It was October 2018 and I was 23 years old. I had just started my Master’s course at the University of Sheffield, quickly learning that the loans available to postgraduate students are barely a fraction of what I was used to as an undergrad. I knew that I needed to find work, quickly, and it needed to pay enough for me to complete my second degree without working full time. But crucially I had always been fascinated by the adult industry, and had wanted to try working as an erotic dancer long before I had any financial need to. I had taken pole dancing classes, read up on the politics of sex work, followed prominent stripper activists on social media, and I felt well educated on the pros and cons of this particular work. I had read up about difficult customers, stigma, slow nights, the bruises, blisters and aching muscles from such a physically active job.
This research didn’t prepare me for what went down in spring of 2019…
I had been enjoying my introduction to this world, spending nights entranced by the grace, skill and raw sensuality of the other dancers, feeling the camaraderie and belonging of the strip club dressing room, complaining about shitty nights and celebrating prosperous ones, sharing advice and joking together. Following a difficult winter and several consecutive bereavements, I was unable to continue working my day job in retail, so stripping became my sole income – a way to make ends meet around my mental health struggles and university deadlines.
It was a rare Saturday night, the last weekend of March, that I was working – I struggled with anxiety, and found the busy weekend nights overwhelming, preferring instead, slow weekday nights where I could have long conversations and build more of a connection with clients. We were called down from the dressing room by management, faces semi-made up, half in lingerie, half in tracksuit bottoms and dressing gowns. They told us that there was an article coming out in UK newspaper (dicussed by the ECP here). That we had been subject to an undercover operation and that they wanted to go over the rules again to make sure everyone was dancing ‘clean’. We had no idea what was about to happen. Panic spread through the dancers, some were single mothers, others, like me, cash-strapped students. None of us wanted to lose our jobs, or see our club closed down.
Panic spread through the dancers, some were single mothers, others, like me, cash-strapped students
That night I remember distinctly – I barely earnt any money, I was so anxious I couldn’t face approaching customers. I cried in the taxi on the way home, oblivious to the beauty of cherry blossom trees wrapped up in the misty spring dawn through the glass of the cab windows.
We mobilised quickly. I told a trusted university lecturer who put me in touch with a union representative with United Sex Workers of the world (AKA United Strippers). Dancers and club staff held meetings to discuss what this all meant and what to do next, supporters got in touch and we started to organise events and get in contact with press to #saveourstripclub. The groups involved in the filming were deliberately opaque about who paid these men to create non-consensual footage of naked women dancing. In a council meeting on the 1st of April, Women’s Equality Party representative Charlotte Meade took joint credit, with Not Buying It, Zero Option Sheffield. WEP quickly backpedalled however, distancing themselves from the campaign once they saw how the filming was received.
We repeatedly reached out to the objector groups to have a discussion, to explain our experience, for them to see us as real and to see the impact they were having on us, to explain that they have misunderstood what it is we want and need. They rejected all attempts at contact, I’m still not sure why. Perhaps it was easier to dehumanise us from a distance.
The campaign against us was absolutely brutal, and took an awful toll on many dancers’ mental health. Those who had actually been filmed were informed one by one and dismissed from the club, which objectors gleefully latched onto as evidence of the harms of the industry. It felt parasitic, like any outcome would be taken and used as evidence that we were all just hapless victims, or worse, enemies of, and traitors to, our fellow women, supporters of sexual violence.
Work wasn’t the same without the dancers who got dismissed. We missed them and they had to travel exorbitant distances to work in other cities. One woman was targeted particularly viciously, due to her prominence on social media. Twitter feuds involved ‘feminist’ objectors claiming that I was contributing to and at fault for reinforcing male sexual violence, including one anonymous account claiming strippers and the industry could be connected to the rape and murder of their sister. As a survivor who had found sisterhood and solace in the club, I felt devastated.
I have, in my life, been repeatedly subject to male sexual violence, including non-consensual filming of explicit material, and it felt particularly crass that supposed ‘feminists’ had chosen the easy targets and replicated these tactics against us. They had chosen to blame strippers for reinforcing male sexual violence. This is ironic considering we are also the ones that allegedly need their (unsolicited) rescuing from the very same behaviour.
At the same hearing, middle aged women sneered and laughed at one young dancer in the hallway.
