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The lap-dance industry and persistent blind eyes

by Ilham Rawoot

It’s quite something for a young lady to visit a strip club. I’d always thought of myself as rather liberal, but I found myself averting my gaze from anything round for quite a while. And when I finally got a bit more comfortable, I wish I’d remained coy.

You see, men don’t understand — for them it’s eye candy, pure pleasure, but for a woman, or for me at least, it became somewhat of a self-reflection exercise. Such skinny legs, no cellulite, perfect breasts, booze at the snap of a finger, and men swooning over you.

But I soon learned, after a few chats with the dancers — some employed and others now resigned — that there is a great deal of unhappiness that comes with the job, not because they feel degraded in any way, but because they often feel like mere pawns for industry bosses who are cheating both dancers and the authorities out of money and dignity, and getting away with it.

Dancers at many clubs are fined tens of thousands of rands for inhumane reasons, ranging from not finishing their plates of food to being out of work due to pneumonia. This is to keep them eternally indebted to their bosses — debt bondage as it is sometimes called.

Foreign women are brought to South Africa under false pretences of a better life, only to be forced to work as prostitutes while their bosses find ever-more unbelievable reasons for taking their passports away.

Prostitution is another issue. Regardless of your view of whether or not prostitution should be decriminalised, the fact that it is currently illegal means that strip bosses who allow or sometimes indirectly force their dancers to have sex do so behind closed cubicle doors. This means there is no regulation, and diseases and unwanted pregnancies run rife. The cash payments in clubs mean that tax fraud and money laundering will be a problem. And there always appears to be a willing policeman or government official to accept some hush money.

With the World Cup merely weeks away, concerns about prostitution and human trafficking from both NGO’s and the government have been systematically raised and subdued. But the obvious problem is not foreigners coming here to create illegal prostitution and trafficking rings, but that South Africans have been committing these crimes for a long time.

While some are calling for a regulator for the industry, it seems only obvious that this regulator would be next in the chain of corruption. South Africa has the resources to regulate this industry — they’re just not doing their job.

Over the next few weeks, the Mail & Guardian will run a series of articles on the strip-club industry: which bosses are getting away with what, who’s letting them do it, and what the dancers and employees have to say about this. This industry has gone untouched for far too long, and sometimes the obvious boundaries of the industry are clouded by the desire to be open-minded.


  • amaBhungane are the investigators of the M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit, public interest initiative to produce better investigative stories and plough back through internships and advocacy. On this blog, amaBhungane -- seasoned and award-winning journalists -- will penetrate the world of smoke and mirrors to bring you the story behind the story.


  1. Dave Harris Dave Harris 2 May 2010

    “This industry has gone untouched for far too long” – emphasis on untouched ;-)
    Hmmm, I suspect its just an excuse for your esteemed “investigative journalists” to visit all the strip joints all over the country. I’m sure they were clamoring to be part of the uncovering, tantalizing, behind-the-curtains, peek of this sordid industry – LOL – talk about living the life!

    I suppose its far more exciting than exposing REAL-CORPORATE CORRUPTION involving BILLIONS on a daily basis – like exorbitant bank charges and fatcat executive salaries, illegal price fixing of basic consumer goods like bread, milk, petrol etc, high cell phone costs, escalating medial costs …oh, but wait, those corporate criminals pay our salaries by purchasing ads in our newspapers don’t they? So lets not bother with boring old corporate corruption and stick to the old tried and tested tricks….lets educate the public on the mechanics of lap-dances! I wonder if neuroscience can explain the baffling phenomenon of why a 3-minute song always seem to last for just 2-minutes? ;-)

  2. Rod MacKenzie Rod MacKenzie 2 May 2010

    A very sad industry and a very good, important article. I am one of those men who are not into strip tease and prostitution, as I just find it so sad. It is very important that you and MG bring into the light this disgusting business. It’s virtual human trafficking. Yes, I have argued for legalising prostitution in a previous blog. BUT this was based on the cold hard fact it will NEVER go away. So legalise it and protect the workers, I argued. Have social programs that give them the chance to find other mens of work. Have a government legislated system and labour laws that prevents these people from being exploited, as you described above. But that’s just wishful thinking….

  3. John John 2 May 2010

    Good article, good move by the M&G

    My experience of the industry was that it is much more corrupt than even you portray it. Beating is not uncommon. I became aware of the occasional deliberate permanent injury to a “disruptive” worker.

    The retention of a girl’s earnings, the forced deductions for things sher didn’t get and the horrendous fines were disgusting. R500 for being late (even though it was unavoidable), R2000 for being sick!

