Iceland bans strip clubs: A victory for feminism?

The news last week that Iceland has passed legislation banning strip clubs in the country was met with news outlets claiming this makes Iceland the “most female-friendly country in the world.”
The move was promoted as a law motivated by feminism, not religion, as these types of laws often are. Iceland also boasts an openly lesbian Head of State.
One thing missing from media coverage of the ban was the perspectives of the dancer’s themselves. Club owners were quoted, politicians, but no women actually employed by this industry in Iceland. That’s a big gap. They briefly mention in the Guardian piece that most of the workers were immigrants–that’s an important piece of the puzzle as well.
Iceland and the press are claiming this as a feminist victory. I have to disagree.

I don’t think banning strip clubs, or even sex work (which Iceland had previously banned), in the name of preventing the exploitation of women, works.
History has shown us that criminalizing these industries simply drives them underground, where they continue to thrive, but with little regulation and definitely no protections for the workers.
Instead workers are criminalized (often instead of the people seeking their services), which prevents them from seeking recourse for abuses they may face.
Anyone looking for evidence of this can look to the United States and the sex work industry. The ban that exists in most of our country has not eliminated sex work. It’s driven it underground where the risks for the workers are much higher.
This is not a feminist victory.
A feminist victory, in my opinion, would be a highly regulated industry that made sure dancer’s rights were protected. One where workers were paid good wages, were able to unionize, had full benefits, were able to set boundaries with customers and have those boundaries protected. One that ensured that these immigrant women were not being brought to Iceland against their will.
A feminist victory would mean access to jobs and economic opportunity that meant women had options other than strip clubs and sex work if they so chose. We know that our current economic situation does not allow all people to have access to economic opportunity, meaning that sex work is not always a “choice.”
But once again, driving the industry underground serves no one, and often harms the workers more than anyone.
So sorry Iceland, I commend you for elevating women to elected office, but this piece of your work is not a victory for my vision of feminism.

Join the Conversation

  • Dawn.

    I feel similarly about this ban, Miriam. Criminalization never works. I’ve read several people state that this is a feminist victory because Iceland is a more equitable country than ours when it comes to gender, so they claim Iceland may be “ready” for the ban. But I say, even if Iceland is a more progressive country when it comes to gender, which they appear to be, that doesn’t mean criminalizing strip clubs will help women. The economic necessity is still there, and it’s rather telling that no one has asked an actual stripper how they feel about it. I haven’t found one quote. If someone has, please link it here.
    I don’t know if strip clubs will be driven underground because of this ban, but I do know a lot of women are now unemployed. How is that a feminist victory? A feminist victory would be forcing strip clubs to comply with labor laws.

  • bradley

    Yes, decreasing the choices available to women by fiat can hardly be described as a “victory”. And that’s even before considering any of the unintended consequences which are sure to result.

  • MishaKitty

    Great article Miriam. You sum up nicely my feelings on the issue.

  • Daniela

    Miriam, do you think it might be somewhat naive to believe that all of the immigrant women coming over to “developed” countries will at least have some safety and rights in the sex industry? Isn’t there something to say about the fact that the women who are well-settled in industrialized countries do not want these “jobs” so we have to get immigrants to do them!
    Why did you ignore the Swedish laws with placing the crime on the demand usually men? Swedish laws as I understand, assert that the VAST MAJORITY OF WOMEN in the sex industry are NOT THERE BY *INFORMED* CHOICE.
    Before entering the sex industry, the vast majority (65-90% depending on the studies) find that incest, childhood sexual abuse, drug addiction, alcohol addiction are part of these women’s lives – *before* they “chose” to enter the sex industry. Why did you ignore these devastating aspects of women in the sex industry?
    Using the same criteria developed by scientists who study long-term health in the military, researchers concluded that 2 out of 3 women in the sex industry suffered from POST-TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.
    “Would you like a side of monetary benefits with that history of sexual abuse, Devastated Aboriginal Woman? Don’t worry, today’s so-called feminists will throw you into the garbage – at least you’re used to it by now.”
    Doesn’t this seem kind of naive to you?

  • AlexMc

    Very well articulated, Miriam! I think that you highlight the ways this decision will impact immigrant women very well. If governments want to create legislation that REALLY cares about women they wouldn’t ban the behavior but instead regulate the industry.

