Edie Lamort is a stripper and political activist. When anti-sex groups began organising in east London to close down strip clubs, she and other dancers joined unions and organised to keep their workplaces open. This interview was recorded almost 5 years ago. Edie predicted that the strippers were just the first of many targets, so referred to herself as the canary in the coalmine. She is founder member of the East London Strippers Collective.
See below the video for text that inspired the making of this film.
He wrote to me;
“Why am I writing to you? Beauty, nakedness, curiosity. Or a thousand other reasons. I don’t know, really. That I’m selfish is a big part of it. And also that desire makes me – not just me, I think it goes for everyone – feel more alive.”
I nicknamed this customer Nosferatu. He was tall, skinny, lanky and dressed in a funereal way, but more than that, he had an intense, preternatural stare. One of those people that looks at you and you feel like they are reading your mind, looking straight into your soul and you cannot hide from them. A laser beam stare. You can ‘feel’ their gaze even with your back turned. It was part disturbing, part flattering, he was highly intelligent and could see through all the smoke and mirrors of the role you play as a dancer.
“I think we’ve evolved to treasure female beauty because it’s so potent and also so transient. Cultures all over the world have this metaphor of flowering or blooming. Men’s physical capacity for action has the same characteristics. It’s compelling, and it runs out. Male strength and female beauty in their prime are existential, I’d say, if I were pretentious, which I am. They symbolise what it is to be alive in a way that childhood and old age don’t. We’re drawn to them when we see them in others. That’s my excuse, anyway.”
‘I hope you don’t mind me coming in and talking to you? It’s just there’s no one else I can talk to like this?’ he said to me one quiet, mid week shift. He’d been my customer for a few months by now and was a clever and interesting man but not happy at all. ‘Can I have your email address? Can I write to you, I used to write for a living.’
“I’m writing to you because you’re very pretty and it’s good for my ego. Because, you’re clever and funny. Because women’s beauty is a precious thing that, as a man, you feel absorbed in and to some extent entitled to when you’re in your twenties and thirties. Then in middle age it ebbs away from you. Some men cope with it by using emotional maturity or some other magic. I don’t know where they get it from. I’m one of those men who really, really misses it.”
And so he began sending me the most well written and intriguing emails to my dancer address. He had previously worked as a screenwriter for BBC, ITV and HBO. He was thoughtful, articulate and prolific and would come to see me dance regularly, both for the erotic visual thrill and warmth that was missing in his life, but also reaching out to connect on a intellectual level, finding us girls who dance fascinating.
We spoke at length, it’s always nice to have an intelligent customer, you are actually interested in what they say, as opposed to fake giggles and feigned interest. I told him about the campaigns we’d done to defend striptease and it conjured the image of Marianne, like it had done with us. She seems to be our mascot in many minds.
“You remind me of that famous painting from the French Revolution. The woman Marianne leading the mob to righteous slaughter, Delacroix I think. It wasn’t just the public sexuality. There’s something about the way you hold your head, the inquisitive-but-knowing gleam in your eyes. You scared the shit out of me. The moment I saw you I wanted to spend the rest of the night talking to you. Maybe it was the lighting. Maybe it was the supernatural powers that come with being a dancer. (Maybe it’s A Tale Of Two Cities being on the radio that’s made me think of that painting.) You looked bonkers and the only sane person in the room, all at the same time. That sounds bad, probably. But it felt like charisma.”
After working as a writer for a few years, he followed the rules. He got married, had kids and then retrained, getting a sensible yet unfulfilling job in IT. He was a bit of a polymath, with a masters degree in pure maths from Cambridge but a talent and track record for writing aided by a very clever mind. Perfectly articulating the thoughts of the middle aged lonely customers who come to strip clubs on their own. His emails were like the echoes of the lonely, mixed in with guilt and lust.
“Every now and then I get a flashback to the first time I saw you, at Charlie’s bar. You’re looking sideways and I can’t tell if you’re going to throttle me or just wait for an accomplice to stab me in the kidneys. I’d take either as long as you were paying me attention.”
I started replying to his emails, they were interesting, and this provoked a slew of prose and poetry, musings and theories, that I have archived, noting that they clock up to over 50,000 words. That’s how much he needed to talk. He felt his life was in a feedback loop that he would never be able to climb out of. This air of despair and reluctant acceptance of his fate added to his peculiar and intense ways.
