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The sex work lobby exploits strippers Activists steal women's stories and threaten their reputations

Bex seems like a woman who never feels naked, even when she's nude. Credit: Julio Pardo

Bex seems like a woman who never feels naked, even when she's nude. Credit: Julio Pardo


July 8, 2022   7 mins

Exploitation, in the debate about strip clubs, is treated as a given and an open question simultaneously. Someone is being used, and someone else is doing the using: we’re certain of this, even if we haven’t yet figured out the precise shape of the power dynamics. Is the dancer who simulates sexual intimacy in exchange for cash a seductive girlboss, taking advantage of men’s weakness, or is she a supplicant victim? If the latter, is she more misused by the men who pay for her services, or the club owner who takes a cut? Is the stripper depleted in body? In soul? In earning potential?

And what are we to make of the fact that “exploitation” can mean many things at once? If stripper and customer exist in symbiosis, both taking advantage and being taken advantage of all at once, what then? Exploitation can be a means of self-advancement. It can be morally neutral. It can be mutual. It might, in fact, be none of our business.

A recent book, Wanting You to Want Me, examines these questions (among others) through the eyes of the strippers themselves, with photos and first-hand narratives from more than a dozen women who have been — and in some cases, remain — employed in the industry. When I wrote last month about the current glut of stripper-themed literature, which uses the profession as a platform for everything from activist organising to business strategy, I singled out Wanting You To Want Me as compelling, unvarnished, and unique in its willingness to dwell in the self-contradictory nuances of these women’s lives:

“There are no easy answers here, no unified narrative. But there is honesty: about how stripping can be a source of both shame and freedom at the same time, about the diversity of relationships that incubate within the confines of a strip club, about wanting to stop but also not wanting to, about the rapid-onset despair that comes when the fantasy can no longer sustain itself.”

I praised Wanting You to Want Me as a book that doesn’t try to sell anything. It didn’t occur to me, until I heard from one of the women featured in its pages, that it might be exploitive in an entirely different way — not because it was selling something, but because it had stolen something.

Bex is one of more than a dozen women whose image and words were used in Wanting You to Want Me, but even within the pages of the book, she stands out: ballerina thin, with razor-sharp cheekbones and a wild cascade of loose, brown curls. She has an angular, elegant look that runs counter to the stereotypical image of someone in her industry, and which made her something of a star in high-class Parisian clubs when she first began stripping at the age of 20. In the book, she’s photographed wearing black, lacy lingerie and a pair of black, thigh-high stockings — or, in one case, just the stockings — and a confident, slightly aloof expression on her face. One gets the sense that this is a woman who never feels naked, even when she’s nude.

And yet, she tells me, this book rattled her. It was a level of exposure she wasn’t prepared for, and didn’t agree to.

Bex’s path through the world of stripping is a blast to read about. In Paris she partied with famous footballers; in London, she was based in a slightly dilapidated club, where the changing room doubles as a repository for dysfunctional kitchen appliances. But what matters is that she’s a career stripper, and unlikely to ever do anything else. Partly, it’s that she’s unsuited to office life; partly, it’s that she just likes stripping. “It’s a job you’ll only do well at if you enjoy it on some level,” she says, and Bex has definitely done well.

Bex doesn’t like the term “sex work”, not least because strippers by definition don’t have sex with their clients. The men who frequent strip clubs are paying not for physical intimacy but the fantasy thereof, the thrill of that sexually-charged moment in which something could happen (but never does). “I usually call myself a performer,” she says, and part of that performance is the creation of boundaries. Not just no touching (that cardinal strip club rule), but no sharing, no intimacy, no letting her clients pay their way into her personal life.

“When people have information on you, you’re giving them power,” she explains. “I’m always thinking about doing my job. The minute you start to think that you’re just a friend, you’re having a chat — you’re not. You’re acting.”