  • alice-paul

    Daniela, I have a feeling people will be highly critical of your comment (contemporary feminism tends to be pro-sex industry) but I want to agree – with the assertion that a great deal of sex work is NOT voluntary/consensual – as a former dancer myself. And let me say that I worked in a relatively privileged sector of the industry (meaning an “upscale” club as opposed to street work, etc)and I still witnessed an atmosphere of PTSD and drug abuse.
    I also agree with Miriam about the importance of greater economic options for women. And – good wages, benefits, unions, boundaries – all of these things would be real, immediate improvements for workers, but where we differ is that I think ONLY workers themselves should be able to PROFIT from OUR sexual labor. This is a problem even in legal, regulated contexts (brothels in Nevada for instance). The idea of men making money from MY body makes me sick.
    So for me, a feminist victory would include, in addition to expanding women’s economic opportunities, decriminalizing the individuals selling sex while at the same time banning other parties like pimps and madams from profiting from it. I read that the latter was the original intention of Iceland’s new law, but perhaps I got it mixed up.

  • aka spike the cat

    I’m not sure we can analyze this without considering each country and its economic, social and geographic situation.
    And I’m really not convinced that legal status correlates to a higher percentage of underground sex work. And to clarify, I mean underground in the sense of underworld, dangerous, exploitative, and not underground as in simply out of sight and off the street.
    Does the Netherlands have underground sex work? Yes it does. Germany? Check. Italy? Check. Canada? Check. Nevada, USA? Check. It may very well be that in some countries and communities, the surge in demand created by the legalize&regulate model results in more underground market simply because there are not enough supply of workers nor law enforcement resources.
    Iceland in a lot of ways is like New Zealand. It’s geographically isolated, has a small population (and in Iceland’s case a tiny population), and has a more reasonable wealth distribution.
    These are the things that keep the sex trade sane and safe. Also it seems like Iceland, like New Zealand, changed the law to reflect the current situation and not the other way around.
    In other words, Iceland had low demand to begin and so the risks of keeping it legal outweighed the benefits.
    New Zealand on the other hand had the demand but few problems, so it made sense to try to liberalize the laws. But keep in mind they did so in such a way to keep demand & supply low (by not allowing foreigners to immigrate for sex work, etc).
    Honestly I think both models can be reasonable depending on the specific situation. But it takes a more thorough analysis. And trying to compare the USA to these countries really makes little sense as our sense of values and style of capitalism make the comparison difficult.

  • Honeybee

    I don’t see how taking choices away from women helps them, especially given that all this will do is drive the industry underground making it even shadier and more risky.
    Bans never work. Never have and never will.

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    Do we know if it’s going to be a crime to strip or to operate a strip club or both? Because that’s an important distinction. Obviously, I’d rather the club owners be hauled off to jail than the women.
    Frankly, I think there comes a point where we have to ask ourselves if men running establishments where they exploit womens’ bodies for monetary gain should be legal. Ultimately you could ask that question about exploiting *any* body for monetary gain, but when you add in power and financial dynamics in the real world it isn’t really “what about the menz” focused.
    I know, we get edgy because we don’t want to be accused of being prudes or anti-sex, and gosh darnit all those stripperobics classics are just so EMPOWERFUL, but if Iceland really is as egalitarian as it sounds like, then I think that taking that step to draw the line in the sand and say “for-profit exploitation of womens’ bodies is illegal” is refreshing. Somehow I doubt the authorities are going to bust down to door of an exhibitionist putting on a private striptease show gratis for friends and her own personal enjoyment.

  • Kessei

    Having legal sex work in a country increases the demand, and that demand is served primarily by trafficking women (domestically AND internationally). It’s almost always cheaper to force someone into the sex trade than it is to pay a woman to do it.
    And that was the entire REASON why Iceland banned strip clubs – they discovered that a significant number of the women working in those clubs were victims of trafficking.
    This entire post is rather disgusting to me; were we wrong to outlaw share-cropping because it put share-croppers out of work?


    Is “victims of trafficking” another way of saying that those sex workers were immigrants?
    Iceland is a small ethnically homogeneous country (only 320,000 people, almost all descended from the original Viking settlers who came there 1,000 years ago) and it does have a long history of insularness and xenophobia.
    The Guardian account did mention a Icelandic government figure that 100 women a year were immigrating to Iceland to work in the lap dance clubs – could this be a roundabout way of making immigrant women feel unwelcome in Iceland?

  • Emily H.

