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Stripping their rights away: Exotic dancers complain Toronto’s lapdancing bylaw is turning them into prostitutes

By Siobhan Kilbride

She says strip clubs are about selling sexual fantasy, but with lapdancing that illusion becomes a reality.

“Yeah, a brutal reality,” remarks a co-worker.

“She” is Shayne, a 21-year-old waitress at a local strip bar. Her co-worker is 33-year-old Amber, a veteran dancer for 14 years.

Amber longs for the old days of stripping when “the g-string and the tassels always stayed on.” She says that although her license reads “exotic dancer” it might as well read “prostitute” because the bylaw that permits lapdancing “has basically legalized prostitution.”

A Feb. 1994 provincial court ruling legalized lapdancing, including “permitting the customer to touch and fondle (strippers’) breasts, buttocks, thighs and genitals.”

Amber says that since the bylaw took effect, customers have “gone animal,” fondling even the waitresses who work at strip clubs “because they can get away with it.”

Angie agrees with Amber. Angie is a waitress who works at the same club and has seen what she calls the “degrading” way in which customers behave towards women at less reputable bars. 

“I once saw a man shit himself at the end of a (lap)dance,” Angie says.

Shayne complains of once seeing a stripper drop a used condom after lapdancing in a booth. The booths were installed in bars after the lapdancing bylaw was passed.

Shayne, Amber and Angie say they work at one of the “cleanest” clubs around. It is also one of the latest clubs to offer lapdancing. 

The women say there are two distinct cultures in the strippign world: clean and dirty. Clean clubs fought the lapdancing bylaw and their more experienced staff resent being pressured to lapdance for customers.

In dirty clubs, anything goes. The women say dirty clubs seem to attract younger, less experienced dancers who are overwhelmed by the amount of money they can earn. And they are willing to do anything to get paid. Dancers at cleaner clubs are also dancing for the money, but they draw the line at lapdancing.

When Amber first started dancing in the strip clubs, her weekly paycheque was $2,200. Now – because she refuses to lapdance – it totals a little over $100. Dancers are not the only ones losing money at the clubs. Shayne says that the men are not buying as much alcohol because they want to spend their money on lapdances. She says the only reason waitresses are making a living at all is because the dancers have started drinking heavily. Angie agrees. She says the dancers drink “to make it, day in and day out.”

Shayne says she is “disgusted” by the new wave of dancers performing at the bar. She says since the dancers at the club are all freelancers, any woman with a dancer’s license can enter the bar, pay the manager a $20 performer’s fee and dance. 

The policy is attracting a large number of prostitutes who come off the streets into the safety of teh club. The prostitutes are safer because since lapdancing began, the club has had to double its security staff. 

Shayne says the prostitutes are “filthy” because they perform sex acts on the patrons “and bring everyone else down.”

Angie is angry about the bylaw because no one consulted any of the women whose lives would be most affected when it was passed.

Amber says she is frustrated because she feels powerless over her situation. She hopes that she and her co-workers will gain the support of politicians but they aren’t counting on it.

Politicians are sending strippers who feel they have been forced into prostitution contradictory messages. 

In late June, Metro’s licensing commission unanimously recommended to ban all touching between dancers and their customers. That recommendation has yet to be approved by two other bodies, including Metro council. 

Days later, Toronto city council voted to push the federal justice ministry for the right to license prostitutes, and to create red light district. 

Until a decision is made, dancers find themselves caught between satisfying customers’ fantasies and economic survival. 

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