“Fifty years after the Salem Witch Trials and halfway round the world, a Wittenberg professor called Georg Bose was making a name for himself with public experiments. I heard about him on the radio this week. He’d stand a beautiful woman on a cake of resin and hook her up to an electrostatic generator, then invite men in the audience to kiss her. When they did, a spark would fly from her lips. Or he’d gradually charge her up in a darkened room. The air around her would ionize and glow with a saintly blue light. He’d deck her out in a pointed tin hat and the light would focus to a halo. Bose embellished the stunts with wacky poems and crackpot theories. The shock of the spark was male, the gentle luminosity female.
“Animal electricity” became a hip term for lust.”
Funny how stuck we all are on the Madonna/whore thing. Here it is again as halo/spark. In The Crucible it’s wife/witch or something, I can’t remember. While men are just men. There’s something pretentious I could say about this twoness of women and oneness of men and how it affects you and me but I don’t know what it is so I’ll shut up.
We all have to make choices in our life and by doing so you may need to sacrifice a part of you. He had the family, the nice home, a wife and three kids but at a cost to himself. However he loved his kids and would never leave them, but the strip pub was the place he could come to reconnect with that part of himself he thought he’d lost. In the end his foray into our demi-world, answered his questions and saved his marriage. He stopped coming in.
“For me, the most interesting aspect of the whole debate is this: there are women who like to undress in front of men they don’t know. How should these women be regarded by the rest of society? How are they different from women who write for a living, or men who sing? All these people are drawing attention to a part of themselves that they love, and working hard to make the best display they can.
Should authors be stigmatized for selling their psychological truth on the open market? Isn’t what good writers are offering every bit as intimate as a bare bum? Men might read Jeanette Winterson and then go home and expect their wives to bare their souls too. Why is soul stripping respectable and body stripping not? I’ve watched you on stage and I’ve read your emails. When you dance you might not have any clothes on, but when you write you’re truly naked. It’s always baffled me that fear and hate, loneliness and longing, greed and love are seen as less shocking than boobs and pubes.”
A less interesting question but one you might want to have a pop at is if beauty is commodified, where does that leave the ugly people? Speaking on their behalf, I think I can say it leaves us where we’ve always been: reliant on our wits. Not great for the stupid ugly people, but no one suggests shutting down the universities to level that playing field, do they? And the commodification is an effect, not a cause.”
Sex sells because people really, really want it already. I don’t think ugly people mind beautiful ones, anyway. They’re nice to look at, after all. We just wish there was one in the mirror.
All this rich conversation has not gone to waste. Another dancer and I are in the process of filming the world of strip pubs and one day at someone’s house, the subject pulled out a box of letters customers had written to her over the years. She’d kept hers like I’d kept mine.
We put the message out ‘has anyone got any letters from customers?’ Many came back with saved letters, poems, cards and emails. The need to connect, the cry of please listen to me.
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.
Stripper and activist Edie Lamort muses on the devastating effects of gentrification on the strip pub scene she knows and loves.
“I feel like an endangered species that is becoming extinct because my natural habitat is being destroyed.” – Solitaire
Protect The Wildlife
As the the Tsunami of gentrification crashes through my city, laying waste to communities and culture, leaving it like driftwood in its wake, I wonder how long my industry will survive. My industry is the traditional strip pub. Not the glossy US style corporate club but the family owned strip pub with jug collections and stage shows. The place where customers relax at the bar without being pestered for private dances and where we are individual showgirls not identikit sexbots. But the whole pub industry is in freefall no matter what kind of entertainment they have. Pubs up and down the land stand ruined and concealed in hoardings as landlords go out of business and breweries go into administration. The Peel in South London closed down in April because the brewery, Punch Taverns, is in so much debt that it needs to sell off the land to property developers. It was such a quirky place inside with a wonderful old vaudeville-esq stage, so that the dancers would call it Twin Peaks. It was also a live venue that hosted band nights promoted by indie record labels. Many a famous name in music has played there. When it closed the landlord said to me, ‘They just want to destroy all alternative culture.”
On Monday 21st July the bulldozers moved in to raze it to the ground. It will now be turned into ‘luxury’ flats, the biggest con of our age.
So as the time comes for me to hang up my G-String, here are the things I will desperately miss about being a Striptease Artiste!
