It’s a surreal feeling to head off to work when you’re in the middle of an ongoing battle with the council about your right to even be there. Anyone in freelance work knows the dejection and fear that comes with precarity. Anyone in a consumer-facing role knows the exhaustion after a long shift where you’ve contended with rudeness from customers and managers alike. And as self-employed workers in the night-time economy, already difficult shifts for strippers like me are made worse by the very real threat of criminalisation and the constant fight against it.
In Bristol, the city I work in, two out of three available sexual entertainment venue (SEV) licences are active. By the end of this year, it could be none. On 28 July, a cross party licensing committee will decide whether to implement a nil cap on all SEVS in Bristol – essentially a total ban on strip clubs. If the nil cap goes ahead, Bristol will join over 15 councils, including Swansea and Haringey, that have banned strip clubs since 2010, the most recent being Edinburgh. The campaign to ban strip clubs in Bristol has over ten years in the making, currently driven by the Bristol Women’s Commission, a council-funded group that vehemently opposes the existence of the sex industry, along with a coalition of local Labour and Tory politicians.
Nationally, the picture is similar. Attacks on SEVs are often fuelled by various groups of ‘feminist’ campaigners who claim the existence of strip clubs – and of sex work more generally – perpetuates harmful misogyny and gendered violence. But according to leading academics studying sex work, like Dr Jessica Simpson of Greenwich University, there is “no credible evicence” to support this.
One widely cited piece of work is the notorious 2003 Lilith Report produced by a women’s charity. It concluded that there was a positive correlation between the presence of strip clubs and rates of assault in Camden, London. The report has been debunked by multiple researchers for being statistically inaccurate. Yet it’s still used as a basis to challenge SEV licensing by sex worker exclusionary radical feminists (SWERFs). SWERFs assert they’re ‘saving’ industry workers from exploitation. In fact, they directly contribute to policies that attack our rights and disregard the reality of the struggles we face when we attempt to communicate them.
The threat a nil cap poses to worker safety is obvious. Sex work isn’t driven by demand: like all work, it is driven by the need to pay bills. Shutting down SEVs doesn’t stop trade – it moves it underground. In areas like Exeter, a nil cap region, there are a plethora of agencies hiring out ‘strippergrams’, available for private home bookings. The risks this poses for sex workers – who are disproportionately likely to be working parents and/or belong to a marginalised group due to stigma and lack of resources – are obvious. Being forced to exchange working with a licensed security team and CCTV, for solo jobs in private accommodation, the danger is apparent. So why is hostility towards the few remaining strip clubs in the country thriving using a front of women’s safety?
Strip clubs have been operating in Britain for nearly a century. In 1932, the UK’s first strip club, the Windmill Theatre in Soho, hosted nude models who remained motionless as per strict censorship rules. In later years it hosted table and lap dances, resisting campaigns from anti-sex work groups, and ultimately lost its license in January 2018 for breaching the no contact rule that is a condition of all current SEV licensing.
As part of the Policing and Crime Act of 2009, the government redefined strip clubs as ‘SEVs’, where previously they were free to operate as entertainment venues, and transferred the power and responsibility of their regulation to local councils. This was a win for sex trade abolitionist groups like Not Buying It and Object, who campaigned for the regulation of SEVs to be included in New Labour’s infamous anti social crime agenda. Through this new categorisation and devolution of power to local government, communities supposedly were given a say in whether clubs remained open. SWERFs were now able to launch targeted campaigns across the UK based on misinformation that thrives in a climate that stifles sex workers voices.
In the years since, candidates seeking election have used sex workers as political pawns. A predominantly female workforce has been thrown under the bus by councils who need to be seen as tackling violence against women and girls or want to appeal to middle class NIMBY voters who want their area to be more ‘family friendly’. Various councils work closely with sex trade abolitionists in the violence against women and girls (VAWG) sector. One such example is White Ribbon, who list 55 accredited English and Welsh councils that pledge to support their aims.
Labour MP Rachel Reeves has spent a decade vocally opposing Leeds’ strip clubs. Meanwhile in Scotland, the government defines sex work as VAWG as part of their Equally Safe strategy which aims to eradicate gender based violence. While Labour were the ones to make this change with the aim of tackling gender based violence and reaching targets for reducing anti social behaviour, they were not the only ones willing to use sex workers for political gain. In 2008, after an open letter signed by councillors from various cities, the Conservatives promised that if they were elected, they would give communities more power over SEV regulation.
In the manifesto for his 2016 Bristol mayoral campaign, Marvin Rees pledged to eradicate all Bristol’s SEV by 2020, promising to make the city safer for women and girls. SEVs had been a contentious issue in Bristol for a few years at this point, the campaign against them driven by the likes of the Bristol Women’s Commission, who Rees appealed to for support in his bid for office. As mayor – in a tenure so unpopular the position has now been abolished – Rees has allocated £5000 a year to Bristol Women’s Commission while claiming that his council supports the rights of workers, women and LGBTQ+ people.
Workers are also silenced by the council administered SEV licensing system; they fear that raising concerns about working environments will lead to club closures. If a dancer is assaulted by a customer, they face an impossible decision: any criminal reports will be raised against the club during the next renewal hearing, potentially endangering the club’s licence and their job within it.
This threat of unemployment is used by management within SEVs to control dancers. In these precarious conditions, club managers are able to illegally charge dancers a fee to work, and maintain racist, transphobic, fatphobic and ableist hiring practices. Fines are also handed out to dancers on trumped up reasons, such as not adhering to arbitrary dress codes, with clubs pocketing the profit.
Full service sex workers also face exclusion and stigma from SEVs. In Bristol, dancers are required by employers to provide a criminal background check as a result of a stipulation in their licensing that bars any person with an unspent conviction for a ‘relevant offence’ to work for them – which includes the likes of sex workers indicted under ‘brothel keeping’ laws for working from the same apartment with a colleague for safety. These barriers push people further into the most risky forms of sex work.
What SEV workers want is control over our establishments, both by removing the devolved local government licensing model, and removing the additional costs associated with SEV licences.
Right now, licensing is an exhausting, bureaucratic process that blocks out actual workers at every stage. At renewal hearings, workers don’t get a say. We’re forced to sit silently on the sidelines while managerial representatives argue in protection of their interests and anti sex work campaigners argue to make our working lives as difficult as possible. There is no recourse for us to start a process allowing us to keep our jobs while still addressing the illegal, unfair, and discriminatory practices of the people who hire us.
Now, we’re taking legal action. The debate over Bristol’s nil cap concludes in three days. Meanwhile, United Sex Workers, a branch of union UVW, have launched a judicial review challenging Edinburgh council’s nil cap, that will be decided later this year. If successful, this would set a precedent against other councils who may wish to implement future bans and finally end the decade-long struggle to keep the country’s strip clubs open.
Supporters can donate to the judicial review crowdfunder to cover legal costs, and follow @unitedswers on Twitter for updates. The Ethical Stripper is an essential read for anyone interested in labour laws and how they affect strippers.
Layla Caradonna is a sex worker and community activist based in Bristol. She writes under a pseudonym.