The lost freedom of East London’s strip pubs

The lost freedom of East London’s strip pubs

The disappearing city — Strip pubs are an integral part of East London’s past – but shifting attitudes and rising rents are eating away at their freedoms, and casting doubt over their future.

“Have you been here before?” says the bouncer guarding the door at Browns. I shake my head, a little nervous. “Striptease bar, yeah? Pound in the glass, no touching.” 

Stepping inside feels a bit like peeling back a layer of the city: Browns is located right on the main junction in Shoreditch, and I’ve probably walked past a thousand times without much thought as to what’s behind the blacked-out windows. It is one of the city’s few remaining strip pubs: an East London phenomenon that’s quickly disappearing from the cityscape.

I’ve brought along my partner Luke (“sure, I’ll go see some tits with you”) and as we order drinks at the bar I take a look around: there are sports on TV like in any pub, but there’s also a lot of neon lighting, and everything is centred on the stage. There’s an unusual mix of people: except for me, the guests are all men, surrounded by women wearing lingerie and transparent, towering heels.

I ask the barmaid to break a tenner, like my friend Ed* told me to do, and a woman with a long brown ponytail and blue lace underwear comes up to me: “Now that you have your coins, can I get a pound for each of you?” I drop it into her dimpled pint jug and she heads for the stage where she starts to slowly dance, slinking out of her bra, and then her pants too. At first I’m watching the performance, but soon I’m just looking at her face: she’s smiling, and then she’s laughing – that look, it’s like she’s blissed out.

Because the thing I quickly discover as I start talking to dancers, is that most strippers really enjoy performing. They all use the same word: freedom. A 2012 study confirms this: 81 per cent of strippers felt happy with their work. “For me, being on stage was my time to do what I wanted,” says Kitty Velour, a former stripper. “I felt like I was queen of the world in that moment. I’d volunteer and do lots of sets. It was just having fun as a woman and enjoying that part of myself.”  

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Strip pubs are an East London institution. The pound in the jug, collected by each dancer before her show, is a visual clue that you’re in a strip pub and not a club. But traditionally, strip pubs have also been a better work environment for dancers. Details will vary, but strip pubs tended to have fewer constricting rules, allowed dancers to express themselves more on stage, and let them keep more of their earnings.

This flexibility has always been a big draw for dancers: “I have other jobs too, so I need something that fits around my schedule,” says Scarlett*, who’s been dancing at Ye Olde Axe on Hackney Road for four years. She says the “house fee” that dancers have to pay to work a shift there is reasonable, and she keeps what she earns without the house taking a cut. “Unlike the more upscale clubs, there’s no dress code here. You can pick your song to dance to, which not many places let you do.” 

Scarlett likes how Ye Olde Axe isn’t what she calls a “skinny club” – she’s been rejected from other strip venues for being too curvy: “The Axe is very diverse. There’s a good range of body types, hair colour, skin colour, fake boobs, natural boobs – they don’t seem to have a preconceived notion of what a stripper should look like.” 

Ye Olde Axe

The ‘Perv’ Seat at Ye Olde Axe

Strippers have always been a source of fascination. Admired and feared, erotic dancers are seen as morally dubious or impossibly romantic – often at the same time. “The striptease industry has always attracted strong women,” Ana Lopez, founder of the International Union of Sex Workers, wrote in the book Baby Oil and Ice. “Vocal strippers are not a rarity but are in fact the norm.”

Stripping also comes with a unique set of work challenges: it’s physically demanding (some stage shows border on aerial acrobatics), and requires intense emotional labour:

“The eye contact with the customers makes you co-conspirators,” a dancer called Louise wrote in Baby Oil and Ice. “I’ve had to learn how to engage this unspoken rapport in more subtle ways – the stages that have gradually become the norm provide a distance from the clients, which has to be breached psychologically. The seduction, the tease, is in the implied relationship, not in the nudity.”