Well of course! This makes life so much fun; it is the lure and the second main thing that holds you to the job. You too can eradicate the crushing misery of poverty in a few easy shifts! Doors will open and opportunities will appear for you. Over the past few years I have had my feet in both worlds; ‘normal’ job and dancing and all I can say is ‘Thank God for dancing!’ The times it has covered the shortfall that ‘normal’ job wages haven’t are too numerous to count. I don’t claim in work benefits, instead I pole dance, but the need is the same. At least I can’t be called a scrounger, only a slut.
I recent asked a group of fellow strippers, “What’s the most important part of the job? The money or the performance?” The general consensus was that both are of equal importance and it was impossible to rank. We are creative, extrovert people who wither and die in office admin jobs. We like to display and play with the audience, to get the adulation and to flirt. You can be witty, you can be silly then you can be sultry and moody. Essentially you can express yourself when you are improvising a dance on stage. So many offices I’ve stepped into are like morgues, with browbeaten people repressed and under manners, radiating a low-level emission of desperation. I look at the guys and think, ‘Yup, you’ll be in Browns soon!’
In the traditional pubs we choose our music, our costume and choreograph our individual shows, therefore we get creative satisfaction. Copying someone’s show or music is frowned upon: think for yourself! Girls train on the pole at home and in dance schools to put on a great stage show. Creativity and performance are incredibly satisfying. Especially live performance as you have the immediate response of the audience. A few dazzling minutes on stage give you a confidence and pizzazz, a vitality and a certain élan.
As it is essentially a part time job for full time wages it allowed the creative types space to do other things. Shoreditch at its peak was a creative hub and dancers contributed to this. I did music, others ran dance troupes, set up club nights, made art, sculptures and designed clothes. We were part of a scene that was rich in ideas and creativity and that spawned many a mainstream fad.
When you are earning money and performing to an adoring crowd you feel like a star. Things are not as good as they were in the Golden Age of Striptease – the 90s and the 00s – but up until the financial crash it had all the essential components of glamour, baby!
The sexual confidence, the allure, the looks, the self-possession and individuality. It was an environment that bred confidence and sass and allowed it to flourish. Dancers had the clothes, the cars, the luxury foreign travel and went to all the fashionable places because money makes that happen. They are also independent free spirits, the artists, the performers, the risk takers and life’s go-getters. Why sit at a desk job when you can dance and get all those things you always wanted? Dancers have attitude, wit and sass and they use it!
Freedom and Independence
I went on holiday to Thailand and met a group of friendly East Coast Americans. We kept in touch and one rainy Tuesday I spoke to one who said ‘Why don’t you come over for the weekend? We’re having party and you can stay here if you want.’ So I phoned Browns to cancel my week’s bookings. It was fine, there are plenty of girls who want to earn money and my shifts would easily be covered. I would just work more the next week and recover the money. Then I got out my credit card and booked a flight to NYC. By that evening I was in the US and at the party. This sense of freedom and independence is such a wonderful experience. You feel totally in control of your own life when you can choose your hours and generate your own financial security. Money in itself won’t make you happy but the opportunity and the freedom it brings will certainly help.
“Office work has ruined my life”, said an overweight and despondent looking customer to me, a few years ago. I didn’t understand what he meant until I started tentatively venturing into that landscape. When you are a dancer your job is a high paid workout. The strength and tone and the general feeling of health you get from being physical goes unnoticed, until you stop! Sitting for hours in an overly air-conditioned, uncomfortable environment with fluorescent lights overhead is bad for your health. Within a few months of working in an office I began to feel my strength ebbing away and to learn that there was such a thing as back fat. Your life becomes a fight against the sedentary weakening of your body, as feeder-like colleagues bring in biscuits and cakes, relentlessly! We are not designed to be so static and feeling your body in its peak of health, as it is supposed to be, is joyful.
Walking on the Wild Side
If you are a bit kooky see it as a blessing; why on earth would you want to be normal and boring? It’s not an enriching place to be hence people are drawn to the deviant and the risqué. The inhabitants of the traditional strip pub are the weird and wonderful multitudes of humanity and I mean that for everyone. The customers of course display most of these attributes but the owners, the bar staff, the DJs, the bouncers and the dancers are permitted to be themselves and to be self expressed. I delight in meeting the many varied and whacky people of the world.
From the OCD punters and the drunken morons, to the intensely clever and interesting guys, you will see all sides of humanity. We’ve had gay guys and older gentlemen with a penchant for cross-dressing, come out to us because they feel like it’s an environment they can be free in.
“Love them whores they never judge you, well what can you say when you’re a whore?” – Perry Farrell
Not that we are whores. I know how tetchy people get about language.
