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Peter Stringfellow’s version of ‘choice’ feminism is a gross perversion of feminist theory

LIKE his seedy contemporary Hugh Hefner, the late Peter Stringfellow apparently considered himself a feminist.

His reasoning was that he supported “choices made by women,” including those who danced in his clubs.

As a feminist who has campaigned against the sex industry for some years, I find the facile championing of choice a gross bastardisation of feminist theory.

Feminism is not about “choices” made by individual women, it is about the social context that leaves too many women with too few options to choose from. 

The normalisation of sexual exploitation in lap-dancing clubs is the legacy of men like Stringfellow and Hefner.

There are approximately 576 listed strip clubs in England, though many ordinary pubs and clubs host sexual entertainment without a permanent licence.

Over recent years feminist groups across the country have mobilised to highlight the hypocrisy of councils that send employees on mandatory equalities training while granting licences to establishments where men rent the feigned sexual attention of women who need their money.

Even behind the regency facades of my own home town, genteel Cheltenham, stripping, lap-dancing and brothels are thriving.

The sex industry has taken hold to part the hoards race-going men from their winnings at each of the eight meetings of the horse-racing season.

It is through Gold Cup week when this is most evident; vans circle the town centre to scoop up groups of men and take them to the many pubs and clubs that offer “sexual entertainment” with local teenage girls paid to distribute flyers to boost business.

Last October the good burghers of Cheltenham saw fit to bar unaccompanied women from one town centre pub over the period of race meetings “unless they were dancers.”

This action, suggested by a solicitor acting on behalf of the venue, was deemed necessary to mitigate the “increased risk of prostitution on the premises” when sexual entertainment is hosted.

As an aside, present at the meeting was Dennis Parsons, the Liberal Democrat councillor who infamously mooted the idea at the 2015 Liberal Democrat conference that school leavers be taught about “sex work” in guidance about career options (he voted to grant the licence).

The demand for dancers has led to some particularly low recruitment practices, even by sex industry standards.

Anna (not her real name) explained to me that female clients of the drug and alcohol service she worked for, all of whom had been through the criminal justice system, were routinely targeted by sex industry recruiters.

She explained that service users had been plied with drugs and offered work in the town’s clubs for the duration of the races.

Competition was such that many had little option but to “perform extras.” This is the seedy reality of what men like Stringfellow cynically supported as a feminist “choice.”

Whatever their situation, young men do not need to gyrate into the sweaty faces of women old enough to be their mothers or grandmothers to extract money from their greasy palms.

It perhaps unsurprising that having borne the brunt of austerity, some women have few options but to turn to the sex industry to avoid slipping through the increasingly large holes in the state safety net.

It’s hard not to feel sympathy for cash-strapped councils like Cheltenham borough; the Lap Dancing Association is a powerful body and the criteria for rejecting sexual entertainment venue licences are narrow.

Concerns about women’s rights and safety are deemed “moral objections” and as such are inadmissible.

I have sat in meetings and watched as deflated councillors have voted to approve to licences to avoid opening underfunded and understaffed councils up to a costly battle through the courts.

The status and wealth of aged perverts like Stringfellow and Hefner was built upon the exploitation of women with too few choices.

Consciousness-raising movements such as #timesup and #metoo are changing the social landscape; the parade of sympathy on social media over the death of Stringfellow has been notably muted.

A legal challenge to sexual entertainment venues has finally been raised by a coalition of feminist groups working under the banner Time’s Up for Strip Clubs.

A judicial review has been granted which could force councils to take into account the wider impact on women and sex equality, as stipulated under the Equality Duty. 

For those of us who want a world where women are no longer reduced to commodities the case will be one to watch.

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