If we are supposedly the ones who are the ‘victims’, how is victimising us further by pushing us into poverty going to help? Strippers are people – of all kinds, from all backgrounds – and it is this nuance that objectors repeatedly failed to acknowledge, treating the variance in our experience as a supposed contradiction in our ‘argument’. What they missed, however, is this is not some abstract rhetorical debate. What happened in 2019 affected real women’s lives, in an awful way. I couldn’t trust anybody. I couldn’t access health care and tell professionals what was really going on for fear that they would be connected to these mysterious and nebulous groups who seemed so powerful: the Women’s Equality Party, Not Buying It, Zero Option Sheffield, One Billion Rising, Filia. A local rape crisis centre connected themselves to these objectors and spoke against the club at the licensing renewal hearing. I had been hoping to receive help from this service, but it quickly became clear then that I could not trust them either. At the same hearing, middle aged women sneered and laughed at one young dancer in the hallway.
2019 was a disappointing year, which really shook my faith in women and ‘feminists’. I spoke about my experiences at a conference held at the university at the end of summer, where, again, a group of fully grown women affiliated with these ‘feminist’ groups, snuck in using fake details and heckled and interrupted my speech. I tried to talk to them afterwards, I tried to get them to see me, to really acknowledge me as a human worthy of respect, but they treated me so dismissively and cruelly that I cried in front of everyone while they left smugly. It was humiliating. I felt totally degraded.
The thing was, we did need better working conditions, improved health and safety, better grievance procedures, less fees and commissions on our earnings. We were willing to fight for that. But the precarious nature of our licensing battle and the public scrutiny meant we were too afraid to speak publicly about these issues. It also meant others in the club told us to put up and shut up, lest we be the reason for the club closing and multiple families facing financial hardship. These concerted efforts to close clubs literally make organising for better working conditions and worker’s rights feel nigh on impossible. But hey, it’s almost as if these groups never cared about our rights or lived experiences. They just wanted to win a rhetorical war at the expense of disposable sex workers.
Horrendously objectifying language against sex workers
What happens to us as a result of their campaigns is irrelevant to the objectors. They responded derisively to questions on Twitter about whether they would be supporting dancers and their families once they become unemployed, suggesting we would all be better off on benefits. Despite claims on Not Buying It’s website at the time to ‘support women exiting the industry’, they refused to engage with dancers at all. Our attempts to unionise for better working conditions with the grassroots union United Voices of the World was met with cynicism and horrendously objectifying language against sex workers.
Tired SWERF and evangelical arguments from the 80s
The license was renewed, but I moved out of the city to work in a club at the other end of the country and finish my studies remotely, and I have never been back since. I loved that city and I spent nearly 6 years studying there, but I never want to return and relive what I felt that year: the fear, the paranoia. Being told that I was to blame for what happened to me and to other women. The disappointment at women and girls blaming and hurting each other for men’s actions. Once, I told a peer I was in a seminar with that I was a dancer, and later I saw her social media posts replicating the same old tired SWERF and evangelical arguments from the 80s.
I felt so let down and disconnected from non sex-working women, so I kept the fact that I was a dancer secret, from everyone except a lecturer and member of support staff at university. I shouldn’t have been ashamed, and I am not ashamed of ever being a dancer. Being a sex worker and fighting for our rights introduced me to some of the most amazing women and non-binary people (and a couple of men too!). Trans women stood in solidarity with us, and I learnt that they often receive abuse from the same groups (SWERFs and TERFs go hand in hand). I got to know some of the strongest, most resilient activists throughout this experience. I spoke at numerous conferences and festivals across the country where I learnt so much about all different feminist and workers’ struggles across the globe. It was beautiful to see the strength and solidarity of sex workers who are too often treated as disposable, and objectified by ‘feminists’ who supposedly oppose such objectification.
I remained a member of United Sex Workers, serving on committee for a time, and I have spent the last three years working on research into what dancers want, resisting patriarchal or patronising external voices assuming what we need, or taking action ‘on our behalf’ that harms us. There is scope for a lot of change and improvement in the stripping industry, but any and all change needs to be in consultation with the real experts on stripping: the strippers themselves.
I chose not to return to sex work after the pandemic due to physical health issues, but I will always be proud and grateful for all my sex-working siblings who showed me the meaning of strength, solidarity and community.