‘Sexual entertainment districts’ make the city a more threatening place for women

A street in the red-light district of Amsterdam. Image: Getty

Increasingly liberal attitudes to sex have allowed for greater public celebration of sexual diversity – but the desires of heterosexual men still dominate urban environments.

Neighbourhoods where brothels, peep shows, strip clubs and sex shops cluster, dubbed “sexual entertainment districts”, have become common in neoliberal cities. A closer look at these areas, which concentrate in the CBD of older cities and the outer suburbs of younger cities, reveals how entrenched gender inequalities materialise in urban spaces.

Most critiques of sexual entertainment precincts, also known as “vice districts”, focus on the rise of crime and the decrease in nearby property values. We rarely discuss the possible effects of these precincts on the female population’s urban experience.

Strip clubs pose a particular conundrum, as they’re not subject to the same restrictions as, say, brothels. In Australia and the UK, the first legal strip clubs opened in the 1990s. Since then, commercial sex has rapidly increased its presence.

In parallel with more open legislation, strip clubs operate with a certain flexibility. Unlike brothels, they can advertise in mainstream media and are licensed to serve alcohol to patrons. With an estimated global revenue of $75bn, the strip club industry has established itself as an urban economic force. But at what cost?

A report by the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women found alcohol consumption in strip clubs creates a significant risk to the safety of nearby women. The report suggests alcohol licensing has direct impacts on community control of stripping venues and leads to no-go zones for women.

Plan International Australia’s recent interactive mapping project, Free to Be, found women deliberately avoid the entire length of King Street, Melbourne’s main strip club precinct. Project participants reported that any woman in the area was considered to be open to sexual propositions from strangers.

Anecdotal submissions to the Free to Be crowdmap included statements such as:

Men think that because you’re on King Street, you must be a stripper or hooker.

It’s like open rules here, cat calling, harassment and open hostility.

Plan International Australia’s data indicate that Melbourne women have internalised the link between the strip club precinct, the assumption that any woman in the area is “up for sex”, and the normalisation of hyper-masculine violence.

To reduce the risk of harassment and assault, more and more women feel forced to modify their movement throughout the city – especially during the night and early mornings. 

This is not only limited to Australia – it’s a global issue. UK organisation Object also reported that the presence of strip clubs creates zones where women’s “sense of security and entitlement to public space” are reduced.

In this context, public infrastructure and transportation areas like bus stops become sites of harassment, intimidation and other anti-social behaviour.


Exploitation beyond the club walls

It’s vital to understand how the behaviour and power relationships inside sex industry businesses like strip clubs influence social interactions outside.

My latest research suggests that the exploitation of women entrenched in the stripper-and-client relationship extends into the public space and transforms cities into hetero-sexist environments. Here, women may be expected to mimic aspects of the sex industry and condone men’s sexually harassing behaviour.

Media reports of sexual assault cases support this idea. For example, in 2015, three men stood by jeering and laughing as another man sexually assaulted a woman, just a block away from Goldfingers Men’s Club on King Street. This happened on a Tuesday night, when the victim was on her way home from work.

In a 2013 incident, an unknown man stalked a 23-year-old woman on her way home through King Street, where she was physically attacked and sexually assaulted at 2.45am on a Sunday. She had refused to hold his hand.

These real-world examples are in line with academic Meagan Tyler’s stance on the objectification of women in strip clubs and its impact on the general population. Tyler says:

If you allow some women to be bought and sold for men’s sexual arousal or entertainment, then you compromise the position of all women in a community.

Where to from here?

It’s clear that strip clubs and other sex industry businesses set up a social environment that fosters male privilege and dominance. As a result, some feminists suggest the proliferation of urban sex precincts may serve to remind women of their place and “keep them down”.

In 2010, Iceland banned strip clubs based on the argument that their existence compromised the safety of all women, not just those working in the industry.

According to the CEO of Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, Heather Nancarrow, we need to examine our cultural links with hyper-masculinity. This includes the ways in which cities normalise the hyper-sexualised commercial and systemic objectification of female bodies.

Researchers, urban planning policymakers and spatial practitioners need to pay attention to this. It’s not just “harmless fun” but a system that legitimises the larger infrastructures of sexual exploitation and stereotypes oppressing women.

The ConversationToday, we see a greater social and political determination to act on the causes and consequences of gender inequality and sexual violence. And the more we understand about the influence of “sexual entertainment” districts on society, the harder it becomes to ignore their negative impacts.

Nicole Kalms is director of XYX Lab and a senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture at Monash University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.