Lap Dancing: The Guardian Fails Again

Stripper
Tut tut tut tut tut...

As I’ve reported previously, the high-end, high-quality journalism of the Guardian has an achilles heel: sexuality. Whenever this mysterious subject raises its head, the Guardian seems to feel that it must respond with a mix of straight-laced puritanism and British schoolboy-type giggling.

I’ve reported about the attacks on London strip clubs, and the people who work in them, by a bizarre mix of anti-sex “feminist” groups, including Object, and religious fundamentalists. My recent podcast featured interviews with strippers who are fighting against these attacks. If such an attack on unionised workers took place in any other industry, the Guardian would take a serious journalistic approach. But these unionised workers take their clothes off for a living; and Guardian editorial policy in such matters requires a mix of “Ooh Matron!” and “Tut tut, your nipples must be covered at all times!”

So imagine my (lack of) surprise when the recent publication of a report by two  British academics into the British lap-dancing industry was met with the usual lack of seriousness in a comment piece by Victoria Coren entitled We must hone our lap-dancing skills. It’s about strippers, and strippers aren’t real people (at least, none of the Guardian’s Oxbridge-educated journalists know any), so we can all have a laugh at these working class women who undress for a living.

The writers of the original report, Dr Kate Hardy and Dr Teela Sanders of Leeds University, have responded with a letter to the Guardian, which they shared with MoronWatch:

Dear Sir,

 Victoria Coren’s ‘wry’ look at our research on labour conditions and mainstreaming of the lap dancing industry is lazy, Chinese whispers journalism in which the author has simply lifted an already poorly reported story from another news source.

Satire aside (I’m sure Coren is au fait with Aristotle’s theory of humour), the piece not only denigrates the women who work in lap dancing clubs as deserving subjects for sneering and ridicule, but also denigrates sociological and academic knowledge production itself.

We did not meet in a lap dancing club and ‘shriek’ (just to throw in a little more misogyny). Funding for the project was awarded to Dr Sanders from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), a highly esteemed and regarded funding body, in a close competition with many applications judged by a lengthy process of peer review.

We are not worried about the quality of lap dancing for consumers, but the safety, well-being and quality of the working lives of the women who work in the clubs. Our research actually charts the rise in exploitation that women have faced in lap dancing clubs since the beginning of the crisis, which employers have enabled through a process of deskilling and therefore opening up of the labour market. Victoria Coren would know this if she had done anything resembling her homework.

Dr Kate Hardy (Lecturer in Work and Employment) and Dr Teela Sanders (Reader in Sociology)

Whether the Guardian will either publish the letter or allow the researchers a full right to respond is currently unknown, although based on recent history, I’m not hugely optimistic.

The Guardian’s Sexual Hang-Ups

Stripper Edie Lamort
Photo courtesy Millie Robson Photography www.millierobson.com

The British press is among the best in the world. And among the worst. We have some of the most intelligent journalism that can be found anywhere, but also some of the most moronic. There are five daily newspapers (Guardian, Times, Telegraph, Independent and FT), from across the political spectrum, that are worth reading; of these, the Guardian often stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to providing high-quality journalism. The Guardian, for example, carries much of the credit for exposing the corruption at Murdoch’s News International. When it comes to challenging dangerous abuse of power within the British state and corporations, The Guardian is often alone in publishing stories ignored by the rest of the British media.

At a time when social conservatism is on the rise in many pernicious ways, it was good to see a Guardian article yesterday by Zoe Margolis (aka The Girl With The One Track Mind) challenging the anti-sex crusade spear-headed in parliament by rightwing Tory MP Nadine Dorries. And yet, on the broad subject area of sex and sexuality, The Guardian, more often than not, comes down on the side of repression. The paper comes very much from the liberal, middle-class, English tradition, and the one subject the English middle-classes have always had trouble dealing with is sex. The Guardian also tends to take anti-sex campaigners more seriously if they adopt the “feminist” label than if they crusade under a more old-fashioned “morality” banner. On this subject, the Guardian’s coverage can swing from liberal to deeply conservative in the blink of an eye.

I blogged recently about the UK Government’s steps towards Internet censorship, using the excuse of “protecting children from pornography”. The Guardian, normally a warrior against censorship, lost its mind in an editorial on the subject, using Daily Mail-type phrasing such as “…bombarding of people’s homes and children by pornography…” and “…the destructive effects of pornography on relationships and values…“. The editorial also mentioned a recent government-commissioned report on “sexualisation”, neglecting to mention that it came from a Christian lobbying organisation. The idea that anyone who doesn’t want to see porn is “bombarded” with it is of course laughable, and serious research on porn has yet to reveal the harmful side effects claimed by conservatives of various shades.

And this wasn’t a one-off: on the icky subject of sex, The Guardian is often deeply conservative. I recently interviewed strippers who are defending themselves against campaigners who threaten their right to work in the London boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets (podcast coming soon). These women are articulate, well-paid and belong to trade unions. Yet, the Guardian is apparently convinced that stripping is bad, and refuses to take seriously the voices of the women themselves who earn a living that way; instead, they give a platform to “feminist” (aka sexual morality) groups who use fascist-style propaganda methods (such as claiming a non-existent link between strip venues and rape) to attack the venues and the people who work in them. While women who strip have offered to write for the Guardian about their experiences, only one ex-dancer, Homa Khaleeli is published, because she tells “the truth about lap dancing” – in other words, she makes the “exploitation” and “objectification” noises that Guardianistas want to hear.

The Guardian has a confused idea of defending sexual freedom. While Gay, Lesbian, Transgender issues are treated with the appropriate straight-faced correctness, other forms of sexuality and sexual freedom have Guardian journos giggling like school children. Fetishes, swinging, polyamory, BDSM, open lifestyles, bisexuality and sex work… these aren’t causes for free speech but excuses for The Guardian to pander to middle-England prejudices (and have a good, Carry On giggle in the process).

It’s not that I’m asking for the Guardian to become a campaigner for sexual freedom; but it should be delivering the quality of journalism it does so well elsewhere. Repeating misinformation about porn leading to marriage break-up, lap dancing leading to rape or most prostitutes being “victims” isn’t good journalism. Accepting the word of a woman simply because she calls herself a feminist but ignoring the many voices of women who earn their money this way isn’t fair or balanced. Ignoring researchers in these fields but listening to morality campaigners lets down the readership.

It’s not that The Guardian is the worst offender – not by a long way! – but it’s the one (or am I being naive?) that should “know better”. In fact, the most level-headed coverage of sex and the sex industries comes from the Financial Times and its stable mate The Economist, but these are targeted primarily at business people. Among mainstream press, the Guardian, often alone, has the courage to expose police brutality and corporate corruption. Why not maintain the same high standards on the difficult subjects of sex and sexuality? Up your game Guardian, and stop being so damn English about sex!