On Iceland, Strip Clubs and Pseudo-Feminism

REYKJAVIK—The Icelandic parliament, Althingi, has enacted a measure which will bar owners of strip clubs—the few that remain after an earlier law severely limited the number of such clubs—from "making a profit from the nudity of employees" after the bill's effective date, July 1, 2010.

The new law would put hundreds out of work, in a country with just 320,000 inhabitants—86 percent of whom are Evangelical Lutherans—unprecedented unemployment and an 18 percent inflation rate, thanks to the country having been hard hit by the worldwide recession which began in 2008.

"It is pleasing how fresh the breeze of equality is at Althingi these days," the Progressive Party's Siv Fridleifsdóttir told the newspaper Fréttabladid.

Fridleifsdóttir had been the bill's first sponsor, and it garnered "yea" votes from 31 of the parliament's 63 members, with the two Independence Party members abstaining. No one voted against it.

The move has been hailed by some as a victory for feminism, though apparently no one who's written a news story on the issue has bothered to ask any of the dancers for their opinion(s) about the impending loss of their jobs.

Although the Capital Region Police have estimated that about 100 foreign women come to Iceland each year to dance at the clubs, part of the rationale for the law has been the cops' claim that "it has proven difficult to determine whether they are being forced into such practices."

However, Ásgeir Thór Davídsson, the owner of the Goldfinger strip club in Kópavogur, a town just south of the capital, told a local radio station that no trafficking takes place at his club, that half of his employees are native Icelanders, while others "travel the world and come back, which they wouldn’t do if there was something criminal going on," and that some of his female employees have worked at his club for 10 years or longer.

But while Julie Bindel, writing in The Guardian (UK), claims that Iceland is "the first country in the world to ban stripping and lap-dancing for feminist, rather than religious, reasons"—the large percentage of Evangelical Lutherans might suggest otherwise—and though the Iceland Review claims that "European investigations show that women who work at strip clubs are often victims of various abuse because of poverty, alcohol or drug addiction [and] in many cases ... are victims of human trafficking and other crimes," the evidence that European women are being forced into stripping or even prostitution, as opposed to willingly choosing such professions, is woefully lacking.

For example, a recent AVN report noted that despite widespread claims of women being trafficked into prostitution in the United Kingdom, of 528 "criminals" arrested during "Operation Pentameter Two," a 2009 anti-trafficking campaign run by 55 UK police forces and other government and non-government entities, not one person was convicted of the "use of coercion or deceit to transport an unwilling man or woman into prostitution"—the internationally accepted definition of sex trafficking.

Moreover, in a country one-fourth the size of California, with a population one-fourth the size of the San Fernando Valley's, where the majority of its citizens live in the coastal areas and where much of the island nation's interior is a cold and uninhabitable combination of sand, mountains and glaciers, it really shouldn't be that difficult to figure out whether women are actually being trafficked into the few remaining strip clubs—or into prostitution, for that matter, which continues to be legal in Iceland although it is illegal for any third party to profit from the prostitute's earnings.

Recently, two of the major feminist websites have taken issue with the law's rationale.

"Iceland and the press are claiming this as a feminist victory," wrote Miriam on feministing.com. "I have to disagree. ... History has shown us that criminalizing these industries simply drives them underground, where they continue to thrive, but with little regulation and definitely no protections for the workers. Instead workers are criminalized (often instead of the people seeking their services), which prevents them from seeking recourse for abuses they may face. ... This is not a feminist victory."

"A feminist victory, in my opinion, would be a highly regulated industry that made sure dancer's rights were protected," she continued. "One where workers were paid good wages, were able to unionize, had full benefits, were able to set boundaries with customers and have those boundaries protected. One that ensured that these immigrant women were not being brought to Iceland against their will."

Jill on feministe.com agrees somewhat.

"Stripping, for better or worse, is one of the better-paid jobs that low-skilled (and hey, sometimes high-skilled) female workers can get," she wrote. "And no, it’s not a sustainable career, and it’s a job that traffics in discrimination—it’s primarily for the young, the thin, the able-bodied, etc, and once you don’t fit into that framework it’s no longer an option. But it does offer paid work that can be significantly less unpleasant than a lot of other jobs. With so many female workers relegated to a pink-collar work force that revolves around physically and emotionally intensive care work—being an elder care-taker or a nurse’s aid or a childcare worker—I can see how for some women, stripping seems a lot easier and a lot less messy and a lot less difficult and a lot more convenient. ... Like a lot of other jobs. I’d be willing to bet that most strippers strip because it pays pretty well. Removing that option, even if it does send A Message, doesn’t seem like a great victory to me. Because, sure, dudes will be sad that they don’t get to male bond over seeing naked ladies anymore. But the ladies will be the ones who are dead broke because of it. ... [A]t the end of the day you can’t regulate or legislate respect. You can outlaw the things that are tangibly harmful, but I’m not sure that stripping falls so clearly on that side."

So although Iceland boasts having the world's first openly lesbian prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, and a largely female parliament, its new anti-strip club law is hardly the pro-woman panacea it claims to be.