City council this week got deeply involved in my line of work.
It adopted the Licensing and Standards Committee's changes to the city's adult entertainment parlour regulations, the key one of which gets rid of the "no touch" rule around private dances.
Now it's spelled out that strippers can't sit on patrons' laps or make contact with breasts, buttocks or pubic areas. And rooms, booths or cubicles for private dances have to be transparent on one side.
I have flouted the "no touching" regulations and have never been fined, but others have. When I started stripping, I didn't even know what the bylaws were - they don't seem to be the rules by which the clubs operate. When I get bored during private dances and eavesdrop on my co-workers explaining the rules to customers, they usually say something to the effect of "Don't touch my pussy."
As the Licensing and Standards Committee was formulating the amendments passed Tuesday, October 30, its staff consulted with us about dancing for dollars in order to make bylaws reflect the reality of strip clubs today. But while our opinions were sought in good faith, we faced major obstacles in giving them. More on that in a minute.
A survey was mailed to all strippers licensed by the city asking whether the aims of the current bylaws were being accomplished and what we thought of amendments proposed by the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada, the group representing club owners.
The AEAC, for its part, lobbied to do away with municipal licensing of strippers and to amend the "no touch" rule to a ‘no sex of any kind' regulation that listed prohibited sexual acts: anal intercourse, bestiality, and the rest of the alphabet.
There were also a number of questions in the survey about our health and safety concerns and how we felt they were being addressed by our employers.
Tim Lambrinos of AEAC tells me he felt the survey "was set up to arrive at a predetermined conclusion," because it assumed that dancers are "victims" and asked about our agency, safety and experience of sexual violence.
I appreciate his concern about stigma, but the city would be doing us a disservice if it didn't ask us if sexual assault occurs and how it's handled. After all, we perform naked in dark little rooms to arouse sexual desire for sometimes drunken customers. You don't manage risk by pretending it doesn't exist. I'm happy the city's questions didn't pussyfoot around.
But here's where things got sketchy. After the survey was sent out, management at the club I worked in put a sign in the change room that read: "You will be receiving a questionnaire in the mail from the city of Toronto. Please bring the envelopes with you to work so management can help you fill it out properly."
A politically savvy stripper took a photo of this sign and sent it to City Hall. Staff mentioned this in their review and warned that it might indicate interference by club management in the survey process.
When I brought my manager my own survey, he took it. I asked him if he was going to help me. "No," he said, "we fill it out and send it for you." That's right, the club was collecting them and filling them out on our behalf.
The manager told me, "If you make a mistake in that, they take it against us [sic]." I asked him how they would answer the questions about assault. He said, "This has nothing to do with what you think they want. What you think they want this for? They want to close us down."
He held up the survey, "This is from the government. They want the girls to see all these stupid questions so they can answer, ‘Oh, people touching me.... Oh, I don't like the dark.' Then they come in the court and say, ‘Look, the girls don't like the business.'"
He put my survey in a drawer and said, "We're gonna do it the right way so they don't use this against us. That's what they want - they want to use you girls against us."
During my five years stripping, many of my co-workers were fired without cause. I didn't ask for the survey back.
After studying the questionnaires from strippers working at many clubs, city staff, according to their review, had "concerns with respect to the authorship and the validity of many of these surveys." Two-thirds appeared to be in the same handwriting and to have nearly the same answers.
Lambrinos explained to the Licensing and Standards Committee that his association helped strippers in nearly all the clubs who asked for assistance filling out the survey.
Lambrinos said AEAC staff filled out the surveys while interviewing the women, which explains the identical handwriting. These were the surveys city staffers thought were forged. Lambrinos's argument is that the AEAC was merely encouraging civic involvement.
When I asked Councillor Anthony Perruzza, who sits on Standards and Licensing, if he was concerned about these surveys, he said, "Who would do that? Write them all out in the same handwriting?"
Lambrinos assured me, "There were no major differences between the [surveys] we filled out and the ones we didn't."
But that's not the case. The city's data shows that 98 per cent of respondents in the surveys submitted by the AEAC denied ever being sexually assaulted or touched without their consent, while 67 per cent of strippers who submitted surveys themselves said they had been.
My manager warned me when they filled out my survey that "they" would say I had never been assaulted.
Lambrinos says about the questions dealing with assault, "How many complaints have there been about sexual assault in a strip club? There has not been a single occurrence, a single conviction."
Strippers who answered their own surveys and spoke to what happened after they reported unwanted touching or sexual assault to management or security shed light on why that's the case. Only 2 per cent reported that management or security called the police.
Other actions strippers said the clubs took included asking the customer to leave (34 per cent), ignoring the incident (22 per cent), blaming the stripper (4 per cent) and claiming it was part of the job (14 per cent).
Strip club management and security have a long way to go toward accepting that strippers are entitled to equal protection under the law.
Perhaps the Adult Entertainment Association of Canada did "enlighten" baffled strippers rather than usurping their voices. But I do know that owners and managers I've worked for have no qualms about treating us like pawns.
In future consultations with stigmatized communities, I urge councillors to take a hard look at self-appointed spokespeople.
Brigitte Benoit is a pseudonym.