Meet the collective of London strippers tackling stigma and injustice in the adult entertainment industry
Tackling stigma associated with being a stripper is tough. In an industry surrounded by stereotypes – from poor upbringings to devastating circumstances, substance abuse and ‘daddy’ issues – dancers are unfairly doled out labels that place their profession on the outs at the first mention of ‘stripper’. While it would be naive to say these issues don’t exist, it’s also just as much to say that women who strip for their own pleasure and enjoyment, or women who find their job empowering, don’t exist. With such stereotypes also come poor working conditions, uncertain employment horizons and a refusal from employers to give dancers the statutory protection and rights they deserve.
The East London Strippers Collective, founded by Stacey Clare in 2014, is at the forefront of changing this. Clare began stripping ten years ago, and has since witnessed the way girls have been exploited by club owners. She explains: “Our livelihoods need to become less precarious and that’s difficult to overcome when what we do isn’t considered legally accepted work.”
As a group of professional strippers, coming together over poor working conditions and exploitative business practises, the ELSC aims to challenge stigma and attitudes towards their profession, and to bring about changes to the working conditions that are so desperately needed – all while sharing their stories on just what they find empowering about their job. Below, we catch up with Clare to figure out just what it takes to fight injustice as a stripper in 2015.
“Female strippers are consistently badmouthed because of the stigma of what we do, as if we are not real people” – Stacey Clare
OWN YOUR STORY – NOT EVERYONE IS THE SAME
According to Clare, the main misconceptions associated with stripping are the assumptions that many come from traumatised backgrounds, victims of abuse, or are trafficked or coerced into the business – circumstances that may apply to some yet create a damaging umbrella that labels everyone the same. “These are all very derogatory ideas about us that are damaging to our livelihoods,” she says, adding, “female strippers are consistently badmouthed because of the stigma of what we do, as if we are not real people. Of course, some strippers do come from these unfortunate circumstances, but some also come from privileged backgrounds and own that – just like in any other profession. Our backgrounds vary, and should not be limited to a fictionalised image that stereotypes strippers in one particular way.”
MAKE FRIENDS AND ENGAGE WITH YOUR FELLOW STRIP COMMUNITY
The ELSC’s community is built largely on events and parties that they regularly host, including art exhibitions like the upcoming The Art of Stripping at the Red Gallery. “These events are as much an opportunity for us to practise self-organisation and collaboration as they are for inviting the public to learn about us, and enjoy themselves.” To Clare, running a successful party is incredibly empowering, who claims it helps to build trust and unity as a collective. “Strippers are usually pitted against each other in unpleasant conditions, so creating bonds with one another at these events is very important.”
DON’T PUT UP WITH IT
“These days the industry is so rife with sexism and exploitation that it’s almost impossible to find a venue that isn’t treating dancers like flesh ATM machines,” says Clare. “As a prospective dancer looking for work, it is easy to spot the tell-tale signs of a club that will treat you badly – basically they treat you badly.” However there are certain signs that even customers can notice. “If the atmosphere amongst the girls and the owners is tense, or if the employees within a club don’t have respectful attitudes towards each other that’s a pretty clear sign of a bad working conditions. Also, the lack of legal control we have regarding how much money clubs take from girls is something which should be acknowledged.” Even though there are clubs doing it right as well run establishments, Clare says staying there for a long time period is unlikely. “There are venues where the girls are pretty happy, but without real employment rights its hard to determine how long we can stay at particular clubs.”
CHANGE STIGMATISATION BY SPEAKING OUT
Each dancer’s experience differs, but feeling empowered by the job is an important aspect for Clare. “For me, stripping is about feeling strong. I have found a way to make a living doing something I am comfortable with, with those who are comfortable as recipients,” she says. “I get off on being looked at, I love my own body and I enjoy revealing it. I feel that my sexuality and prowess are worth sharing.” This feeling of job pride and body positivity is something Clare wants to promote. She explains that the ELSC doesn’t want to impose their beliefs on the world or to anyone who is non consensual, but instead to help people realise that they shouldn’t be discriminated against for what they do. “Strip-clubs are places where these roles and exchanges are established and permitted, so those who don’t participate in the industry shouldn’t discriminate against those who do. Now we have begun the collective and I am growing a public profile as an activist, more people accept that I love what I do.”
“These days the industry is so rife with sexism and exploitation that it’s almost impossible to find a venue that isn’t treating dancers like flesh ATM machines” – Stacey Clare
PICK YOUR BATTLES
As a growing activist group aiming to shatter negative stereotypes, the ELSC stand firm on being calm and rational when dealing with adversity – regardless of how they feel towards certain critics. “We do encounter a few individuals who share the opinion that sex work is bad for all women,” says Clare. While resisting the urge to engage in heated discourse may be difficult, Clare points out the importance of remaining calm against resistance and using discussion to address criticism and combat stereotypes is important. “When dealing with people whose opinions oppose our beliefs, we don’t feel a need for it to be a matter of conflict, and choose to avoid making enemies of the opposition. The most useful thing we can do is engage in friendly, amicable dialogue wherever possible.”
RECLAIM YOUR RIGHTS
Seeing more dancers in positions of authority and having influence and power over their working conditions is a working goal for Clare. “Dancers need to be given more options, like moving into positions of management for example. They need to be properly consulted about decisions that directly affect them, whether that be about licensing legislation or what type of carpet to use so dancers aren’t left with skinned knees.” While she acknowledges that the ELSC can’t address every issue, she credits the organisation as a way to navigate through these issues in a way that can positively change the power structure, and not get dancers fired from their jobs for speaking out.
“This process is obviously really delicate since none of us have employment protections, our jobs are precarious and we can lose them at any moment. We have to find a way to reclaim our rights in ways that don't put us in the firing line. We need contracts of services, which would give us the right to take legal action against unscrupulous business owners. We need policies in terms of licensing legislation that actually serve to protect us as performers and professionals. Ultimately, we need our jobs to be socially and legally accepted as work. The most obvious thing for us to do right now is to begin self-organising and collaborating on the periphery, because it helps give us a sense of how we'd like things to be, and gives us a place to start from.”