Opinionista Emma Powell 11 February 2014

House of the rising sun, built on misery

If you live in Cape Town and travel home along the N2, you will be familiar with that flapping little aeroplane that buzzes about in the sky overhead, trailing in its stead a banner with the word, ‘Mavericks’ written on it. For longer than I can recall I have watched that banner swoosh above in the wind with a disdain that only the moral high ground can provide. Realising that merely wishing the most unfortunate of calamities on that banner was alone not going to result in the strip club it advertises shutting down, last Friday I decided to pay Mavericks a visit and find out for myself what to make of that stupid little banner’s tacit recommendation.

En route I protested to a friend: “Imagine we assembled a group of men in a security compound and taxied them to and from a heavily guarded show-room where they gave nude gymnastics shows, with fluffy white bunny tails affixed to their asses, to tables of suburban housewives?” We both knew my comparison to be entirely outlandish; patriarchal discourse simply would not allow for that sort of masculine degradation. There would be a global outcry.

So understandably, my trip to Mavericks was not about wanting to salivate over naked women as they flung themselves around poles while being dribbled on by a bunch of alpha males on a stag-night. Instead, it was to find answers to two competing sets of questions. Firstly, how it is that in a constitutional democracy premised on the principal of equality, where it is illegal to exploit one another on the basis of physicality, places like this are still allowed to exist? Secondly, simply put, do the girls look happy? Was the work they were doing the same as that described in their employment contracts when they boarded the plane to South Africa? Were they still in possession of their passports? Were they doubling up as high class hookers if a patron was willing to pay their price? Were they doing this out of choice? Or was there in fact some form of structural violence at play?

As a liberal feminist I have always intellectually wanted to accept that if, as a result of a woman’s personal agency she decides to become a stripper, then that is her choice, and she must be free to do so. This is hopefully within an environment that is subject to and protected by labour legislation – which, of course, the current industry isn’t. I am also aware of the academic debates in this space between competing schools of feminist thought.

For instance, anti-pornography feminists argue that stripping is not a liberating experience because these women are working within the confines of the sexual preferences of men and are not free to be the authors of their own gender typecasts and sexuality. Arguing that these normative gender based binaries feed into more damaging gender narratives, scholar Catherine Cole states that “sex work, such as stripping, eroticises the oppression, domination and humiliation of women, which reinforces the cultural toleration of physical, verbal and sexual violence against women”.

Sex-positive feminists on the other hand, such as Wendy McElroy, argue that through stripping women are able to liberate themselves from the accepted standards and behavioural norms applied to females living within patriarchal societies. This freedom, they assert, is liberating as it allows these women to make money autonomously by capitalising on their individual sexiness.

British Guardian columnist Caitlin Moran reduces the argument to the level of practical comparison in her recent book, How to be a Woman, propagating that “…if a white man suggested starting a cleaning agency that only employed black cleaners, dressed up in plantation clothing and being excessively cowed and deferential to their employers, the entire world would be up in arms…but what are strip clubs if not light entertainment versions of the entire history of misogyny?”

While the literature in this space clearly provides an interesting milieu of arguments, I wanted to find out for myself how the women working in strip clubs felt instead of making a value judgement on the basis of academic perceptions. Sadly, I was unprepared for both the deep sadness and feeling of personal violation that hit me on walking into the club. More so, no amount of academic reading could have prepared me for the rush of anger I felt when the clock struck midnight and the topless parade began. Yes, it was a real parade. To the beat of some incredibly sexy music the strippers weaved their way in a line through the club, topless. Some with bunny tails pinned to their G-Strings. Some of them with devil horns pinned into their hair. Some of them making eye contact with potential customers. Some of them dazed, wobbling their way down the line.

“This is worse than an Australian sheep show,” my friend commented.

We both tried very hard not to cry.

The waitress who took our order obviously realised that we were not there for sensual pleasure. Handing me a drink, she looked me dead in the eye and stated, “Don’t waste your time feeling sorry for these girls. Most of them beg to return when their contracts are up.” I swallowed my drink in a gulp, asked her if a patron could purchase any of the dancers for the night. She responded in the positive, adding that the option only existed if you paid the club two thousand rand upfront.

“Do they have a say?” I asked.