Baby Oil and Ice was edited by Lara Clifton and features pictures by Julie Cook and Sarah Ainslie, who spent over a year photographing women at work in East London strip pubs. The book, published in 2002, is a snapshot of the strip pub heyday: “The premise was that the pubs were closing down, and Lara wanted to put something together so there’d be something left, [told] from the women’s point of view,” says Ainslie. 

The book describes a bygone era of unique stripping routines, such as a dancer who’d “shoot ping pong balls from between her legs into your pint glass”, and one infamous trick with a tie (or was it a stocking?) which was “eaten” and then pulled out from someplace else. It also contains unforgettable advice for what to do if you get a bikini wax rash: “Bend over in their faces [and] they’ll think it’s some kind of special pervy show!” 

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The day the strip pub glory days ended can be pinpointed to July 30th, 2016 – the last day of the White Horse. This strip pub had been running on Shoreditch High Street for 38 years, managed by three generations of landladies who lived upstairs. The White Horse was known for being a good place to work, as strippers (after a reasonable house fee) could keep what they earned during the evening, and there would be a limited number of dancers working so the atmosphere would be more collegial than competitive. This inspired good stage shows: “We have a lot coming in to audition, but I only need the best of performers,” landlady Sue Bristow said to Spitalfields Life. “I’ve been watching the dancers since I was 14, so I know who’s a good dancer.”

But Shoreditch gentrification finally caught up with the White Horse, and when the rent skyrocketed overnight Bristow saw no option other than to sell. “We’re all devastated – this is the best place to work in London,” White Horse dancer and activist Edie Lamort told The Guardian at the time. “There’s a camaraderie here that I haven’t experienced in any other job. Everyone’s well looked after, and there’s a family atmosphere. The rest of the places are cut-throat.” Soon after, strippers held a New Orleans-style “RIP Shoreditch” funeral procession, carrying a coffin and dancing pole through the streets. 

The White Horse was the founding place for the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC), as Stacey Clare saw how her fellow strippers had to endure deteriorating working conditions across the industry. While technically self-employed, dancers have to adhere to a whole host of rules, to the point that they arguably should be classified as employees. Certain strip clubs and pubs will require dancers to work a set number of shifts per week, and dancers can get fined, or even fired, for a whole host of spurious infractions such as wearing the wrong outfit, getting the wrong haircut, not having the right diamanté jewellery, eating hot food backstage, being late, leaving early (even if the place was empty), missing a shift, not picking up their phone, chewing gum, or just having gum in their bag.  

The Bar at The White Horse

The White Horse

While the White Horse was known for being one of the best places to work, dancers could still get fired. Kitty Velour, who started stripping in 2014, got sacked from the pub after the management told her they didn’t like her dancing: “It was really horrible because it was my favourite place I’ve ever worked. There was a sense of community there,” she says. “Since the White Horse closed we like to romanticise it, but it wasn’t a perfect utopia.” 

The same holds true for stripping in general. While the strippers I spoke to said that most patrons are polite, most had had negative experiences – it could be “intense” at times. While Scarlett enjoys the casual nature of working at Ye Olde Axe, the lack of rules also has its drawbacks: “I was turned away at the door one night because some girls claimed I’d been having sex upstairs. This wasn’t true, but there was nothing I could do about it as I don’t have a contract.” It took Scarlett several weeks to be able to get back to work: “That incident made me feel a lot more anxious.”

Kitty Velour quit stripping three years ago (she’s now a pole dance artist and teacher), as the industry’s been getting increasingly tougher. “I just like dancing on stage, and that’s what I do now,” she says. “That was the part of [stripping] that I enjoyed – I didn’t like the sales part as much. It’s harder to make money in clubs now, so it pushes the boundaries of everyone involved – to make money they have to do more.”