Bex has diligently maintained a separation between the person she is onstage or in a private dance room — who she describes as bossy and dominant — and her whole, vulnerable, slightly eccentric self. But it was the latter person whose words have been reproduced in Wanting You to Want Me, and her willingness to let her guard down stemmed from a sense that the project was informal and extracurricular: the author was someone she knew, a fellow member of London’s relatively small community of strippers, and the interview from which her portions of the book were derived was presented to her as “a casual thing between friends”.

“This sounds really naive now, and it probably was — but I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal,” she says.

Bex’s conviction that she was contributing to something small and frivolous — more like a pamphlet than a hardcover book from a big-name publisher — might have been misplaced, but it was also understandable. She’d done media before, including a radio interview with the BBC, and had a working knowledge of its professional norms: “They just use a couple paragraphs, and you don’t hear much more about it.” Also, perhaps most importantly, these projects typically paid her for her time.

The authors of Wanting You to Want Me did not. Bex’s interview took place at her own home, without remuneration, and caught her at a bad time: it was early 2020, London was going into lockdown, and the sudden loss of income had thrown her into a state of panic. She did the interview, then forgot about it — until two years later, when the book landed on her doorstep.

To write nonfiction is to tell other people’s stories. There’s no getting around this, and it can be fraught, especially when we take it upon ourselves to capture a story that is fascinating and true but not necessarily flattering to the person at its centre. But Wanting You to Want Me arguably goes a step beyond this: when Bex opened the book, she found her interview reproduced more or less verbatim, including some comments she desperately wished she’d had the opportunity to edit.

“I wouldn’t have gone in and nitpicked and changed all of my story,” she says. “I stand by the things that I say. Some of the things I’ve said are outrageous, and that’s fine.”

What she would have changed were one or two sentences that had the potential to damage her professionally, or to affect her relationship with her colleagues in the club — and she was shocked that the authors hadn’t given her the chance to review her comments before sending them to print. “We all say stupid things, and you don’t expect them to be made permanent. I don’t want anyone to be hurt by something I said that might potentially be on the shelves at Waterstones for years to come.”

That neither authors nor publisher considered giving the women whose stories formed the heart of Wanting You to Want Me a chance to review their comments is perhaps a hazard of the current culture, in which stripping can now serve as a launchpad to greater things: activism, business, journalism, writing. In the book’s introduction, the authors position the project as something at once unprecedented and noble: giving voice to the voiceless, telling the untold, opening the door to a secret, seedy, and oftentimes sad little world of invisible women.

The more stripping comes to seem like a cool accessory — something with which to burnish your resume and make yourself look more interesting than the average MBA-seeker — the easier it is to forget that for women like Bex, stripping is their job. One that requires, among other things, an absolutely iron grip on what you allow other people to see. Without the ability to control what she puts out there, Bex can’t make a living; her depiction in Wanting You to Want Me wrested away that control in a way that threatened to undermine her professionally, that blurred the carefully-crafted boundaries she’d put up between her real life and her life on stage.

That the women they interview needed to return to work after sharing their stories — and that a stripper might have a professional reputation which she needs to preserve in order to stay employed — seems not to have occurred to the authors of book.

“I felt weirdly reduced,” Bex says. “It’s like, here’s a book about strippers. They put a label on it, and it felt so final, this narrow identity. It’s a performance, and it’s a part of my life, but this made it seem like it defined my life.”

It was also, arguably, something akin to robbery. Having pivoted to online camming during the pandemic, Bex has come to understand that her time, and her stories, can be even more valuable than her body when it comes to earning a living. “Those are the kind of things that people ask me all day long on webcam, and they pay me a lot of money to hear those stories.”

The fact that the authors and publisher of Wanting You To Want Me packaged those same stories into a book without paying the women who shared them — and that the book itself was marketed as some sort of noble, photojournalistic art project to which they should have felt honoured to contribute — felt both deeply exploitive and uniquely demoralising. “This was the first time I got scammed,” she says, “and it was by someone I considered a friend.”

