Strippers celebrate as Spearmint Rhino keeps its licence

Strippers and staff at Spearmint Rhino are celebrating keeping their licence after a secretly filmed video showing ‘sexual touching of customers’ threatened to shut them down.

Friday, 20th September 2019, 09:51 am
Strip club dancer Celia Lister protests with other demonstrators to oppose moves to close a branch of Spearmint Rhino in Sheffield earlier this year. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The lap dance club, on Brown Street, will now continue into their 18th year after spending the past year fighting to stay open.

Ella Smith, a stripper at the club, said: “Hallelujah. All the upset and tears this year has been so worth it and I’m so proud of myself and all the girls for pulling through and getting to the end of it. We can finally say we did this, we saved our jobs.”

Gabby Willis, women’s activist, said it had been a difficult year for everyone involved and that they were all planning to go out and celebrate that night.

The future of Spearmint Rhino is discussed at a licensing meeting at Sheffield Town Hall. Picture Scott Merrylees

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She said: “It’s brilliant news, it’s a win for feminism. We couldn’t be happier, the girls who we respect and admire and who are our friends can carry on working – not just the girls but managers too.

“It’s an over-the-moon feeling. For the girls it’s been incredibly traumatic not knowing what’s going to happen with your livelihood and some of the comments they’ve had has been really derogatory and disgusting.

“Knowing it’s at least over for another year until the next renewal is a massive weight off their shoulders.”

Sheffield Council’s licensing committee made the decision the morning after a hearing lasting more than eight hours in which supporters and objectors gave passionate speeches.

The future of Spearmint Rhino is discussed at a licensing meeting at Sheffield Town Hall. Picture Scott Merrylees

The council said in a statement: “Members heard a wealth of information both against and in support of the application and spent a lot of time examining this alongside the documentary evidence. The determination notice containing the full reasons for the decision will be available soon.”

An investigation by Sheffield Council earlier this year showed more than 200 breaches of regulations.

It was sparked when members of the Women’s Equality Party revealed the details of covert footage filmed inside the club by private investigators at a full council meeting.

The council’s inquiry found six dancers at Spearmint Rhino had sexually touched each other and engaged in other sex acts between themselves and that there had been 74 licence condition breaches and 145 of the club’s code of conduct rules had been broken.

The future of Spearmint Rhino is discussed at a licensing meeting at Sheffield Town Hall. Picture Scott Merrylees

As a result of the inquiry a hearing on the renewal of the licence was postponed.

In the months leading up to the decision both sides protested in the streets and submitted letters to the council. In total there were 389 written objections and 363 in support as well as a petition with around 1,000 signatures calling to keep the club open.

Many objecting to the licence – including groups such as the Women’s Equality Party and Not Buying It – argued the club was “inappropriate” for the surroundings and damaged gender equality.

Dr Helen Mott, an expert in sexual violence against women, told the hearing: “The continued operation of these premises directly interferes with the council’s duty and, I’m sure, absolute desire to treat men and women equally in the city and to have the same opportunities in life and for girls and women to be free from the fear of what is the very real violence of men.

“If you don’t award this licence, the net impact on jobs and work, given the venue can continue as a bar, will be neutral. In the short-term, some self employed women with minimal job security who work in what we know is one of the most dangerous and short-lived trades and who, by what you read, are multi-talented and multifaceted may need to look for different work.”

Stripper Celia Lister told the hearing: “If Spearmint did close customers may only turn to alternative illegal venues such as brothels where women are actually being exploited because they are not regulated...

“As a feminist I completely reject the notion that we are exploited and need to be saved. It is the pinnacle of feminism to respect the rights of each woman to do whatever she wants with her body and not to the council or anyone else to take autonomy over it.

“When I strip I ultimately request payment to be gazed upon – something all women are constantly subjected to in society. I cannot be exploited when I am profiting from it and am completely in control of the situation.

“Yet when this happens on the street, in a nightclub or even in the supermarket I am vulnerable and defenceless. Stripping helps me gain power back from the misogyny I feel throughout day-to-day life.”

Over nearly two decades, strippers said the council had imposed increasingly strict licence conditions to the point where rules include keeping both feet on the ground at all times and banning advertisement.

Ms Lister said: “We are penalised each year and told to restrict our licence, limit our advertising and even remove the sign from our building but by relentlessly trying to squeeze us out more pressure is added to our role and creates unnecessary frustration within our industry.”

Rosa Vince, expert in objectification at Sheffield University, said: “There is no evidence that the existence of strip clubs does damage to women’s status in society on a scale even remotely comparable to that of car and clothing adverts, romantic movies and TV shows.

“If you want the really big contributors you want Mercedes, BMW and every chocolate, beer and clothing company to shut down and movie that romanticises the idea of men harassing women.”

Sasha Rakoff, from Not Buying It, said ‘all restrictions of strip clubs is meaningless’ and if a club was allowed to operate after breaching more than 200 regulations then ‘nothing would ever change’.

There were also arguments against the club being in the city centre.

Mark Swales, chief of estates at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “The university has been consistent in its objection to the renewal of this licence over the years.

“We are about to commence major investment in this area of the city having worked with stakeholders across the Cultural Industries Quarter. We believe there are compelling reasons for the council not to renew the licence.”

Ms Willis, former women’s officer at the Students’ Union, wrote a ‘powerful’ letter stating it was their policy to support sex workers and that on behalf of more than 30,000 students they support Spearmint Rhino and take offence at the university using their location as a reason to object.

Philip Kolvin QC, representing Spearmint Rhino, said the club’s impact was ‘removed’ during the day and almost ‘anonymous’ due to a condition introduced in 2017 which meant the club could not advertise or use signs.

Andrew Bamber, former senior member of the Met Police, submitted evidence from his visit investigating the club in April.

In it he describes how the street was ‘almost desolate’ and the club was ‘not immediately obvious’ but looked like an ‘office block’.

Mr Kolvin added staff were not aware of the investigators during their visits and that they were entirely independent to the club.

Mr Bamber also said he was one of four investigators over seven visits who found no breaches of the licence.

However, two members of Sheffield Rape and Abuse Centre, based near the club, gave statements objecting to the renewal of the licence and said the majority of their clients had expressed ‘overwhelmingly negative’ views about the club being where it was.

Mr Kolvin said the club was 'unreservedly sorry’ for the breaches and had responded ‘immediately’ to them, adding things had since been rectified since.

Charlotte Mead, leader of the Sheffield Women’s Equality Party, said: “We are extremely disappointed that Sheffield City Council has chosen to renew this licence.

“We have little faith that Spearmint Rhino will ensure that further breaches of its licence do not take place and will continue to campaign to change the council’s policy on strip clubs, including campaigning against the renewal of Spearmint Rhino’s licence next year.”

The licence has been renewed from its last expiry date, so came into force on May 1, 2019 and expires on April 30, 2020.