by Stacey Clare
In case you’ve been wondering about the plight of strippers in 21st century Britain lately, let me assure you that the halcyon days are long gone. No more nights earning 5 figure sums on bankers’ expense accounts, no more bundles of cash forgotten about in the knicker drawer. Nowadays most strippers are normally as cash-strapped as anyone else. Over the last 10 years, venues have closed down as social stigma around stripping has been stoked by feminist campaigns and hysterical media alike. But where are the voices of strippers themselves within the public discourse?
The social, political and economic landscapes have changed drastically in the 12 years that I’ve been a stripper. When I began in 2006, there was this thing called the credit-crunch – remember that? My first few months as an exotic dancer were spent sitting in an empty club in Glasgow, surrounded by women with immaculate nails and teetering high heels complaining that they weren’t making £500 on a week-night anymore, as their regular clientele of corporate executives was slowly disappearing; however, my first two years on the job were still financially life changing. Despite the slow nights, I was earning more than I ever had previously, working on national minimum wage. I was making bank, paying off debts, finally saving for the first time in my life, and experiencing a level of financial security that had a positive affect on my mental health and worldview.
It is no surprise then that after more than decade on the job I have become a fierce defender of a woman’s right to choose to make a living using her body and sexuality. Bodily autonomy is a fundamentally feminist principle: it’s the same principle upon which women’s reproductive rights and LGBT+ rights are also built. I was already 2 years into the job when I began researching for a dissertation, and devoured every feminist text I could get my hands on in the Glasgow School of Art library. I may have had some confirmation bias, but I rapidly aligned myself with the sex-positive feminist agenda. It made perfect sense to me that consenting adults should have the right to engage in non-traditional sexual activities without fear of shame or condemnation, and that those who actively queer societal norms deserve equal rights and protections. Sex workers have long been fighting from the margins to uphold some of the freedoms that today’s Tinder generation take for granted.
I regularly speak out against the sex-worker-exclusionary-radical-feminist (SWERF) movement that would have my industry erased in a heartbeat. So far 2018 has seen numerous attacks on strip clubs and the radical feminist left. In the UK alone venues have been targeted by women’s rights groups such as Not Buying It, who crowd-funded a judicial review in Sheffield, protesting the local council’s decision to renew the license of the solitary strip club in the city, Spearmint Rhino. In Bristol, there are loud calls among the feminist community, including local politician Thangnam Debbonaire MP, to eradicate the clubs there. Only 2 Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs) are left in Bristol, with their licenses renewed for just 6 months at a time. And the Scottish Executive have recently proposed a “nil policy” law, to limit and restrict the supposed “spread” of strip venues, despite the numbers of clubs having dwindled in recent years.
These efforts are by no means limited to the UK. In January, mass raids on strip clubs in the New Orleans’ famous party district Bourbon St. were carried out by various state authorities, including anti-trafficking personnel (and it’s well worth noting that not a single victim of trafficking was found). The Israeli government is currently proposing a new law to classify stripping as an act of prostitution and therefore illegal.
I have no doubt that the motivations behind these campaigns are well meaning. Given the deplorable history of female oppression, and the incredible gains made in 2017 with the #metoo campaign, it seems perfectly fitting that we as a society should be re-evaluating cultural norms that have permitted harassment, victimisation and exploitation of women. But it represents a shallow victory for the feminist movement when the people who suffer the most detrimental consequences are women themselves. When clubs shut down, women are put out of work and frequently turn to other forms of sex work to survive. Outside the relative safety of a licensed premises (and the social and legal accountability that comes with an SEV license) strippers and sex workers take more risks and find themselves in increasingly dangerous environments. I have personally worked at more private parties than I can remember, and mostly have had positive experiences. But when I’m on my own in some flat in Orpington, with 9 lads fuelled on cocaine and self-entitlement, and no security staff to mention, then the stakes are extremely high.
It’s also a sure sign that the patriarchy is alive and well when some women insist on policing what happens to other women’s bodies. Identifying us as victims whilst failing to consult us at every stage of debate reveals the paternalism at the core of public policy. For example, during the judicial review in Sheffield not one stripper currently working at the venue was invited to give testimony, despite the public gallery being packed full of strippers shaking their heads in dismay as their own livelihoods were scrutinised and denigrated. Puritanical laws that censor and outlaw the sexualisation of women do not protect anyone: they only succeed in hiding those of us who choose it by driving sex work underground. A good comparison can be made with the argument against anti-abortion laws – you can’t ban abortion, you can only ban safe abortion. Shutting down clubs and criminalising the sex industry only places those who rely on it in harm’s way.