    Agree completely with this. Where I live (Nashville), lap dances are banned thanks to the idiot Christian conservatives. In Iceland they’re banning strip clubs altogether thanks to “feminism.” Six of one, half dozen of the other in my opinion. Limiting people’s choices and interfering with their lives doesn’t become morally pure just because you’re doing it out of supposed concern for women. Governments shouldn’t take people’s jobs away by making their line of work illegal, except in very extreme circumstances.
    Even if we agree that strip clubs wouldn’t exist/couldn’t make any money in a truly equitable, feminist society, trying to make that change by banning the clubs is putting the cart before the horse. The sexist or objectifying ideas that made people want to patronize those clubs will still exist; conversely, changing people’s fundamental attitudes would cause the clubs to wither away on their own. (I’m actually not at all sure that the concept of stripping is inherently sexist, or that a feminist, pro-woman strip club couldn’t exist in the feminist utopia. But I can understand why people think strip clubs = A Symptom Of What’s Wrong, and even if that’s the case, stopping the symptoms won’t cure the disease.)

  • Mighty Ponygirl

    I think that’s a stretch.

  • kandela

    I’m going to disagree. I’m of the belief that commodification of sex and the human body promotes lack of respect for bodily autonomy and devalues relationships.
    A feminist victory would mean access to jobs and economic opportunity that meant women had options other than strip clubs and sex work if they so chose.
    Iceland ranks number one in the UN’s Global Gender Gap report. Though they are a bit lower if you just look at economic participation, the ratio of women in the Labour force to men is 0.94. Further, the ratio of women to men in professional and technical fields is 1.25 to 1. In state-run higher education institutions in Iceland, students only need to pay registration fees; there are no tuition fees. Women outnumber men in these institutions 1.84 to 1, so there is plenty of opportunity to get the qualifications for those positions.
    The point is women in Iceland have plenty of opportunities other than strip clubs. The fact that a large number of the workers in these clubs are immigrants points to the fact that women in Iceland do have other options, and that these jobs aren’t highly valued. In other words Icelandic women don’t want these jobs.

  • W. Kiernan

    I just returned from my first visit to The City of Entertainment, Las Vegas. I expected it to be gross, but the real thing excelled my expectations.
    In fact, in Las Vegas, prostitution is not legalized-n-regulated, it is illegal, and it works out like this.
    Do the tourist walk down Las Vegas Boulevard, where the zillion-dollar luxury hotels and casinos are, and you’ll see a fake Pyramid of Cheops complete with fake Sphinx, a fake Paris with fake Arc de Triomphe and fake Eiffel Tower, and a fake New York City with a fake Statue of Liberty and fake Chrysler and Empire State Buildings.
    You’ll also see a scrum of scruffy dudes at each street corner, wearing tee-shirts reading “Win a Free Girl!,” thrusting whore cards into your hands. “$45 special!,” the cards say, “Call 123-4567,” and they’ll promptly bring Lyssa or Amber or Brandy, shown in a color photo with photoshopped points of light obscuring her points of heat, to your hotel room for “full-service adult entertainment.” Obviously that’s fake too; the girl in the photo is not the girl who will be delivered at your call, nor is her real name Lyssa or Amber or Brandy.
    At any rate, one can easily imagine the free and uncoerced financial arrangements Lyssa and Amber and Brandy have with the entrepreneurs who print those cards and pay for the telephone number and drive them to your hotel and pick them up afterwards. Prostitution being illegal in Las Vegas, if they have any problem with the treatment their masters and/or clients dish out and they go to the Las Vegas cops, they, not the men, go straight to jail.
    Disgusting as strip clubs may be, I’d guess legal, above-the-boards strip clubs where the dancers are free to quit their jobs or apply to the police for a redress of grievances would be preferable to what Lyssa and Amber and Brandy endure.

  • jayjay323

    Iceland, while a country, has only about 320,000 inhabitants. They have a fantastic party scene, including two strip clubs in Reykjavik, the capital with a population of about 180,000. I doubt any other place in the country has a market sufficiently big to support a strip club.
    Iceland is also almost bankrupt after their GDP had been blown up by banks taking in foreign money, investing in junk and then forcing the government to take them over – and thus symbolic legislation has to take the place of real legislation. And feminism in Scandinavia is largely influenced by radical second wave ideology. Here’s (relatively) recent look at Sweden –
    Since most of the opinion has been developed in the US, it would certainly be great if American feminists would more openly support the approach favored by Miriam. Radical feminism and Conservatism are two sides of the same coin with respect to a lof of issues.