The dancers can be divided into ‘creative’ and ‘businesswomen’, with one or two nutters, and everyone becomes larger than life. You will also be at the forefront or each new wave of immigration so will meet people from all over the world, speaking many different languages. About 70% of my friends are immigrants because of this job. There is a sense of camaraderie that develops because we are demonized by society at large so we need to have each other’s backs. This has given me some of the best friends I’ve ever known. I have met the most outrageous characters, the most eccentric, the funniest, the smartest, the wittiest and the most independent, and thank God for that!
If you like music, art, fashion, performance and dance you will mourn the loss of the London subcultures, including dancing, because these are the places that spawn creativity. They are fragile ecosystems of low rent and liberal attitudes that allow the evolution of the ‘next big thing’: the next music trend, the next art movement, the next fashion and the next development in dance. They are nurseries of ideas and trends that feed into the mainstream and keep it alive and interesting. Without this fragile reef, the mainstream will become stale and drab, with nothing to feed it. As the corporate vandals smash through neighbourhoods I wonder how long it will take us to recover. Occasionally things will breakthrough and you will see a great band, hear a great DJ or see someone looking amazing. The urge will always be there and will ultimately triumph but right now things are looking drab.
Just remember, when you destroy the cultural ecosystem, it’s not just the animals that suffer.
Attacked by feminists on one side, and victims of poor employment practices on the other, strippers have had little support in their battles. We welcome new blogger Stacey Clare, who is a stripper and a founder member of the East London Strippers Collective.
It is said that when written down the Chinese word for “crisis” forms two characters. When translated into English these characters are understood literally to mean “danger” and “opportunity”. Right now it could be said there is a crisis within the adult entertainment industry, as legislation that seeks to censor the “threat” of open, honest and public expressions of sexual desire is gaining increasingly stronger footholds in Parliament. UK strip clubs are rapidly becoming a bastion in the battleground between freedom of self-expression and prohibitionist politics.
2014 is a time of crisis. Economic disparity and ecological disaster, mass unemployment and social unrest combine to create a climate of uncertainty. The future is unforeseeable, and no one is accountable – the perfect circumstances within which exploitation can thrive. Exploitation of labour in a capitalist framework is one thing; exploitation of sex-workers happens outside of a UK judicial system, which supposedly protects its citizens… Those that operate within the legal framework that is. Those who don’t probably deserve what’s coming to them right?
At this point in history, cases of employee discrimination that can be proven result in employment tribunals, yet strip club bosses and managers get away scot-free with discriminatory working practises of eye-watering magnitude. Strippers are regularly classified and discriminated against on account of breast-size, body-shape or skin colour, sacked without notice for any reason, fined for having chipped nails, bullied and intimidated by their superiors and customers alike. Why? Because strippers are denied employment status, leaving them with no legal protection whatsoever, despite in almost all cases being treated as employees, regardless of their right to independence. Employment rights of strippers simply do not exist, and there is no forum to speak out. However, let’s not forget that out of crisis comes opportunity.
Ladies and gentlemen, prepare yourselves for the arrival of the East London Strippers Collective. In April 2014, the ELSC held their first official meeting at a private location in Bethnal Green. There was a surprisingly good turn out of dancers, nearly all familiar with each other through the existing dancer community, and each bringing with them a wealth of experience working in the strip clubs of London. The power of this shared experience was tangibly felt in the room. A collaborative effort was made to organise a communal meal, followed by an open discussion around the dinner table that can only be described as… empowering.
What strippers have in common is simply, precisely that they have all been there. They’ve all tackled the same adversity, they’ve all been up against the same walls. They all share the embodied knowledge and experience of that feeling being onstage, nailing a strip routine and showcasing their strength and talent to an appreciative and supportive audience. They all know how demeaning it feels to hustle for tips, to fight amongst each other like cats for scraps.
There is a small but powerful group of these women who are bored of complaining about it and are now quietly discussing a better set-up. Using their working knowledge and combined wisdom, they are slowly and carefully creating a new movement; a manifesto is taking shape, underpinned by the principle of respect and the combined desire to create value and beauty. Among them are a wealth of resources and talents, as artists, designers, fitness instructors, nutritionists, writers, photographers, costumiers, and businesswomen all make up the core group. There is a buzzing almost electric potential that if they can consolidate their talents, as well as their sexual prowess, they could be an unstoppable tour de force.
