StoriesPart of Reframing sex work

Sex work and critical campaigners

Exotic dancer Ella Smith was in a job she loved. It gave her confidence and allowed her to work flexibly to fit in with her studies. Then a campaign to close the club she worked in made secret films of her colleagues. But she and fellow dancers stood up for their right to work.

Words by Ella Smith and artwork by Jessa Fairbrother

  • Article
Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of a female figure from behind, from the waist up, against a black background. Her body is twisted in a dancerly pose, her arms are held out to either side. Her left arm is bent up above her head, hand outstretched. Her right arm is bent down to the ground, hand outstretched. Embroidered into the photographic print with yellow, white and grey coloured thread is a crisscross floral pattern which exactly covers her head and hair. Floating above her left hand is a circular shape made up of copper coloured small dots which are painted onto the print creating a three dimensional texture. To the right and below her right hand is another large circular shape made up of a layered texture of grey dots which are painted onto the print creating a three dimensional texture.
Sex work and feminism. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

In March 2019 my life was turned upside down, as were those of my friends and colleagues. The job I loved turned into a job I dreaded, where I feared what was coming next. If I told you I’m a sex worker, you might think this abuse was caused by my clients, but it wasn’t; it was caused by feminist groups who said I needed saving. They wanted to support women – yet all they did was manage to bully, belittle and stigmatise exotic dancers like me.

Becoming a dancer at Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino was the best thing I’d ever done. It gave me the confidence I desperately lacked throughout life. As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder, I would never have imagined finding the self-love that I have right now through sex work.

I was paranoid that every person who came into the club was another undercover investigator trying to take my job away.

I am a university student and well educated. Dancing wasn’t my only option. I wasn’t forced into this. I made this choice myself because it suits my lifestyle. I can work whenever I want, wherever I want. Dancing has given me the opportunity to pursue things I could never have imagined before.

Feeling under attack

In February 2019 the feminist group Not Buying It sent private investigators into our club to buy lap dances and secretly film the women dancing. They did this to ‘prove’ to Sheffield Council that Spearmint Rhino was in breach of its own code of conduct and should have its licence revoked. They filmed women naked and without their consent, and this was only the beginning.

Not Buying It have no idea of the hurt they caused to the women they filmed. Not only has it traumatised the women themselves, but it has also hurt their families, their friends and their children. I wasn’t one of those filmed, but the investigators’ actions and the ensuing campaign to close our club left me extremely anxious and scared to go to work. It took all the joy out of a job I love.

Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of a female figure from behind, against a black background. Her body is twisted in a dancerly pose. Her left arm is bent up above her head, hand outstretched. Floating above her left hand is a circular shape made up of copper coloured small dots which are painted onto the print creating a three dimensional texture.
Sex work and feminism. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

"Becoming a dancer at Sheffield’s Spearmint Rhino was the best thing I’d ever done. It gave me the confidence I desperately lacked throughout life."

I was paranoid that every person who came into the club was another undercover investigator trying to take my job away. I was always on edge, watching people, checking buttons for cameras, looking in people’s ears to see if they were wearing earpieces. I was hyper-aware of customers who used their mobile phones and frightened that they were secretly recording me.

It was torture. Work went from being the place I felt safest to a place I felt judged and under attack.

Then there was the feminist campaign against us online. I would wake up in the morning wondering what else was being said about me and my peers by people who had never met us. On their website they claimed that “every woman who has left the industry has told us that the overwhelming majority of dancers had come from abusive backgrounds”.

They claimed that “drugs, drug dealing, serious physical and sexual assault” are all common in lap-dancing clubs, and that “pimps source dancers inside clubs – after all, they are little more than a grooming ground for vulnerable young women into prostitution”.

They wrote that some women have had to give up their jobs when a strip club opened nearby and that “clubs can quite literally create ‘No-Go Zones’”. They claimed to know so much, yet had never spoken to any of us. If they had, they would have met very different people from those described on their website.

On social media, feminist groups said that the best thing for the dancers would be to close our workplace immediately. How could this be so? We want to work here; we love our jobs.

Judgement and stigma

I reached out personally to Not Buying It, to speak with them so they could actually talk to us about our jobs. They ignored me and told me I was unprofessional in my approach and shouldn’t use a social media like that. It seems bizarre that they refused to meet with the very people they were campaigning to ‘save’.

How can you support or help anyone if you refuse to speak to them? How do these groups get away with such public online hate towards people like me, simply because of the line of work we choose to do?

Artwork made up of a black and white photograph of part of a female figure from behind, from the waist up, against a black background. Her body is twisted in a dancerly pose.  Her right arm is bent down to the ground, hand outstretched. To the right and below her right hand is another large circular shape with holes in the middle, made up of a layered texture of grey dots which are painted onto the print creating a three dimensional texture.
Sex work and feminism. © Jessa Fairbrother for Wellcome Collection.

"Then there was the feminist campaign against us online. I would wake up in the morning wondering what else was being said about me and my peers by people who had never met us."

The most damaging part of being a sex worker is not the work itself but the stigma around it. It is stigma that damages sex workers’ mental health, prevents us from speaking out, and that enables abuse against us. This becomes more pronounced when groups like Not Buying It claim they want to help us, yet continually degrade us by filming without consent and casting us as tragic victims to be rescued.

But we do not need saving. We want to work in safety and for our choices to be respected. We are already seen as vulnerable in society because of people’s opinions and attitudes towards our work; surely women’s groups should be fighting to ensure a safe working environment for us, not to take away our livelihoods?

Stop trying to save us

In September 2019, I and other dancers sat through an eight-hour hearing in front of Sheffield’s licensing committee to determine if our club would be allowed to keep its licence. I heard anti-sex-work campaigners talk about the location of our club, the job I do, about our customers, and what kind of women we were, but I didn’t know any of these people. They had never set foot in my workplace or made any kind of effort to get to know me.

In eight hours of objections, there was barely any recognition of how degrading it was for Not Buying It to film naked women without their consent and then share this footage with others. They had violated a workspace where women felt safe and yet this didn’t seem to be of concern to anyone but the women who had been subjected to that violation.

Our club was allowed to keep its licence, but Not Buying It have publicly stated they will stop at nothing to close us down. We have been left anxious, paranoid, degraded and stigmatised by feminists who are trying to snatch our livelihoods away.

I’ll never understand what we’ve done to cause so much hatred from people who have never met us. We are strong, independent women doing jobs we love and earning a living. It’s awful to be so publicly ridiculed for a choice that some do not agree with.

To those who disagree with our choices, I would say: Please stop trying to save us. Work with us, listen to us, and find out what we want rather than campaigning against us.

About the contributors

Photograph of Ella Smith

Ella Smith

Author

Ella Smith (not her real name) has worked as a dancer at Spearmint Rhino in Sheffield for two years and is also a qualified personal trainer. She has been an outspoken critic of the feminist campaigns against Spearmint Rhino and is currently studying for her degree in psychology at Sheffield University.

Photograph of Jessa Fairbrother

Jessa Fairbrother

Artist
jessafairbrother.com
Jessa on QEST

Jessa Fairbrother is a visual artist using photography, performance and stitch. Her long-term investigations revolve around subjects of yearning and the porous body. Her work is held in numerous private and public collections worldwide, including Tate Britain, the V&A, the Yale Center for British Art and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Her work is represented by the Photographers’ Gallery, London and AnzenbergerGallery, Vienna. She is also a QEST (Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust) scholar.