Strip clubs in England have been fully open for less than a month since Covid restrictions were lifted, but for many dancers a new period of precarity is beginning. Across the UK a growing number of clubs face being outlawed by their local authority in the near future. Bristol is the latest city to propose a “nil cap” policy that would ban sexual entertainment venues (SEVs), joining towns and cities with similar policies such as Chester, Exeter, and Blackpool.
In Bristol particularly, this policy has been championed by a number of feminist groups including Bristol Women’s Commission and Bristol Women’s Voice, and is backed by Labour MP Kerry McCarthy and Mayor Marvin Rees. Eradicating strip clubs, they argue, will help local authorities to tackle sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
However, there is no substantive evidence to prove that the presence of strip clubs correlates to high levels of sexual violence. Data collected by Avon and Somerset Police between 2018 and 2020 found incidents involving sexual assault were far more common in Bristol’s most popular nightclubs. And far from keeping vulnerable women safe, many within the industry argue a ban is a policy that seeks to blame sex workers for the systematic problems of gender-based violence. As more councils consider these policies, those who will actually be affected – workers in the sexual entertainment industry – are becoming increasingly frustrated.
Tallulah*, 24, is a stripper from the north-west of England. She believes such bans do nothing to protect women like her: “Strippers are being targeted due to misogyny and slut-shaming, and it’s masked as concern.”
Tallulah and many of her colleagues have been concerned since the Greater Manchester Combined Authority announced in a draft consultation on tackling gender-based violence that it wants to “engage with white ribbon champions”. The charity White Ribbon UK, which describes itself as part of the global white ribbon movement working “to end male violence against women”, with a specific focus on working with men and boys, is a supporter of nil-cap policies. In order to be accredited by the charity, local authorities must “undertake a review of the authority’s Sexual Entertainment Venue licensing policy during the period of accreditation and work towards a presumption against SEVs”. White Ribbon justified this requirement by saying “this is important in working towards ending violence against women, as we want to change the attitudes and behaviours of men that can lead to abuse”.
But many of the women that such policies purport to help see things differently. They believe it is not their responsibility to change the way potentially violent men think, and that suggesting otherwise shifts the blame for male brutality onto female sex workers. Moreover, there are worries that closing strip clubs may put the women who work in these venues in greater danger. Licensed strip clubs have a range of safety policies enforced to protect dancers, including extensive CCTV coverage of the venue, bouncers, safety buttons and no-touch policies. “There’s control, and we have the power in the strip club,” Alexis, 42, a dancer and the northern rep for the United Sex Workers trade union tells me. “If a guy comes up and does something that I’m not comfortable with, he gets booted out.”
This security is absent for those working at private parties, which dancers believe is the likely alternative if local councils eradicate licensed clubs. “It just pushes it underground,” Alexis says, “and makes us work in more dangerous conditions. It will perpetuate violence against women rather than getting rid of it.”
Audrey*, 26, a sex worker and member of the Bristol Sex Workers Collective and United Voices of the World, agrees. “In our opinion, closing down the SEVs is in itself an act of increasing violence against women.” Policies that promote women’s safety, she argues, must encompass all women, “and that includes the women who work in the strip club”.
In addition to the safety concerns, it is argued that banning SEVs will force hundreds of workers into financial insecurity. Tallulah says that policies that seek to close strip clubs ignore the livelihoods that depend on them – and that the women who are ostensibly being protected don’t have a wide range of options for alternative employment.
“The material needs of working people shouldn’t be treated as trivial,” she says. “These policies never take into consideration the devastating economic impact they’ll have on women who rely on the income.” Both Audrey and Tallulah argue that it is an act of violence to force workers into poverty and remove the financial security and flexible hours that licensed strip clubs provide. “To say this is about the safety of all women is infuriating,” Audrey says. “The real threat to women’s safety and well-being is poverty.”
The argument that closing strip clubs will help reduce gender-based violence also ignores the ways in which the lives of the women working in them could genuinely be improved. Strip clubs are not utopias of sexual equality: dancers can experience unfair working conditions and exploitation, as the fees they have to pay to the club before a shift can be susceptible to change on busy nights. The venues may help protect them from the male guests, but they also hold a disproportionate amount of power.
Audrey asks, if campaigners for nil-cap policies are truly interested in women’s safety, then, “Why are we not advocating for the rights for workers within those strip clubs to continue to access a safe space, to continue to unionise within those spaces, to continue to advocate for themselves?”
*Names have been changed.
[see also: Reconsidering violence against women]