Can you be a feminist and a sex worker? The longstanding belief that strip clubs are sexist and increase the gender imbalance is something that this stripper collective would like to dispute.
Written by: Amanda Sandstrom Beijer
They work in one of Berlins biggest strip clubs and got inspired by ’the Lusty Lady’ which was a cooperative strip club owned and managed by the dancers themselves during the 70’s in San Francisco. Meet Berlin Strippers Collective.
Outside the building there are screens showing pictures of the strippers working inside. The entrance is tiny, and I don’t expect the place to be as big as it is when I enter. I walk past a smaller stage with a pole and the bar until I come to several private boots and the main stage. Some of the girls are sitting by the main stage, as the place hasn’t opened yet. There’s no smell of smoke, even though some of them are relaxing with their phones, having a cigarette and waiting for the night to start.
”We’re about 60 strippers working here, all in all and most of us work during the weekends which can be a bit challenging, but thankfully most dancers are really nice and we still manage to have a good atmosphere among us compared to many clubs where things can get really tense among the dancers, specially when there isn’t enough customers for everyone”, Karo says after greeting me by the bar. We walk past the it to find a more secluded part just behind the booths as Anna joins us by the round table.
”When I told my mom what I do, we had a disagreement since she’s a second-wave feminist, so her way of thinking is that strippers are victims and we had this huge discussion where I mean that stripping is not giving up the autonomy of our bodies, and that it’s my decision if I want to do this kind of job”, Anna says.
Feminism and sex-work are subjects that may be especially trending at this time since the new feminist era and the second-wave’ feminism are clashing.
”I guess I subscribe to the newer way of feminism, the ’sex positive feminism’ I guess they call it nowadays, which from my understanding is more about empowering females’ sexuality and including that into the disillusive feminism. My understanding is that the second-wave feminism is about keeping back females’ sexuality and that if we please men’s sexual desires we are somehow upholding the patriarchal order. There is no room for exploring and strengthening women’s or other gender’s diverse sexualities in that mode of feminist thinking. But I think that’s changing. That’s why a steadily increasing number of younger women are able to combine a feminist identity with being a sex-worker”, Karo says.
Karo’s has been working at three other clubs in Berlin before and says that she could never have imagined starting a collective with the strippers she used to work with over there.
”For them this was a job, and they had accepted the way things were no matter how shitty things were it was. It’s a feminist vibe at this club. Here some people are identifying as queer or non-binary, challenging gender roles and norms and they’re very politically conscious. I think that’s the kind of attitude you need in order to start this kind of collective”, she says.
”I’ve worked at a few clubs in Australia and there you stick to yourself. You may have one or two friends, but here I’ve got like 20 fucking awesome friends at once who are really interesting and powerful”, Anna says.
The club has obviously attracted a diverse and political group of women, something that made the collective possible, and also something I could understand would attract more clients since the energy around their job makes a difference at the club.
”This place really is special for the camaraderie among dancers which is actually quite rare at most clubs, I think Berlin also attracts a certain type of people, most of the dancers here are very creative and free spirited”, Karo says and continues;
”Most of us think of ourselves as feminists and due to unpleasant situations we had to endure during our dancing careers, we had the need to create these collectives in order to provide a network support. A sisterhood that understands your struggles and also the need to show our side of the story. We are all incredibly creative and we know the future of the erotic industry is more inclusive, open and certainly feminist. We understand very well how it feels to have to hide what you do, to be judged or to have to overlook certain situations because you need the job.
This power imbalance is something most managers and owners understand very well, therefore immediate sacking as well as unfair work practices aren’t unusual in this industry”.
”In general, this is pretty rare and magical. Since women normally compete against each other in a patriarchy, and if you are divided you can’t conquer, right. We’re all from different places and we all have a need of sharing, since we’re in this together”, Anna says
” What’s unique about this club is that we’re really close” Karo says and continues;
“We also get to pick our own music here, which is great because many of us really enjoy performing and the music is really important for being able to express ourselves. We undress to express.”
” That’s why I stayed here for over 7 months.”
”Yes well, you’re not a baby stripper anymore.”
The political consciousness and engagement that pervades Berlin, while also being a city filled with young expats, may be reasons that this collective came to exist here. But in the end, there’s other stuff that makes this city a good place for strippers.
”Not only is it the one city where you can go out after stripping, particularly in the summertime when it’s bright outside and you can go to Kater or whatever. You have this huge nightly variety compared to other cities that are all closed down when we’re off work.”
