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Re-Configuring the Margins: Tracing the Regulatory Context of Ottawa Strip Clubs, 1974–2000

  • Chris Bruckert (a1) and Martin Dufresne (a2)


This article employs recent writings on governmentality to make sense of the ways that labour on the margins of the market and morality are being re-configured in late modernity. By tracing the trajectory of Ottawa strip clubs from 1974 to 2000, the authors demonstrate how the industry and its workers are (re)constituted by shifting discursive contexts, and by economic, legal and social processes. During this time period the restructuring of the labour process from entertainment to service interacted with regulatory strategies including moral contamination arguments, city planning and health management. The authors illustrate how within the normative parameters established by the courts, questions of morality, responsibility and risk get played out. Within this context, and consistent with neo-liberalism, strippers are increasingly constituted as self-regulating moral subjects. On the margins however, her «freedom» is conditioned by a complex web of legal, community, as well as labour discourses and practices.

En s'inspirant de la littérature sur la gouvernementalité, cette étude cherche à saisir la re-configuration du travail en marge du marché et de la moralité. En suivant l'évolution des clubs de «strip tease» à Ottawa de 1974 jusqu'en 2000, les auteurs expliquent comment des transformations du contexte discursif et des processus économique, légal et social de la modernité avancée re-constituent l'industrie et ses travailleuses. Les transformations d'une structure du travail organisée à partir du divertissement puis du service s'accompagnent d'une succession de stratégies de régulation incluant la contamination morale, la planification urbaine et la gestion de la santé. Les auteurs montrent que des questions de moralité, de responsabilité et de risque jouent dans le cadre de paramètres normatifs posés par les tribunaux. Dans ces débats et sous l'influence du néo-libéralisme, les travailleuses sont progressivement constituées comme des sujets éthiques auto-régulés. Or dans les marges, la «liberté» que confère ce statut n'en est pas moins contrainte et organisée par les discours et pratiques du droit, de la communauté et du travail.



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1 Foucault, M., “The Subject and Power” (1982) 8 Critical Inquiry 77; Foucault, M., “Governmentality” in Burchell, G., Gordon, C. & Miller, P., eds., The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality (London: Harvester, 1991) 87.

2 Rose, N., “The Death of the Social? Re-figuring the territory of government” (1996) 24:3Economy and Society 327; Kinsman, Gary, “‘Responsibility’ as a strategy of governance: regulation people living with AIDS and lesbians and gay men in Ontario” (1996) 25:3Economy and Society 393; Hannah-Moffat, KellyPrisons that Empower” (2000) 40 British Journal of Criminology 510; Fox, K., “Changing Violent Minds” (1999) 46:1Social Problems 88; Vaughan, B., “The Government of Youth: Disorder and dependence?” (2000) 9:3Social & Legal Studies 347.

3 Allen, R., Horrible Prettiness (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991) at 40.

4 Valverde, M., “The Harms of Sex and the Risks of Breasts: Obscenity and Indecency in Canadian Law” (1999) 8: 2Social & Legal Studies 194.

5 Herman, E. and Chomsky, N., Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).

6 Bell, L., ed., Good Girls, Bad Girls: Sex Trade Workers and Feminists Face to Face (Toronto: The Women's Press, 1987); Dragu, M. & Harrison, A.S.A., Revelations: Essays on Striptease and Sexuality (London: Nightwood Editions, 1988); Atkinson, D., Highways and Dance Halls (Vancouver: Random House, 1996); Tracey, L., Growing Up Naked (Vancouver: Douglas & Mclntyre, 1997).

7 Spender, D., Invisible Women, The Schooling Scandal (London: Writers and Readers, 1982) at 14.

8 Burford, E. J., Wits, Wenches and Wantons London's Low Life, Covent Garden in the 18th Century (London: Robert Hale, 1986) at 91.

9 Tracey, supra note 6; Cario, A., This Was Burlesque (New York: Grosset & Dunlop, 1968).

10 While there are undoubtedly some women who work as both prostitutes and strippers this research found limited evidence of this overlap. These findings are consistent with industry insider accounts (see Bell; Tracey; Dragu and Harrison, supra note 6). The conflation of the industry with prostitution is, as we will see, a powerful discrediting discourse with little basis in fact. Fleischman is one of the few academic studies that found this overlap. Notably, this research relied on police claims. Perhaps it is not surprising that this researcher found “strippers as a group would not talk to us.” Fleischman, J., Prostitution in Ontario: An Overview (Ottawa: Department of Justice, 1984) at 45.

