This podcast contains two interviews I did in 2012, with “Shelley” and “Edie”, two strippers-turned-activists. In hindsight, these interviews are important, because they mark the point when a small feminist morality movement began to grow. In Edie’s words, the strippers were “the canaries in the coalmine”. The attacks on strip clubs may have seemed irrelevant to most people, but they were followed by far bigger attacks on free expression in the subsequent years. You can also find this podcast on YouTube.
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.
Forgive the blatant sexual objectification of my own body to get your attention. Given your past reputation and my occupation, it seems fitting.
I’ve got a bone to pick with you… not wishing to sound like another critic in the army of naysayers lining up to knock lumps out of you (it beggars belief to observe the emotional violence levelled at you sometimes) as I think of you as someone who has done remarkably well, who has struggled against and overcome uncommon adversity, worked hard and transformed unimaginable pain into joyous medicine for the soul: laughter. You are a public figure of whom the Buddha himself would be proud.
I want to talk to you about feminism; specifically, how women are represented on the Trews. I’m not talking about the Feminism of yester-year, the bra-burning, militant Greenham Commoners, or the suffragettes who fought to the death for a right that became obsolete anyway. I’m not referring to any of these tired old tropes, which, thanks to decades of media conditioning and unhelpful narratives, continue to diminish the movement.
I’m talking about the value of women in society. How women are valued and treated in our culture, the rights, freedoms and options that they are afforded, or not afforded, by the rest of society i.e. men, and how these freedoms are enshrined in our culture, law and heritage. Simple.
I’ve heard you mention Guy Debord before – his book “Society of the Spectacle” explains how modern culture places a higher value on how things look above their reality, to all our detriment. Our present society likes nothing better than to endlessly pore over images of women, scrutinising every inch. We know that appraising women primarily for their attractiveness and the way they look is harmful to us all, yet it persists.
Media representations of gender are essential to public perceptions and beliefs, therefore the ways in which women are represented in popular mainstream media say a lot about cultural attitudes towards them. The legendary academic Jean Kilbourne nails this in her work ‘Killing Us Softly’, identifying attitudes alongside representations of women in advertising. Admirably, you have also pinpointed the problem of objectification, idolatry, and deification of women, turning them into 2d objects and projecting narratives onto them. You seem to have an impressive grasp of feminist ideology, revealed in episode 12 ‘Is Renee Zellweger getting older’ when you explain the “Madonna/Whore” delineation of female de-sexualised archetypes.
But it begs the question, what are you doing to create alternatives to the usual media mechanisms that silence womens’ voices and deny their personalities? How has the Trews facilitated a discussion about the value of women in society and the media? As a feminist myself, and a big fan of your work, I’m sorely disappointed.
I’ve been watching the Trews for about a year now; the part of me that bloody loves you, and always has, is thoroughly excited and inspired to witness you, with your knowledge, illustriousness, and sheer audacity, having a square go at tackling corruption, greed and ignorance head-on. But, sadly, the feminist part of me that is awake to female representation and subjugation is horrified by the lack of women on the Trews.
With the exception of the Focus E15 mums and Lindsay from the New Era Estate, who are magnificent exemplars of utter mightiness in the struggle for social justice in the UK, there has been a dearth of other women like them. So far I have been dismayed by the lack of outspoken, assertive, intelligent, empowered women in comparison to the number of men who fit that description. There is a growing alumni of impressive and influential male guests, including Scroobius Pip, Brenden Ogle, George Monbiot, Jolyon Rubinstein and Heydon Prowse, B Dolan, Dan Pinchbeck, Dave DeGraw, Mo Ansar, Rufus Hound, David Baddiel, and Alain De Botton. Conversely, is it fair to say that Chloe and Alesha the Cambridge drop-outs, your PA Nicola, and the little girl on the tube represent the full opinion, intellect and creative spirit of half the population?
You invited Helena Norberg-Hodge to share her expertise on trade agreements and food justice, but your habit of continually interrupting her to translate what she was saying into your “layman’s terms” was undermining. Ok, it’s part of your adorable shtick, and she’s not the only guest who is put through your jovial “everyday folk” filter, you do this with male guests too. But there is something disconcerting about her interview. You are more deferential with men, you hang off their every word – not so with Helena.