There are droves of dancers who refuse to identify themselves as sex-workers, preferring instead the more evasive labels like dancer, performer, strip-tease artists or adult entertainers. The ELSC are strippers. The clue is in the name. While the ELSC openly and honestly stands in solidarity with other sex workers, it identifies a clear problem; organisations such as the International Union of Sex Workers and the Sex Workers Open University fail to represent the specific and very different agenda for strippers’ rights. Their advocacy for sex workers is invaluable and important, not in any way to be undermined or degraded – clearly however there is a significant gap where a union for strippers ought to be. By beginning to self-organise and collaborate, the ELSC is planning a series of events, from private parties to public talks, with the aim of creating a new audience who would rather be entertained by a group of radical, educated and self-reliant women, sharing their skills as well as the profits.
And undoubtedly, advocacy for strippers is needed. Already this year Diane Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston-Upon-Hull, North, has put forth the first reading of a private members bill, to ensure local authorities have greater powers to crack down on strip clubs, whether they want to or not. Existing laws give councils the option to enforce a nil policy and tighter controls on premises with a Sex Entertainment Venue license. Quite how these options can be written into statute and enforced is another thing altogether, which seems to beg the question; how well thought out is this private members bill? Sure it’s not just a stunt to curry favour with a particular pressure group and their associated electorate?
The ELSC has come together out of a shared sense of outrage and disgust among dancers, who have watched the decline in their industry and felt powerless to prevent it worsening. They have looked on, heartbroken, as their art form has been consistently dragged into the gutter; ideologically by the modern feminist movement who would seek to destroy their world, and literally by the grotesque working conditions imposed by industry operators motivated purely by profit. They seek to challenge current standards and set precedents within the industry itself, create our own set of working conditions in line with their agreed principles, and send out the message to wider society that, despite what the world thinks, they love what they do. If only they would get the chance to do it properly.
Last week, we heard that Camden Council in London may withdraw licensing from the strip venue, Spearmint Rhino. This was greeted with joy by anti-sex feminists. But what about the women who will lose well-paid jobs? A former Spearmint Rhino dancer explains what stripping there meant for her.
Like many people of my generation, once I graduated I felt lost. Applying for jobs was a job in itself and waiting for the rejection letters became a cause for not bothering to get out of bed in the morning. Watching my dole money dwindle and my chances of earning a living minimise, I remembered a friend telling me that on her gap year in Japan she began stripping to find her travels. The thought played with me as I summed up the courage to ask my boyfriend to lend me groceries. Fuck it, I thought. If other women are doing it, then I can.
Before I could change my mind I took myself around the city that night. I went into four different strip clubs, each time telling the guy on the door why I was there and if it would be alright if I had a look around and spoke to the girls about what it was like to work there. Spearmint Rhino seemed the safest, the most discreet, with the best security and the highest payout. That was on the Tuesday. By Friday it was my first shift. By Monday I could afford my rent again.
Stripping wasn’t the easiest job I’ve ever done, but it was certainly the most enjoyable. Even now when I look back on my days there I remember the good before the bad. I compare it to the other jobs I worked before I since and though it wasn’t perfect, what job is? The long nights and sore feet were necessary for the money I brought home. The competition between other girls helped me drive my determination, strengthen my sales pitch and hone in on my unique selling points. The difficult customers taught me interpersonal skills, patience and negotiation tactics.
Being self employed is not easy, but since working there I know that working in such a high pressure, intense workspace means that every job since has reaped the benefits. And what about exploitation? Power is an interesting dynamic. It is not held solely by the customer, nor by me as the dancer. It’s an exchange of money, interest, attention and services. To feel exploited as a stripper must imply that anyone selling services with their body should also feel under the thumb of capital; that they do, but why should only sex workers be punished for it?
Working at Spearmint Rhino pulled me out of poverty in a way that no other job allowed me to do. Because no other job would hire me. Working there not only paid me in money, but also confidence that I had something worth selling. Not just my body, but also my mind to the customers who laughed at my jokes, entertained me with conversation and spent time with me. Attractive waitresses, nurses, teachers and care assistants aren’t punished by having their jobs taken away from them; only those women who dare to mix sexuality with autonomy and smack a price tag on it. If I hadn’t worked my way out of debt by stripping, I dread to think what my options would have been.
The morality group Object has long campaigned against striptease as well as other forms of sexual expression. Although they claim to be a “women’s rights” organisation, they show notable disdain – even at times, hate – towards the women in the sex industries. Object show no apparent interest in listening to the “poor, abused women” that they claim they are saving from exploitation.