  • ikkin

    In defense of the ban, I will go as far to say that while I may not agree with a ban on strip clubs in the United States, I don’t think the ban on strip clubs is a loss for feminism because strip clubs probably do more bad for the cause of feminism than good. I’m not anti-sex industry and I’m pro-sex, but I think there’s a difference between paying someone for sex and paying a club to watch naked women dance for the sake of fraternity and female objectification.
    That being said, I don’t think criminalizing women for being dancers is the point of this ban. Clearly, this is a move to primarily shut down establishments. I’m okay with that.

  • aka spike the cat

    Nowhere in my comment did I imply that the US system was the model to follow. I’m not even arguing for or against anything. I’m simply saying that assumptions about one country/community cannot be neatly applied everywhere else.
    Blanket statements about labor being “pushed underground” or women gaining legal rights do not take into account the different socio-economic situations that exist in different communities. And it doesn’t even make sense for a tiny left leaning country like Iceland.
    Furthermore that Vegas scenario you described can be found in all European countries where prostitution is legal. I’m living here and I travel across borders pretty often. I’m not and expert but this is a subject that I’m interested in and so I do try to keep up on the issue, news, reports issued by the EU and NGOs, etc.
    So I’m confident to make the assertion that your Las Vegas scenario is not unique to the US by any stretch.
    For example, in W. European countries, percentage wise, most sex workers are not citizens and therefore do not have the same legal rights as citizenry. Blame the demand for low wage labor. Blame the immigration policies. Blame whatever, but that is the reality.
    So, depending on the country, many sex workers coming in contact with law enforcement, might as well be caught working in Las Vegas.
    Just substitute “put in jail”, for “put back on a boat or plane” back to your home country, in debt, having to turn around and go back (incurring more debt) to repay what you owe.
    Law enforcement over here does not have a handle on the situation at all. And how can they, when these workers are still—despite sex work being legal—underground anyway? Many migrant women don’t speak the language, live in fear, etc, you know how it works.
    And please, I’m not saying this is the case for all sex workers, foreign or citizen. All I’m saying is that legal or not, unless you address the underlying issue of supply and demand, if there is one, little is resolved. But hey sometimes there is no supply and demand incongruence. Not every place has that problem.
    In Iceland’s case, it looks like they had little demand for strippers and what they saw as high risk for abuse. At least that’s what I see.

  • Martine Votvik

    the law states that it will be illegal to earn money off of your employees nudity. So no punishment for the strippers, unless you count loss of workplace as such.

  • voluptuouspanic

    I would like to see the citations for the claims you are making. I have a feeling that I know what you are citing and that the studies have been criticized by many for methodological issues.
    Furthermore, I have a real problem with the assertion that *if* a majority of sex workers have been abused (keep in mind the majority of sex workers are women and women have a higher rate of abuse, so you’d probably see the same thing in say, nursing) that we therefore must second-guess their choices to enter sex work. It strikes me as a way of forever categorizing abuse survivors as victims without agency.
    Additionally, I’m suspicious of the assertion that sex work *itself* causes PTSD. (Again, methodology.) Most sex workers are criminalized and suffer abuse at the hands of both clients and cops without any way of recourse. (Research by the Sex Workers Project and others supports this.) Maybe it’s the persistent effects of this violence (and poverty).
    The Swedish model has a growing body of anecdotal evidence to suggest that any kind of criminalization, even just of clients, increases violence against sex workers.
    I’d highly encourage you to read a report by Chicago’s Young Women’s Empowerment Project called “Girls Do What They Have To”:

  • voluptuouspanic

    Thanks for bringing up what I’ve been wondering about this whole thing: where are the voices of dancers working in Iceland? Were they consulted by the drafters of this legislation about what the law could do to help them?

  • Martine Votvik

    Oh pff 2005 is so five years ago :P
    I’ve read enough about american radical feminism to agree with your analysis, at least on american gound and american conservatism.
    We don’t really have anything that directly compares to conservatism in scandinavia. Scandinavian radical feminism have close ties to the socialist and anarcist movements over here and are more in favour of changing society from the ground up rather than guarding on old values.
    Seen from a scandinavian radical feminist outlook that is what they are trying to do on Iceland, they are trying to uproot the old culture and values in hope of creating a better place for women.
    On the other hand, if most of the strippers on iceland where foreign, there is also a quite reasonable chance that they are trying to stop money from leaving the country with said strippers and other profiteurs going home again. Which again would be a reasonable action from a country with these kinds of economic difficulties.


    It does seem rather convenient that, at a time when the Icelandic economy still hasn’t recovered from the catastrophic meltdown, the Sigurdardottir administration would bring up a hot button issue like closing down strip clubs (and eliminating the jobs of the immigrant women who dance in those clubs) – nothing like a nice sex scandal to keep the Icelandic voters minds off the bigger problems at hand (problems that Prime Minister Sigurdardottir does not have such an easy solution to)!