In episode 164, ‘Is David Cameron The Terrorist?’ you appear with Alec Baldwin, Max Keiser and Stacey Herbert. Worryingly, you introduced both male guests using their full names – but Stacey is just Stacey. She barely gets a word in throughout the discussion, and she is the last person to be addressed on each question. When she does offer a weird analogy about the banking system being like Ebola she doesn’t get to qualify it; instead Max Keiser interjects with “Ah, haha, well I think what Stacey is alluding to there…” Talk about patronising!
Even more worryingly, this has already been brought to your attention! In episode 106, ‘Is The Trews Sexist?’ a fan suggests that you redress the balance of male/female guests, in order to avoid the classic narrative of male-dominated politics. As a life-long fan of your humour I appreciated the delicious irony of your response, ordering your female butler upstairs to boss her about like a patriarchal overlord. Truly hilarious, but you didn’t actually take the hint.
Your most noteworthy female guest so far is undoubtedly Naomi Klein. Does that mean you’ll only take a woman seriously if she triggers anti-globalisation movements with her best selling books? Not a bad criterion to have for your guests, in which case what the bloody hell is Alistair Campbell (spin doctor to Blair’s Evil Empire) doing there? I understand the point – Campbell is human underneath etc. But what is the wider message being sent out to female fans?
I could go on but you’ve probably got the message. I don’t believe for a second I’m the first person to point this out to you – in fact you revealed an awareness of your sexist tendencies by apologising to that politician on Question Time for calling her “love”. Maybe your eyes are opening to the myriad ways that women are still stifled, undermined and disregarded.
What, then, qualifies me to aim this diatribe at you? Obviously, I’m a woman and a feminist. I’m also a “stripper activist”. I co-founded a group called East London Strippers Collective, a group of strippers who have gathered out of shared grievances about our industry, and a desire to improve it. We are committed to self-organisation, self-empowerment and ethical business practises. We seek to challenge stereotypes and widely held erroneous beliefs about our work, provoking better-informed dialogue about strippers and sex-workers in general.
How can a feminist be a stripper, I hear you think? Easily. For us pro-choice, sex-positive feminists our work is built on the principle that women have the right to be sexual beings, the right to choose what they do with their own bodies – the same principle that made abortion and homosexuality a legal right.
ELSC believe that women (and men) have the right to strip and not be stigmatised for it. We imagine that if clubs were run as egalitarian businesses, owned and managed by workers we might create a more respectful and sympathetic environment within the industry, changing the wider social impact. Our manifesto challenges the patriarchal conventions on which the industry is built, and ensures that no individual can profit from the work of another.
Unsavoury workplace controls, exploitative business practises and unhealthy manipulations of male and female sexuality are as much a consequence of capitalist greed than anything else. The more we strive to take back autonomy in our workplaces, the more useful and effective we can be in society, which makes us no different from any other exploited work force seeking an end to greed and exploitation. In many ways, the sex industry is the definitive capitalist business model, entirely profit driven. But I can imagine it being different.
Russell, your call for Revolution is a symphony of inspiration to me. I’m a politicised radical who believes in change. I went to anti-war demos and climate riots, some of my best mates fought high profile climate-justice court trials. What I learned during my informative years as an anti-capitalist rebel I am now applying to my choice of work. As an activist, visual artist and a practising Buddhist I’ve had ample opportunity to re-imagine the world. The task of our generation is re-imagining a system that serves people over profit; gender equality must be part of that system.
My vision for Revolution includes strippers. It includes all sex-workers. Because what they offer society is untold insight into gender biases and power relationships. I refer to this New Statesman article by Alison Phipps ’Why Feminism Needs Trans People and Sex Workers’;
“Sex workers are part of an industry which, although diverse, is profoundly gendered and based on the commodification of sex and desire. From this position they have unique insights into how gendered power relations and sexual scripts work… the gendered structures that radical feminism identified in the 1970s may have already become more complex and slippery in our postmodern world. Surely, those most likely to understand these present-day structures are those oppressed by them the most.”
As we strive ahead together calling out greed and corruption, I want the freedom to strip! I want to provide sexual entertainment to those who would otherwise be devoid of it, for the landscape of our art and culture to include tits and willies, and celebrations of nudity and sexuality. I believe there is value in sex work, and that those who choose to do it deserve recognition. I want my positive experiences as a stripper to be acknowledged and my negative experiences to serve as caution. I want to use my knowledge and understanding of my choice of work to be a source of transformation and inspiration to others.
I’d like to know what you think about this potential sticking point; because in the words of the glorious, articulate and mercifully female political agitator Emma Goldman… if I can’t strip, it’s not my Revolution.