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Dance Bar Girls and the Feminist's Dilemma

If many feminists are likely to opt for the rehabilitation option in the case of dance bar girls it is because of the understanding that exploitation can exist, even in the absence of unfair wages and physical violence. At the same time it is also important to refute the Maharashtra government's depiction of the dance bar as a pornographic site of vice and corruption. It is possible for us to conceive of a new dance bar phenomenon with mixed - gender-wise - dancers and clientele, as well as a wider pattern of ownership, which is likely to make us rethink the relation between freedom of expression, sexual freedom and equality.

Dance Bar Girls and the Feminist’s Dilemma

If many feminists are likely to opt for the rehabilitation option in the case of dance bar girls it is because of the understanding that exploitation can exist, even in the absence of unfair wages and physical violence. At the same time it is also important to refute the Maharashtra government’s depiction of the dance bar as a pornographic site of vice and corruption. It is possible for us to conceive of a new dance bar phenomenon with mixed – gender-wise – dancers and clientele, as well as a wider pattern of ownership, which is likely to make us rethink the relation between freedom of expression, sexual freedom and equality.


n March 30, 2005, the deputy chief minister of Maharashtra, R R Patil, stated in the assembly that dance bars were “corrupting the moral fibre of our youth and culture”, and therefore had to be closed down. Apparently this decision was unanimously supported by the cabinet, and violation of this move was said to invite three months’ imprisonment.

According to Patil and the other members of the Maharashtra cabinet, the dance bar phenomenon poses not just a “moral” or social problem, but also a security one, given the fact that only 4 per cent of the girls employed there are from the state. It is asserted that many of the girls are foreigners and migrants from neighbouring Bangladesh and Nepal, and therefore doubly undesirable. Meanwhile, the All-India Bar Girls’ Union has protested the state government’s decision to shut down the dance bars in the state and has demanded that the state either open the bars again or provide the girls with other means of livelihood.

The feminist’s dilemma lies in balancing the just economic claims of the bar girls with the sexual exploitation that is implicit in their work within the dance bars. The state’s moral policing of the dance bar girls gives rise to some reflection on issues related to pornography and prostitution. As feminists, we hold somewhat polarised views on both these phenomena, mainly because they pertain to a deeply personal part of ourselves, namely, sexuality. In the particular context of the dance bar girls,

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007 the dilemma is: Should feminists press for the re-employment of the girls in the dance bars, or forgo that stance as “false consciousness”, and labour for the girls’ rehabilitation in more “respectable” professions?

The dance bar phenomenon inevitably raises the following questions: Whether or not dancing in a bar constitutes obscene or pornographic practice, what is pornography, and why we should consider pornography as being sexually exploitative, before we can conceptualise the role, if any, of state censorship and control.

Classical Feminist Stand

The classical feminist anti-pornography stand was taken by Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon in the US in the 1980s.1 Dworkin and MacKinnon battled legally and politically to enact anti-pornography ordinances in several cities of the US. These ordinances have been challenged several times subsequently, even by some feminists who felt that Dworkin and MacKinnon’s definition of pornography was over broad and that there was scope for a new kind of representational politics in alternative pornographic systems forged by a freer sexual imagination than that of the mainstream heterosexual multi-billion dollar pornography industry. Consequently, many feminists felt that the state – to which Dworkin and MacKinnon had appealed for passing anti-pornography legislation

– could not be the final arbiter of human sexual freedom.

In order to understand what pornography is, we need to take a closer look at those who fight against it, those who look for newer, less fettered forms of sexual expression, those who control it, those who consume it, and those who are used in it. In each case, we are likely to get some insight into the dance bar girls’ situation.

To begin with, it would be worthwhile to examine the views of those who fight pornography from a feminist perspective. MacKinnon’s argument, in particular, is of interest, because her social theory of gender is an adaptation of Marxism; indeed, both theories are concerned with the constitution of exploitation.2 MacKinnon, however, is less concerned with probing modalities of exploitation than with working out an identity between the capitallabour relation in Marxism and the malefemale relation in feminism. Class is analogous to gender because both are social relations of domination and subordination: “As the organised appropriation of the work of some for the benefit of others defines a class, workers, the organised expropriation of the sexuality of some for the use of others defines the sex, women” [MacKinnon 1989:3]. Women, then, constitute a generically exploited category like the working class in a capitalist society.3

Strangely enough, if we were to apply this kind of reasoning to the dance bars, and examine if indeed they involved the “organised expropriation of the sexuality” of the girls for the use of customers, the answer is likely to be negative for the most part. While feminist intellectuals tend to agonise over a clear-cut definition of pornography, the players in the industry have no doubt that hard or “true” pornography involves “cum shots” or the visible portrayal of male ejaculation.4 I do believe that a slightly different view – from MacKinnon’s – of the interface of class and gender would provide us with a more foolproof case for establishing the sexual exploitation of the dance bar girls.

