We welcome back our striptease correspondent, Edie Lamort, who takes a look at the history of the attacks on her trade in the UK, and the fightback by the strippers.
The bell may be about to sound for round two in the fight against censorship so before that happens dear readers let me give you a bit of a background; the story so far, of how this attack on dancers has evolved over the past few years. Before that we were working, studying, partying, creating and just living our lives like everyone else. Now we have had to organize, unionize and fight for our freedom. Here is the story from a Shoreditch point of view.
Once upon a time there were many strippers from all over the world working in London’s East End. There was a really nice combination of stage shows, private dancing, a good camaraderie between the girls and management and most of all lots of money to be made. This gave people freedoms they had never experienced before. People who’d come from nothing could suddenly buy houses, have holidays, study, buy a nice car and send money to the family in Brazil/Argentina/Ukraine/Middlesborough where ever. The new opportunities were wonderful and life was good.
The dancers were also talented, independent and strong willed. A lot of them very creative and unable to sit bored senseless in an office job all day. So they started experimenting with the pole and making up moves. Other girls saw this and copied them, shared knowledge and over time the strippers of the western world created a new and amazing art form. They became great friends because you stick together. In a world where most people will judge you harshly for what you do, you need to have each other’s backs. Maybe you get this level of friendship in the army too but you definitely don’t get it in office world. There is also an intimacy that comes with being in an environment where you can be open and free. When you are in a changing room with someone going, ‘Is this spot on my arse really noticeable? Can you have a look? Thanks’. So you peer at your friend’s arse, dab concealer on it and tell her not to worry.
The first time the dancers ever encountered the haters was over ten years ago. Mark our gay manager decided to have a birthday party. So he used Browns on the Sunday night, when it was closed to the public. There were DJs, bands and the hot Brazilian bar man did a strip for everyone. It was a great party. Then someone came in and said ‘hey there’s a protest outside!’ So we went out and saw Anna Van Heejswick and her nascent hate group Object shouting and waving their slogans around. The dancers started laughing at them and told them they had come on the wrong night, ‘hahaha there are male strippers here if you want to check them out!’ But the haters kept on shouting outside, on a cold November night.
No one thought about them for years, believing people wouldn’t be stupid enough to listen to such a group of extremists but alas. You think ‘oh most people are sane, extremist groups will just be laughed at and ignored’. Unfortunately this is not always true and we now find ourselves in a battle. Object had the ear of Harriet Harman MP and so a handful of people changed the law to the detriment of the many.
The first battle was in Hackney. No one knew about the nil policy consultation for a while until the owner of the White Horse found out about it. An East End matriarch born and bred, Sue had taken over the pub when her Dad retired. She was born and raised in Hackney, had seen the area change and gentrify over the decades, and now faced having the family business closed due to the moral objections of a few new, middle class residents. She was furious and sent the information to everyone she could think of. She started a Facebook group and within days all the dancers were as livid as Sue and began to fight back. Sue and Denise, the owner of Browns, got together with Thierry from the GMB trade union and organised a legal team. The dancers took over in terms of publicity, speaking and being the face of the campaign. They all knew that it had to be dancer led to counteract the patronising narrative that all dancers are ‘poor weak little victims of horrible wicked men’.
A few weeks later Xtalk and the GMB organised a meeting between the workers and the council. The meeting was attended by many dancers, bar staff, DJs, Xtalk and the GMB rep but only one councilor bothered to turn up to listen to the people they were about to make redundant. Then the dancers approached the Hackney TUC and won the unanimous support of everyone. The owners funded a viral video and the dancers organised a protest. ‘Giselle’ liaised with the police and they got the support of the Vicar of Shoreditch. They also wrote to the councilors individually and went to meet the local MP. Thierry the GMB rep said afterwards the councilors were astonished. They had never before received so many letters about a consultation, had never expected the strippers to react like that and were amazed to see a stripper protest outside the town hall!
Round one had been won but the dancers knew it was only the beginning. A few had been in Equity for a while but then more joined due to the fact that it had helped and the unions had supported everyone regardless of where they were members or not. It calmed down for a bit but then the prohibitionists started again in Tower Hamlets. A public debate was announced featuring a rogues’ gallery of the religious right and so called ‘feminists’ who would like us all to live the Dworkinesque nightmare. Immediately dancers began to protest and asked why it was being advertised as a debate when there was no one at all on the panel willing to defend the dancers? Eventually the organisers agreed to let one of the dancers speak and allowed one other person to accompany her. Hardly a debate, just a pathetic gesture.
The email went around, ‘who wants to go speak at this event?’. No one in their right mind wants to but someone has to. I volunteered and was allowed 5 minutes amongst the 3 hours of ranting. It was a shocking experience to see how politics works. A small group with an agenda and some funding create stigma and fear against an unrepresented subculture and use them as a scapegoat. This panic they create is then used to justify a change to the law and for more freedoms to be taken away. We are all aware that these methods are used but to see it in action is a truly shocking experience.
The consolation came and went and now the results have been suppressed. Could it be that it did not go their way I wonder? This has given the clubs time to consult with legal teams. The dancers then decided to organise an event called Dancers Speak Out, to start the fight back in Tower Hamlets. The meeting was held one rainy evening with speakers from the clubs and John McDonnell MP. Who pointed out the hypocrisy of Tower Hamlets borough endorsing Olympic sponsors Dow Chemicals, of Bhopal infamy, yet calling the dancers immoral.
The prohibitionists then moved on to Portsmouth were they are trying hard to close Elegance and Wiggle. Another recent target has been Leeds where religious and ‘feminist’ groups joined forces and sought to close all seven clubs in that city. Once again the dancers and club owners mobilized and fought for their jobs and for freedom. Supported in their campaign by Leeds University researcher Dr Teela Saunders, author of The Regulatory Dance. The licensing committee in Leeds then agreed to reissue licenses to all seven clubs, much to the fury of those opposed. Rachel Reeves MP was upset by this decision and worrying has proposed changing the law because she did not get what she wanted out of the democratic process. What is this strange thought process? ‘The vote didn’t go my way so I will ignore democracy and change the law accordingly’, which is a scary route to take. It also reminds me of the reaction of an older South American dancer two years ago in Hackney. When she heard of the nil policy campaign in Hackney she panicked saying, ‘This is the attitude of dictatorship! I grew up under dictatorship. I came to this country because there were freedoms and opportunity. What are these people doing?! This is the mentality of dictatorship.’
What will be the next chapter in this sorry saga? Without a doubt the Tower Hamlets fight will restart now the Olympics have finished. Coventry is consulting and Lancashire has just thrown out a nil policy bid. UK Feminista have been touring Universities preaching hate towards dancers and customers, and training students on how to close down their local strip clubs.
Most everyday people don’t know or really care about this but when you tell them they are usually shocked to hear about more of our freedoms being taken from us. Be aware that this puritanical backlash is simmering away and oppose it in your local area. This is censorship and it can only end in tears.