"You're So Educated, Why Are You Working Here?" The Stripper Dismantling Sex Work Stereotypes

Photo: Robbie Golec
Stacey Clare started stripping in 2006. She was a student at the Glasgow School of Art, and needed some extra cash on her year out. By day, she’d work in a café; by night, she’d go to the club – which she remembers as "quite tame", meaning topless-only – and dance for six or seven-hour shifts. She was 22. In the places she worked back then, she was recognised as self-employed; she could choose when she wanted to work in advance, there were no fees if you turned up to work late and you only had to pay the proprietor of the venue about £30, leaving you to keep the rest of the money you made as profit, which would be in the hundreds.
Skip forward 12 years and according to Stacey, the strip club economy is looking tattered, while strippers in Britain face increasingly bleak working conditions. In an attempt to counter this, Stacey started up the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC), a network where strippers come together to talk about workers’ rights and how to fight the stigma that strippers can face. She is also writing her first book, called The Ethical Stripper, which will explain what it’s like to strip for a living, dismantle some of the biggest stereotypes about strippers, and make the argument for a united sex workers' rights movement.
Below, we talked to Stacey about the book, for which she is currently fundraising on Unbound.
Hi Stacey, to start with, can you explain when Britain’s stripping industry started to change for the worse?
Yes. To understand that, you need to go back to the Licensing Act 2003, passed under the all-seeing eye of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It stimulated the nighttime economy, allowing 24-hour drinking, and there was a proliferation of strip clubs opening up under public entertainment licences. For five years, there was a boom in the industry all over the country. There was talk of one new club opening per week. That was when I started stripping! But the boom really got up the noses of the conservative elite and a lot of 'feminists' started getting upset about strip clubs on high streets, which eventually brought about the Policing and Crime Act of 2009. There is now a control over how many licences for sexual entertainment venues like strip clubs there can be. Most councils have adopted a nil policy, preventing new venues from opening. So we've got this situation where the industry has shrunk, and that’s given a monopoly to existing venues; because of that monopoly we don't have any formal workers' rights.
What do bad conditions in a club actually look like?
So we’re approaching the 10th year of this bill, and I've been in the industry all this time and seen the effect it’s had. We’re treated as employees but don't enjoy any of the benefits of being employees, or any of the benefits of being self-employed either, because very few clubs will give you free rein to work when you want to. You're not allowed to moonlight, so you can’t work in other venues. They tell you what to wear. Pubs can take a big percentage of what we earn, or the club takes a big fee. We don't mind paying house fees, if they’re reasonable, but we mind if we’re going to be punished with charges for being late or ill.

'Whorearchy' is the hierarchy of power within the sex industry. People who work in flats will be like, 'But I don't work on the street' or strippers will be like, 'Oh I don't have to give handjobs'.

What do you love about stripping?
Stripping hasn’t always been my main job. I've done care work, worked in an art gallery. I went back to dancing last week after taking time out from it after being ill and I guess I just remembered that I'm good at it. It’s hard when you find something you're good at to walk away from it. I'm good at the chat, the sales pitch, I like that it’s at night, I like the people. I like being in that environment, that adult world, that’s fun to me. And it does have benefits – the money can be really good, it’s just the conditions are worsening.
So you founded the East London Strippers Collective to try and do something about that, can you tell me about it?
We’re a worker-led organisation. We've got performers who have done burlesque or peripheral sex work, but you have to have had the experience of being paid to take your clothes off for money to join. We've got people across the country and internationally. We got it going in 2014. After years of working in an industry where I loved the job but felt so undervalued and quite demoralised by working conditions, I decided enough was enough. I had a dinner party with a bunch of friends from The White Horse, a strip pub in east London, and we thought 'Fuck it, let’s try and do something'. So we made a Facebook page and several years later it’s still going.
What kind of events and work do you do?
We do events like life drawing classes. That’s a great event because it does exactly what we always set out to do, which is challenge the stereotype of stripping, invite in a different audience, undermine the patriarchy that exists in the industry and it’s self-organised – we’re in control. ELSC have done a lot of events but one of the big obstacles we’ve faced has been Facebook censorship. Facebook community standards prevent us from having paid ads to advertise events. PR that used to be easy is hard. But more activism is on the cards. Sex worker activism has started to find its feet and is being taken seriously as a movement. To change a law, you need resources behind you, which is difficult for people in the gig economy; it’s a David and Goliath thing. But I think with the help of other organisations, we can do it. ELSC have only been around for four years, so in the grand scheme of things we’re a baby organisation. But we've got dancers talking to each other, a network, and can tap into that.
You call stripping 'sex work' – but I imagine some strippers wouldn’t?
There is an unfortunate culture of whorephobia among strippers. I put that down to the culture of working in clubs, which are – at the end of the day – legalised spaces. Sex work is criminalised, so licences of venues are at risk if they're found to be allowing soliciting. But if we stigmatise each other we’re not going to get anywhere. I've put my foot in it in such a big way in the past, in my short career as an activist: 'We’re not service workers, we’re not escorts'... it’s a conversation to be had internally about how we organise a regulated industry, but not a public one. We shouldn't be outing each other, saying, 'That’s nothing to do with my struggle'. I've definitely learned that the hard way, by being called out for my unconscious whorephobia.