Sometimes, this can mean offering “extras”. While you should never ever assume, some strippers will allow customers to touch them. While clubs and pubs will have set price lists (a nude lap dance is usually £20), Anna*, a dancer who asked for her place of employment to be withheld in case of retribution, said that in “naughty” places you can make more money: “You can basically charge what you want and set your own limits. I have very strict boundaries to what I will and won’t let people do.”

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A key reason for why conditions for strippers have deteriorated was the introduction of the 2009 Policing and Crime Act, which reclassified strip pubs and clubs as sexual entertainment venues. Despite 67 per cent of locals voting against it, Hackney Council took the opportunity to introduce a “nil policy”, meaning no further sexual entertainment venue licences will be issued. Consequently, there are now fewer places for dancers to work, and as it’s no longer a free market, venues can take a larger portion of dancers’ earnings. 

The post-2008 recession climate has also hit the industry. “The financial boom of the 1990s and 2000s, and then the crash after 2008, maps an economic trajectory,” says Kate Hardy, Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, who has done extensive research into the sex industry, work, and gender. “There’s also the changing patterns of urban land use, or gentrification – you can actually use the expansion and decline of strip pubs to map those two processes that have gone on in the last 20 years.” 

Hardy’s 2012 study, conducted with Teela Sanders, made headlines for breaking with every stripper stereotype (that they’re coerced, on drugs, single mothers, in need of rescue) by finding that 23 per cent had a university degree. It also found that 60 per cent of strippers had other jobs or were in school, and could gather no evidence that strippers were unhappy doing their work: “In strip pubs, we found a lot more commitment to performance, and enjoyment of [dancing].” 

Hardy has never seen any evidence that strippers are coerced in any way: “There’s no possibility that people could be forced into stripping work in the UK. It’s too visible as it’s right on the High Street. If you look at the labour, it’s lots of engagement and enthusiasm… that’s why it’s so dangerous to start shutting clubs down.” 

“When people say it’s in the interest of women, it’s absolutely the opposite. As long as we can see where [dancers] are and talk to them, they are safe. Shutting down venues strips women of power.”

Stripping used to be lucrative – some of the women who danced during the industry’s heyday made good money, having funded their education or bought London property. But the changing working conditions mean strippers make less money than they used to. 


The Private Dance Area at Browns

“Clubs have shifted their business models from making money off customers to making money off the dancers,” says Shiri Shalmy, an organiser with United Voices of the World (UVW), a registered trade union low-waged migrant workers, as well as sex workers and strippers. House fees can be up to £150 on a busy night (and strip clubs usually take a percentage of earnings too), but there’s no guarantee the stripper will make that money back. “Strippers can sometimes go home with less money than they had at the beginning of their shift,” says Shalmy.    

A key goal for UVW is for sex work and stripping to be recognised as work: “As workers, they’d have a guaranteed minimum [salary], and they wouldn’t be able to lose money at work,” says Shalmy. By being given “worker” status, strippers would enjoy specific protections under employment law: “They have a commitment to a workplace. Because of the nature of that relationship they should be entitled to rights such as holiday pay and sick pay, as well as the right to organise through a trade union.”

But right now, strippers are facing a new challenge: radical feminists. Shalmy brings up the anti-strip club pressure group ‘Not Buying It’, supported by the Women’s Equality Party, which has been filming inside strip venues. This has left strippers feeling “angry and terrified”, comparing the filming to revenge porn. “[The protesters] have been heckling people outside clubs, doing all sorts of things that they think will somehow abolish the sex industry, but in reality they’re throwing women into poverty,” says Shalmy. 

Sassy Penny, an ELSC member who works at West End strip club Platinum Lace, thinks the claims that strip clubs and pubs incite aggressive behaviour is unfair: “As somebody who regularly talks to 10 to 100 guys in one evening, all I do is spread happiness. I make everybody feel good about themselves.” 

Stripping is about creating a connection, says Sassy Penny, who’s annoyed by the argument that stripping is objectifying women. Strip clubs actually flip the usual dynamic on its head: “We’re coming up to all the customers. We’re encouraging the interactions.” 

