Stripper Activist Stacey Clare is angry…
I have a confession to make. It’s not in anyway salacious, sorry to disappoint. In fact, once I start explaining the background to it, you may well lose interest. But stick with this, because I have a shocking revelation to make about lap dancing and strip clubs. I’m still reeling from it myself.
To add some context, I am co-founder and member of a group of strippers called the East London Strippers Collective. I call myself a stripper activist these days, since someone needs to be. I have been banging on about the state of the strip club industry for almost as long I have been working in it. Since day one, I quickly recognised the injustice of clubs running their business models predicated not only on sales of drinks to customers and door entry fees, but also the amounts of money they can extort from the girls working in them, in the form of house fees and charges.
So, I started educating myself. I made use of my time as a student to make sense of what I was doing. I trawled through decades of feminist theory, explored what little academic research was available, and even bothered to get down to the nitty-gritty legislation itself. Reading actual white paper documents is hardly sexy, but from my point of view, knowing your rights and being able to uphold them is sexy as FUCK. In 2008 I eventually wrote a dissertation about licensing legislation and I had a pretty good idea of what was happening in my industry. The Licensing Act 2003 boosted the night time economy and opened up new markets – one of which was the adult entertainment industry. Lap dancing clubs proliferated under the new licensing regime that allowed them to operate with a public entertainment license. Between 2004 and 2008 lap dancing clubs were popping up in every town across the nation, at one stage opening at the rate of one per week.
Still with me? Ok, great.
I was working a lot during this period, and I remember dancing for the opening weekend of a club in Sunderland. I remember how appalling the management were, and how oversubscribed the club was with dancers – all paying a hefty house fee, making up a reasonable portion of the club’s income. And while we all hustled for private dances among the few blokes who had dared to become patrons of a controversial new business in their town centre, breaking our backs in plastic shoes to scrape together a couple of hundred quid, the proprietors of the club were comfortably watching the money rolling in by the minute. Something was dreadfully wrong with this business model.
Just as I was handing in my dissertation, a political campaign led by prohibitionist womens’ rights groups Object and the Fawcett Society, resulted in a parliamentary debate and a subsequent change in licensing law around lap dancing clubs. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 gave local authorities new powers to control the spread of the industry and limit the numbers of existing licenses. No longer able to operate with only a Public Entertainment license, lap dancing and strip clubs must now comply with tighter licensing objectives, and an SEV license is now needed. SEV stands for Sexual Entertainment Venue.
Now, SEV licenses have actually been around a lot longer than this, in fact since the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982. Back then SEV stood for Sex Encounter Venue – which sounds a bit clinical and sinister. None-the-less, councils did already have at one stage the power to impose SEV licensing objectives on local sex industry businesses. Quite how the loophole happened and why licensing authorities were handing out public entertainment licenses to strip joints up and down the land, defeats me. It was good for business I suppose. But the actual realities of these clubs appeared to be going right under the noses of licensing officials, who turned a blind eye to their business practises.
So that’s when the feminists got involved. And with the help of some heavy weight journalists and academics, and the voices of several ex-dancers who had quit the industry after experiencing the exploitation going on in it, they won the fight to reclassify lap dancing clubs under the more honest and suitable title of Sexual Entertainment Venue. (Thanks to the hard work and brave efforts of those fighting the side of the clubs, in particular one dancer known as Solitaire, who enlisted the support of the performers union Equity, the term Sex Encounter was changed to Sex Entertainment for the purposes of wording the legislation.)
That’s when things took a turn for the worse. In my mind, there was a major oversight throughout every stage of the consultations that took place during the lead up to the licensing reform. That dancers themselves were not legitimately consulted and represented, that they did not have an effectual voice in the debate, neither in the media nor in parliament, has had a highly detrimental effect on our jobs and working environments. Unsurprisingly, the level of taboo attached to the job, and the marginalisation that dancers suffer as a consequence of doing it, means individuals prefer to remain anonymous and are unlikely to come forth and contribute their views and opinions for fear of judgement and social chastisement. Thus decisions are made on our behalf by those who make assumptions about us. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place – no pun intended.
So here we are 5 years later. What’s changed? Well at first glance not much. And in terms of how clubs operate by charging girls money to work in them and offering little or nothing in return regarding job security or comfortable working conditions, nothing has changed. In fact in some cases, it is getting worse.
