In Toronto, bird’s-eye photos of off-the-clock strippers raise questions of privacy
Recently on Twitter, writer Jen Selk made this request: “I want Jeet Heer to write about that Zanzibar/Torontoist thing next. You tell ’em, Jeet.”
Never let it be said that I don’t listen to readers.
First, some context. Zanzibar is a strip club in downtown Toronto. Torontoist is “a website about Toronto and everything in it.” And the “Zanzibar/Torontoist thing” was summarized by the Toronto Star in these terms:
On Wednesday, [November 23,] Torontoist published 10 photographs of strippers taking breaks on the club’s rooftop in their work wear. The website attributed the images to Ryerson University librarian Brian Cameron, saying he had taken them from his office window at Ryerson’s library building, which overlooks Zanzibar.
Torontoist questioned whether Yonge St. development will disrupt Zanzibar employees’ break spot. The online reaction was swift, with many downtown residents writing on Twitter questioning why the website published the photographs. By Thursday night, the article had nearly 60,000 page views.
“We take it very seriously,” said Janet Mowat, Ryerson’s director of public affairs.
The university doesn’t have a specific policy that the situation falls under, she said. Mowat said she couldn’t disclose whether Cameron was being disciplined.
By Wednesday night Torontoist had pulled all but one of the photos, saying the website did not intend to violate privacy and apologizing if it had.
Now, here’s my two cents:
Sex workers are workers. As workers they are entitled to the full security and protections given to other labourers, including privacy rights during their breaks. The sex part of sex work scrambles people’s minds. So it’s common to fail to realize that strippers and other sex workers deserve the dignity that should be accorded to all employees.
Given the exhibitionist nature of exotic dancing, it might be hard to believe that strippers could have privacy concerns. But these concerns make sense if we compare stripping to other jobs. The nature of modern work involves the creation of multiple identities; we are one person at our jobs, another person during our off hours. All work is a form of performance. Two lawyers can argue ferociously during a trial and enjoy a genial dinner away from the courthouse. A professor can be an advocate of high-minded seriousness during a lecture, then go home and watch wrestling on TV. Just so, a stripper can take off her clothes for ogling men and still not want her photo taken without her permission while she’s not working nor want such a photo to circulate on the internet.
An idiotic blog which I’m not going to name or link to because it republished two of Cameron’s photos made this rationalization: “Call us callous but if strippers don’t expect to get the odd leer, there is no hope for common sense.” The argument that it’s acceptable to invade the privacy rights of strippers because of the nature of their job is about as sound as the argument that it’s okay to rape prostitutes because they engage in sex for a living. In both cases, the sexual nature of the occupation clouds the fact that we’re talking about real people who deserve the same legal protections and moral considerations that the rest of us enjoy.
P.S. For a more literary take on the subject of strippers, readers might enjoy my review of Russell Smith’s recent novel Girl Crazy, which also deals with this topic.