“Yes, but most of them do it, especially at the moment, because the club isn’t that busy and they need to pay their weekly levies [of R2000].”

This is also obviously despite the dancer’s rhetoric laden contracts which note in the preamble; “Mavericks does not tolerate prostitution or solicitation.”

Considering that these contracts go on to state that “Mavericks provides accommodation for foreign dancers in various apartments in Cape Town within close proximity to the Club. Foreign dancers who are accommodated at our flats are obliged to use our accommodation for the duration of their contract”, I mulled over mentioning to the waitress that when you combine a payment for the benefit of a person in control of a victim for the purposes of sexual exploitation, with the literal harbouring of the victim, you are prima facie qualified to meet the definition of Human Trafficking according to the Prevention and Combating of Trafficking in Persons Act.

Instead I responded, “Brava! At least the girls are only sold when the club is quiet!” She got up and walked away edgily.

Next onto the scene enter two small, skinny and nervy Chinese women. They ask if we would like massages. In the hopes of buying time to talk, I accepted. This turned out to be a critical error, as my head was suddenly attacked by what felt like a flurry of angry squirrels and the only words I could muster were, “Make it STOP!”  The woman was clearly very angry with absolutely no interest in legitimately pleasing her customers. I eventually placed my hand on top of hers and turned around to ask, “Do you like South Africa?” She looked at me for some time in silence and then walked away.

We spent the rest of the evening watching girls line up for their turn to fling themselves around the pole, some of them with precision and skill, others in a haze. Some looked pleased with themselves, some looked alluring, but most of them looked pretty damn miserable. The men drooled, drank and picked off sushi platters, with facial expressions ranging from smugness to sheer elation. I sat, I drank, I observed, I felt intense disgust towards the human condition. But mainly, I felt really, really sad, because the answer to most of my questions was no. No, most of these girls did not actively chose to participate in this trade, but were instead victims of the culminative consequences of what happens when you combine the relative poverty of many ex-Soviet satellite states with ignorance and a thriving sex trade industry.

According to the International Labour Organisation an estimated 20.9 million men, women and children around the world modern day slaves with 800,000 girl children trafficked across international borders annually for the sex trade. While it was clear that some of the dancers choose to be there, my observations led me to believe that most of them are the very real victims of structural violence, as they are obliged to perform degrading activities in order to survive.

Judge Desai of the Western Cape High Court voiced similar concerns in a 2012 reserved judgement regarding Mavericks application to appeal the Department of Home Affairs decision to revoke the club’s 200 Corporate Visa Permits, noting:

“The so-called exotic dancers come to the country having concluded a flimsy one-sided contract. They are guaranteed nothing. They have to share a bedroom for which they are charged rent on a weekly basis. They are not paid at all and are given no benefits whatsoever. More alarmingly, they have to pay Mavericks R2,000 per week. The contracts do not specify who pays for their plane ticket to South Africa and, if it is paid by Mavericks, when and how it is to be repaid. The contract does not specify what happens if they are unable to generate sufficient cash to pay the weekly R2,000 and, if at all, they are entitled to keep certain basic sums as a first payment for food, shelter and clothing. The conditions under which the foreign dancers are procured, housed and expected to work makes them susceptible to exploitation. They are in a vulnerable position as the person in control of them demands, or at least, expect large sums of money on a weekly basis which places him in possible contravention Article 3 of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons”.

The Judge also questioned whether the dancers are given job descriptions beyond their contracts which specify that they are ‘models’. He went on to request that the South African Human Rights Commission investigate the living and working conditions of the clubs foreign dancers.

The report was request to be submitted to the court by January 2013.

I contacted the SAHRC last week and was told by their media spokesperson that while the investigation had been concluded, the report is yet to be finalised and no timelines for when this will happen are available. It is now a year overdue.

In the meantime, millions of women around the world continue to be vulnerable and dependent on the deceitful economic “opportunities” provided by a narrow group of men who still believe that women’s bodies are commodities for sale. When these two groups collide, what we have is a thriving human sex slave industry, and it is sitting on our back door steps.

I have one question that still remains, and it is directed at those who frequent these dives:

‘Do you have any idea just how much human suffering has gone in to making your evening of light entertainment possible?” DM


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