11 Allen, supra note 3 at 252.

12 Cario, supra note 9. Notwithstanding that no connection was ever discovered (see Allen, supra note 3 at 256), the District Attorney of Brooklyn confidently maintained that burlesque was “largely responsible for the sex degeneracy and sex crimes of the city”, quoted in Zeidman, I., The American Burlesque Show (New York: Hawthorn 1967) at 229. In 1937 burlesque was banned from New York and the burlesque theatre disappeared, albeit temporarily, from the eastern United States.

13 Criminal Code, section 46, now section 174.

14 Revised to section 163 in 1955 and further revised to section 167 in 1992.

15 Criminal Code, section 46, now section 167.

16 R. v. Murphy (1972), 8 CC (2d) 313 (Ont. Prov. Ct (Criminal Division)).

17 Johnson v. The Queen (1973), 13 CC (2d) 402, [1975] 2 S.C.R. 160.

19 See A. Cooke, “Stripping: Who Calls the Tune” in Bell, supra note 6 at 94; An Act to Amend the Liquor Licence Act, Statutes of the Province of Ontario, 1973, c. 68, 69.

20 Bentivoglio Holdings Administration, “A Short History of Bentivoglio Holdings”, Submission to City of Ottawa concerning Adult Entertainment Parlours (1991) [unpublished], archived at the Ottawa Public Library, Ottawa Room.

21 Hill, B., “Marie finds taking it off a put-onThe Ottawa Citizen (1 August 1979) 1.

22 Atherton, T., “Strip clubs: flesh trade's gold mineThe Ottawa Citizen (28 April 1986) B8.

23 Hill, supra note 21.

24 Tracey supra note 6 at 143.

25 R. v. Szunejko (1981), 61 CC (2d) 359; 6 W.C.B. 326 (Ont. Prov. Ct).

26 Our survey suggests that new clubs did not initially receive a great deal of media attention. The few articles on the industry that appeared between 1974 and 1981 in The Ottawa Citizen were more patronizing than condemning, suggesting that the women had “tattoos and black eyes and … look kind of dirty” and describing the “peeler” act as “the lumbering antics of a dancer whose dimensions far exceed her charm”, in Coic, T. & Maser, P., “Cover up, Ottawa police tell city strippersThe Ottawa Citizen (20 April 1979) 3. The women may have been pitiful and lacking in authentic talent or skill, but they were not constituted as a true social problem and neither were the clubs in which they laboured.

27 Phillips, P., “Labour in the Canadian Political Economy” in Clement, W., ed., Understanding Canada: Building on the New Canadian Political Economy (Montreal: Queen's University Press, 1997) at 73.

28 Rinehart, J., The Tyranny of Work: Alienation and the Labour Process, 3rd ed. (Toronto: Harcourt Brace, 1996) at 78.

29 The table or stool on which the dancers gyrate beside the patron's table is considered to constitute a mobile stage and is allowed under the Liquor Control Act.

30 T. Atherton, supra note 22.

31 Deskilling is a complex process that involves undermining the power of skilled workers by reducing their tasks to the simplest components and reducing their autonomy either through the division of labour or with the introduction of automation. Braverman, H., Labour and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

32 A. Cooke, “Sex Trade Workers and Feminists: Myths and Illusions”, in Bell, supra note 6 at 191.

33 We are using the concept of social problems as articulated by Spector and Kitsuse who argue that social issues and processes emerge as problems at particular historical moments and are constructed through claims-making by interest groups. Their claims-making model includes the assertion of an interest group that a condition constitutes a social problem, as well as a recognition by the state of the legitimacy of the claims and (implicitly) of the expertise of the interest group. There may be a third stage – an inquiry/ investigation by the state into the (now) authoritatively defined social problem. Spector, M. & Kitsuse, J., Constructing Social Problems (New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1987 [1977]) at 147.