”There’s a good and a bad part about that, Anna jokes.
“Yeah, sometimes it’s hard to resist going to Kit Kat after a Wednesday shift, even though some of us might have to work on Thursday! It’s nice that we can just go there wearing our work clothes.”
Berlin Stripper Collective may have started as a necessity to support each other during the challenges of the often-precarious nature of the job itself. But they’ve started to spread their word to a broader audience through Social Media.
In one of their posts, with a picture of an illustrated busty woman showing her cleft, they write:” They are smart, they are sexy, and they are fed up with your bullshit. Watch out!! We are ready to bring you down with all our brains and boobies!! And we prefer to do so in our 8-inch pleaser heels (they make us seem arousing and intimidating at the same time). In case you wondered: yes, we can kick in those shoes as well!”
Meanwhile Instagram and other platforms are trying their best to delete sex workers out of existence. Also deciding that it’s not a legit job to promote - being a stripper, or anything else that includes nudity, the collective is doing their best to get their message out. But the rules make it hard for them to open up a private account to promote themselves.
”The less direct you can be with your clients, the more misunderstandings there will be, and that makes work more dangerous. Since Instagram for example is a platform we could’ve used to communicate with clients, it would’ve been a lot safer to keep the communication open and direct”, Karo says.
”Being a feminist stripper means being there for one another, creating events that allows us to share our art to a wider audience that appreciate what we do in a respectful and fair environment, we are just trying to survive in a system that is clearly unbalanced, we have autonomy of our own bodies and we decided to do this because it suits our needs, there aren’t that many jobs around that supports such a varied group of women, from so may different backgrounds, all doing this for million different reasons, being a feminist means to understand each other’s struggles without judgement”, Anna says.
Movies, on the other hand, try to foster these myths about sex workers. Karo mentions the movie Hustlers with Jennifer Lopez, and how it portrays strippers as money-hungry people who hate their clients and that they’re perpetually trying to cheat them.
”That’s pretty damaging. And it’s so wrong as well, since we’re not providing a service like a sales job. We’re no more manipulative than people who work in marketing. There’s also that myth that stripping is glamorous. That it pays bundles of money all the time and that you can quit your corporate job and start dancing and just get rich. That’s an accurate lie”, Anna says.
”Another myth is that we’re all doing more than just stripping. People like to fetishize that, and actually it’s normally the first question journalists ask us when doing interviews, like, ’is it true that you’re doing more?’ That we would be prostitutes. There are girls who do full service, but there are plenty who just dance and never even consider doing that. And also, why is that so relevant? Do you ask models that on interviews too, if they have sex with their photographer or whatever”, Karo fills in.
”Yeah, and If you do full service, that’s fine and if you don’t that’s fine. It’s not something secret that we’re trying to hide. It is what it is.”
The men going to the club, on the other hand, are also portrayed in stereotypes. Either young men on a bachelor party, or really fat and old.
”I guess that’s one of the myths that are actually partly true. But one thing I learnt working here was that there are all kinds of people. And maybe 20 percent of them are female, at least here”, Karo says and continues;
”There might be more here than at other clubs, and I guess It’s something that’s changing. At the club I worked at before for example, I rarely saw women and the women who went there were kinda aggressive.”
”They usually are. Because they feel threatened or that you’re an object of sexual tension and It’s like they think they can touch you because they’re also women, so they’re quite grabby sometimes”, Anna fills in.
”It’s just self righteous, that I would be able to touch you because I am not a man, so my touch will not be as patronizing, and that’s not the point. You’re here and this is a space for the service that I provide, so I will treat you just like everybody else, it doesn’t matter what gender you are. But most clients are actually pretty shy.”
”Cause they’re horny” Anna laughs.
”I guess they’re not used to this since it’s like a parallel world. They’re not used to being approached by half-naked people. So I think that’s also why they can be shy at first”, Karo says.
Shy or not there’s a lot of stuff that can happen in a Strip club where you might have to get comfortable (even on stage) no matter how shy you are.
”There was this stud who got hand-cuffed to the pole as part of a stag show on our stage, and whoever was doing the show didn’t know where the key was. So he was on the stage for forever, and the bar guys tried to help, but we couldn’t manage to get him off. We’ve never seen so many men on the stage at once before”, Karo jokes;
”Finally they cut him off and he had to leave with the cuff still hanging from his arm.”