Injustice, feminism and strippers’ rights in East London

Being a stripper in the UK is filled with problems, from having to pay clubs to work there, to being treated terribly by their owners, and with little help from the government or female rights groups.

Hoping to change all of that is Stacey Clare, a stripper who has formed the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC) as a way to both bring attention to the profession’s problems, and to start paving the way to creating solutions. To find out about the challenges strippers face, and how the ELSC hopes to improve things, we talked to Stacey in an exclusive interview.

ELSC1Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your work at the East London Strippers Collective?

I’ve been a stripper for nearly a decade, and have worked in a wide range of clubs in the UK from the high-end, corporate, well-known chains to small, back-street dives.

I’ve had a ball as a stripper; travelled and made lots of money, but I rarely found a club that wasn’t exploiting the dancers in some way or other.

There are very few clubs in the UK that have a respectful attitude towards the dancers that work in them, considering that it’s the dancers that customers come to see in the first place. I’ve always felt the relationship between clubs and dancers should be one of mutual benefit and cooperation.

Strippers are technically self-employed, but they have no job protection. Clubs don’t give them authentic contracts of employment, and they have no legal powers to hold clubs accountable for their business practises.

I set up the East London Strippers Collective because I got fed up of hearing stories about how shockingly bad the industry is becoming for dancers to work in.

We are a group who know each other from the East London scene and have come together out of a shared grievance over poor working conditions and exploitative business practises in the industry. As we scratch beneath the surface we are beginning to discover how badly misrepresented we are by licensing laws that further defame our industry and seek to destroy our livelihoods by shutting down clubs.

We have begun by organising our own events and pop-up parties to start challenging common stereotypes about us. We are gradually becoming a self-organised autonomous group, who want to create our own working conditions and make our own business decisions.

We want our worth as sexual entertainers recognised within the industry, and for the value of our job to be upheld and reflected by legislation. So far we have had two very successful parties, given our first public talk, had quite a bit of media attention and have been steadily building a following online, helping us to connect to a wider public audience than ever. Long may it continue!

Tell us about some of the problems that strippers face in the average club

The most exploitative thing about working in clubs is being expected to pay house fees, which is where dancers have to pay clubs to work a shift. This is because it is often unrealistic and unfair, as there are no legal regulations to control these clubs, so they can charge as much as they want.

Because strippers have no real employment rights, either as employees or as independent contractors (we don’t get given proper contracts) club owners and bosses can run their businesses as personal fiefdoms, discriminating against girls over body type, skin colour, breast size, sacking whomever they choose and favouring others.

There are some good clubs that are well run, but it’s harder than ever to get work and keep hold of it once you’re in. We never know how long we’ll get to keep our job, we don’t get given short-term contracts i.e. six-months, so it’s hard to plan ahead.

Clubs expect us to remain loyal to them, and inform us what shifts we have to work (again removing any essence of genuine self-employment) and if we don’t like it we have no powers to negotiate. Because of this tension, you’re more likely to accept poor standards like cold changing rooms, disgusting toilets or sleazy DJs, because to speak out is to be fired.

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Women’s rights groups generally support the betterment of female labour, but have you encountered any resistance or lack of support for your profession?

Female-rights groups generally support the betterment of female labour if it is labour that they can ethically or morally accept. The unfortunate thing about many women’s rights organisations is that they fail to recognise the choice to work in the sex industry as a legitimate, autonomous decision made by individuals.

Personally I see myself as a feminist, but for me feminism is about women’s choices, not the right for women to tell other women what to do. Women should have the right to control how their own bodies are treated and depicted, NOT the right to control how other women’s bodies are treated and depicted.

There appears to be a worrying and ever increasing trend among the fourth wave feminist movement of judging other women’s choices, which threatens to undermine a movement that could open up women’s potential in society; if only we could stop bickering about where exactly that should be.

In my opinion it doesn’t matter whether it is the workplace, the home, the bedroom or the back-street strip-joint, whenever a woman’s worth is not recognised, women everywhere suffer. The last thing women should be doing is devaluing the autonomy of other women, by stigmatising their jobs and seeking to destroy their livelihoods.

Strippers’ rights, and the running of strip clubs as a whole, has been debated in government, and legislation has been passed. How much input has the stripper community had?

Correction, licensing legislation of UK strip clubs has been passed, under the Police and Crime Act 2009, but strippers’ rights and the running of strip clubs as a whole has not been debated in government, far from it.

The current licensing laws give local authorities powers to restrict the spread of the licensed sex industry, but they do absolutely nothing to address the working conditions that exist within the industry.

When the new licensing regime was being debated in Parliament, plenty of ex-dancers came forward with testimonies of poor working conditions, but none of the girls who continue to work in the industry were represented, so all the negative evidence suggested that strippers are victims who need to be ‘saved.’