Even more than the book itself, the story of how it came to be highlights the tension inherent to working as a stripper, the precarious balancing act it requires, and the hypocrisy of avowedly pro-sex-work people who manage to dismiss and devalue that work even as they profit from it. A book like Wanting You to Want Me requires hours and hours of interviews — which is to say, hours and hours of time that the women in its pages spent talking about their work for free, when they might have been working. The activists, artists, and media figures who use strippers or sex workers to advance a narrative — and with that narrative, their own interests — may not be engaged in the same type of advantage-taking as the men who pay for their services, but it’s exploitation all the same.

And as for Bex, one gets the sense that this will be the first and last time she allows someone else to leverage her stories for their own self-advancement. The people she’s friends with now, she says, “don’t have an agenda. they’re not trying to write a book about me. They don’t need me for photo shoots. They don’t want me to come along on a political march. They don’t need me to sign a petition.”

And while this experience hasn’t turned her off from stripping, it has led her to guard that part of her life more carefully — not because she’s ashamed of it, but because it belongs to her and nobody else.


Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.

katrosenfield

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Marshall Ballantine-Jones
Marshall Ballantine-Jones
2 years ago

This article seems to be nothing more than “the publisher of this singluar project failed to seek final approval from one of the subjects it features”. Is this really a case for a woeful, industry-wide conspiracy about exploitation of strippers, or just incompetence from the publisher? 1000s of biographies get produced where key, consuenting, subjects are not paid. How is this even shocking? And why are there no quotes from the aforementioned publisher to provide some balance? One feels this is just a writer with an axe to grind…

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

In fairness, Kat included quotes from WYtWM in last months article which she linked to above. I read this not as axe grinding, just her being made aware of an important perspective she’d missed when writing her earlier article concerning WYtWM, which was quite positive, and wanting to correct that.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

Or maybe, a stripper who’s seen her Onlyfans income soar after book exposure, spins a new angle to exploit a journalist with a following, as part of her ongoing profile build?

Of course, said journalist also enhances her profile as a non sex positive feminist, by exploiting a new angle on a stripper story.

Really who knows? Both professions (opinion piece journalism and stripping) seem to come from the same moral strata.

Last edited 2 years ago by Martin Bollis
Alan B
Alan B
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

To what moral stratum does the commenter belong? (Asking for a friend.)

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Alan B

It’s a good point. My experience is that looking up at a stripper is the most fun. Obviously, one can only look down at a journalist.

It seems I’m in a jam 
 stratum.

bex x
bex x
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

I don’t use onlyfans or have a profile. Happy to fade back into obscurity. Interesting theory though .

Last edited 2 years ago by bex x
Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  bex x

A reminder that these articles are about real people.

My apologies. I wish you well.

Bex J
Bex J
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Thank you Martin. All the best

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
2 years ago
Reply to  bex x

See my general comments.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Thanks for a stimulating read. Rather bizarre for a pair of former strippers who benefited from an education in the arts to lack the insight to know a woman values her mystery in that line of work, and hence ensure they anonymise those still active. It was quite reasonable of Bex to assume the book would be more of a pamphlet type thing. Back in Feb good Julie Bindel wrote an article here about the Decriminalized Futures event. I was invited to the review night for that by SWARM, as I’d donated quite a bit back in the early days of the pandemic to fund their work helping those who has suddenly lost their livelihood. Anyway, DF was mainly a collection of minor art works, but there was literally about 100 different pamphlets on offer, which like WYtWM concerned sex workers telling their stories in their own words. Most of them probably only get read by a few hundred folk at most – Bex was quite unlucky to feature in one of the few books to hit the big time.

