29 November 2006

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GRTU takes step back from sex business

Karl Schembri

Representatives of nightclub owners and of the leisure industry are taking a “wait and see” approach before committing themselves about the authorities’ clampdown on lap dancing clubs a week ago.
The head of the GRTU leisure section Philip Fenech said yesterday that the exact details of what was happening in the raided nightclubs will only come out following police investigations in what is clearly a statement meant to keep at arm’s length from this unregulated and partly underground business.
“Every case has to be looked at within its context,” Fenech said. “Police investigations are still ongoing and we’ll get to know what was going on in those establishments once the investigations are over.”
Eight owners and 38 dancers were paraded to court a week ago in the wake of the massive police carried by some 40 plain clothes officers.
The charges include making immoral earnings, operating brothels, undressing in public places and employing foreigners without work permits in the establishments that have been advertising their activities quite openly over at least the last three years ago when the club that boasts to be “the first one of its kind on the island” opened its doors in Paceville.
Fenech says GRTU will “see what comes out of this” although he acknowledged that the regulation of the sector has been discussed in the past.
“There has been a demand from certain entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in this sector,” Fenech said. “Government has to see whether there is scope, whether it fits in our product development and whether this will fit within our image of Brand Malta.”
Speaking to Strip Magazine back in 2004, Steam Club’s manager Duncan Fenech – one of the accused last week – had said Malta’s EU membership could finally “facilitate matters” in employing foreign girls for his gentlemen’s club, mostly from Eastern Europe but also from Greece and Italy.
Since then, lap dancing clubs have been mushrooming openly, mostly in Sliema, Paceville and Bugibba in what is a modern day bourgeois version of what was on offer in Strait Street in the 40s, this time with poles and red damask and the occasional private room where clients can get something more for the extra fiver they slip to the dancer.
But all this was far from underground. In fact the clubs themselves – pretty explicit in their names and imagery – have websites promoting their foreign dancers and posting vacancies, while their existence has been debated even in parliament through questions and interventions religiously raised by the conservative elements of the two parties: from Edwin Vassallo lamenting that Malta was being turned into a sex destination to Labour MP Adrian Vassallo asking if there was anything like a work permit for “erotic dancers”.
But despite all the visibility, obscurity and an enormous moral veil still clouds this unregulated business as rumours and myths mingle with the bare naked facts, stirring more confusion and blurring the lines between erotic dancing and prostitution, consensual sexual services and exploitation.
The women employed are largely in their late teens and early twenties, with aspirations in the world of modelling and fashion and in search of a quick buck away from their home countries in a job that essentially entails sitting on men’s crotches and grinding their legs at Lm5 a song, although rumours of organised “takeaways” outside the club premises also abound. Most of them say they would not do the same job back in their countries.

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