At each stage of the licensing reform, dancers have been excluded from the debate, meaning decisions that have a direct effect on our industry have been made on our behalf without any proper consultation with us.

Because there is a lot of stigma attached to our jobs, and also because there is high risk of losing our jobs if we speak out, unsurprisingly dancers are reluctant to come forward as individuals and provide a ‘voice for the industry.’ This is something we hope to change.

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How protective, or restrictive, are these laws?

This is a long story, and very complex. But to try and simplify it, current licensing laws effectively classify strippers as victims of abuse. Section 27 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, places strip clubs and lap dancing venues in a category of law that deals with sex offenders and trafficking.

This is outrageous, because by reclassifying us as sex workers and lumping us in with this list of offences, the wider impact of licensing has served only to further stigmatise us, pushing us further out to the fringes of ‘respectability’ and leaving us even more vulnerable. It seems as if there is a moral campaign that seeks to stamp out all forms of sex work by criminalising it, and it looks like the latest licensing reforms are a step towards eventually criminalising stripping.

The current licensing is setting very dangerous precedents by combining all forms of sex work with sexual violence, as it becomes increasingly difficult to discern and distinguish real victims of abuse from those who aren’t.

Instead of offering any real solutions to the problems within the industry, licensing has only pushed us further out to the fringes of social acceptability, leaving us even more vulnerable.

Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy, who are both academics at Leeds University, offer the term ’empty shell’ licensing, which is a perfect description. All that has been achieved has been to give councils greater powers to close clubs down, which they can now do on moral grounds, so prohibitionists now have the upper hand.

In terms of protection, we have no more than before. Our work environments are about the same, and the exploitative practises have not been addressed. It seems as if the lobbyists who have been championing the licensing reform think that strip clubs are a harm that the public need to be protected from. The law is offensive to us, and we would like to see it reconsidered.

You want to open Europe’s first strip club cooperative – how realistic do you think that is, and how would it be organised differently?

It’s totally realistic, as it has been done before. The idea for a cooperative strip club, co-owned and managed by the dancers who work in it, is inspired by the example of The Lusty Lady, in San Francisco; the only club in history to have organised as a cooperative.

Our manifesto outlines some pretty clear objectives, such as disturbing the patriarchal conventions on which the industry has been built, promoting gender equality, encouraging and supporting the prospect of male dancers, female viewers, mixed audiences and transsexual/other participants.

Stripping culture needs to keep up with progressive ideals, and while society is becoming more accepting of sexual diversity, strip clubs should reflect that. We’d like to see a club that caters to a wider and more diverse audience, and represents a much broader image of female sexuality than the limited one currently available at your average strip-club.

The most important objective though is that dancers are respected for what they do. Any business model for a cooperative club must be financially viable without relying on extorting money from the dancers – a new, more positive business model could emerge from a more respectful attitude within the industry, and this is what we are working towards.

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How have you found the reaction to the ELSC?

The response to ELSC has been incredible. We have only been going for just over six months and it’s been amazing to see the amount of support and encouragement, from other dancers around the country who have heard about us and got in touch to congratulate us for our work, sympathetic customers who feel the same way about the industry as we do, journalists like yourselves who want to help us get our message out, to artists and allies who offer us interesting opportunities to collaborate on projects to do with photography, film, and theatre.

Have you had any opposition from existing strip club owners about ELSC?

So far, some club owners have been supportive. One venue in the East End became aware of us and their management attended our public meeting. This is exactly the kind of response we would like from our bosses as ultimately this is the only way to bring about change, by being honest, transparent and generating healthy dialogue between the two “camps” of the industry.

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How would you respond to the people that have been saying ‘if you don’t like it, quit’?

After I bite my tongue to prevent telling them to fuck off, I would politely suggest that the only way we even ended up with national and global employment protections in the first place was the huge struggle and efforts made by workers who organised to shift the balance of power away from management.

Anyone who has worked in our industry will tell you that it is a job like no other, which carries its own set of demands and requirements. It may be hard to believe, but there are plenty of people who choose to go down the path of sex work because the benefits outweigh the costs. We would simply like to be legally recognised as workers, and be afforded the same rights and freedoms that workers in other industries have.

We want to defend ourselves against discriminatory and exploitative business practises, and just get on with doing our job.

What can people do to help?

We always welcome new enquiries and messages of support, particularly from other dancers. It means the most to us when we hear from other strippers facing the same plight, as these are the women we want to make most of our connections with. If any of your readers are currently working in the industry or know someone who is, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The biggest way people can help is to shout our name from the rooftops. Tell the whole world about us, check out our Facebook page and share our articles. The more support we can gather at this stage the better our chances are of influencing real change later on down the line.

 

Photography by Vera Rodriguez