News | Sunday, 30 May 2010

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‘Dirty dancing’ goes mainstream

Never mind the Borges: ‘Gentleman’s clubs’ now occupy Malta’s prime nightlife spots, and even advertise their services on in-flight magazines. By RAPHAEL VASSALLO

If it carries on growing at the present rate, Malta’s supposedly ‘underground’ erotic entertainment scene may well rise to become the single most predominant force in local nightlife.
Five years after the last major police crackdown on ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ in Paceville and Bugibba – when 35 dancing girls, all foreign, were arrested and charged with “performing immoral acts in public and participating in a brothel” – the number of similar pole- and lap-dancing clubs appears to have skyrocketed in Malta’s entertainments hotspots: mostly St Julian’s, where the previously discreet industry now advertises its wares on very visible neon signs, and by dishing out flyers to passersby in the street.
“A few years ago, there were only one or two ‘gentleman’s clubs’ here,” one Paceville bar owner confided to MaltaToday. “Today they are around seven, with another two – possibly three – opening soon.”
It seems however that this sudden proliferation of gentlemen’s clubs has less to do with the number of ‘gentlemen’ in Paceville, than with the changing spending habits of the typical Maltese punter.
“In the present economic climate, it is becoming increasingly difficult to make a living from the traditional models of nightlife entertainment: bars, discos, etc. Lap-dancing is where the money is today... which is why they are sprouting up all over the place.”
And literally, they seem to be materialising everywhere. The Irish pub formerly known as O’ Connors on Wilga Street is now a gentlemen’s club. Another will openly shortly only two doors down, on the other side of Browns (formerly Tremors), across the road from Plush – which is also adjacent to an underground lap-dancing venue. Add to these Steam, Stilettos and Darlings, and that makes for a total of six in a radius of less than 100 metres.
Rumour has it that even the site of The Alley on Ball Street – i.e., at the very epicentre of Paceville – is destined to become another gentlemen’s club. If true, this alone would speak volumes about the gradual acceptance of adult entertainment in the past few years.
Apart from the sheer centrality of its location, The Alley itself was long regarded as a reliable gauge by which Malta’s changing nightlife trends could be measured – expanding from a small 1970s cocktail lounge, to a major rock bar in the 1980s and 1990s, only to eventually split into dance-club and pizzeria, before closing down altogether.
Its imminent reinvention as a lap-dancing club would therefore be viewed by the industry as a sure-fire sign, not only that such venues are now here to stay... but also that they have stepped firmly out of the shadows to become a regular feature of mainstream Paceville entertainment.

Lap-dance loopholes
But if the rise of adult entertainment has undeniably diversified Malta’s tourist package, it has also underscored the severe limitations of its licensing regime. Legally, such clubs continue to operate in something of a twilight zone. There is no such thing as a licence specifically to run a pole- or lap-dancing club, and theoretically anyone can change any establishment to a gentleman’s club, without applying for a change of licence conditions.
One bar-owner told me in confidence why he has so far resisted the temptation. “It’s not as simple as it seems, and it’s not about morality either. There are other, additional investments involved: you need to provide a room for private dances; a specialised form of security; things like that...”
But while this holds some people back, a whole new breed of entrepreneur has meanwhile infiltrated the traditionally varied Paceville mix... and with them has come the growing suspicion of organised crime.
So far there has been no conclusive evidence to support the rather widespread view that ‘gentleman’s clubs’ also provide un-gentlemanly services. In fact, the evidence points in the opposition direction: of the 35 girls arrested in the 2005 sting, all without exception turned out to have been professional dancers who were 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.
But the international sex slave trade still casts its long shadow over the entire industry: a sphere of operations which somehow manages to sustain a steady supply of young women – nearly all foreign, and overwhelmingly from Eastern Europe – in prodigious quantities.

Uncertain future
Whether or not there is active exploitation of these women is difficult to establish with any degree of certainty. But few would deny that the flavour of Paceville is slowly changing, and not everyone is happy with new direction the nightspot is currently taking.
Without commenting directly on the subject, a Malta Tourism Authority official acknowledged that there has been resistance in some quarters: “Bar one or two exceptions, the feedback we get from hotels and bars in the area is generally negative.”
And on top of all these issues, ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ also operate under the continued threat of a possible future crackdown of the kind last seen in 2005 – especially considering that the police have appealed against the Not Guilty verdict handed down in that particular case; and that the appeal is expected to reach a conclusion later this year.
“There is no guarantee that the police will not crack down on these clubs tomorrow, even if the Magistrate acquitted all the dancers and club-owners on that occasion,” one bar owner said. “But the law itself has not changed since then, so the police can still choose to interpret lap-dancing as illegal if they want to...”
As things stand, toleration of these clubs by the authorities seems to hang only from the slender thread of police discretion. In the 2005 case, Police Inspector Paul Vassallo testified that, in the absence of any specific operational licences for such venues, the police were left to their own devices to distinguish between legal and illegal forms of dancing, and even to define what constitutes an “immoral act”.
For instance, one of the dancing girls had been arrested for ‘wearing a thong’... a charge which could conceivably be levelled at a sizeable chunk of Malta’s entire female population (and who knows? Quite possibly male also).
From this perspective, it is difficult to see how the industry in general can be regulated by police action alone, without any standard legal definitions for any of the issues involved.
Some entrepreneurs believe that this situation needs to be revisited as a matter of urgency, if nothing else to create a level playing field.
“Ideally it would be better for all concerned to regularise the position of such clubs by means of a special licence. At least this way we’d know where we all stand...”


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