This is where my confession comes in. And if you have stuck with me this far, then you deserve something juicy. So, in my capacity as a stripper activist I have known about the licensing reform since before it even happened. I have griped about it ever since. And in this last 5 years that I have been working under this new licensing regime, I have never actually bothered to sit down and read the Policing and Crime Act 2009.
I know right? Lazy girl.
Last week was the first time I finally got round to it – between doing an interview for VICE and promoting our upcoming event (a public talk about licensing) it seemed like the right time.
Boy, did I get a shock. Anyone who either works as a stripper, or engages as a customer should see this. In fact anyone with a vested or personal interest in upholding and protecting the right to engage with any form of sex work should see this.
The Policing and Crime Act 2009, consists of 9 Parts, and 117 Sections, of which Part 2, Section 27 Regulation of lap dancing and other sexual entertainment venues etc. is the new law used to control SEV licensing. Part 2, titled Sexual Offences and Sex Establishments contains 14 sections, each relating to a particular type of offence. For example Section 14 Paying for sexual services of a prostitute subjected to force etc., or Section 16 Amendment to offence of loitering etc for purposes of prostitution. In real language this legislation is talking about the crimes of trafficking and street walking. Section 18 deals with Rehabilitation of offenders, while Sections 22-25 deal with sexual tourists who travel abroad to commit sexual abuse on children, which would be considered a crime in this country. Section 26 handles those who choose to view child pornography online. And then comes Section 27 – lap dancing clubs.
WHAT THE FUCK???
As I reread this document I can feel again the rising sense of disgust and anger… What the hell does my job have to do with SEX OFFENDERS? Rapists and paedophiles in the same category as strippers and punters!!!!?
I MEAN, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK????
This stops here. And I mean it stops.
From what I can see, the very fact that licensing legislation for lap dancing clubs is included in a law that deals with crime and disorder is a clear move towards criminalisation of lap dancing. There is a clear moral campaign that seeks to stamp out all aspects of sex work by criminalising it, and lap dancing is now on the target range. Being lumped in with a general list of offences is not only misleading but degrading – as if somehow all acts of sex work are indicative of abuse. To conflate stripping with trafficking, and acts of sexual violence effectively means that strippers are by law represented as victims of abuse, which is turn sets a very dangerous precedent. When we allow this type of merger it eventually becomes all the more difficult to discern and distinguish those who are genuine victims of abuse, and those who aren’t.
In all the years I have been working as a stripper, I have never, not once in any of the clubs I have worked in, seen evidence of strippers being trafficked. I do know however that there are girls working in some clubs who are being coerced and controlled by club owners and bosses. I know which clubs have the tell tale signs,
I hear the rumours because I am in that world. Yes, there are abuses in my industry, yes there are poor working conditions and exploitative business practises. So, who asked me what I thought about changing the law? Who offered to help us when all this evidence was coming out in Parliament? Who gave us a voice?
Oh yeah, they did give us a voice. They let us change 1 word – from “encounter” to “entertainment”.
Our group, the East London Strippers Collective, has come together out of a shared grievance over the problems in the industry. And as we start to scratch beneath the surface, we discover that these issues are compounded by empty licensing that offers no help, no protection or security, and, thanks to the further stigmatisation of our workplace, pushes us further out onto the fringes of social acceptability, leaving us even more vulnerable than before.
To truly tackle problematic conditions in any industry, governments should use employment law to uphold the rights of workers. So long as strippers have no rights, and continue to fall through the net of employment protection, they will be exploited. Even self-employed people have rights to negotiate with their business associates and clients, yet the industry we work in affords us none of these freedoms, as we scrabble around doing our best to look sexy while we fear for our jobs from one day to the next.
We demand a revision of the current licensing law, and for the voices of those who choose to work in the industry (not just those who have left it) to be reconsidered. We need to re-examine the motivations of those who seek to stigmatise and criminalise our profession, and remove the venues in which we do it. We want to be recognised as workers like any others, and to be acknowledged by law as independent autonomous citizens with free will, who have consciously chosen to walk the controversial path of sex work because, believe it or not, there is some benefit for those who do it.
We have a long way to go, but there is no doubt in my mind that if we do not challenge the aspects of society that seek to destroy beauty and creativity, we are a very sick society indeed. Licensing may be dull and exhausting, but when we fail to engage, laws like this one sneak through Parliament. Suddenly we find ourselves defined by terms we have not chosen and certainly don’t want.
Not only that, but if there’s one thing I know in my bones, it’s that when I can do it on my own terms, when I want, where I want, for whom I choose… I bloody love to strip.