In 2014 me and some fellow stripper colleagues founded the East London Strippers Collective as a direct response to this exact problem. No longer will we be silent while our work and future is attacked by those who have little or no contact with us. Becoming a sex worker activist has revealed to me just how precarious we are made by the moralistic reasoning of others in society, who can’t possibly imagine a world where sex workers could begin to take back control of their own lives and organise for their workers’ rights and protections. In the UK we are in the early stages of a unionisation drive for strippers and sex workers, which would enable us to begin taking club owners and managers to task for the exploitative and unscrupulous business practices rife in our industry. We are also determined to have our status as workers recognised by law, and to at long last establish the rights to which we are entitled within our workplaces. We reject the shame and stigma piled onto us as we strive for our own autonomy and self-determination.
Sex workers should not become a political football. If we have learned anything from the last two thousand years it’s that empowering women means all women. In this post #metoo climate we have a chance to remodel our culture to protect women in the truest sense, which means providing them with the tools and mechanisms by which they can defend themselves. With the help of allies we can begin to solve the problems in our industry from within, but if we shut down clubs we will miss an opportunity to empower some of the most vulnerable women in society.
Imagine if strippers ran their own clubs? Now that’s radical.
Stacey is the co-founder of East London Strippers’ Collective (ELSC). She has been stripping for almost a decade, and has mastered the art of pole dancing.
Photography by Tom Medwell
Manifesto of ELSC
- All humans are equal, and everyone has the right to become happy. All individuals have the right to pursue their own particular path towards happiness, specific to their unique lives, experiences and circumstances.
- All fully consenting adults have the right to engage in non-traditional sexual activities of their own choice, without fear of judgement or condemnation.
- All individuals have the right to choose their own livelihoods, and to use their bodies as a means to generate income and/or as a vehicle of self-expression.
- The ELSC is made up of mindful, ethical and autonomous individuals, each having chosen to strip and perform for work and pleasure. No one has been or is being coerced, nor does ELSC agree with the coercion of dancers in any way whatsoever.
- The ELSC recognises the work of a stripper to be a legitimate job and profession, aims to promote high standards of employment and working conditions for all its members and all strippers alike, and seeks to de-stigmatise the choice to work as a stripper.
- The definition of the term “stripper” indicates someone who is paid to remove items of clothing and/or underwear performed as an exotic/eroticised dance routine or performance, to reveal all or parts of their naked body.
- The ELSC wish to self-identify using the term “stripper” to draw a distinction between the work they do and other types of sex work. While the ELSC stands in total, open and honest solidarity with other sex workers and sex worker organisations, and has no resistance to the term “sex work”, for the purposes of campaigning on issues that specifically affect strippers in the UK the ELSC remain committed to the definition “stripper” to describe what they do for a living.
- The ELSC recognises exotic dance and striptease as a legitimate art form, dance discipline and mode of self-expression, as much as any others likely to entertain, titillate, or sexually stimulate the viewer (such as neo-burlesque, ballet, pole dancing, belly dancing or Jamaican dance-hall daggering). The ELSC does not regard one art form as “higher” or “more acceptable” over any other.
- The ELSC aims to inform and influence those in positions of authority, locally and nationally, who have the power to control, regulate and otherwise legislate the UK strip club industry. We wish to advocate on behalf of all strippers and performers affected by licensing legislation, and ask that we may be consulted during key stages of debate. We aim to have a fair and representative voice within the political arena instead of having decisions, which directly affect us, made on our behalf by those who have little or no contact with us at all.
- The ELSC aims to challenge/disturb the patriarchal conventions on which the industry is currently built. The ELSC invites and endorses the prospect of male dancers, female viewers, mixed gender audiences, couples, and trans/queer participants within the culture of strip clubs.
- Membership of the collective is limited only to those with relevant experience i.e. strippers or ex-strippers (which does not exclude male strippers); therefore decisions made about the activities of the collective may only be made by members (strippers) themselves. Anyone at all may be a supporter of the ELSC.
- Not one individual should profit from the labour/work of another. The ELSC does not aim to act as an agency, but instead as a resourceful network to help strippers avoid being exploited.