This week, Object founder Anna van Heeswijk published a Guardian article listing five reasons why the strip industry must be attacked using further legislation. In response Vera Rodriguez, a Spanish stripper working in London, wrote the following letter.
Lapdancing clubs need to listen to the voices of the dancers. Here is why:
A response to Ms Heeswick letter, from a dancer’s perspective. Your ‘5 reasons’ easily refuted and more.
Dear Ms Heeswick, after reading your article published yesterday, I would like to answer to each of your reasons…
1. Lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification
Let me question your affirmation, Do lap dancing clubs market women as sexual objects for male gratification?
My answer is NO, in big capital letters. If so, how can an object dance with high heels and do pole dancing tricks? Behind every action of every worker there is a human being taking decisions for themselves. If somebody makes us “objects” is obviously your organization.
Dancers we are entertainers and so far, all workers work for money and that is what we do, entertainment for an audience that pays for our bills.
I also have to make a point to your state. The presence of strip clubs does definitely not increase the demand for “prostitution” but it offers a complete different service. I assume that you take prostitution –that I will call ‘sex work’ as something ‘lower’ than stripping but as a stripper I will not compare to others workers in a way that creates a hierarchy.
2. Women who work in lap dancing are routinely subjected to harassment, exploitation and the expectation of sexual services
Let me question your honesty about the definition “Object” as a human rights organization. To me, it is pure demagogy as it is only trying to make us -the female workers- more vulnerable. If more strip clubs disappear in these hard times of recession and less chances to get other jobs, do you think that is real feminism? As you thought you know what is best for us, let me also advice you to put your energy and your dubious anger in creating more jobs for women, not trying to take away jobs that we decided to do. We are thousands of mothers, migrants, students, fighters, activists and so on, as every one of us has a story to tell. I cant help but laugh sourly at your research with 14 years in the industry at my back.
Real feminism should defend women’s choices. It is not about privileged women eager for some kind of leadership thinking that they know what is best for the rest of us.
Yes, it is true that we have to pay house fees which, increased dramatically after the so called “feminists” like you pushed for a tough legislation that is not even enough for you now. That made us work in what is called now “sexual entertainment venues” and increased dramatically the price of licensing that clubs have to pay. Thanks for making my life –and other women’s life tougher, feminists!
To finish with this point, I will highlight that you try to prove your perspective with what you describe as ‘one woman’ that she felt it was the hardest job that she ever did. I could name hundreds of women that we are still in the industry by choice but as you only mention one, to mention myself is more than enough. Still, I will mention some collectives that support my statement.
3. Lap dancing clubs create a threatening environment for women and girls who live in the areas around the clubs
You support your answer again referring to “one woman that told Object” Can I meet her? Where is she? In which area does she live? Because in my whole career I have generally worked in places that are much more discreet than any other “normal pub” can be. Again, Ms van Heeswijk, why don’t you give more evidence? Is it because you truly lack of knowledge?
4. Councils can still operate under legislation that equates lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars
I don’t question your question here when you say that councils can still operate under legislation that equals lap dancing clubs with restaurants and karaoke bars. I just want to ask you why are you so offended? Is it not a karaoke bar a place where people perform which is what I do in my shifts? As long as it is adult consent, which happens to be the case, I don’t think I need to ask permission to work in any neighbor hood, sorry. Can you name where the strip clubs are, Ms van Heeswijk? Sorry to question what I doubt. I have worked in places where even the neighbor hood did not notice that there was a stripping venue. This licensing requirement is only making our lives harder. Do you really want to ‘help’ strippers? Ok, help me to remove our house fees by not asking a special license.
5. Bars and pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding sexual entertainment events on an ‘occasional basis’
On your last ‘reason’ you assert that Bars and Pubs can get around the licensing regime by holding entertainment events on occasional basis. Let me ask you again why does it bother you so much that event workers work on event occasions? Why to make it more difficult to both organizers and dancers that we agree to work? Why not focus on protecting our rights as workers? Why don’t you fight stigma with us instead of us being your target?
Please Ms Van Heeswijk, other members of Object as certain kind of feminism, don’t be patronizing with other women. Start including sex workers and trans women in your out of date discourses. If you don’t agree with my decisions I simply do not care. But if you try to make my job even harder than it is, this letter will only be the beginning.