paid sex, and the psychological effects faced by women in strip clubs are factored in, the line between strip clubs and commercial sexual exploitation is completely smeared. Sex trafficking victims are often recruited to work in strip clubs as hostesses, servers, or dancers, and then required to provide commercial sex to customers. Traffickers often disguise themselves as strip club owners, shift leaders, or business managers, and enforce extensive, predetermined schedules, frequently moving victims between strip clubs.

Recently, several instances of commercial exploitation in strip clubs have appeared in the news. In 2019, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Liquor Control Enforcement shut down a Bucks County strip club for instances of prostitution among other claims. Last month, the FBI raided a strip club in Colonie, New York and arrested the general manager on drug and sex trafficking charges.

Similar to other areas of the sex trade, accountability must start with the demand:strip club patrons, who range from business executives to politicians. Strip club business meetings have been viewed as a way to bond with clients and co-workers, with some companies even approving these “meetings” as corporate expenses. Some executives have faced legal repercussions through sexual harassment and sex discrimination suits filed by women in the workplace. However, these behaviors are met with impunity and anonymity when it comes to the safety of the women inside the strip clubs. Patrons that violate rules such as the “no-touching” suggestion are slapped on the wrist with no consequences providing dancers with no protection, no security, and little to no empowerment.

While it is recognized that for some working in strip clubs is about choice and empowerment, the pervasiveness of violence and exploitation must be addressed. Public awareness is an attainable first step to counter these harms. Conversations about the safety and empowerment of stripping should be confronted with the exceeding levels of violence and exploitation within them. With no real job benefits, and never enough money, society must ask who is truly benefiting from strip clubs?

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to Maria Elisa Escobar on being chosen!

 All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University.

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