Governor Fashola and the Nude Dancers

by Jideofor Adibe

The recent report that the Lagos state government had shut down four strip clubs around Opebi Street and Allen Avenue in Lagos made headlines and elicited naughty guffaws from people as such stories are wont to do. According to the report, the Lagos State Environmental and Special Offences Monitoring Unit, which sacked the clubs, whisked off 33 of the nude dancers and two of their managers. Governor Fashola, a man many of us admire, was apparently forced to act following the protest of religious leaders at the increasing number of strip tease and nude clubs in the city. Cardinal Anthony Okogie, the Catholic Archbishop of Lagos, was quoted as saying that the rapid increase in the number of nude clubs was a sign that evil had descended on the city and asked the Governor to sack the clubs.

While the Lagos State Government has the right to take measures that it believes will preserve the public good, there is a feeling that the issues involved with strip and nude clubs are not as simple as presented by religious leaders. In a secular, plural and democratic society, an issue like this, however morally repugnant one feels about it, deserves at least a public discussion – as done in many of the countries we often look up to as models of democracy and freedom.

Several arguments used to justify a clampdown on sexually explicit expressions in public places:

One, is the morality argument. Traditionally states have always felt a need to suppress or at least strongly regulate sexually explicit expressions in order to maintain ‘morality’ and ‘standards of decency’. The primary concern of the moralists appears to be that sexually explicit expressions could undermine moral values and the institution of marriage. The British lawyer, judge and jurist, Lord Devlin, articulated this view in his book, The Enforcement of Morals (1965). Lord Devlin argued that since a shared set of basic moral values is essential to a society, public authorities are justified in protecting the society against attacks on these values – such as mounted by pornography and nude dancing.

Opponents of a clampdown however counter that in a plural society, any consensus or ‘moral glue’ regarding sexual attitudes has either disappeared or is rapidly disappearing. In other words, they posit that the argument that nude dancing will endanger morals is untenable in a society where the notion of sexual morality is increasingly becoming contentious.

Opponents of a clampdown also contend that the ‘enforcement of morality’ argument neglects the ‘moral autonomy’ of individuals, namely that it is up to individuals, not the state, to make their own moral decisions on whether they should go and patronise nude clubs or not. They equally argue that a clampdown disrespects the fundamental right of nude dancers over their bodies, especially in a secluded area where people are not forced to watch.

Two, nude dancing has also been criticised from a feminist perspective. The argument here is that permitting sexually explicit expressions such as nude dancing or pornography would amount to a damaging attack on the dignity of womanhood. It is also argued that sexually explicit expressions often have a coded ideological message, namely that the woman is a mere object of gratification.

Supporters of nude dancing however counter that if explicit sexual expressions embody a ‘political message’ as contended by feminists, then it will be wrong for the state to suppress it since such ideological expressions, as unpalatable as they may appear to some, are contributions to the marketplace of ideas that enrich democracy.

Three, critics of nude dancing equally argue that the images people are exposed to bear a causal relationship to their behaviour, implying that permitting nude dancing and strip tease clubs would encourage promiscuity or aggression towards women in the society. Those against a clampdown however rebut this, arguing that if this line of reasoning is stretched, it would also mean banning many films and TV shows as well as sports that depict violence such as boxing and wrestling, since they would apparently also promote violence in the society. They further argue that the offence nude dancing may cause to some is sometimes misconstrued to be a damage it will do.

Additionally, opponents of a ban accuse the state of ‘selective justice’. They argue that the wide availability of pornography on the internet and semi pornography magazines as well as the ubiquity of pop videos featuring scantily dressed females and male dancers show that the society is quite thoroughly saturated with sexuality in a commodified form. So, why pick on nude dance clubs, they argued?

In the US, court decisions on nude dancing tend to be contentious, especially when presented as an artistic expression that deserves a First Amendment protection. For instance in September 2008, a judge in Des Moines, Iowa, USA, ruled in favour of a nude dancing club owner charged with violating Iowa’s indecent exposure law. The case concerned a 17-year-old niece of the local Sherriff, Steven MacDonald, who danced nude at a club. The club owner, Clarence Judy, was charged with violating Iowa’s public indecent exposure law. Judy’s lawyer contended that: “Dance has been considered one of the arts as is sculpture, painting and anything else like that. What Clarence has is a club where people can come and perform.” The judge ruled that prosecutors failed to prove that the strip club does not qualify as a theatre because Iowa law allows nudity at theatres, museums and other venues devoted to the arts or theatrical performances. The judge further argued: “Given the First Amendment implications of a statute that may limit expression, it is not the role of the Court to judge the taste or quality of the art represented at Shotgun Geniez when determining whether or not it is a theatre.”

Even when the courts have ruled in favour of local obscenity or indecency laws, it has often been split decisions. In 2000 for instance, the Supreme Court ruled by 6-3 to broaden the authority of the state of Pennsylvania to regulate sexually expressive conduct. At issue in the case was an ordinance from the city of Erie, Pennsylvania, banning public nudity and requiring dancers in adult clubs to don at least pasties and a G-string before appearing on stage. In 1998, Pennsylvania’s top court struck down the ordinance, rejecting the city’s argument that the nude dancing ban was justified to combat crime. The Supreme Court reversed that decision in March 2000. In criticising the Supreme Court ruling, The New York Times argued: “Dancing in the nude, like other forms of dance, is an expressive activity that conveys a distinct artistic message warranting free-speech protection.”

The above would suggest that in a plural society such as Lagos, banning nude dancing on the say-so of religious leaders, however much we respect them, could amount to imposing a particular form of morality on all. The clampdown could also possibly infringe on the rights of the nude dancers and the club owners.

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