Indeed, many feminists have criticised MacKinnon for adopting a static, ahistorical, non-dialectical model of male-female relations in pornography, in which the possibility of emancipation – most un-Marxist like! – simply does not exist. MacKinnon’s theory that sex is to gender what work is to class is based on Marx’s labour theory of value, whereby exploitation takes place in a society in which unpaid labour is systematically forced out of one

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class and put at the service of another. However, such a definition of exploitation may be inadequate – certainly it is so in the case of the pornography industry – where notions like “unpaid labour” and “force” are undefined and vague. We can conceive of women being paid fair wages in the pornography industry (or in the dance bars); equally we can conceive of some women voluntarily entering the industry (or the dance bars). Moreover, women’s subordination in pornographic practice may not devolve around a single relation pertaining to gender or class, but may indeed constitute a complex intermeshing of race, caste, ethnic and regional affiliations.


Even with fair wages and voluntary entry into the pornography industry, it is possible to establish that those that are used in the industry are exploited, both economically and sexually. What are the other kinds of exploitation (apart from “unpaid labour”) that we may conceive of in class

– and analogously in gender – terms?5 One of these pertains to the initial distribution of property among the citizenry. Such a definition would rely on property relations in distribution rather than on the creation and subsequent appropriation of surplus value in production. In a society with private ownership of the means of production, group A is exploited by group B, if members of group A would benefit by a

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007

redistribution or ownership in the means of production, in which each owned his or her per capita share. Generalising from this theory, we could affirm that the assetpoor dance bar girls are “forced” or obliged by the present distribution of property to work longer hours for the bar owner than is socially embodied in the subsistence bundle in order to produce commodities – or services, in this case – sufficient in value at market prices to exchange for their subsistence needs. But why is this “forcing” called exploitative? This is so, only because – or only if – there is an initial unequal distribution of ownership of the means of production or inputs, in this case, of the physical assets in the bar. In other words, exploitation in the production of goods and services is predicated on exploitation in terms of the initial distribution of assets.

If the bar owners, group B, and the dancers, group A, had equal ownership of the resources in the bar to begin with, and group A had frittered away their part of the assets owing to lavish lifestyles, and consequently been “forced” to work for group B, there is no instance of exploitation by B of A. Would our judgment of the dance bars change if indeed the bars were jointly owned by the dancers and there was a mixed – gender wise – audience? Would this be an instance of expanding the potential horizons of the female sexual imagination? If such is the case, then we could surely reach the conclusion that there is no economic or sexual exploitation of the dance bar girls.

However, as we know, in the overwhelming majority of cases, there is both economic and sexual exploitation if the dance bar girls by the owners and the clientele, because of the initial unequal distribution of assets between them. Apart from the girls’ underprivileged class position, they also have to suffer the ignominy of discrimination and prejudice owing to their underprivileged caste, ethnic and regional status. Thus it would seem that feminists should opt for the rehabilitation option for the dance bar girls, rather than for the reopening of the dance bars, which are no doubt rightly viewed in this context as being sexually and economically exploitative. The rehabilitation option, then, is believed to enhance the girls’ self-esteem as well as their economic status. Even if we concede that the dance bar girls are sexually and economically exploited because a redistribution of ownership in the means of production would improve their overall position, is the Maharashtra government justified in holding the view that the dance bars exercise a corrupting influence on its citizenry, especially the youth? The welfare state has a responsibility to provide economic well-being; it has no parallel right or obligation to worry about the moral well-being of its citizenry. The reason is that moral well-being may be conceived of in myriad ways.

Causality Argument

Although we may believe that the state cannot be the ultimate arbiter of morality, particularly in the sexual realm – indeed this is one of the principal arguments against state control and censorship of the media

– the causality argument still holds sway in much of anti-pornography feminist writing.6 The causality argument sees a direct relation between the consumption of pornography and the perpetration of crime. In a more theoretical mould, it translates as the copycat model (“you see it, therefore you do it”) or the addiction model, which is a derivative of the copycat model, in the anti-pornography discourse. In the addiction model, the initial erotic stimulation from the representation of soft pornography leads the (male) viewer to get into the habit of demanding stronger and stronger stimuli on subsequent occasions to achieve the same level of erotic stimulation as the first time. Finally, representation itself turns out to be inadequate and the user is “compelled” to act out the stimulus violently on a female victim. It thus becomes facile for the Maharashtra government to blame the pornographic representation and “easy virtue” of the dance bar girls for the rising rate of crimes against women in the state.

The addiction model (which is implicit in the Dworkin and MacKinnon antipornography ordinances) allows the male rapist to present himself as the victim of the peddlers of pornography. This model is common in the discourse on drug abusers, who are viewed as victims of the drug mafia. Indeed this model is so rampant in the media that the perpetrators of crimes against women arouse as much sympathy, if not more, as the victims themselves! The villains, then, are the porn pushers who force their clients to get hooked and increase the dose each time to a point where their behaviour becomes uncontrollably violent.

The new-found diminished responsibility of the brutal rapist-killer is possible only if pornography, like drugs, is believed to ineluctably trap its consumer. Just as the line of cocaine or the injected dose of heroin enters the bloodstream of the user and leads to the expected biochemical reaction, the pornographic text or image is believed to have a pre-determined effect on the consumer, who then has no control over himself or his actions.