34 Here we see echoes of an earlier era. In New York expansion-driven popularity proved burlesque's downfall in its very birthplace. Not only did increasing competition encourage the breaking of moral codes, leaving the theatre open to censorship, but the move to Broadway in 1931 meant that the genre was no longer contained in the anonymity of working class neighbourhoods. See Allen, supra note 3 at 251.

35 Lacombe, D., Blue Politics: Pornography in the Age of Feminism (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

36 Council of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, City Council Meeting, September 6, 1995 (Ottawa: City of Ottawa, 1995) at 20–255.

37 Adami, H., “Strippers continue to take it off, despite Goulbourn's new by-lawThe Ottawa Citizen (3 November 1982) 29.

38 Egan, K., “Stripper proposal blastedThe Ottawa Citizen (21 October 1982) 25; “Goubourn plans crackdown on nude entertainment” The Ottawa Citizen (19 October 1982) 14.

39 Miller, J., “Strip by-law should be axed, says committeeThe Ottawa Citizen (15 November 1985) C1.

40 See Nelson, E.D. & Fleras, A., Social Problems in Canada: Issues and Challenges (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1995). It would appear that rates of crime in strip clubs were not exceptionably high during this period. According to police statistics between the period 1984 and 1991 clubs averaged between seven and ten police reports filed annually. See, City of Ottawa, Adult Entertainment Parlours: Recommendations (Department of Planning and Development: Ottawa, City of Ottawa, 1991) at 21.

41 See for example Barron, S. & Kessel, J., “Stripping: A good paying jobThe Ottawa Citizen (23 December 1982) 19; Barron, S. & Kessel, J., “Costs high in battle to make strippers cover upThe Ottawa Citizen (23 December 1982) 17; Harper, T., “Six days a week of bar brawls, sleazy hotels – and catcallsThe Ottawa Citizen (26 February 1983) 69.

42 See for example, City of Ottawa, supra note 40.

43 Cleroux, R., “Swinging Montreal has Galie touch on sex, without stripGlobe and Mail (21 September 1977) 1.

44 City councillors threatened a process of harassment that also included building and fire inspections and police identification checks. See Barron and Kessel, 1982 supra note 41.

45 Quoted in MacCleod, I., “Nepean cracks down with strip club by-lawThe Ottawa Citizen (14 December 1983) B1, 10.

46 A similar Ottawa by-law was narrowly defeated in December 1984. “Council declines to impose morals” The Ottawa Citizen (23 November 1984) A8.

47 Miller, J., “Ottawa's defenders of morality suffer double wammy in one dayThe Ottawa Citizen (22 November 1984) B1.

48 M. Johnson, “CABE and Strippers: A Delicate Union” in Bell, supra, note 6.

49 Miller, supra note 47; Harris, C., “Club workers picket alderman's homeThe Ottawa Citizen (17 September 1984) B3.

50 Social movements are the result of a complex combination of interests and concerns. In Toronto there was some agitation against table dancing including the presentation of a three hundred name petition to city council (Johnson, supra note 48) however this was a very localized challenge.

51 Miller, supra note 39.

52 Citizen, “Owner of strip clubs warns pushers to stay outThe Ottawa Citizen (22 July 1986) C1.

53 Auerback, S. & James, A., The Annotated Municipal Act (Scarborough: Carswell Publishing, 1999).

54 Ottawa's city council, which had taken a much more careful and civil libertarian approach since the “problem” first emerged, did not immediately enact similar restrictions. However, when community groups organized against The Den on Russel Road on the basis of its close proximity to a teen club, an interim zoning restriction was imposed. Ironically, not the strip but the teen club was a source of disruptive behaviour and was obliged to hire off-duty police officers to patrol the parking lot to reduce vandalism and illegal drinking. See CitizenTeen, strip clubs too close for city's comfortThe Ottawa Citizen (24 November 1987) B16.

