The Walrus Blog

Invasive Exposure

In Toronto, bird’s-eye photos of off-the-clock strippers raise questions of privacy

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.

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  • accozzaglia

    Your 2 cents: thank you, thank you , thank you..

  • S

    I’m with you 100% when it comes to the equal rights of sex workers, and how the power differential in their lives should not be exploited for titillation or any other gain. But a friend suggested to me that, while taking the photos and posting them may not the right thing to do for other reasons, any person on a rooftop in public space does not have a reasonable expectation of not being seen (ie, they are not in fact in a private space, so viewing or photographing them is not in an of itself a de facto violation of privacy, insomuch that anyone can take anyone else’s picture on a public street), regardless of profession or attire. This has led me to think more about the meaning and concept of privacy. What do you think?

  • AJ Somerset

    Sorry, Jeet, but I’m going to quibble.

    “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.”

    Where is it written that any labourer of any kind is entitled to privacy during a break? It isn’t.

    The issue here has nothing to do with work or labour. The issue is that all *persons* are entitled to reasonable expectations of privacy. If you are in a public place, or are visible to the public, generally speaking, such an expectation does not exist. However, the roof of Zanzibar does not qualify; the photographer had to use a long (i.e. magnifying) lens to make the pictures. The women in the photos had a reasonable expectation of privacy because they were hidden from ordinary view, and the Torontoist violated their right to privacy.

    You can bet that before publishing this kind of photo of say, Angelina Jolie, they’d have checked with a lawyer. But they didn’t, which is telling. The issue here is not that strippers are being treated as less than workers; it’s that they’re being treated as less than persons.

  • Jen Selk

    Thank you, Jeet. I am surprised that you saw my little comment, but it’s great that you weighed in. Your piece on the Macleans “Too Asian?” issue was really great and it’s nice to read a smart, reasonable take on this subject as well.

    • ZM Winterrise

      LOL “Too Asian” was a good piece?

      Writer: “So, what are your concerns?”
      Student: “School is too Asian, I need a white school so I can be an engineer”
      Writer: “ohhhh, tell me more, do the asians antagonize you, poor girl!”

      ———–cut to real world——————–

      Person: “So, what are your concerns?”
      Student: “School is too Asian, I need a white school so I can be an engineer.”
      Person: “You stink of ignorance. Grow up. You think you can be an engineer that builds whites only schools for whites only engineering firms in some whites only fantasyland? If you really believe there are a large number of asian engineering students you damn well better be friends with those people or you are screwed.”

      • Zapper

        Check this out. These two sentences are very different:

        “Your piece on the Macleans ‘Too Asian?’ issue was really great and it’s nice to read a smart, reasonable take on this subject as well.”


        “Your piece in the Macleans ‘Too Asian?’ issue was really great…”

        I think you’ll find Jeet Heer’s article ON the ‘Too Asian?’ issue to be quite thoughtful, interesting, critical, etc. etc, not the ignorant babble you seem to think.

        Silly little vignettes about the ‘real world’ seem awfully silly and ignorant when you’re not accurately reading and interpreting that about which you’re commenting.

  • ZM Winterrise

    If Angelina Jolie were standing outside somewhere, say, a roof not intended as a habitat and with no accommodation for privacy whatsoever, and someone had a picture of it it is fair game.

    A shade, a sign, a floor, a bench, an umbrella, a table, a safety rail, a shelter or anything at all might indicate that the roof you are on is private or that you could have some expectation to privacy in that place. Otherwise, you better look up and look around, then move into someplace private in order to expect privacy.

  • Jeet Heer

    @A.J. Somerset. I take the point that the “issue is that all *persons* are entitled to reasonable expectations of privacy.” But I think the reason why some people (like that idiotic blog I quoted) don’t see strippers as having a reasonable expectation of privacy is that it is assumed that sex workers somehow have less rights than other workers or than people in general.

  • Martin

    Get off your high horse, it’s the owner of Zanzibar’s fault for putting them up there without so much as a patio umbrella. I walked out almost naked on my balcony I’d expect similar consequences.

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