Art & Culture

The rise of the queer strip club

London’s LGBTQIA+ nightlife is stepping past the “war of the sexes” narrative and the vitriolic claims of sex worker-exclusionary feminists to celebrate the city's strippers and pole dancers.

With JLo, Lizzo and Lili Reinhart all putting in appearances, Hustlers was a veritable who’s who of today’s most relevant female celebrities. Adapted from a story in New York Magazine, the film had all of the components for smash success in 2019 — 00s fashion, pissing off Wall Street guys and, most importantly, strippers. Partially due to Ms Cardi B’s mesmerising performance in the video for “Money”, strippers have become an object of pop culture fascination. 

Yet whilst this pop culture treatment has helped remove some stigma, anti-sex-worker sentiment is still rife. Lap-dancers and strippers in particular are under attack from so-called feminists who see their work as degrading. Scotland’s SNP Government has classed stripping as a form of “violence against women and girls” and in 2018 Holyrood gave local councils the right to set the number of adult entertainment venue licenses to zero. This has put hundreds of women’s jobs in danger and has been met with organised campaigns from the country’s sex worker community: in particular the Ask the 700 petition and the creation of a union for those in the industry. Further south, Bristol’s Urban Tiger lap dancing club was placed in jeopardy as a local women’s rights organisation claimed that the culture it promoted was “sexist and harmful”. 

When sex work is abstracted into a symbol of female oppression, activists end up lacking a basic level of solidarity with women just trying to make a living in a highly unequal capitalist society. What happens, then, when we remove the “war of the sexes” script that these women’s rights groups are clearly working to? It’s not just cis, heterosexual men that are interested in sexual entertainment venues. The success of the Magic Mike film franchise as well as the flourishing of female-frequented strip joints in NYC suggests that heterosexual and bisexual women could easily be tempted by similar outlets. 

There’s not just a market for women looking to watch men  — the demand for queer and lesbian strip nights is becoming steadily more visible. In 2018, Leilah Weinraub released The Shakedown: a documentary looking at a Black lesbian strip club in the 90s which should be mandatory viewing for anyone who thinks that stripping is exclusively for the cis male gaze. More recently in London, nights like The Reclaim or Pxssy Palace’s Pxssyana, and Harpies, the weekly LGBTQIA+ strip club, have brought together queer performers with queer audiences.

Nadine Ahmad, one of the organisers behind QTPOC arts collective and party Pxssy Palace, believes that the rise of these stripping and pole-dancing events is a way of fighting back against the ways that queer femmes, particularly those who are also people of colour, are constantly fetishised. “We live under the gaze of cis men constantly so to be able to express yourself through performance while subverting this gaze is powerful and liberating,” they say. “We as a community deserve a variety of nights, especially ones that are sex positive.” Speaking to Ahmad, it’s also clear that these nights allow strippers, pole dancers and other performers to have their work and skills recognised despite our wider sex-negative culture. “It’s beautiful and it takes so much strength and skill. We love to highlight queer POC performers excelling in fields dominated by whiteness.”

Teddy Edwardes, the woman behind lesbian club Lick and semi-regular strip night The Reclaim believes that it’s disingenuous to suggest that events of this nature are only now becoming popular. As she puts it: “I just think we haven’t had any options for them before. The strip club world has always been so cis-male dominated and never been seen as an option for the queer community to also enjoy.” Her decision to start the night was a personal one, and a way of removing the art of stripping from a difficult social context. “I was a stripper myself around 12 years ago and it was one of the best jobs I ever did,” she explains. “Even then, a lot of the other dancers were queer women and the reason a lot of us stopped was because of the Men you’d have to deal with on a daily basis. 

“I thought it’s about time we Reclaim a space that should have always been for us!”

You can find further information about Harpies here

Follow Pxssy Palace and Lick on Instagram.

4 November 2019