There’s no fucking rule that says I can’t work in a strip club if I'm intelligent!

Can you explain a bit more about 'whorearchy'?
'Whorearchy' is a new term to so many people. It’s a hierarchy of power that exists within the sex industry, so people who work in flats will be like, 'But I don't work on the street' or strippers will be like, 'Oh I don't have to give handjobs'. It’s a powerful term because once participants in the industry clock it, they check their internalised whorephobia. The social media revolution has given platforms for amazing voices talking about this, like Jacq the Stripper and Lux ATL, big-name strippers in the US. Jacq the Stripper is a comic artist, very witty in drawing attention to the hypocrisy of the stigma with her cartoons. She's done a series of girls in stripper heels going into other places of work – one peeking into an office saying, 'How can you degrade yourself like this!' and another of a stripper talking to a construction worker saying, 'How can you demean your body like this!' She nails it. They openly identify as sex workers, so a whole load of strippers are allowed to identify as sex workers now because their heroes are doing that.
What are some of the stripper stereotypes you’re going to dismantle in The Ethical Stripper?
The most dangerous are the stereotypes of trafficking and victimhood: 'You haven't really chosen that!' You could say the same about anyone in any industry that’s coming at it from a lack of other choices. It’s just the stigma of sex work that focuses the attention there. Very few people understand the distinction between sex work and trafficking, which is dangerous because then you see policies based on a false dichotomy. For example, a recent change of law in the US has seen the shutdown of all these online resources that were helping sex workers remain safe. They see the internet as this festering breeding ground for trafficking and so they basically just wiped out a whole load of online platforms where sex workers shared information.
There are others. I was working the other night and this guy was like, 'You're so educated, why are you working here?' I was like, 'There’s no fucking rule that says I can’t work in a strip club if I'm intelligent!' As soon as I started trying to dismantle what he was saying… no more money! I can’t say that I'm writing a book, that I'm an activist, that I'm doing all this shit because of the stigma coming out of your mouth. And finally, the one question I refuse to answer, and I get this most from journalists, is 'How does your job affect your relationships?' I could write a list as long as my arm of things that affect my relationships: geography, mood, hormones, pressure to get married, salary, housing. What doesn't affect our relationships? That question is a classic example of stigma at work.
Do people still ask you how you can be a stripper and a feminist?
They ask me that less now. I remember almost to the day when I had started stripping and went back to art school, went to the library, and started devouring feminist theory like food. I was hungry for it. There might have been some sense of confirmation bias but I immediately identified as a sex-positive feminist. Not just because of the stripping thing, but the pro-abortion thing and being queer. To me, the very concept of bodily autonomy sounds like being human. I was reading the other stuff – Andrea Dworkin, Catharine MacKinnon – and the arguments against sex work and why it’s the patriarchy at its worst. But having done it, I didn't identify with that. So if people ask, I say there are different ways of being a feminist and the one that I opt for is the one where women don't tell each other what they can and can’t do with their bodies.
If you want to donate to The Ethical Stripper, visit Unbound.
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