Women in the sex industry tell us why those campaigning to try get strip club licences revoked are putting them in danger
The anti-strip club pressure group Not Buying It opposes what they perceive to be a scourge of lapdancing clubs in the UK, wishing to rid the world of commercial sexual objectification, but it’s backfired majorly this time. According to claims made by the United Voices of the World trade union, which represents strippers in the UK, women’s rights campaigners have been hiring ex-police detectives turned private investigators to go undercover as strip club customers to secretly film strippers at work, with the aim of catching them in the act of breaking the rules of their sexual entertainment license.
Not Buying It claims that lapdancers are being routinely forced to perform “illicit sex acts” for customers, in breach of the licensing conditions of their club. Using the evidence gathered by the investigators, Not Buying It and Women’s Equality Party Sheffield branch leader Charlotte Mead submitted a dossier to Sheffield Council to protest against club licenses being renewed. They continue to ignore the voices of the majority in the sex industry and undermine us.
In a speech at a Sheffield City Council investigatory meeting, Mead – who was there as a representative of the Women’s Equality Party – reportedly calls the male detectives “our investigators”. A WEP spokesperson told Dazed that they rejected claims they were responsible for the sting, and that Mead had been misheard, instead saying “the investigators”. The Women’s Equality Party also told Dazed that they work with women who have “exited the industry” which influences their policy on sex work.
I’m a stripper of 12 years, and I am utterly dismayed, as are my sex worker colleagues, by the news that feminists are now employing such ugly tactics to literally frame other women. Stings like this create havoc in the lives of those who are doing a legitimate job in legal premises. There are so many blind spots in the thinking behind such actions, not least the deep irony of paying men to secretly film women while performing sexual labour – highly reminiscent of the criminal act of revenge porn. According to the legal definition, revenge porn is “the act of sharing private sexual materials with the intention of causing distress”. There can only be two outcomes of the sting operation: either the dancers caught on camera lose their jobs, or the club closes in which case all the dancers lose their jobs. There can be no question that sharing this material with the council is intended to cause distress.
In 2001, the strip club magnate, Peter Stringfellow, was losing business from his Covent Garden gentleman’s club to new rival Spearmint Rhino. He eventually hired private investigators to infiltrate the opposition, with the exact same objective of catching out dancers in sexual misconduct. His findings were submitted to the press and local council, resulting in a national scandal (that to some extent has never gone away). Last year another West End London club, Sophisticats, is alleged to have hired private investigators to catch women breaking rules in their rival clubs. The fact that Not Buying It and WEP are using the exact same strategies as sleazy strip club bosses seems to have escaped them.
“The language used by ‘feminists’ to talk about us amounts to nothing other than objectification” – Stacey Clare
The argument given by radical feminists is that commercial sexual exploitation is bad for women everywhere. They claim lapdancing venues can’t be “regulated” since the objectifying women can only ever be an expression of the patriarchy. And yet, the language used by ‘feminists’ to talk about us amounts to nothing other than objectification. The Not Buying It website describes women who are “taking off their clothes and wrapping their implants around the nearest available pole”. Talking about other women in such derogatory terms totally undermines intersectional feminism. Objectifying us as deluded victims is no better than objectifying us as sex objects – at least we get paid for the latter.
Another argument given is that strip clubs allow men to feel entitled to women’s bodies. Not Buying It and WEP aren’t just trying to control other women, they are also attempting to stamp out “harmful male desires” by controlling the actions of men – in which case, there is something dreadfully flawed in hiring men to go under cover in strip clubs. There is something very wrong about women teaming up with male ex-cops, who traditionally occupy some of the most oppressive masculine roles in society, especially when it comes to sex workers, and then calling it feminism.
Dr. Sasha Rakoff, the woman behind pressure groups Object and Not Buying It, seems to be completely obsessed with strippers. She has made it her life’s work to persecute strip clubs, in what looks like a personal vendetta. Inflammatory claims, such as “one third of women in the sex industry come from a background of abuse”, are chucked around without defining what she means by abuse or citing her research – despite the fact that the statistic matches World Health Organisation estimates of abuse among women across the whole of society.
What strippers and sex workers object to most of all, is being continuously spoken about by people who have virtually no contact with us. I asked a few of my colleagues from the East London Strippers Collective for their thoughts. Penny works as a stripper to support her child and pay for her law degree. Penny tells me: “Shutting down legitimate businesses and scaring its workers just because they object on moral grounds is wrong; so is commissioning dodgy statistics about rape and violence.”
Luce walked away from a career in journalism to strip, which paid for her training as a therapist. She says: “So-called feminists violating women’s rights? Really? I thought we could leave that up to the patriarchy. Narrow-minded extremist thinking rather than researched, nuanced reasoning? These women have let themselves down.”
Jade stripped to pay her way through a degree at Chelsea College of Arts, and is now a full time aerial performer and artist. She tells me: “If someone wants to live a squeaky clean life and never once flash an inch of flesh, that’s their prerogative. I wouldn’t attempt legislation to stop them from doing so, unlike the WEP I mind my own damn business.”
“So-called feminists violating women’s rights? Really? I thought we could leave that up to the patriarchy” – Luce, East London Strippers Collective
Of course, Penny, Luce, Jade, and myself are the privileged ones. Not all sex workers are able to make as many choices as us. But if it’s true that many women are working in the sex industry because of their lack of choice (which in so many cases is true) then where is the benefit in making those choices even more limited, by removing their work options? I have twice had the opportunity to speak to Charlotte Mead from the WEP, and have repeated the same warning – that closing down strip clubs can only ever drive the sex industry underground. A warning that has been egregiously ignored. I have a booking for a private party coming up soon. A client approached me through social media, looking for strippers to attend a party with him and his friends in a hotel. I have to hope that nothing will go wrong, because unlike in a strip club, there won’t be any security staff on hand. This is exactly the direction the industry is moving in, since male customers can't be bothered with the stigma and hassle of going to a strip club.
The sex industry cannot be banned, it can only ever be criminalised and therefore made invisible, leaving us more vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Closing down a strip club is not a win for feminism, since the problem of sexism doesn’t just go away. This is what we have a union for. Sex workers are unionising to begin standing up to exploitation and misogyny in clubs. Shiri Shalmy is an organiser at United Voices of The World, the union working on behalf of strippers. In a statement, she details: “United Voices of the World will continue to support women working in strip clubs. Our members are organising through their trade union to defend their rights at work and make sure that they are listened to – by customers, managers, the council, and by local so-called feminist groups. We will continue to fight anyone threatening our members’ livelihood, no matter what job they do.”
The sex industry needs an overhaul from the culture of greed and sexism that has prevailed for so long. Sex workers are the best placed individuals to do it. But in order to succeed we need to be seen and heard – not filmed and silenced.
Update: This piece was amended to include a rebuttal from the Women’s Equality Party, and clarify their rejection of claims they were involved in the Sheffield club sting operations, as well as the work they claim to do with women who have exited the sex industry.