55 Smith, A. quoted in Richardson, M., “Shutting down the strip clubsThe Ottawa Citizen (21 March 1991) C4.

56 Supt. McCombie, J. quoted in “Police dispute stripper's claimsThe Ottawa Citizen (3 November 1987) C3.

57 City of Ottawa, supra note 40.

58 Ibid. at 8. A few dancers did, under threat of sanction, procure licences but the by-law quickly fell into disuse. In practice, Ottawa like Nepean in 1984 was ultimately defeated by the very transient, precarious and marginal nature of the industry that rendered licensing too costly and inefficient to police. Scullion, E., “Stripped of their rights?Ottawa Magazine (May/June 1992) 58; Bindman, S. & Barron, S., “Ottawa strip clubs facing crackdownThe Ottawa Citizen (15 March 1984) B1, 16. In 1999, although by-law number L-241 was still active, it is largely ignored by dancers and the city's by-law officers alike.

59 This trend was not embraced uniformly and some area clubs did not install champagne rooms until 1992.

60 Phillips, P., «Labour in the New Canadian Political Economy» in Clement, W., ed., Understanding Canada: Building the New Canadian Political Economy (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press 1997) at 64.

61 Corman, J., Livingstone, D. & Luston, M., Getting By in Hard Times: Restructuring Gender and Class in Hamilton, Ontario, 1980 to 1996 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press 2001).

62 Hughes, K., Gender and Self Employment in Canada. Assessing Trends and Policy Implications. Report # 4W04 (Ottawa: CPRN 1999).

63 A lap dance requires the dancer, clad in a g-string, to sit on the clients lap and gyrate while the patron can, if he wishes, fondle her body.

64 The Supreme Court ruled that masturbation in private cubicles, without contact, was consistent with community standards. R. v. Tremblay (1993), 84 C.C.C. (3d) 97 (S.C.C.).

65 Chindley, J., “A no to dirty dancingMacLeans (17 July 1995) 34.

66 Bhabra, H.S., “Ten dollars a danceToronto Life (May 1995); McGill, N., “More Than a DanceOttawa Express (15 February 1996) 9.

67 McGill, ibid.

68 McGrath, P., “Sylvia Lauzon and many other dancers would welcome a return to the ‘look don't touch’ ruleThe Ottawa Citizen (14 February 2000); Jaimet, K., “It's war on lap dancingThe Ottawa Citizen (14 February 2000) B5; Stevenson, R., “Adrienne L'Ecuyer, 20, a student who works as an exotic dancerThe Ottawa Citizen (2 February, 2000) F5.

69 Harvey, I., “Lap dance issue touchy; Lawyer argues to uphold by-lawThe Toronto Sun (21 September 1995) 44.

70 Cumming, J., “Lap ban riles dancerThe Toronto Sun (28 August 1995) 44; Fragomeni, C., “Solid Gold threatens court action: If Burlington outlaws lap dancing, strip club would have to lay off up to 20 workersThe Spectator (10 November 1995) T1; Kingston, J., “Lap-dance ban a killer: club ownerThe Toronto Sun (27 August 1995). Clubs in Toronto even started charging a five dollar a shift surcharge on dancers to offset the legal costs they were incurring rhetorically in their interests.

71 Giddens, A., “Brave New World: The New Context of Politics” in Miliband, D., ed., Reinventing the Left (Cambridge: Polity, 1994).

72 R. v. Mara 105 C.C.C. (3d) 147, Ontario Court of Appeal (1996) [hereinafter Mara].

73 R. v. Mara, [1997] 2 R.C.S. 630; R. v Butler (1992), 70 C.C.C. 3(d) 129 (S.C.C.). This reasoning was clarified two years later when the Supreme Court ruled in Pelletier that the practice was acceptable provided it occurred in semi-private conditions; R. v Pelletier, [1993] 3 S.C.R. (3d) 863 [hereinafter Pelletier].

74 Under the 1868 Hicklin test, reflected in Criminal Code (1955) section 152, a performance was deemed indecent if it was likely to “deprave and corrupt those whose minds are open to such influences.” R. v. Hicklin (1868), L.R. 3 Q.B. 360. On the limits of community empowerment, see Valverde, supra, note 4.

75 Kinsman, supra, note 2.

76 Occupational Health and Safety Act, R.S.O. 1990, c.0.1, s. 50 (1); “Lap dancing declared a health hazard” The Ottawa Citizen (3 August 1995) A4.

