By Stacey Clare
I’m often asked why I chose the title “ethical stripper”. My main priority as an activist and public speaker has always been to shift the discourse away from the traditional moralising about sex work and towards a more pragmatic conversation about how working conditions in the sex industry could be improved. It’s long been my experience that not enough people actually understand the inner workings of the sex industry, despite it meaning lots of things to lots of people. I would even argue that what most people think they know about strippers is gleaned from second hand information. With such a lack of primary sources available, it’s no wonder then that the wider discourse is often hijacked by hysteria and stereotyping. Introducing the concept of ethics into the dialogue directs it towards a more nuanced perspective. Reminding people that even strippers are affected by things like policy and licensing legislation helps us refocus the topic – rather than getting hung up on the image of strippers as victims of circumstance, we can look more closely at what exactly those circumstances are, how they come about, and who gets to make the decisions and design the policies.
Ever since I first started dancing in strip clubs at the age of 22 I could see that although the job had the potential to be empowering for those who choose it, because of the poor working conditions and lack of employment rights, invariably it wasn’t. Straight away I could see how the feminist discourse applied to the industry, due to the gender inequality among workers, customers and club owners. But I also identified that the problems I could see within my workplace also deserved to be framed as a labour rights issue, which it never was. I saw a great deal of public dialogue, dominated by mainstream media narratives and fuelled by frenzied feminist campaigns, but very little honest, practical discussion about the way clubs operate, the business model of stripping and sex work, or any decent solutions being proposed.
In 2008 several major women’s rights organisations collaborated on a carefully planned and executed attack on strip clubs. Their aim was to halt the “spread” of an industry that in their opinion represented a serious threat to the rights and freedoms of women everywhere. While their intentions may have been well founded, and their observations and criticisms of the industry accurate, the aims of the campaign were misguided. Strip club licensing was debated in Parliament, and the end result was a massive curtailing of the strip club industry, with unreasonable restrictions and conditions placed on venues.
The empty promise of the new legislation for strip clubs was that it would improve the situation and help the women working in them. In reality, the opposite has happened. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 has had an incredibly detrimental effect on strippers, by virtue of the fact it has done nothing whatsoever to protect our employment rights and safeguard us from being exploited and extorted by venue operators. By limiting the spread of an exploitative industry, while failing to prevent the cause of the exploitation in the first place, the women’s rights campaigners have handed a monopoly to the remaining clubs. Exploitation has therefore intensified. Since the law was passed a decade ago, working conditions have deteriorated year by year. Club closures and ill-thought-out licensing conditions have lead to toxic, competitive and highly coercive conditions for dancers.
The greatest problem all along has been the lack of dancers’ voices within the public arena. Stigma holds back many workers from coming forth, and even when we do we are often viewed as victims, under the control of our abusers and/or acting out of false consciousness. The stigmatising and whorephobic language used within the discourse only ever harms us further. We have a long way to go to reverse the negative effects of the last decade, and we need to start by understanding the language we use to talk about sex workers.
Is Stripping Sex Work?
There are members of my community who are split on this question. Many strippers see themselves as artists, entertainers, performers, and since they do not perform hands-on, full-service work, therefore they don’t identify as sex workers. I don’t decry anyone’s rights to self-identify; however for the purposes of moving towards a positive outcome we need to settle on a definition. On closer inspection, it’s hard to argue that stripping is not sex work. We perform a hyper-sexualised version of femininity (or masculinity in the case of male strippers), we dress in sexually suggestive outfits, we provide sexually stimulating dance routines.
Of course, there are many other components to our work as well; we provide company, we do emotional labour. A huge ratio of our time at work is spent simply talking to customers, never mind anything sexual. But full service sex work is not so different. All sex workers perform emotional labour, providing time and space for companionship and intimacy in all its various forms. The main differences between what strippers and full service sex workers do, has to do with the amount of physical contact between ourselves and clients. And the ways in which our work is regulated differently.
In my estimation, stripping is a form of sex work. It is a job within the sex industry. Many workers move between jobs and there are crossovers. Some strippers also do full service sex work or webcamming in their own time. Escorts occasionally retire and become strippers. There are many different jobs in the sex industry, and on the whole we need to be able to talk about the various types of work under the same umbrella.
In 1980 Carol Leigh first coined the term “sex work” in an effort to establish a sense of agency and consent within the language used to talk about us: “The usage of the term ‘sex work’ marks the beginning of a movement… it acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our status.”1 It therefore seems right to me to include stripping under the umbrella term.