  • Canadiana

    If a strip club is not feminist and the banning of strip clubs is also perhaps not feminist, in this case what would be a “feminist victory”? How could one spot this elusive success? (These are legit questions, please pardon any ‘tone’ you may perceive from this.)

  • bradley

    It’s unethical to prevent Person A from engaging in a voluntary activity because of the possibility that Person B is being forced to do the same activity against her will. Should we ban abortion for everyone because some women are undoubtedly coerced into having them?
    Yes, immigrants from poor countries tend to be poor, so they’re often willing to do work that wealthier people consider unpleasant. Taking these options off the table will not improve their lives. It will likely only push them into underground establishments where, out of the public eye and outside the law, they will have even less control over their circumstances.
    Also, talking in CAPITAL LETTERS does not make you any RIGHTER.

  • jayjay323

    I think 2 or so strip clubs aren’t an economic issue if you look at the size of the country’s financial problems.
    I don’t really think that this was really a hot-button issue there, I think it was just something that the government wanted to do for ideological reasons and they did. I think it’s more of a hot button issue for people who want to discuss the ideological implications than for most icelanders, apart from owners and workers of the closing establishments, of course.

  • Martine Votvik

    oh you know, every penny counts in a rut.
    but that wasn’t the main point of my comment.


    My point was that the strip club issue may be being used as a way to distract people’s attention from Iceland’s more urgent economic problems – which the present government in Iceland do not have easy solutions for.

  • Nancy Kallitechnis

    Dawn, the truth is most strippers suffer massive pychological trauma that lasts a long time. You can find a lot of quotes of strippers describing the pain they endure at the following paper researched by a former stripper:
    Holsopple, K. Strip Club Testimony [PDF document]. Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from
    Also, there is a ton of evidence showing that legalizing prostitution increases it and making it illegal decreases it. Here’s a great site with evidence:
    Raymond, J.G. (2003). 10 Reasons For Not Legalizing Prostitution. Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. Retrieved from
    Psychiatrist Mary Anne Layden documented that “35% of strippers have Multiple Personality Disorder, 55% had Borderline Personality Disorder, and 60% had Major Depressive Episodes” (Layden, 1999). That’s a much higher rate of mental disease than the average person; for example, strippers suffer major depression almost nine times more often than the average U.S. adult-60% versus 6.7%”
    Layden, M.A. (1999). If Pornography Made Us Healthy, We Would Be Healthy By Now. Catholic News Agency.Retrieved on December 20, 2009 from
    If you want to argue that I’m wrong please provide solid well-researched evidence to support what you say otherwise I won’t believe you. I used to think that prostitution should be legalized but now I know how harmful that is to women and girls.
    Also, you said a solution to strip club problems would be for them to follow the laws, but if they did that they would all close down because every strip club violates sexual harassment laws by creating a hostile environment. There is absolutely no reason why women working at a strip club deserve suffer less from hostile environment sexual harassment than a women working at McDonalds, or IBM, or The New York Times.

  • Melimalle

    I do want to argue that you are wrong. A bit of background for me, I’m a sex worker. I’m 22, I have no substance abuse issues, I have never been abused or assaulted, I am middle class, white and educated. I have qualifications and experience as an IT systems administrator and therefore in a good position for employment. I made a conscious decision to enter sex worker on the basis of being able to choose my hours, better pay and enjoyment of sex.
    Estimation of sex worker numbers
    This was a report released by a committee in regards to the Prostitution Reform Act (enacted in 2003) regarding the numbers of sex workers at the time of the PRA and then four years later. The numbers of sex workers is in fact reduced significantly. The committee is currently in the process of doing another report so it will be interesting to see current figures.
    Entering and Exiting the Sex Industry
    This table shows the result of a survey done of 770 sex workers regarding their reasons for entering the sex industry. While drug and alcohol use is high within the street workers, they are given far more support from the agencies that work with sex workers than if they were on a benefit/dole/government support (sorry, I don’t know the American equivalent!).
    The entire report is interesting and shows a working model of decriminalisation that has been effective and is currently being reviewed by the United Kingdom as a possible solution.
    Sex Workers win debate at Oxford University
    See also the recent documentary ‘WI Guide to Brothels’ where women from the Hampshire Women’s Institute in England travelled to a variety of brothels around the world to find a model that they could bring back for the UK to possibly implement.