This article first appeared in the Sunday edition of Malta Today
There is one episode in The Handmaid’s Tale which seems even more chilling than the entire theme of the series because, just as we had become used to the strange dystopian world, it suddenly swerves us back without any warning to what is considered ‘normal’ in our society.
One minute we are in the bizarre world of bonnets and long gowns, where young woman are kept as slaves in order to procreate for the master and (barren) mistress of the house. And the next we are swept through the door of a brothel where scantily clad and naked girls are scattered round a room for the pleasure of the male patrons. The upstairs bedrooms provide a place to get even more intimate.
The scene is chilling because the whole set up is at once depressingly familiar, reminiscent of a world which, in the series, has long vanished (“I thought these kind of places were forbidden” June tells the Commander) and yet it is darkly ironic. For here, the aptly-named Jezebels with their sexy, fancy clothes, better food, and all the drugs and alcohol they want, seem on the surface to be living a much better life than their prudishly-dressed enslaved sisters – and yet, in essence, they have still both remained slaves to the power structure put into place by these men who have created this new world where women’s rights have been erased.
There is a further layer of irony, of course, in that these ostensibly deeply conservative men, who have nothing but contempt for women’s sexuality and view intercourse as a mechanical exercise which exists purely for the purpose of breeding, start to reveal themselves as being just as lustful and desirous of sexual pleasures as they were in the past.
Speaking about this episode, producer Kyra Synder points out that they wanted to deliberately show the contrast between the areas where the men meet the Jezebels, and the private spaces where the two main characters, Moira and June, meet up: “They’re a little sadder, a little tattier. We looked at representing things like refugee camps and places where women are sexually trafficked. But the men don’t see that. For them it’s prettier, glossier. It’s a fantasy that they’re building for themselves.”
All this was brought to mind on reading Minister Konrad Mizzi’s reply to the women’s organizations which are objecting to the regulation of Gentlemen’s Clubs. When he denies any links to prostitution or trafficking, what he is saying is that these glossy, fancy clubs should be taken at face value, where scantily-clad attractive girls dance and gyrate in front of men, and it all ends there. But, as the Malta Confederation of Women’s Organizations continues to insist, it does not all end there, and beneath the surface of the glitz and glamour which the men see, there is a seedy underbelly which is far removed from their fantasy.
This is not just their opinion which has been simply pulled out of thin air either, but is based on facts. There are various studies which have shown the direct link between Gentlemen’s Clubs (strip clubs), trafficking and prostitution. According to the July 2017 issue of Dignity: A Journal on Sexual Exploitation and Violence, which interviews a police officer who has worked in Las Vegas for 35 years:
“The owners of strip clubs understand that they are in a dirty business. The men who come to the clubs don’t come for the overpriced drinks, they come for the fantasy girl and the potential for a “happy ending.” No strip club survives where the promise of sex acts in back rooms, VIP rooms, or local hotels is not realized. Strip club managers have to balance keeping alive the environment that keeps the predatory males coming back for more, while trying to give the appearance of staying within legal limits. Pimps become regular customers at strip clubs. For years, they have used the clubs to break down the inhibitions of their young girls. The use of drugs among dancers is common to numb the reality of their daily abuse. Pimps also pay off security guards and management so they can bring in their girls and recruit others. Occasionally, the management will secretly cooperate with the police and give up a “bad pimp” who has a girl working the club. This takes the club off the watch list for a period of time, while law enforcement concentrates on the other clubs in the area. This is a big money business and the balancing act is constant.”
If we think this is a scenario which “only happens in Vegas” then we are being much too naive. Even the euphemism Gentlemen’s Clubs (or adult entertainment) is misleading, and we would be foolish to assume that pole or lap dancing is any different to stripping. As pointed out in the same paper:
“Strip clubs provide the perfect learning environment for sexually toxic attitudes and behaviors. Leering, jeering, sexual touching, and lap dancing are every day occurrences in strip clubs throughout the world. In “VIP” rooms and back rooms, acts of prostitution, sexual assaults, and sexual trafficking are the norm…Additionally, strip clubs are well- known fronts enabling prostitution and sex trafficking.”
Now Minister Mizzi can try to assuage his own conscience by claiming that the new regulations will protect the ‘dancers’ by instilling a code of ethics for the clubs and for how the patrons behave while inside the clubs, but who are we kidding? How is this going to work? Is he going to have plainclothes police officers there at all hours of the night to check on their behaviour? And much more crucially, I fail to see how he can speak with such confidence that there is no link to trafficking and prostitution – where are these girls coming from? from which countries? and how did they get into Malta? Can he go on record as saying that he is positive that all the girls working at the clubs are here of their own free will and were not coerced to come to Malta with lies and promises and that they are not being kept here against their will?
In a 2010 study on Australian strip clubs entitled, Not Just Harmless Fun: The Strip Club Industry in Victoria, it is pointed out that:
“A clear distinction is usually made between strip clubs and brothels, with strip clubs being described as ‘entertainment’ rather than ‘sexual services’. They are promoted as socially acceptable for businessmen and corporations, stag nights and hen nights.”
And yet reports on what actually happens inside the clubs include descriptions of intimate touching of the dancers, even though there are ’no touching’ rules. The reality is that it is almost impossible to regulate and monitor what happens once inside these clubs because human nature is what it is: you have beautiful girls on display offering their bodies for the viewing pleasure of men who are drinking all night long. It doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that there will be a certain amount of groping – and more – as the atmosphere literally heats up. Quoting from the same study:
“The clubs target ‘businessmen’ and the corporate sector, and try to ensure that male buyers are repeat customers by encouraging them to attend as frequently as possible. The clubs market themselves as mere entertainment, rather than prostitution providers. They promote themselves to potential women workers as glamorous venues, rather than as quasi brothels, and so induct new generations of young women into Australia’s sex industry.”
But, much like that scene in The Handmaid’s Tale, the sheen of so-called glamour is just on the surface, as the study goes on to point out the ties which these clubs have with organized crime. Which begs the question: what makes us think Malta is any different? Do we even know who the big bosses are behind all our Gentlemen’s Clubs, and why they have such political clout? As the Australian study states,
“The current branding of the strip industry as ‘entertainment’ diverts attention from the fact that it is aiding the normalisation of prostitution.”
This trend can even be seen here where we have come to accept the proliferation of Gentlemen’s Clubs as the norm, which means we have already unconsciously absorbed the cheapening and objectifying of women as a matter of course.
Yet not all countries are so complacent: in 2010 Iceland banned strip clubs with the reasoning that ‘it is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold’, and this move received broad public support (Bindel, 2010).
Because whether we like it or not, and no matter how many euphemisms we may choose to describe these clubs, ultimately what they are actually dealing in is the selling of women’s bodies as a commodity.