The Allure of exploitation – and what to do about it

Enough talk: bars and clubs need to take greater responsibility for the messages they send

Social media was afire this past weekend with talk about the controversial events accompanying the opening of a new club in downtown St. John’s (the gossip was fueled in no small way by CBC’s lurid coverage of the event. I’m not going to bother addressing that in this column, although I’m hoping their decision to frame the story in sensationalist CNN-style, replete with video and photo excerpts of allegedly underage women “baring it all”, was the result of a bit of early Paddy’s Day celebrating and not simply poor editorial decisions).

The debate fired off in many directions. Some were angered at what looked like a club profiting off of the sexual exploitation of women (including, allegedly, underage women). ‘Oh, lighten up,’ responded others, arguing that we’re living in the 21st century and ought to be able to deal with sexualized dancing. The club, most bizarrely of all, responded by banning “sexual” dance (there goes my chance to show off those flamenco moves) and stating that females can only bare 25% of their body in the club in future. If ever there was a picture-perfect case of “missing the point”, this club wins the distinction. Fortunately (depending on your perspective) it became a moot point, since the Newfoundland Liquor Corporation (NLC) acted with uncharacteristic speed and revoked the club’s liquor license pending a fuller investigation. However, the firm resolve of the NLC didn’t last long: on Friday March 21 CBC reported the club’s liquor license had been reinstated (conveniently enough just in time for the highly profitable weekend club scene), despite the ongoing investigation.

I’ve got nothing against twerking (or flamenco) but share the concerns of many in the community about the sexually exploitative nature of the event. Celebrity photographer sleazebag Kirill, who was flown in from New York and featured that night, has an extremely exploitative reputation. More significantly, it’s not clear that the bar even understands why people are concerned about the event. As evidenced by their casting the blame on women (particularly those who uncover 26% of their body), it’s equally clear that they don’t seem to have made the connections between exploiting women and sexuality for profit, and the ways this can lead to objectification and ultimately violence against women in a much broader range of public and private spaces. But even when we draw those connections, what ought we to do about such things? Short of ridiculous policies like these?

Taking responsibility

A few years ago, the Students’ Union at Memorial University participated in the public consultations on revisions to the Liquor Control Act. They had several reasons to do so: first of all, they operate a bar – the Breezeway – and secondly, they represent the thousands of undergraduate students who frequent the scores of bars across the city. In many ways, the city’s liquor establishments rely on students, so the students’ union has a role to play in supporting, representing and protecting its members when it comes to the operation of liquor establishments.

I was part of the delegation that developed and presented our recommendations to the provincial government. Unfortunately, I don’t think any of them were adopted. It’s unfortunate because they would have contributed a great deal to improving safety in the downtown bar scene, and would have possibly helped prevent – or at least shape in a more positive fashion – the sort of debacle that ensued last week.

One of the key recommendations students made was that downtown bars need to bear greater responsibility for the role their establishments play both in ensuring patrons’ safety, as well as in combating the culture of sexualized violence against women. Believe it or not, several years ago taxi cab drivers were required to receive regular city-operated safety training sessions, and be tested on safety training whenever they renewed their license. This requirement has since been discontinued (it would be good to re-instate this, in part to train cab drivers in how to spot harassment or assault going on and what to do in such cases). But one recommendation we made was that this model be used to develop a mandatory training workshop around safety and sexualized violence in alcohol-related situations. Servers are, generally, required to undergo training, but it’s fairly silent on issues of gender equality and sexual violence. Existing training programs could easily be expanded to include these subjects, and it could be made mandatory (for all bar staff, and perhaps cab drivers too). It makes sense for bar staff to receive training in safety and first aid, as well as in how to identify and respond to situations of violence, sexual harassment or assault. Our proposal was that the training be mandatory (all bar employees would have to receive it, and training pay would be covered by their employer). Government apparently rejected this proposal, but it would have contributed a great deal toward providing bar staff with the skills and knowledge to respond to crisis situations as they develop.

It might cut into bar owners’ bottom line, but it would help to reduce violence and sexism, which is much more important. It would also provide bar staff with excellent professional development opportunities and skills and training they could take with them into future employment. And it would boost the city’s reputation as a destination that not only celebrates its historic bar culture, but works innovatively and proactively to ensure the safety of residents and visitors alike.

Meaningful consequences

Another issue we flagged was that while bars will sometimes be criticized for things that happen (viz Allure’s recent foray into public relations nightmares), there is little by way of meaningful consequence. We proposed that bars face a series of progressive penalties for events that contribute to sexual stereotyping, chilly climate, or sexualized violence (for instance Kirill’s visit), as well as for cases of sexual assault or drugging that occur on their premises. Enough penalties, and their liquor license would be revoked. This is a carrot and stick approach to encourage bars to play a more active role in looking after the safety of their clients and patrons, and in thinking about the events they put off and the consequences they could have (not merely on their pocketbooks).

All these are fairly reasonable ways to address some of the issues brought to light by this incident. They won’t solve all the problems, but the point is that city and government officials need to think more creatively about solutions that could be tried, and the bar establishments need to take greater responsibility for what goes on in, and as a result of, their clubs and events.

When we met with government, it was frustrating that officials only wanted to discuss liquor prices and bar hours. The price of beer and the times you can buy it are important, to be sure, but it was discouraging that there was very little interest in discussing these other very important matters. Government regulation ought to be used for more than just price-setting (if it should be used for that at all); it ought to be used to provide serious, tangible carrots and sticks to bars that will require them to be more responsible and accountable. Perhaps the fallout from this most recent debacle will help encourage them to do so. But the fact the NLC so quickly reinstated the club’s license does not offer much hope.

To revoke or not to revoke

Of course, it’s true that the NLC for once did take action and revoked the club’s liquor license pending further investigation into the allegations of underagers present. The club’s owners protested vociferously, essentially suggesting that they were being judged based on morality and not illegality (and it appears their protest worked: NLC backed off and reinstated their license just in time for the weekend, despite the ongoing investigation and despite CBC reports that they had confirmed the presence of underage girls in photos from the event).

There’s a part of that argument, however, which is compelling. It’s not very long ago that gay and lesbian clubs in this country were shut down under similar pretenses: antiquated and oppressive forms of morality disguised as legality. And while many of us feel a certain triumphant sense of “gotcha!” in the case of Allure about what we consider a sleazy establishment, I don’t really think that it’s underage drinking which we’re really concerned about. How many of us drank underage, or facilitated the underage drinking of others? That’s really not the issue.

The issue is sexuality. In this case, it’s quite different from the revoked licenses of queer clubs in the 1980s 1990s, because in those cases the law was being used to prevent people from expressing their sexuality. In this case, public concern – I would wager – lies in a bar exploiting the sexuality of the young and the vulnerable for its own profit, and perpetuating a culture of sexual objectification. Certainly, not everybody in the club was being exploited, and not all were young or vulnerable. But if even some of them were, then that is what gives pause for concern. And while Allure crossed a line in terms of degree, they’re certainly not the only bar in town that treats sexism in terms of its profit margins.

Sorting these things out will entail a long hard discussion that will not be easy. But it’s a discussion that needs to happen.

This piece was updated on March 21 to reflect the NLC’s reinstatement of the club’s liquor license.


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