A union has said it will seek “legal remedies” following a sting operation by anti-strip club campaigners linked to the Women’s Equality party (WEP).
In recent months, the anti-strip club campaign Not Buying It has paid male private investigators, including two former police officers, to pose as customers in strip clubs in Sheffield and Manchester with the aim of revealing behaviours that breach the rules of sexual entertainment venue (SEV) licensing.
Although filming is prohibited in strip clubs to protect dancers’ privacy, the men are understood to have recorded partially or fully nude performers without their consent using hidden cameras. The men’s accounts and recordings were then shared with handlers and the findings presented to local authorities in a bid to get the clubs’ SEV licences revoked.
In a speech at a Sheffield City Council meeting this month, available on the Not Buying It website, WEP Sheffield branch leader Charlotte Mead said: “We are also in possession of film footage of their investigations.”
A WEP spokesperson told Novara Media the party was not responsible for the sting operation, though Mead – speaking to the BBC in her WEP capacity – called the men “our investigators”.
Celia, a dancer at Spearmint Rhino in Sheffield, one of the targeted clubs, attended the recent council meeting where Mead presented the sting’s findings. “We were not allowed in the room but we were able to listen in through a speaker,” she said, adding that Mead was “very rude to councillor Magid Magid.” Magid, the former Sheffield lord mayor, is a supporter of strippers’ employment rights.
“The Women’s Equality party were furious with the council for their being satisfied with the quarterly visits to the club, so they took extreme measures by hiring undercover investigators to film – and potentially to coerce and entrap – the dancers.”
A statement from the United Voices of the World trade union, which represents strippers across the UK, called the sting “a misguided, self-appointed mission to ‘save’ dancers” that “puts women’s livelihoods at risk, whilst ignoring the explicit wishes of the women involved.”
The statement continued: “As feminists and trade unionists, we are appalled by the fact that the WEP decided to violate women’s rights by using what could amount to revenge porn in order to further their obsession with shutting down legitimate and legal workplaces.”
Sophia, another dancer at Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino, said the sting operation is “part of a vicious campaign, presenting itself as concern for our welfare and women’s rights but actually massively harming the mental and financial wellbeing of our tight-knit community.”
“The thought of these ex-officers coming into the club with the intent to exploit and film any one of us against our will is sickening.”
She added that knowing the footage had been shared with unknown people had left many women “paranoid”.
Shiri Shalmy, who organises for strippers’ rights with the UVW, said the sting operation “is transparently motivated by anti-sex work sentiment and elitist, moralising judgement under a false pretence of feminism.”
WEP told Novara Media the party “respects the decisions and experiences of individual women who work in lap dancing clubs” but added it wants all clubs to close because WEP believes they represent a culture of male entitlement to women’s bodies and because dancers have “little or no employment protection.” This month, the Women’s Equality party and Not Buying It also met with Camden council in a bid to prevent the renewal of every SEV licence in the borough.
In response, Shalmy argued: “If campaigners are really concerned about strippers’ welfare they would turn their energies to listening to strippers – whose experiences and opinions don’t reflect this degrading and disempowered depiction, nor the myth that strip clubs cause sexual harassment.”
She also suggested campaigners concerned about strippers’ rights could become “allies to our union, through which workers are fighting for improved working conditions themselves.”
Commenting on the motivations behind the sting, Niki Adams of the English Collective of Prostitutes said: “Feminism should surely start with women’s needs, like campaigning for a living wage so no one is driven into sex work by poverty, and for decriminalisation so women in the sex industry can win employment rights like other workers.”
Steph, a dancer from one of the targeted clubs in Manchester, said the workers there “can’t understand why a group of women who say they are feminists are threatening to take away our source of income that feeds our kids, pays our rent and our education fees.”
The strip club workers who spoke to Novara Media said attempts to shut down their places of work are bringing them closer together.
“We build each other up. We help each other through difficult times,” said Steph. “I’ve never worked in such a collaborative and supportive network.”
Increasingly, this means unionisation; UVW has seen a spike in stripper membership in recent months.
“If anything this action by Not Buying It – along with its allies in the Women’s Equality party – has made us stronger,” said Louise, who has been dancing for nine years in London, Edinburgh and elsewhere.
“It is accelerating the drive to unionise, and as a strong workforce we have more power to argue for better working conditions and to convince local authorities to support our right to work and to choose our own jobs.”