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Inside the U.K.’s War on Strip Clubs

Faced with the disappearance of their jobs and safety networks, strippers all over the U.K. are fighting a pitched ideological battle against anti-sex work activists who want strip clubs banned from the country completely

In March, Margot, a 25-year-old stripper, woke up to a news article stating that anti-sex work feminists were campaigning to ban strip clubs in Bristol, a city in the southwest of England. Like other strippers across the city, Margot immediately panicked. Not only was it the first she’d heard of the news, she was swiftly sent an email explaining that she should attend an online meeting just a few days later if she wanted any chance of defending herself (and her profession).

When the meeting did take place, Margot and her fellow strippers were tasked with pleading their case to a virtual room of stony-faced local councillors and residents. “We were each given a minute to speak,” Margot tells me via Zoom after the meeting, the dejection and fatigue evident in her voice. “Imagine that — just 60 seconds each to defend our livelihoods, and to make these campaigners realize how harmful it would be to shut down our workplace.”

Nevertheless, Margot made an impassioned plea in the virtual meeting, which she summarizes in our call. “I was working various minimum wage jobs before I started dancing, and that was pretty horrible,” she says, alluding to stressful working conditions and shitty bosses. “Dancing saved me in a way. Also, the ban wouldn’t just affect me — between dancers, bar staff, door staff and managers, it would impact hundreds of people.”

Strippers in the U.K. like Margot are largely treated as freelance contractors, meaning their workers’ rights are already minimal. Many pay “house fees” just to work (which, depending on the club, can be anywhere from $25 to $160 for an eight-hour shift) and risk being fined by owners if they show up late, so there’s always a chance they’ll leave shifts with less money than when they started. And when the government rolled out its COVID-19 relief package last year, it did so with a series of strict criteria that left plenty of sex workers — and other gig economy workers — unable to access much-needed financial help.

It’s not exactly easy for strippers to go out and find another job, either. Many of them choose to strip for the flexibility, pay and often-inclusive environment, things that aren’t always available in other industries. “The majority of our members entered sex work because they needed to earn money and were shut out of other jobs,” says Audrey, press secretary at United Sex Workers, a sex worker-led, nationwide union campaigning to save U.K. strip clubs. “They might have been part of the LGBTQ+ community, disabled or had childcare responsibilities.” Without a job that works for them and their schedule, strippers and other sex workers are often forced into more precarious work to pay their bills. 

This makes Bristol’s ideologically-motivated attack on the city’s strip clubs even more concerning. Buoyed by claims that strip clubs increase the risk of violence in their surroundings (more on that later), it made a workforce of strippers defend their basic right to perform jobs they wanted to do. Worse, the anti-strip club campaign hoped to force strippers out of their workplace as a mission to “protect” them from objectification.

The U.K.’s sex industry has always been under attack, but the Policing and Crime Act of 2009 enforced new restrictions on strip clubs by classifying them as “sexual entertainment venues.” This law forced venues to reapply for a license to operate every 12 months — in 2010, a club owner said this process costs “anywhere from £4,000 to £30,000 (between around $5,500 and $40,000)” — and gave local councils more power in dictating the fate of strip clubs. Emboldened by the legislation, campaigners have since ramped up their efforts to push for “nil cap” bans across the country — in fact, Hackney, an area of East London, enforced one just weeks after the legislation officially came into effect

“Effectively, ‘nil cap’ bans shut down any existing strip clubs and prevent any future clubs from opening,” Audrey explains. In the last decade alone, cities including Chester, Swansea, Exeter, Blackpool and more have cracked down on strip clubs, putting strippers out of work and fueling a long-running, ideological debate around the sex industry more generally. 

When it comes to strip clubs, the logic cited by anti-sex work activists is that they’re hotbeds of male violence and a kind of gateway drug to other things like full-service sex work or brothel work (the former is legal in the U.K., the latter is not). These arguments usually come with a reference to the 2003 Lilith Report, which claimed that the mere presence of strip clubs drives up crime rates in their local areas. Essentially, they’re framed as a kind of contamination — open a strip club, the report infers, and crime, drugs and violence will follow.

In 2009, the report was thoroughly debunked, though it’s still used as anti-sex work propaganda today. “There’s no evidence to suggest any correlation between strip clubs and violence,” states Audrey. “Even police statistics show the strip clubs are amongst the safest clubs for women in Bristol.” 

Anti-sex work activists also claim that clubs are sex-trafficking hubs. In lieu of actual evidence, they create YouTube testimonials designed to tug on heartstrings and strengthen the implied link between strip clubs and exploitation, which isn’t based on credible evidence either. Statistics consistently show that “modern slavery” — U.K. terminology used in trafficking laws — victims are overwhelmingly male, and they’re usually trafficked into exploitative or criminal labor. Likewise, there are daily horror stories about other industries that prove that capitalism fuels the abuse of workers’ rights across the board. But there’s no nationwide campaign to take down car washes or restaurants, both known as hotbeds for illegal labor. 

That said, the Bristol campaign is now six months old, and the jury is still out on whether its strip-club ban will be implemented, with no concrete date set for a verdict. Because of this, and freshly eased pandemic restrictions, Margot has been able to return to work with her fellow dancers. She is, though, anxious at the level of online visibility she’s received as a vocal sex-work activist. “Because we’re so vocal on social media with calling out [campaigners’] bullshit, it does make me a little bit worried. It’s become extremely personal.”

Her concern isn’t unwarranted. In 2019, anti-sex work group Not Buying It sent a group of undercover ex-police officers into a Sheffield strip club wearing hidden body-cameras. In total, nine performers — many of whom, according to union members, weren’t out as sex workers to their families — were filmed in various states of undress without their consent, yet a judge refused their appeal for anonymity. Eventually, the club was left with no choice but to close its doors. “It’s definitely crossed my mind that they could pull a stunt like that again,” says Margot. “It’s obviously a very stressful thought.”

A number of other unnamed strippers I spoke to feel the same. “I feel on edge all the time at work, just in case I’m being filmed,” one writes. Another has questioned where the footage could end up, especially as Not Buying It tried repeatedly to share it as evidence: “They violated our girls by filming them naked without permission, and now that footage could be stored anywhere and we wouldn’t know. This could ruin dancers’ lives, as well as our relationships outside of work.”

In a summary of its written objections shared with the Sheffield City Council, Not Buying It made its mission clear — to stamp out the sex industry, full stop. “Women are not a commodity,” the document reads. “Women and girls deserve respect and consideration. Males will not die if they cannot view females in a state of undress.” Every sex worker I know is well-versed in this rhetoric, which implies sex workers are either perpetual victims or villains responsible for enabling the abuse of “good” women. It’s a trope that dates back to the more puritanical scholars of second-wave feminism, who argued it’s impossible to consent to sex for money; in their eyes, sex work is always rape, regardless of how consensual it is. 

These implications are writ large across Not Buying It’s aforementioned list of proposed actions. Not only do they request “regular training for local councillors on the harm of the strip trade,” they stipulate that only “those harmed by the industry or their advocates” do so. The aim, then, is to entirely erase the voices of any sex workers who don’t agree that their industry should be shut down.

All of this, of course, completely misses the point on the help sex workers could actually use. “What we need is the collective power to negotiate with bosses, to advocate for ourselves and our safety and to ensure policies represent our best interest,” Audrey tells me. “Nor do any of these campaigns do anything to address reasons people turn to sex work in the first place, or to ensure their safety while they work.” 

“Shutting down strip clubs won’t solve violence against women,” she concludes, “but it does inflict further violence on sex workers who will lose their financial stability, their income and their safe workplaces.”