    There is absolutely no safety net. If a worker is no longer useful to the owner, he will get rid of her without paying her any outstanding salary as well as the substantial sum of her pay he has withheld. The case I witnessed was R8 000 being withheld. In today’s money it was probably worth about R20 000. The woman involved found herself on the street, without an income and insufficient money to survive a month!

    If she was stupid enough to complain, she would be disfigured!

    If she complained to the police, they would arrest her for prostitution.

    The trouble is, because it is an illicit industry, the girls earn much more than they can earn in other types of employment available to them.

    It was an interesting education to meet the scum that own and run these businesses. I didn’t know people like that existed. I’ve never seen such depravity.

  4. R R 2 May 2010

    This isn’t that complicated. There are many laws, both criminal and labour, that could and should be enforced. The lap dancing trade is an aspect of the sex trade despite the persistent euphemisms used and constant promotion by some media publications. Sadly some female journalists have chosen to play this game, whether from the desire to appear trendy, liberal and sexually daring, or just because it was convenient and politic to do so. Women should have been on the forefront of exposing the reality of this exploitation. Instead all we have mostly had has been female hacks relaying the spin from the club bosses and sometimes the unexamined rationalisations of the lap dancers. Lap dancing is degrading to women and that is why those who participate are usually drawn from the ranks of those who are generally found in prostitution – vulnerable with limited options, sometimes dysfunctional and easily exploited. If they were truly empowered they would just walk away, right, and not accept the abuse? Dont know why you still seem to punt the tired old line that regulation magics away the problems with prostitution. You seem to answer your own question that regulation just does not work for obvious reasons. Empowerment for women does not come naked up a pole. The time has come for women to actively work against these industries that only diminish them further.

  5. Richard Richard 2 May 2010

    Top notch. Bust those who are taking advantage.

  6. MLH MLH 2 May 2010

    If legalising prostitution appeals to you, ask only: how would you feel about having a brothel next door to you?
    Drunken clients knock on the wrong doors and keep neighbours up all night. They puke in the road and argue about the charges. Your children are forced to grow up with prostitutes and their pimps patrolling the streets. Next stop drugs, etc.
    I don’t want that in my neighbourhood.

  7. haiwa tigere haiwa tigere 3 May 2010

    The 50 times or so I visited a lap club I enjoyed it. Very much.tittilating it was.I tipped good too. Its like the 3 times I have seen women on the cat walk.Cant remember the dresses they were wearing but must have been good.

    Its the law of supply and demand. There is a huge demand for such clubs and few women to supply iy.
    Now that we have established that-that its no more degrading than the catwalk lets make it safe and rewarding for the women.In a patriachal society the woman does not get enough education or chances at anything else-her options might be between being a second wife or the pole. I would chose the pole if it was made safe.How difficult is it to enforce the current laws and tweek some changes.

    Dont take away pole dancing just make it safe

  8. X Cepting X Cepting 3 May 2010

    Thank you. Please investigate Lower Albert Road, Salt River area first and do not let respectable appearances fool you.

    @Rod Mackenzie – for the same reason I have always been against legalisation. It will not help the abused at all. The nasty will then become easier because it will be able to hide behind the innocuous. The fact is that it IS human trafficking and no amount of legislation will change the fact or make it better for the slaves. They are owned, by owners. I have had this argument so often in the past it is becoming old but can never stand by while people (children and men too) are being emotionally and physically degraded by those incapable of healthy, responsible give-and-take relationships. Many women enter these “careers” through economic desperation and if it was totally illegal would rather find other means to make money. It is the lure of a more than average income for very little education that draws these woman (and men) to consider this a viable way to make a living, only to discover that “there is no return to innocence” and the cost to themself incalculably high. If it is the oldest profession in the book then it is past time to deal with it once and for all in this “civilised” day and age. Why do we never hear from the psychologists and philosophers on this topic? Too hot to touch? Scared of a backlash from club owners and their sycophants in government?

  9. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 3 May 2010

    Nice one my lady.
    And yes this is true, Legalize it and regulate it. The sooner the better. I have been to the Red Light district in Amsterdam and though the women there still get’s exploited, at least there are laws that if implemented properly will protect them. So yes, put the laws in place and then work towards the enforcement of those laws.

