Around 4:30 pm, Stacey and Sabrina took their seats on two stools set up in The Library Lounge, while the rest of us gathered around.
Stacey begins, “we can't access the support we need if we can't talk about our jobs and if we try and talk about our job we get told we’re glamorising it.” Sabrina agrees, “work is bad sometimes for everyone,” and further posits the question, “So, how can we make it safe?”
When asked by an attendee, "What is the ideal situation then, from a legal standpoint?", Stacey responds:
“The least harmful one is decriminalisation. It’s not to say it’s some kind of silver bullet, exploitation still goes on. In countries where the decriminalisation model has been introduced, like New Zealand, which introduced the policy of full decriminalisation of sex work back in 2004, the only restriction on sex workers is that it’s still illegal to sell unprotected sex. All of the regular laws around sexual assault, trafficking, they all still exist. Decriminalisation opens the door to sex workers to access their labour rights, which is to say that if shit goes down, they can bring action, they can bring claims, they can report crimes without fear of being criminalised themselves.”
Sabrina raises the issue with legalisation, “it makes it all a marketplace…pimps and brothels become legitimate businesses… it makes the businesses the focus, rather than the people.” Stacey furthers the conclusion, “it’s kind of opened up the sex industry to be like the latest market that late capitalism can exploit."
A state with a policy of legalised sex work, sets up a licensing regime, where the state controls who can and who cannot participate. They grant licenses and require registrations. This not only legally ‘outs’ sex workers by giving their identities over to the state, but excludes and endangers those with irregular migrant status.
The wealth of information from Stacey continues to flow as she cites the book Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac. In the chapter Stacey lets us know is titled Borders, the authors explain the relentless ludicrousy of creating hoards and hoards of people who, through no particular choice or fault of their own, have ended up somewhere without the right to work and are thus particularly vulnerable to exploitation. This is an ideological point, that extends far beyond the bounds of sex work, horrific levels of exploitation happen in so many industries; fruit-picking, nail salons, car washing, construction labour, the list goes on, yet you never see campaigns calling to shut down nail salons.
The Nordic model, often touted as the “kinder” model, criminalises the buying of sex rather than the selling of it. While it doesn’t criminalise the worker, Sabrina calls it out as “massively dangerous” because it puts clients in a situation where they are inclined to lie about their details and when sex workers can’t vet their clients by asking for ID, they have to put themselves at much greater risk.
Stacey recounts the central story of I Am Jane Doe, a 2017 documentary by Mary Mazzio, where teenagers were being trafficked on sites like Craigslist and BackPage and when claims were brought by the victims' families, the sites paid them off. Despite the police knowing what was going on they were not prosecuting these perpetrators of sexual violence. In 2018, President Trump signed a bill, FOSTA-SESTA, aimed to stop online sex trafficking by criminalising all online sex work.
Stacey continues, “So of course, we’ve seen a generation of sex workers who were finding ways to create their own safety methodology wiped out. Where do you think they went to work after that? Where do you think they found their work? Street work. Brothel work. Underground.”
It’s worse in some places and for some people. But it's not all bad.
The talk transitions to a more uplifting discussion of sex work.
Sabrina shares a bit of her experience. When she was a teenager, she wasn’t able to keep her jobs at local shops. She didn’t know what was going on, until she was later diagnosed with BPD and ADHD. To her, sex work started as an accessible way to make a livable wage and still make time for herself and her disabilities.
When she arrived at uni, she was broke and didn’t really know anyone so she “strolled into the strip club” and it was there that she discovered her sexuality, learned to dance and get in touch with herself. When she graduated, she realised that the jobs she could get with her degree wouldn’t make her as happy as the one she already had. Sabrina's one of those people who actually loves their job.
She speaks about how the deeper she’s gone into the field, the less heteronormative the experience has become for her. “When I started doing online work, that’s when it all just completely changed. Now I see a whole variety of people. I speak to a lot of men, women and people who have no safe space to explore their gender, they have no safe space to explore their sexuality, so for them, sex work is a safe space.”
Stacey speaks to the other side, the more traditional image of sex work. As a six-foot-tall blonde woman, she has leaned into the heteronormative side of the industry. She has found that the clients that come to someone like her are often victims of trad-masculinity, these kinds of traditional heteronormative values of this is how you’re meant to be, and they arrive with so much baggage.
She says “by no means am I a sympathiser because a lot of them are really rude, they just don’t really respect women, but they also equally don’t really respect men, they don’t really respect themselves.”
Sabrina chimes in, agreeing that the reason a lot of these cis, heterosexual, white men seek out sex workers is because there is no climate for them to talk, “they can’t go up to their group of mates and go ‘oh my god, have you ever thought about being pegged?’”
The perfect ending.
East London Strippers Collective are a collective of strippers who are committed to supporting and promoting self-organisation among strippers, challenging stigma around sex work, standing up to exploitation and fighting for improved safety and harm reduction in the wider sex industry. ELSC are dedicated to building worker-led strategies, creating opportunities and growth for performers outside of the exploitative business model of a regular strip club. Since 2014, ELSC have grown a viable and sustainable business that is run entirely by dancers/ex-dancers themselves. From pop-up strip club parties, to public talks, art exhibitions and life drawing classes, ELSC remain an autonomous organisation in charge of creating their own working conditions and supporting members of their community.
Stacey Clare is a stripper, writer, activist, theatre performer and one of the co-founding members of the ELSC. Stacey has become known as the resident Gobbess of the collective, giving public talks, writing articles and generally shouting from the rooftops about sex workers’ rights. She is the author of the book ‘The Ethical Stripper’ and one-half of the sell-out Edinburgh Fringe show ‘Ask A Stripper’, which she performs with her work-wife and fellow stripper Gypsy Charms. Stacey travels up and down the country campaigning to support strippers and establish employment rights in the sex industry wherever she goes, as well as making several media appearances including Good Morning Britain, and a TedX Talk.