Suddenly, many of our lives consist mostly of unending video calls and being apocalyptically horny in an indefinitely unfulfillable way. Who’d have thought it would come to this? We may as well make the best of it and get creative. To that end, unionised strippers in the UK are hosting a first-of-its-kind virtual strip club on Saturday, April 11th called CYBERTEASE. The event has been organised collectively, as a workers’ co-op, in response to the closure of strip clubs due to Covid-19.
“We’re out of work and most of us face barriers to accessing sufficient state support, so we put our heads together to design our dream strip club – but online,” says Grace, one of the performers. “Without bosses setting the rules, we can create a safer space, wear what we want, do what we want, invite DJs we trust, and share profits fairly.”
Dancers will be performing on Zoom, where the event will be DJed by Queer House Party (a DIY event happening every Friday during lockdown). “There is a historic understanding and solidarity between queers and sex workers as a result of a shared experience of marginalisation,” says Harry, one of Queer House Party's DJs. “Lots of our community are also sex workers and the intersection on being a sex worker and queer is usually a precarious and dangerous one.”
Like many workers, strippers were being forced to go into work before the lockdown even when it was unadvisable. Many strip club bosses wanted to keep earning money from house fees (the money strippers pay to work), even though there were few or no customers, and many workers were finishing shifts having made little or nothing – or even in debt to the club. Some were fined for not coming into work when unwell.
Strip clubs have now been forced to close, but many dancers – working in a stigmatised sector, misclassified as independent contractors, with scarce workers’ rights – have struggled to access government income support.
“I slipped through the cracks for self-employed income support, so there’s nothing for me except Universal Credit, which is a lengthy process, and I need money now,” says Gemma. Like many out-of-work strippers and other sex workers, Gemma has started doing online sex work to make some money. In response to this, some strip clubs have set up accounts on online platforms such as OnlyFans in order to keep making money from strippers’ labour.
Unlike mainstream virtual sex work and club-run accounts, the CYBERTEASE event has been created by and for strippers. “This is so different to a normal club set-up, where management takes a cut of our earnings and charges us to work,” says Gemma. “In our club, we decide what’s best, rather than having management – often men who’ve never worked in clubs other than as bosses – tell us.” Gemma adds that making the virtual club a profit-share co-op is “a symbol of solidarity with each other.”
Organiser Queenie says that where regular strip clubs can be “an individualistic environment”, organising CYBERTEASE has felt like “a supportive environment, because we’re all working towards a common goal”.
She says that planning the event has made her reflect upon the kind of club she’d like to work in. Dancers have come together “with different ideas and experiences, to present the kind of strip club experience we’d like to see.”
“My strip club utopia would be a venue run by strippers and sex workers,” Queenie explains. “There wouldn’t be any policing of body types. It would be diverse and exciting, and it would be safe.” She says the ideal strip club would be “more creative” because it wouldn’t be dictated “to meet one rich man’s narrow idea of what’s sexy”.
However, working online isn’t something all strippers and sex workers are accustomed to, or even have access to. The event’s organisers have been talking a lot about staying safe and maintaining boundaries online, but for workers who do have online sex work as an option – like those participating in CYBERTEASE – it may be new and potentially uneasy territory.
“We’re used to working in-person, where, yes, you show a customer your body, but they can’t ever see that again except in their memory,” organiser Carmen Ali (aka April Fiasco) explains. “There isn’t a record of it.”
Gemma says that in the mainstream online sex work she’s had to transition to, she’s “been forced to do things that I’m personally uncomfortable doing”, and that she’s “very stressed" about the fact that online work can live on the internet forever with less control over who might see it. She feels that organising a collective-run event has felt better than using established sex work platforms, though. "I don’t feel alone in this," she says. "We’re in control and we have safety in numbers, so I feel much more comfortable"
As is always the case with online work, the centre of power lies with the tech giants running the platforms. Zoom has been criticised in recent weeks for being less secure than its founders made out, with no end-to-end encryption and easy-access for trolls.
“It would be amazing to run our own online platform,” says Grace, “so we’d feel safe knowing for sure what happens to our data, and controlling access to our space – but as it is, we don’t feel we have any option but to use Zoom for its functionality.”
Transgender activist, musician and writer Evan Greer says that sex workers online face additional threats because of criminalisation and harassment. Greer is currently running a campaign with Fight for the Future to get Zoom to fix its shortcomings and keep users safe.
“It's much easier for a viewer to record a Zoom video than to have their phone out in a club, and since Zoom calls are not end-to-end encrypted, law enforcement agencies can and will demand access," she says. "It's not okay to just say, 'Zoom isn't secure so if you use it, it's your fault if something happens'. The reality is that enormous numbers of people in all kinds of industries have no choice but to use video conferencing platforms like Zoom in order to continue working and supporting themselves during this crisis.”
“If any image of us gets out, the blame instantly goes to us – like, well what did you expect?" Gemma says, illustrating how rape culture is often replicated in online spaces for sex workers. "That's not how we should be looking at it. We should be looking at the person that breached the other person’s privacy and boundaries, whether that person was violated physically or online.”
The union has been a lifeline for many sex workers at this time of crisis. Branch organiser Louise Wells says that COVID-19 has the potential to “shake up traditional kinds of work and industries”, and that in the strip club industry, “which is pretty antiquated in how it’s run, there’s not been a massive shake-up in a very long time”.
Wells feels that, in running CYBERTEASE, strippers are challenging the status quo by “cutting out the bosses who make money off dancers’ labour,” and “solidifying the kind of comradeship that does already happen between a lot of dancers against the odds.”
“It’s so important to have a group that’s got your back," says Queenie. "Especially at a time like this, as a community that doesn’t have a lot of protection in society in general."
The first CYBERTEASE event will take place on Saturday, April 11th.