Sassy Penny prefers “big plush clubs” where she competes with dozens of women: “That way I can get bigger money. A lot of people find [selling] stressful, but I like how I can go into work knackered, and eight times out of 10 I’ll feel great in a couple of hours. It’s an invigorating place.”

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When I walked into Browns in Shoreditch, I didn’t yet know about the power shift in the stripping industry over the past 10 years. That day I just felt like a visitor trying to work out the code of conduct in this unfamiliar world – I knew that if I didn’t put a pound in the jug, or make anyone uncomfortable, I’d be kicked out. In a world where almost all women have experienced street harassment, strip venues present a fascinating dynamic: women can literally crawl naked on their hands and knees, and yet no one can touch them. “Stripping was a really positive outlet for that kind of [young] sexual energy because I could flirt, but safely,” says Samantha Sun, a former stripper. She didn’t have to talk to people she didn’t like, and if she felt uncomfortable she could tell the bouncer. “They were completely at my mercy,” she laughs.

The Private Dance Area at The Spread Eagle

The Spread Eagle

Whatever your feelings are about strip venues, they do fulfil a societal function. People (mostly men) go there because they’re lonely, bored, desire intimacy, want to talk to women without risk of rejection, or just because it’s a “licence to leer”, as Luke put it. When the Flying Scotsman was refurbished in 2017, the press described the former strip pub as “unloved”. But when I met Albert Beale, trustee of radical booksellers Housmans across the street in King’s Cross, he told me the place was always packed: “You couldn’t get in the doors!” Sure, it was on the rough end of the spectrum, “but it was bursting at the seams. Whatever else it was, it was a loved pub.” 

The Flying Scotsman was popular with football fans too, as going to strip pubs isn’t just about the live entertainment. My friend Ed*, who used to go to Shoreditch strip pubs in the early 2000s, tells me he would “end up there” on nights out with coworkers: “It was a lad’s thing, something naughty. It was more of a collective experience than personal enjoyment. You go along with it and it’s like, ‘Oooh tits, dancing. I’ll have another beer.’” 

He says some of his friends thought they were calling the shots by throwing money around in strip pubs: “But the dancers are the ones getting the money. I guess ultimately, everyone comes out a winner.” 

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These days, if you want to see a good stage show you may be better off going to a burlesque venue – strip clubs, and the remaining pubs, are more about private dances now. “Dancing just isn’t so important anymore,” says Kitty Velour. “Many clubs are getting rid of their stages, and girls don’t want to perform because they think it’s a waste of time as they’re not getting any money for it.” 

Stripping may be something many women do for just a little while in order to fund their next chapter, but everyone I spoke to described it as a positive experience: they’d loved the freedom of dancing on stage. Samantha Sun, a former stripper who’s now a performer and host of the ELSC’s monthly life drawing classes, wishes that sex workers and strippers could enjoy the kind of occupational mobility that people have in other professions. Samantha Sun credits much of her success as a performer to what she learned working in strip pubs: “I know how to move, and I know what I look like to other people because I spent those years molding a version of myself that is marketable,” she says. “The foundation of everything I do come from working in pubs, eight hours shifts, five days a week.”

The dilemma is that working to break down the barrier that many former dancers face when they try to move on makes individual strippers more visible, and thereby vulnerable to the stigma which still very much exists. 

“Some girls do art and activism around stripping – they create jobs for themselves and they’re happy to be associated with it,” says Samantha Sun. “But there’s also a lot of people who want the option of one day leaving this universe.” 

*Some names have been changed for privacy.

The East London Strippers Collective hosts monthly life drawing classes in Shoreditch

See more of Julie Cook’s photography on her official website.

‘The Disappearing City’ is a series about the changing urban landscapes of London. Previously: The curse of the British pub refurbishment

Follow Jessica Furseth on Twitter.

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