Lap-dancing clubs should be licensed

Strip clubs are a reality in Malta; what is lacking, however, is a proper licensing regime which acknowledges this selfsame reality on paper.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

On Monday, the law courts acquitted a Maltese lap dancer on charges of having performed 'immoral acts' in a Paceville club. This ruling seems to put a lid on the dubious legality of strip-club culture in Malta, even if certain questions remain unanswered.

At a glance, the magistrate's ruling makes it clear that Maltese legislation regarding 'morality' cannot be applied indiscriminately. Certain considerations must also be taken into account, including the venue, the type of people in the vicinity, the time at which the act took place, etc.

On one level, it's refreshing to hear such common-sense arguments from the law-courts, especially when one considers the apparent contradiction with other cases involving 'crimes against morality'.

And yet, the acquittal does nothing to disentangle the legal quandary surrounding the entire lap-dancing industry to begin with.

For one thing, this is not exactly the first time a local magistrate has rejected cases brought forward by the police against 'gentlemen's clubs'.

In November 2006, eight club owners and 36 dancers were likewise prosecuted, in a case that was eventually thrown out of court on a technicality.

Then as now, the police had acted on the assumption that 'immoral behaviour' - that is, nudity or semi-nudity on the premises of a private club - was a direct violation of the Criminal Code; and  in the 2006 case in particular, there was also the additional charge of 'living off the earnings of prostitution'.

The lap dancers themselves were rushed to court without even being allowed a change of clothes, so that (in the words of one of the inspectors) "the court could see what sort of people these were".

But the case did not go according to plan. Of the 36 girls arrested in the 2005 sting, all, without exception, turned out to have been professional dancers who had been granted work permits by the Employment & Training Corporation.

The police themselves were forced to admit in court that they had found no proof of prostitution and dropped the 'brothel' charges themselves.

Given that the entire case was subsequently lost, one can only wonder why the same police force would pursue the exact same line of argument almost 10 years later, this time against only one dancer, who - unlike in the previous case - is Maltese.

Surely, this court action cannot have been the result of a zero-tolerance policy towards lap dancing in general, as the proliferation of strip clubs in Paceville is a well-documented and extremely visible reality.

If this same reality results in police action in one case, one would expect the same yardstick to be applied in all cases equally. Certainly one would not expect the police to arbitrarily pick and choose only one lap dancer to prosecute and turn a blind eye to all the others.

An explanation for the police's selectivity in this case would therefore be appreciated. Otherwise one may be tempted to conclude that the nationality of the accused was a factor in this case - raising the absurd possibility that lap dancing is perfectly legal in Malta, but only if the lap dancers themselves are foreign.

But underlying this entire polemic is another much simpler reality which Malta - with its pronounced cultural accent on morality - very often stolidly refuses to even acknowledge.

Strip clubs (or lap-dancing clubs, or however one chooses to describe this phenomenon) are a reality in Malta; what is lacking, however, is a proper licensing regime which acknowledges this selfsame reality on paper.

In practice, the system permits these clubs to operate. Owners are 'allowed' to convert their establishments into strip clubs, without having to apply for a special licence. Erotic dancers are granted permits by the ETC, and the clubs themselves are permitted to openly advertise their wares in magazines distributed on Air Malta flights and at the airport.

They are even permitted to employ promoters to hand out flyers in the streets, inviting passersby to enter in full view of the police.

For these and other reasons, nobody in this country can pretend to be surprised to discover the existence of an erotic underground culture in Malta. By the same token, we cannot realistically punish these people for providing the same service that they are legally allowed to advertise in public.

Hopefully, Monday's ruling will finally convince the police to desist from ineffectual prosecutions of what is a broadly accepted practice. This in turn should free the same police to investigate those aspects of the culture that do warrant more scrutiny - not least, the possible involvement of the international trade in sex slaves, which still casts a long shadow over this industry.

But what is needed above all is for the authorities to stop the pretence that this sort of thing isn't really happening in Catholic Malta. This is called being in a state of denial, and it is clearly a recipe for disaster.

If Malta is to legally permit lap dancing - as in fact Monday's ruling indicates - then lap dancing should be properly licensed and regulated, as the owners themselves have been demanding for years.

This should be done in the interest of clarity, but also in the interest of common sense. We cannot expect to carry on having our morality cake and eating it, too.

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