Campaigners who want to shut down strip clubs are missing the point
The Windmill Theatre in Soho, Britain’s oldest strip club famed for its glamorous past has lost its Sexual Entertainment Venue (SEV) license, pending appeal. In a sting operation involving private detectives hired to go undercover as fake punters, a ‘women’s rights group’ (as yet un-named by the press) has gathered evidence that dancers working in the premises were breaking strict licensing conditions that forbid them from having any physical contact with customers, by bribing bouncers to look the other way.
The salacious details printed by news outlets this week may sound sordid to some, but to me they are merely describing the act of giving a lap dance – an integral part of my job for over a decade. Some women get naked for money. They invite people to indulge their human need for touch and enjoy a sexually stimulating experience… for money. And? In 12 years of stripping the only time my work was demoralising was when I didn’t get paid for it. Performing a lap dance was never a problem for me, working in conditions where I was unable to uphold my own boundaries was.
“Thousands of girls who otherwise have less value in the wider job market are turning to stripping and other forms of sex work to survive”
I’ve been dancing in strip clubs since 2006, and I query the method and motives behind campaigns to shut down clubs. Closing down a venue may feel like a victory to those who champion the abolition of the industry, but taking work away from women relying on it is tantamount to taking food from our mouths. Thousands of girls who otherwise have less value in the wider job market (foreign nationals, single mums, anyone with any sort of disadvantaged background) are turning to stripping and other forms of sex work to survive. According to the English Collective of Prostitutes, record numbers have moved into the sex industry under austerity, which disproportionately affects women, particularly single mothers. In fact, putting women out of work is about the most un-feminist thing possible.
Another major problem with shutting down strip clubs is that sexual entertainment is being driven increasingly underground. I hear all the time about private parties popping up around London. It’s easy to rent an AirBnb, email some regular punters and fuel the party with cheap alcohol. Lone wolf operators with no responsibilities whatsoever can organise any car-crash of an event, at which young women are in extremely precarious situations. If you take away the legal obligations of a licensed premises and add the freedom of recreational drug use, you can be sure that upholding personal boundaries as a stripper in that environment will become nigh on impossible.
I myself have worked countless private parties for stag-dos and birthdays in flats, where without the support of security staff the only protection I have against the threat of rape or serious assault is my own natural flair and ability to negotiate, intimidate and appease gangs of cocaine-fuelled men. My reasons for working at this kind of event are ultimately financial. If I work a 6-8 hour shift in a club, pay a house fee upwards of £60-£80+ as well as 20-50 per cent commission on anything I make from hustling private dances in competition with 40-80 other girls, I may earn roughly the same amount as a flat fee performing for about 15 minutes in a deeply unsafe environment. The main attraction of working in clubs is the outside chance of landing a high-roller in VIP for the night, at which point my earnings are set to reach 4 figures – but this is far from guaranteed.
I am more aware than most of the problematic nature of SEVs. Our private networks are ablaze with harrowing tales of harassment and assault in the workplace, and I regularly sit down to support fellow dancers through the emotional fallout. Working conditions are dismal and dancers are vulnerable to exploitation. We have no workers’ rights since the law does not see us as employees, despite the numerous ways we are treated as such. The gig economy is a long-established culture for us. We’re the disposable workforce, treated as chattel property by clubs as long as we make them money, then shown the door the minute we refuse to jump through their hoops.
However, the solution does not lie in the closure of venues. The problem of commercial sexual exploitation of women will not go away until we address the social and economic conditions that create economic disparity for young women. ‘Women’s rights’ campaigns such as this one may seem well intentioned, but in reality they are doing more harm than good. The only quote they have released to the media reads:
“We do not believe in the objectification of women… the Windmill Club needs to be shut down as a matter of urgency to stop the gropes, pinching and slaps and to stop those managers who are pressuring dancers into lewd acts.”
I’m very familiar with this kind of rhetoric, having observed with dismay the lobbying from Object and Fawcett Society that resulted in a change in licensing legislation of SEVs. Their cloak and dagger tactics reveal the kind of attitude women’s rights campaigners have towards us, the women at the centre of this issue – that we, the ‘victims’, cannot be trusted to have a say in the matter so decisions must be made on our behalf, rather than consult with us directly.
“Without the support of security staff the only protection I have against the threat of rape or serious assault is my own natural flair and ability to negotiate, intimidate and appease gangs of cocaine-fuelled men”
In fact we understand our own industry better than any well-meaning feminists. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 handed more power to councils to control the booming lapdance industry. The nil policy adopted by most licensing authorities has actually had a detrimental effect on our working conditions. Club closures have shrunk our industry dramatically so remaining clubs now have a monopoly over industry standards. Less clubs to work in means greater competition between dancers and less options when things go wrong. We now have to tolerate substandard conditions; 10 years ago we could just work elsewhere. We used to have power as a labour market to drive up standards, that power is now gone.
Councils can apply licensing conditions to SEVs, such as providing showers and changing room lockers. Herein lies the potential solution to the problem of exploitation. If legislators ever stopped to ask why strippers break licensing conditions, we could explain that it’s the financial pressure to pay extortionate house fees and commissions to clubs while working in toxic competition with far more girls than the club ever needs. In reality, if councils restricted clubs from charging dancers to work, most of them would be out of business tomorrow.
Stacey Clare is a stripper, performance artist, writer, activist and co-founding member of the East London Strippers Collective. She gave a Tedx Talk “The Ethical Stripper” about her desire to see the industry improved