    @Dave Harris on May 2nd, 2010 at 12:38 am
    At least it’s a start. We need this kind of investigative journalism. Take this as a practice drill. Soon they will investigate all your concerns above. Part of what I want them to investivate will be corporate SA’s passive resistance towards AA and BEE, Tenderpreneurship expose those who are exploiting this and put corrupt politicians on the spotlight, e.t.c.

  10. Lyndal Wyatt Lyndal Wyatt 3 May 2010

    When are female journalists going to start (seriously) speaking out against the objectification and commodification of women’s bodies? Our bodies are not for sale! Besides the exploitation of strippers through debt bondage and passports being kept, the whole sex trade contributes to a culture where women are only valued for their sex appeal. Ms Rawoot needs to read the December 2008 edition of Noseweek which describes how the strippers at Teazers are kept under lock n key – basically as slaves. Those who support strip clubs are supporting modern day slavery!

  11. X Cepting X Cepting 3 May 2010

    @Tlanch Tau – ” though the women there still get’s exploited, at least there are laws that if implemented properly will protect them”

    Is it a mystery why the laws aren’t implemented properly, ever? Most of these women (and men and children) work in the privacy of a bedroom, away from scrutiny. It has never worked where it is legal since the whole concept of a “bedroom inspector” is ludicrous, and fear of loss of earnings as well as a reduced credibility (who’s going to believe a pro’s side of the story) keeps the sex workers from telling and the authorities ignorant of what actually happens. The seemingly innocent practices like pole dancing is mostly a taste of what is actually on offer behind the scenes.

  12. Peter Peter 4 May 2010

    It’s a sordid business that exploits and degrades people at every turn. Laws are not enforced as police are on the take and owners are rotten to the core.

    Interesting to see Dave Harris advocating that attention be turned elsewhere and so indirectly supporting this sick business. I suppose he feels that the sex industry is a bit like his beloved ANC; rotten to the core.

  13. Grego Grego 4 May 2010

    So our dear old Uncle Lolly was taken out last night! Wonder how big his casket is going to be? It will have to be pretty big to fit in all those Supercars.

  14. blogroid blogroid 4 May 2010

    I guess someone pre-empted your investigation and put away an arch “teaser”. RIP Lol.

  15. Benzol Benzol 4 May 2010

    Prostitution does not go away from this earth, no matter what you try.

    Emphasis above is on the poor ladies who get trapped into this “profession” and then cannot get out. Consider the ladies who get stinking rich and set enough money aside to live a good life forever thereafter.

    I have met prostitutes (yes, I did) who did the work for specific purpose (i.e.: setting up their own hair salon) and achieved their goals.

    Not much different from the current working class, some get out of it, most are trapped in the “working class” lifestyle.

    Very little comment from the respondents about male prostitutes where the problematics of the situation are the same as for the female variety.

    “Oh, but these guys are men, men can look after themselves. Anyway, they enjoy themselves!” I hear you say. Think again.

    I do hope the MG survey will include the male side of the trade.

  16. radiodave radiodave 5 May 2010

    a full-on investigation into the industry is exactly what’s required.

    @dave harrass: exactly where in this article does it have anything to do with corporate corruption involving billions blah blah… please stick to the flipping topic.

  17. Tlanch Tau Tlanch Tau 6 May 2010

    @radiodave on May 5th, 2010 at 1:22 pm
    I guess Dave is asking that we investigate everything in SA and not just this industry. I will also like to see some investigative journalist going into Transformation in SA and the lack of, investigative journalism on institutional racism, and corruption within the government etc.

  18. Chico Chico 9 May 2010

    I think this is a vitally important theme, not nearly adquaetely covered above. Its importance is literally vital, not just as a matter of ethics, but as a matter of survival. Men should note that a slow down in the birth rate (the most serious threat to our planet) is directly related to the education and liberation of women: well-educated liberated women simply ensure that they breed less.

    You cannot have a society that, on the one hand tries to liberate women in its constitution, yet on the other somehow glorifies and sniggers at the objectification of women. You have to connect the dots linking sex, relationship, procreation, family, fidelity, integrity of personality and the like. You have to create a vibe where it is normal and natural to speak up for these themes—not somehow churlish, old fashioned and uncool.

    Yes—we will always have prostitution, but men who support the demeaning of women by patronising Teasers, engaging in prostitution and the like should not be regarded as “normal”. They are broken, inadequate personalities. We need not mock them, but we should certainly not glorify them, nor treat them as standard-setters and role models. We should seek to liberate both the poor women who demean themselves, as well as the men who demean them. Decriminalisation of prostitution seems to me to be one step, but a whole new journey is needed to change our sex-crazed culture.

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