On Sunday evening, a funeral procession marched through Shoreditch. Six strippers in a variety of fetishwear and stiletto heels, veiled in black lace, mournfully carried a coffin up the street, followed by a throng of costumed supporters and accompanied by the sound of a sombre drumbeat and a lazy saxophone.
This New Orleans-style 'Jazz Funeral' was part of "RIP Shoreditch", the latest event organised by a group I helped to found, the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC). We're a band of exotic dancers dedicated to challenging the stigma that continually dogs our profession by smashing every stereotype we can find and destroying people's expectations of who and what strippers can be.
We were out on the streets of Shoreditch because a well-loved and long established strip venue, The White Horse, had closed down, the latest victim of relentless gentrification in what was once a thriving area for the sex industry. A family-run business for over 38 years, the owners could no longer afford their soaring rents.
Run by three generations of women from the same family, The White Horse offered some of the best conditions to work in for strippers. I've been a stripper myself for over ten years, and danced at the White Horse between 2010 and 2013. The pub had a good vibe and a strong sense of community. Unlike other SEVs (Sexual Entertainment Venues), where dancers are exposed to increasingly exploitative business practices, inflated house fees (the practice of charging dancers to work), fines, harassment and unfair dismissal, The White Horse managed to give dancers a fair place to work.
Striptease is a strangely regulated industry, with some pretty serious inconsistencies. While there are no legal mechanisms to prevent financial exploitation of dancers, the licensing conditions of SEVs prevent them from advertising or publicising themselves to increase levels of trade. It's hard to compete in an aggressive economic environment when the rules are stacked against you in this way. High levels of competition leads to high levels of stress and earnings are not guaranteed. If dancers don't like that their boss now wants to take 30 percent commission on top of a house fee, tough shit. They are shown the door while someone else will happily step into their teetering high heels. The dancers in the ELSC complain of high levels of instability and financial insecurity for strippers.
The White Horse was one of the few places that resisted the urge to exploit dancers to the extent that other venues now get away with, which is why we believed it was worth making a noise about.
Changes in east London over recent years have seen to it that certain businesses just cannot compete. The economic climate has squeezed out all of the alternative institutions. The queer community has suffered the loss of The Joiners Arms and Chariots sauna. The warehouses have all been demolished. Nightclubs have become expensive and sanitised. Independent businesses and livelihoods become disposable, replaced by chains, burger restaurants, cocktail bars, luxury flats and Prets.
Now a strip club has become the latest bastion to fall. Those not involved in the sex industry might not recognise how somewhere like this can become a centre for community. It was mainly at The White Horse where members of the ELSC got to know each other, and were able to form the bonds of trust and camaraderie needed to build a dedicated movement. It's perhaps not surprising to imagine that a strip club run by women may have felt safer than a male-dominated business.
Judging from the wake following the funeral, the venue clearly meant a lot to many people. The final eulogy, so theatrically delivered by top obscenity lawyer Myles Jackman, began with the words "Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the loss of a fundamental organ of the body: community".
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