When news hit that a three-story strip club will open next week in the heart of the city (“Upscale ‘Rhino’ club hits Mpls.,” April 5), e-mails of shock and outrage flooded my inbox and traveled far and wide within the human rights community.

The gist: How can a city that prides itself on civic engagement, historic preservation, cultural investment and renewed work to end racial and gender gaps permit, at best, the objectification of women — and perhaps much, much worse — as part of its business community?

Online discussions have ranged from city officials defending their decision to permit the club as a legal, licensed business that they will monitor to questions about erotica as a legitimate industry to activists wondering what they can do to stop this club from operating.

According to a colleague in law enforcement, despite what city officials claim, nobody polices what occurs in strip clubs. So ask yourself: What happens in those private rooms where men can hold a “private party?” Outside of private rooms, you can see men grind and grab — all of which is illegal, but never enforced.

I am not the morality police. This is about laws and policies that continue to sanction and profit from violence against women. It’s also about a lack of pathways to economic prosperity for young women in our city — something that our city officials could seek to remedy and for which the benefits would be positive and long-term for women, families, community and city.

Before we launched “MN Girls Are Not For Sale” in 2011 — our campaign to end child sex trafficking in Minnesota — we conducted focus groups and statewide polling to learn what Minnesotans knew and thought about the issue. We were heartened to learn how supportive (96 percent) Minnesotans were of laws and investments to protect and provide housing and services for girls who had been sex-trafficked.

And some of what we learned truly made our jaws drop — specifically men’s attitudes about what constituted “buying sex” when it involved adult women. No men in the focus groups thought a lap dance qualified as buying sex, even with pants and underwear around the ankles. For me, this was a light-bulb moment: the normalization, dehumanization and commodification of women as sexual objects to be purchased.

What child dreams of growing up to be a stripper? In Minnesota, a girl can start stripping in clubs the minute she blows out 18 candles on her birthday cake. Is this an aspiration that any parents hold for their child?

The path that leads an adult woman to work at a strip club is often paved with a childhood of violence, neglect, or sexual and physical abuse. According to law enforcement authorities and sex-trafficking survivors, it is these same vulnerabilities that make strip clubs a pipeline for girls and young women to be prostituted.

If the club owners and patrons — and Mayor Betsy Hodges and Minneapolis City Council members — don’t think coercion, violence and rape are often the experiences of women working in strip clubs, then they are as naive as the men who think they’re out for some harmless fun.

I challenge our city leaders to think creatively about alternatives to pimping women to attract conventions, sporting events and tourists to our vibrant, beautiful city.

What can you do? Help end the demand for sex trafficking by making investments in young boys’ and girls’ education. Talk to the men and boys in your lives about healthy relationships and sexuality. Call for policies that strengthen pathways to prosperity for young women and men.

 

Lee Roper-Batker is president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.