Obviously, the comparison is faulty. When an individual consumes a text or image, he or she must interact and engage with it in order to derive its meaning – for the meaning is not out “there” simply to be absorbed. Violent sexual acts, therefore, are not the inevitable byproduct of the passive porn addict; these are works of the active imagination before they become public events. Sexual violence is structural and systemic and rooted in our societal context. It cannot be dismissed as the pathological behaviour of porn addicts, who mysteriously always turn out to be men, never women.

Curiously, the discourse on drug use has itself changed considerably from the law enforcement model of prevention, control and monitoring of illegal drug production and distribution, to the diabetes model where the medical authority seeks to manage rather than cure the drug user with maintenance doses, to the controversial liquor store model of responsible use of drugs by the non-addicted consumer. In the last model, the decision to use hard drugs like heroin is viewed as free choice and as manifestation of personal freedom. Addiction, from this perspective, is not a disease, and the so-called addict is not sick.7

The analogy between pornography and drug use is as faulty as MacKinnon’s analogy between the working class and women. What is missing in both is “context”, which involves history and process. MacKinnon’s account of sexuality as a generic category is problematic because it does not consider the historical fact that pornography is much more rampant and accessible in the second-half of the 20th and early 21st centuries than ever before, given the new heady climate of tolerance, democracy and technology. What was considered “aberrant” a century ago has now become “normal” and acceptable. Nevertheless – as stated earlier – each consumer of pornography actively uses his or her imagination to derive meaning from the pornographic text or image. In the case of drug use, despite the existence of non-addicted users, the domain of responsibility of the users is much reduced,

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007 since we are dealing with some level of biochemical reactions over which most of us have little control. To focus too much on the individual freedom of the drug user is also to focus too little on the socioeconomic and cultural problems involved in the production, distribution and consumption of drugs today.

We live in a hedonistic age where private pleasure is accorded a higher premium than social justice, which has been a hallmark of great movements like socialism and feminism in the past. This is where the dance bar phenomenon emerges as a social issue that must affect the way we think about sexuality – not merely in private terms, but also publicly and politically. Thus if many feminists are likely to opt for the rehabilitation option in the case of the dance bar girls, it is because of the understanding that exploitation can exist, even in the absence of unfair wages and physical violence. At the same time, it is important to refute the Maharashtra state government’s depiction of the dance bar as a pornographic site of vice and corruption. Sexuality in itself is neither good nor bad; it is the representation of sexuality that can be either good or bad. Therefore it is possible for us to conceive of a new dance bar phenomenon with mixed – genderwise – dancers and clientele, as well as a wider pattern of ownership, and this is likely to make us rethink the relation between freedom of expression, sexual freedom, and equality.




[I wish to thank my students at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, for forcing me to rethink my position on pornography and drug abuse. Special thanks to Aman Sethi for his nagging insistence that I find immediate responses to his many ethical dilemmas.]

1 Andrea Dworkin and Catherine MacKinnon:

‘Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day’,

Organising against Pornography, Minneapolis,

1988. 2 I refer here to Wendy Brown’s ‘The Mirror of

Pornography’ in Drucilla Cornell’s edited

volume, Feminism and Pornography, Oxford

University Press, 2000, where Brown discusses

MacKinnon’s recourse to Marxist theory in her

analysis of pornography. 3 Please note that for Marx, the working class

is exploited under capitalism and not under

socialism, whereas for MacKinnon, women

are exploited sexually in every age. The

historical dimension is missing in MacKinnon’s


4 See Drucilla Cornell’s Pornography’s Temptation in Drucilla Cornell’s edited volume on Feminism and Pornography, Oxford University Press, 2000, where this definition is presented by Candida Royalle, a former porn star who now attempts to direct porn films herself from a somewhat “feminist” angle, by avoiding “cum shots”. However, Royalle’s definition of pornography automatically puts lesbian films, and significantly not gay films, in the non-pornography category.

5 I refer specifically to the neo-Marxist writings of John E Roemer, where he suggests alternative models of exploitation to the traditional Marxist theory of surplus value. In ‘What Is Exploitation? Reply to Jeffrey Reiman’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol 18, No 1, Winter 1989, pp 90-97, Roemer suggests that the property relations definition, rather than the labour theory or unequal exchange theory, gives us a wider understanding of

the phenomenon of economic exploitation.

6 See ‘On the Question of Pornography and Sexual Violence: Moving beyond Cause and Effect’ by Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer, in Cornell’s edited volume, op cit for an excellent analysis of the inadequacies of the causality argument in feminism.

7 See ‘Heroin Decriminalisation and the Ideology of Tolerance: A Critical View’ by Ronald Bayer, Law and Society Review, Vol 12, No 2 (Winter 1978), pp 301-18, for a hard-hitting analysis of the dangers of relying too much on the value of individual freedom to the detriment of examining and solving social problems in the context of drug use.


MacKinnon, Catherine (1989): Towards a Feminist Theory of the State, Harvard University Press.

Economic and Political Weekly February 10, 2007

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