Photo by Mina Karenina, Sex Workers Union (SWU)
Strip clubs are legal in the UK, but it’s up to local councils to grant the yearly licenses that allow each specific club to operate. Councils could grant many licenses or – as Edinburgh’s city council did in March 2022 – grant none, effectively banning clubs from their city.
Edinburgh’s “nil-cap policy” would’ve cost the 100+ workers at the city’s existing clubs their jobs, but it was ruled unlawful and overturned after a legal challenge by dancers and club owners. In August 2023, though, the council announced it was launching a new public consultation that might still reduce the number of the city’s sexual entertainment venues, as they’re officially called.
This month, on February 5, the council voted to keep the current cap of three venues: Burke and Hare, Baby Dolls, and the Western Bar. Their study showed that three-quarters of residents supported having no cap at all. No clubs will have to shut down, and dancers will be allowed to open a fourth, co-operative-run venue.
“It feels incredible,” says Laura, a spokesperson for the Sex Workers Union, which led the charge against Edinburgh City Council. “It’s been such a long campaign, and our members have been in constant anxiety, not knowing the future of their livelihoods. To finally have what feels like some positive closure – and a win – is a huge relief.”
“I think we all feel a bit worn out, to be honest,” adds Scottish dancer Gemma (all dancers’ names in this story have been changed to protect her privacy). “I feel incredibly proud of all the work that we’ve put in and how the dancers have come together. Because we didn’t have time for this. I mean, who does have time to fight something like this?”
Edinburgh’s dancers had warned that reducing the number of licensed venues could create a monopoly in the city, pushing them further into the hands of possibly exploitative bosses. Or, worse, a nil-cap policy would’ve effectively criminalised strip clubs, forcing them underground into even more unsafe working conditions.
That’s long been the case for those in the UK who sell sex. Although it’s legal to work as an escort, and it’s legal to sell or buy sex in private or in a brothel, it’s illegal to manage a brothel. Sex workers caught working from the same place are often falsely charged with brothel-keeping, despite being workers not managers.
“I’ve chosen dancing,” says Gemma. “It’s not that I’m not qualified for other work, but the other work doesn’t allow me to pursue my university degree nor be free to take my dad to his appointments when needed. So I’d continue dancing, whether in clubs or not.” Others could be out of work entirely and may even have to leave the city to find a safe place to dance, isolating them from their support network.
“We didn’t have time for this. I mean, who does have time to fight something like this?” –Gemma
Criminalising strip clubs would also remove workers’ ability to collectively organise and fight for their rights (which those who sell sex can’t do). For members of the Sex Workers Union, battling proposed strip club bans across the UK has kind of become a full-time job over the last few years – thankfully, with a lot of success. So far, councillors in Bristol, Glasgow, and, back in 2019, Sheffield have voted to keep clubs open. Meanwhile, Cheltenham has approved plans for a new strip club (though not without controversy).
Oh, and guess which party they’ve been battling in Edinburgh? “Labour councillors – supposedly the party of the worker, right? – still voted for a nil-cap on Monday,” says Laura, with a disbelieving scoff. “The Labour Party has been one of the most vocal in trying to undermine us as a trade union. It feels like there’s a push from the party as a whole to further criminalise sex work, including through support of the Nordic Model (which outlaws buying sex).”
These councillors have made the process for Edinburgh’s dancers as difficult as possible. Laura says the union has had to constantly fight to “even be within 10 feet of the table, let alone have a seat”. When the council released its first public consultation over two years ago, neither the union nor the dancers themselves were consulted. And when the initial ban was facing judicial review in September 2022, the council tried to block sex workers from the hearing by asking to not allow the union to take part. “We’ve had some councillors imply that we’re not even a trade union,” says Laura. “We can’t imagine many other workforces where the chosen representatives of workers would be so isolated from a process and decision that directly impacts the working conditions of those workers.”