Cycle of Stigma
It can’t be underestimated how harmful stigma is to people working in the sex industry. Stigma creates silence. When people use stigmatising language to talk about the industry, sex workers hush up and hide what they do; they don’t talk openly about their work for fear of rejection or persecution. Imagine trying to navigate a doctor’s appointment, parent’s evening, meeting with an accountant or solicitor, or even reporting a crime to the police, if you couldn’t talk openly about your job.
Silence is soon followed by isolation, which leads to vulnerability, resulting in harm. Sex workers are more likely to be victims of violent crime, not because the work is inherently dangerous, but because perpetrators understand their chosen victim’s profile. By the time the public hears anything about sex work it is normally at the harm stage – think of all the news articles, documentaries and dramatisations about the tragedy of sex work. But this in turn fuels the cycle, creating further stigma and continuing the pattern.
Whorephobia and Whorearchy
Another term for slut-shaming is whorephobia. Female sexual agency has been stigmatised for thousands of years and the trend is alive and well, finding new manifestations in the modern era. Whorephobia creates shame, stigma, exclusion and marginalisation. One recent example involved members of the pole fitness community, striving to have the sport “taken seriously”, distancing themselves from strip club culture by using the hashtag #notastripper.2
Whorearchy is another problem. There are many different types of work in the sex industry, with varying degrees of privilege. We are all united by stigma, but when one type of worker tries to cast off stigma by passing it on to someone doing a different job, this creates whorearchy. For example a stripper might say “oh, but at least I don’t have to actually sleep with my clients like escorts”. An escort might say “oh, but at least I don’t have to work the streets”. A domme might say “oh, but at least I don’t even have to touch my clients if I don’t want to”. When sex workers stigmatise other forms of sex work, we never solve the problem of stigma.
Stigmatising sex workers is, in my mind, highly un-feminist. The language used by groups such as Not Buying It, Object Now, The Fawcett Society and Times Up to discuss strip clubs is at best unhelpful, and at worst degrading. We are almost always spoken about as victims, and rarely consulted by any of the groups who are taking action. It is fair to say that in five years of being out in the public as a stripper and activist, campaigning for improved working conditions for strippers, I have not once been approached by any women’s rights organisations to discuss how we may pool our resources.
East London Strippers Collective
The case of feminist campaigners working to get strip clubs shut down in an effort to rid the world of patriarchal power, is a perfect example of feminism in crisis. It is a strange sort of victory that results in women having their choices removed. I identify as a feminist, based on the principle that it’s a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body. ‘My Body My Choice’ may seem like an obvious paradigm, but it can’t be underestimated how important it is to the gender equality movement. The right to bodily autonomy gave women access to legal abortion and birth control, which are fundamental cornerstones of feminism.
Under UK law, there is a distinction drawn between strippers and full service sex workers, in the sense that stripping is legalised and therefore licensable, but sex work is criminalised in various ways. When I entered the activist arena in 2014 I saw that there was a need to be able to discuss the specific problems within the strip club industry, and so in order to make room for that I helped co-found a group called the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC). We are a resistance movement, and we reject the following forms of oppression:
- Exploitation in clubs
- Poor policy
- Poor media representations
- Radical Feminist/abolitionist campaigns
At present our main aims within the collective are to challenge the cultural norms of abuse and exploitation within our clubs, and transform them into a culture built on respect and collaboration. We do this by organising our own events and creating our own working conditions. For the last five years we have run a life drawing class, with strippers performing pole and modelling for an audience of artists who draw us, and consume our labour very differently from the way customers do in clubs.
We’re also focusing intensively on mobilising strippers to unionise. We work with United Voices of the World (UVW) who specialise in representing people working in the gig economy. The more strippers can stand up for their rights and challenge the structure of exploitation within the strip club industry, and the more we can reframe the conversation as a labour rights issue, the greater chance we have to transform our industry from within.
Sex work is work, and the sex industry needs reform. Sex workers are the best placed individuals to lead the movement. We are taking matters into our own hands and challenging the stigma and stereotypes that have dogged us for centuries.
You can help by supporting Stacey Clare’s upcoming book The Ethical Stripper. Please donate to her crowdfunder.
1 Leigh, C. (1997) “Inventing Sex Work” Whores and Other Feminists, Ed. Nagle, J.Taylor & Francis
2 This starts to grate when there are also people in the pole dance community borrowing elements of stripper culture, such as wearing stripper style shoes (recognisable by their plastic platforms and exaggerated high heels) or throwing fake money around during classes, very much in line with the actual definition of cultural appropriation; borrowing or stealing culture from a marginalised group without giving anything back.