I think you get the same thing during other historical ‘gluts’ in works focussed on sex work. E.g a while back I was reading ‘Figures of Ill Repute: Representing Prostitution in Nineteenth-Century France’ where it talks about a surge of famous works from the likes of Victor Hugo, EugĂšne Sue , Dumas, Balzac & Zola – but these were vastly outnumbered by minor works featuring prostitutes that are now totally forgotten. I understand the same thing happened even back in ancient Greece. Though the big difference back then is that there was no general presumption that sex workers were likely to be morally questionable. Hetarai like Aspasia, Thargelia , Archeanassa and many others often married or entered LTRs elite men, and this was described as a good thing by philosophers like Plutarch. The shift to sex workers being seen in a mostly negative light happened in ancient Rome, and seems to have persisted to this day, with this article hinting at reasons why the recent pro sex work tendency hasn’t yet been as successful at dispelling that as one might have thought. Anyway, nice to have something diverting to read after all the nonsense about Boris. I mean, I understand why many Tories don’t like him, but its annoying he’s getting near universal one sided attacks from the Left. Strong on climate, balanced on Covid, good on Ukraine, and outdoing Labours plans with elements of his tax & spend. But the Left acting like he’s the devil incarnate.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

A stimulating read? Interesting choice of words. What would Freud have said?

Mikis Hasson
Mikis Hasson
2 years ago

This article is another woke belief in the idolization of victimhood. She was an adult, she gave the interviews voluntarily like everybody else and she should have made sure or put terms on the agreement rather than “assuming”. She is no victim, just another person not taking responsibility for her choices and actions and looking for someone to blame. The writer just glorifies and tries to cause sympathy for her chosen “victim”. And then she will look for another”victim” to champion. Boring!

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
2 years ago

Stripping belongs to her and nobody else? Well sure, if she did it at home in front of a mirror. On stage in front of a paying audience she belongs to the punters, elegant cheekbones and all.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago

Is this article exploitation of the stripper? The author earned money from the article. Her tone of moral superiority is irritating. Writers/ journalists steal ideas all the time. Does the author have any genuine compassion for the stripper? The stripper’s objection seems to be she has accidentally given away something she could have sold. She sells the illusion of physical intimacy and objects to her words, which she considers to be genuine intimacy, having been used without receiving a cut. There is something deeply, deeply wrong here and at the moment, I don’t understand what, but it is a case of both women getting their moral knickers, if they are wearing any, in a twist.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
2 years ago

I think we can safely assume Kat paid the stripper for her interview unlike the author of the book. I can’t see the stripper being bitten twice for her naivety.
I think the point of the article is the irony that the only person the stripper feels has exploited her is the author of the book which was supposed to highlight strippers being exploited by the sex trade, which again is also something she doesn’t believe herself working in.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Not a moral issue then. It is all about the money. The author is effectively collaborating with the stripper to make money out of her resentment. Though, no doubt, the author receives the larger cut. The fact she is a stripper makes the article salacious and more marketable. Hence the photo.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

Essentially, both the article and stripping make money out of sex.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

I also found your reply quite stimulating 🙂 . Just as scepticism & irritation re the moral overtones are such a dominant part of contemporary mainstream culture. I’d say for sure Kat has genuine compassion for the stripper. She’ll also be thinking of number 1 too. Even the best of us are like this. It’s the old “Double thoughts” thing that Dostoevsky treats so well. He even has his Christ like Prince Myskin admit that every time he contemplates actions motivated by compassion for others, he also thinks about how said actions will effect his own interests.
 
This brings me back to Boris. Everyone making such a big deal about how he’s not a paragon of virtue, and that this means he’s always been unfit for office. As if it’s possible these days to make it past councillor level while playing everything with a straight bat. It’s not, and partly as an exceptionally ethical and high integrity person always provokes the same sort of scepticism & irritation at their supposed moral posturing examplified by your post.

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Personally, I have far more compassion for workers on minimum wage than successful strippers with accentuated cheekbones, but there is not much eroticism in shelf stacking, very little moral posturing available and it’s hard to create a titillating photo.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
2 years ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

As to Boris, I would prefer an effective, efficient leader with some moral failings (within reason) as opposed to the preachy, woke, desperate to let everyone know they occupy the moral high ground, politician or politically hopeful. I think most people are like that. They care about inflation and the standard of living, being able to support themselves and their families.
I think there are very interesting discussions to be had on the concept of privacy and the sex trade.
Other people choosing prostitution or stripping as a form of employment doesn’t bother me at all but I would never call for its destigmatisation because I would never encourage those dear to me to become sex workers and my attitude towards sex work is clearly stigmatising.