There’s more to this than bureaucracy. “It’s all part of the same issue – that we’re becoming increasingly fascist,” says Laura. “There’s a consistent targeting of groups that are considered ‘undesirable’ or groups that are made up of marginalised communities. The rise in nil-cap policies is definitely linked to this, especially when you consider that a lot of people in sex work are trans, migrants, working class mothers who can’t afford child care, or people with disabilities who can’t access the wider job market and need flexibility in their working conditions. We’re all being isolated from the rest of society.”
Ironically, a lot of the arguments against strip clubs – and sex work more broadly – are that this work is inherently violent towards women or that it encourages gendered violence. In fact, Scotland’s Equally Safe policy defines all sex work – prostitution, lap dancing, stripping, and pornography – as violence against women. This definition emboldens outsiders to talk over sex workers, who they view solely as victims of exploitation, ignoring their warnings that it’s the criminalisation of their work that increases violence against women. “Councillors say they’re doing this for the sake of all women, but they’re not,” says Gemma. “They don’t care about the women who are doing the job, nor why we do the job. They’re reinforcing a dismissive attitude to all women because they’re picking and choosing who they’ll listen to based on moral judgements.”
“Sex work can be exploitative, just like all work can be,” adds Audrey, a spokesperson for sex worker rights organisation Decrim Now, “which is why it’s so important that we have full decriminalisation, so we’re able to access the same rights as all other workers so that we can organise against exploitative practices.”
More irony: there isn’t even a public mandate to close Edinburgh’s strip clubs, making the £200k the council spent on the process – during a cost of living crisis and when waste workers were striking over a pay dispute – even more shameful. “A lot of the responses to the public consultation recognise that sex workers are workers and deserve a safe workplace to work from, which was amazing,” says Laura. “It’s a testament to the campaign that the union and the workers in Edinburgh ran that we were able to garner such a large public response.”
“It’s great to see that most people support our right to earn a living,” says Teagan, a dancer at Baby Dolls. “The past two years have been incredibly stressful. The possibility of no longer having a job has stopped us from making any decisions, especially financial ones. Even customers at the clubs have been confused about whether we’re able to open. It’s caused a lot of anxiety and has hugely impacted dancers’ mental health.” Like Gemma, Teagan is also at university. She said she likes dancing because it gives her flexibility around her studies and childcare commitments.
The council’s latest decision mostly preserves the status quo – but one part could actually improve things in the future: the opportunity for workers to open their own cooperatively run strip club, which could make working conditions better than they are now. As Laura explains, some owners misclassify dancers as self-employed contractors rather than workers, so they don’t have to offer sick pay or give them protection from discrimination. There’s also an exploitative system whereby dancers often have to pay extortionate fees upfront in order to be able to work and then pay a commission on whatever they make.
“When we envision a cooperative strip club, we’re envisioning a place where workers are justified as workers, free to unionise, and can collectively pool their money to pay sick pay, holiday pay, and maybe grant a minimum wage if a dancer hasn’t made enough money that night,” explains Laura. “They can run the club in a way that’s more beneficial to dancers than management.”
“The success of this worker-led campaign proves that policymakers should start listening to us.” –Audrey
For now, with the venues’ licences still up for yearly renewal, dancers in Edinburgh and beyond may never fully feel secure in their jobs. But councils can rest assured that sex workers will continue to organise to block their bans – and they’ll continue to win. “The success of this worker-led campaign proves that policymakers should start listening to us,” says Audrey. “This campaign has highlighted that the primary driver of people entering and staying in sex work is poverty, unaffordable childcare, benefits that are unfit to live on, and the inaccessibility of ‘traditional’ work. Local authorities and the government should prioritise keeping sex workers safe instead of punishing sex workers for doing what we must to survive.”
“It can feel relentless,” concludes Gemma. “Being a stripper is a very physically, mentally, and emotionally draining job, and this uncertainty only makes it more exhausting. We just want more say over our working conditions. That would be the dream, honestly.”