77 Chindley, supra note 65.

78 McGill, supra note 66.

79 The health discourse also started to permeate the courts. The crown attorney argued in the Ontario Court of Appeal that lap-dancing was morally problematic, that it objectifies women and exposes workers to fatal diseases and that “the touchstone has to be, for the criminal law, harm.” Butt, D. quoted in McDougall, D., “Lap dancing can be fatal for strippersThe Ottawa Citizen (19 September 1995) A12.

80 Hum, P., “Councillors try to stop ‘mutation’ of prostitutionThe Ottawa Citizen (7 September 1995) B2; Harvey, I., “Lap dancing issue back in courtThe Toronto Sun (16 November 1995) 56.

81 Council of the Corporation of the City of Ottawa, City Council Meeting, March 20, 1996 (Ottawa: City of Ottawa, 1996) at 917 to 9–22.

82 Ibid. at 9–20.

83 Ibid. The situation in Quebec is different. Aylmer, Hull and Gatineau had, like Ontario communities, enacted by-laws in the early 1980s that were subsequently overturned for jurisdictional reasons. Without the health ruling that Ontario municipalities relied upon to validate their regulations, municipal authorities in Quebec took no action against lap- dancing.

84 Giddens, supra note 71.

85 Citizen, “Ottawa studies ways to end lap dancingThe Ottawa Citizen (14 December 1995) E8; Citizen, “Tap dance around lap danceThe Ottawa Citizen (14 March 1997) B2.

86 Chindley, supra note 65.

87 Bindman, S., “Court bans lap dancingThe Ottawa Citizen (13 March 1997) A1; Bindman, S., “Judges put end to lap dancingThe Ottawa Citizen (27 June 1997) A1; Jaimet, supra note 68.

88 Pelletier partly reversed the Mara decision and allowed lap-dancing under certain conditions (privacy), Pelletier, supra note 73.

89 Jaimet, supra note 68; Kay, O., “The act is sickThe Ottawa Citizen (2 February 2000) F5; Morse, D., “Lap dancing destroys womenThe Ottawa Citizen (2 February 2000) F5.

90 “Lap dogs to the law” The Ottawa Citizen (31 January 2000) D8.

91 Jones, T., “Free to quitThe Ottawa Citizen (2 February 2000) F5.

92 Kay, supra note 89.

93 Pheterson, G., “The Category ‘Prostitute’ in Scientific Inquiry” (1990) 17: 3Journal of Sex Research 146.

94 In the past managers were periodically charged, although rarely convicted, of the hybrid offence of “allowing an indecent theatrical performance.” Criminal Code, c.46, s.167(1). As of 1998, bartenders, doormen and managers were charged with the indictable offence of “keeping a common bawdy house”. Criminal Code, c. 46, s. 210(1).

95 Perhaps this tactic was necessitated by the structure of the labour site. Lap-dancing may be illegal but municipalities lack the jurisdictional authority and cannot force the dismantling of champagne rooms. Hence the possibility of dirty dancing remains. Since the cubicles are literally hidden from view and figuratively beyond continual surveillance the monitoring of morality must be distributed to both the self and others. The new forms of moral regulation, reinforced by a threat of state sanction, mean that within the strip club the police, doormen, managers, support staff and other dancers all act as disciplinary agents and patrol moral and legal boundaries. The stripper must provide champagne room dances in an apparently private space that is actually under careful surveillance -consequently she must continually regulate her own and manage her customer's behaviour in relation to this surveillance.

96 Miller, P. & Rose, N., “Governing Economie Life” (1990) 19:1Economy and Society 1.

97 DERA, Mission Statement (Ottawa: Dancers Equal Rights Association of Ottawa Carleton, 2001) [unpublished].

98 This paper has attempted to tease out the trajectory of the regulatory context in which strippers labour. There are many other levels that warrant consideration. These include appreciating that the restructuring of the industry has not only facilitated new strategies of exploitation but also opened up the occupation to part-time and occasional workers. The presence of these workers not only challenges our categories and definitions of what constitutes a “stripper” but also has implications for relations to management, strategies of resistance and labour processes.

* The authors would like to express their appreciation to Colette Parent and the three anonymous reviewers for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Re-Configuring the Margins: Tracing the Regulatory Context of Ottawa Strip Clubs, 1974–2000

  • Chris Bruckert (a1) and Martin Dufresne (a2)


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