Last edited 2 years ago by Aphrodite Rises
Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
2 years ago

Fair play. Im sure most are like that too, based on many thousands of doors Ive knocked on in my more active political days. Hence saying your response reflects the prevailing mainstream. And yeah, I  guess it could be unbearable to think too long about how tough it is right now to be on min wage with 10% inflation. (Though for age 23+ min wage went up by a record amount in April, which was expected to be inflation busting back when Boris helped get the rise in the queue last year.) Good thing about unherd is a greater than normal share both below & above the line seem to care about that sort of thing. E.g. writer Mathew Crawthord is great on how low pay / manual work can still be dignified  & rewarding in his Shop craft as soul craft. Best writer on this was probably my mistress Simone Weil, in her ‘The Need for roots’, where she talks about how with the right outlook (& often support from the boss class) both Factory & Farm workers can have their working lives lit up by poety. And permeated by that one love even greater than eros, the love of God. Though there can be eroticism in several minimum wage jobs. To give a non obvious example, said farm workers could see the wind blowing across the fields as caresses for a lover. And even tiltiliating when it seems like the wheat is being dragged by her golden hair into the dark wood beyond. Though as you say hard to capture that in a pic.

jane baker
jane baker
2 years ago

This working woman has got her name out there so maybe good for bookings. Hot from Paris eh! Ooh la la. Are these ladies really “in control” with the dafty men at their mercy. Only they are the ones.cavorting about while the stupid men have got the money,the cash or whatever,about them,in their pockets,in their wallets,under their control. I don’t call that being powerful.

Ray Ward
Ray Ward
2 years ago

I have the book Wanting You to Want Me, and have just reread Bex’s two contributions. The authors and publishers should, perhaps, have given the contributors the chance to see their interviews, but they must have been perfectly well aware that anything they said might be published, and Bex’s apparent belief that she expected any resulting publication to be no more than a pamphlet seems decidedly odd. Anyone with any experience of the media (and she appears to have some) will be well aware they publish or broadcast anything and everything they like, and be careful about saying anything they’d rather not be seen or heard by others. (The publishers do black out club names, including the one in Soho where Bex worked, but utterly pointlessly, since its name is visible in photos, and even if it weren’t, no-one who knows it would have any difficulty in identifying it from the photos and description as the oldest and best-known such place there.)
Bex is obviously intelligent (she got a law degree, she tells us), but her interviews come across as sadly crude, with irritating frequent repetition of a word I won’t quote, since maybe Unherd bans it – three times in one paragraph, including twice in two lines. She says at the end of her second interview: “All I want to do is get my tits out and make money”, and that is not something I would consider in any way reprehensible; on the contrary, I would strongly defend her or any woman’s right to do so, with, of course, her full, free, voluntary consent. But don’t complain when things you obviously knew would be made public appear in public. I entirely agree with Mikis Hasson: “She was an adult, she gave the interviews voluntarily like everybody else and she should have made sure or put terms on the agreement rather than ‘assuming’. She is no victim, just another person not taking responsibility for her choices and actions and looking for someone to blame”, and his words could apply to many other women who make money from sex and then moan about how much they regret doing it.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ray Ward
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago

would any person in possession of his faculties, pay to watch others eat a gourmet lunch or dinner? … no… ditto strippers..

unremarkable human
unremarkable human
2 months ago

Not paying sources is a norm among American journalists and I think it’s a good one
If you pay people
They tell you what they need to in order to keep the money flowing

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Woman gives interview she regrets, not least because she wasn’t paid for it. I have to fight back the tears.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

So stripping can now ‘serve as a launchpad to greater things‘ such as activism. There’s an interesting thought. Activism as a self-publicising career move. Who knew?

Last edited 2 years ago by Malcolm Knott