As arenas where titillation and commerce converge, strip clubs have long occupied a curious position between the battlelines of the personal and the political.
In recent years the spectrum of views on stripping has become even more polarised. On the one hand, national mores about sex continue to loosen. The flipside, however, is the concerted efforts of fourth wave feminist proponents to challenge what they argue are patriarchal relics woven into the heart of British culture, as spearheaded by the likes of The Everyday Sexism Project and the campaign against The Sun’s Page 3.
Caught right in no-man’s land (appropriately), we find the women who make a living by getting their kit off: the strippers themselves.
War on a G-string
“There’s currently a moral agenda against stripping,” argues Stacey Clare, founder of the East London Strippers Collective.
“The legal decisions that have been made on strippers’ behalves do not reflect their points of view as the people working in the industry. We’re looking to challenge that status quo.”
Stacey set up the ELSC this year. The group promotes the self-organisation of strippers in London and the UK, seeking to challenge prevailing attitudes about strip club activity and improve working conditions at an industry level.
In practice, the collective meets regularly to discuss the latest developments affecting dancers, acting as a network of information and solidarity for members. By hosting events such as talks, pop-up strip clubs and life drawing classes it raises awareness and creates a vibrant fusion of community and activism.
“There’s no doubt the Olympics and the regeneration of the East End has a lot to do with the restigmatisation of stripping,” Stacey expands. “Hackney Council, for example, has taken an active stance against the industry.”
She’s referring to the council’s decision to embrace a ‘nil policy’ for strip clubs, which outright refuses the opening of any new venues in the borough. As enshrined in 2009’s Police and Crime Act, a nil policy cannot be appealed.
To its critics, the legal shift in 2009 sounded the death knell of the ‘Golden Age’ of striptease. By classifying lapdance clubs as ‘sexual entertainment venues’ and dramatically reducing the ease with which licences could be obtained, the industry has been forced onto shrinking ground.
Edie Lamort, a veteran performer, was active in London during the Golden Age, which coincided with a more relaxed view of stripping in the early 2000s. She believes that the demise of the traditional, independent strip pub – once a mainstay of the East End – has led to a general disempowerment of dancers.
“There’s been a sea change in the strip industry and the popular view of it, which I first saw emerging around 2006,” she says. “A backlash against it was emerging.
“The groups and politicians that pushed through the current legislation claim they don’t want to ban anything, but how is a nil policy not a ban? It’s completely disingenuous – the actual aim is to ban anything to do with the erotic industry.
“They’re pushing it as far underground as they can.”
The exploitation equation
Current legislation – and the way it limits and defines dancers – is a flagship concern for the ELSC.
“With the nil policy, there’s essentially no competition any more,” explains Lamort. “Existing venues aren’t forced to improve, as there’s no incentive. It reduces our power in the labour market, putting us in a much tougher position.”
According to Clare, the legislation is based on “fallible” evidence.
“Many reports and statistics have been given out of context to support a moral, pre-existing stance that denies the idea of strippers as empowered and portrays them as doing something wrong.
“The licensing laws have the potential to do a massive disservice to what should be a legitimate career.”
The rhetoric that paints stripping as negative is barely disguised by the politicians themselves. In January 2014 Labour MP Diana Johnson brought the Sex Establishments (Regulation) Bill to parliament, aiming to further tighten Sexual Entertainment Venue licensing.
“I am not seeking to impose some draconian new ban from Whitehall,” she claimed. “I merely want local people and councillors to have more power to resist the spread of sleaze in their neighbourhoods.”
For Clare, the real focus of reform should be on how dancers are exploited in clubs. A stripper for nearly ten years herself, she drew on her own experiences to shape the goals of the ELSC.
“From day one of my dancing career I saw how girls were being exploited,” she explains. “I sat there and watched clubs taking the piss, taking fistfuls of money out of our pockets. “In my opinion there’s only one club in London which is run adequately and has a culture of respect for the girls that work in it.
“I started imagining how clubs should be run, how dancers could get a better deal.”
One element of the ELSC’s vision is to open Europe’s first ever co-operative strip club in London – an achievement that would represent a watershed moment for the British strip club industry.
“It’ll be owned and managed by the dancers who work there, and will be based on an egalitarian business model,” Clare explains. “Profits would be shared and a progressive culture that supports and respects workers and patrons would be fostered.”
While the aims of the ELSC are laid out singularly in its manifesto, the collective is a broad church, and home to a mosaic of mentalities. As much is evident when the prickly issue of where stripping fits in the modern feminist landscape is raised.
“It may seem contradictory to consider ourselves feminists and still strip, but we all basically want the same result; respect for women,” Clare argues.
“For me feminism is about supporting women’s choices, not about telling them what they should and shouldn’t do.”
But isn’t stripping fundamentally demeaning to women? “My answer to that is: bollocks. In my experience stripping only becomes demeaning when the environment it’s done in is exploitative, so let’s change the conditions of the industry so it supports and sustains its workers.
“Of course gender inequality is a problem,” she concedes. “But we want to challenge the patriarchal paradigm that currently exists, and the idea that all strippers are downtrodden or have Stockholm Syndrome.
“As we say in the manifesto, we invite the prospect of male and transgender dancers and mixed audiences. We recently had a male drag stripper join – to me that’s very exciting.” For Lamort, the issue is squarely about personal choice.
“Modern feminism is often victim feminism; it’s too concerned with trivial things and playing the victim,” she argues.
“I look at my stripping friends and I see strong, intelligent, risk-taking, educated, property-owning, witty women.
“Surely that’s feminist?”