Every day is a little different in lockdown. For Gemma* it’s meant getting creative with her routine: she studies for an upcoming exam in her psychology undergrad. She walks her dog. And as soon as there’s time, she gets on a WhatsApp group with ten other professional strippers to organise a digital strip show.
Along with her colleagues, Gemma is an organiser of Cybertease, a virtual strip club that is entirely run, coordinated and performed by unionised sex workers. The club takes place on Zoom, where guests can ‘pin’ their favourite performers’ screens, send messages, and choose from a whole list of special tipping options. Audience members make their choice and transfer the ‘tip’ via PayPal. Once the money is received, the performer will act out the request like a sexy TV shout-out – think baby oil shows, aerial twerks, even seductive Creme Egg-eating.
The night has quickly become a self-made lifeline for strippers in London and beyond, a way for them to continue working while club doors remain closed in lockdown. But that’s not all. In the midst of an industry that is fraught with advantage-taking and inequality, Cybertease is setting an example for a fairer, more inclusive way our city’s real-life strip clubs should be run.
Gemma’s been involved with Cybertease from its inception. When lockdown hit in March, she lost her regular employment at the strip club where she worked. Like the majority of strippers, she is considered self employed, which meant no furlough pay, and no guarantee of any financial support from the government. While Gemma was eventually able to use the government’s self-employment income support scheme, she tells me that there were many others in her industry who were left with no safety net. People who are undocumented, or those who only recently started working in strip clubs, were left with nothing by their employers.
‘There’s a very big misconception that sex workers make a lot of money. That’s completely dependent on the situation and the person. A lot of people in the community are living day by day with what they earn,’ says Gemma. ‘They have children, they have vulnerable relatives they have to care for, there’s not stashes of money for them just to say, “oh never mind, I’ll get through the Covid-19 problem because I’ve got all this money saved up”. That’s so inaccurate.’
Some in the industry have turned to platforms like OnlyFans to try and pay the bills during lockdown, but as Gemma explains, having to quickly adapt to online work like this is not easy, ‘It’s one thing going and working in a club where the lighting is kind of dark and I have my favourite outfits,’ she tells me, ‘but being an online personality, that’s not what I personally want to do... The market at the moment is so over-saturated.’ To try and find a more creative way of financially supporting herself, and other more vulnerable members of her community, Gemma began working with United Sex Workers, a trade union branch which advocates for strip club workers’ rights.
By April, they’d established Cybertease, a club run entirely by the performers. It’s not just a positive for Gemma: the whole point of Cybertease is that it operates as a co-op, which means everyone involved gets paid the same. It’s a virtual embodiment of the kind of strip club the union is fighting to see in the world: one that observes its workers’ rights.
In many regular UK strip clubs, dancers are expected to pay house fees, which can mean fronting £50-£90 before even starting work, with no guarantee that they will ever make that money back. Fining, as Gemma explains, is another huge issue, ‘You can be fined for things that sound totally made up, like wearing the wrong kind of shoes, or standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think people don’t really realise that, but this goes on.’
Conventional strip clubs also tend to employ performers with a certain type of look – usually slim, cisgendered women – who represent whatever the bosses deem to be beautiful. But Cybertease prides itself on being open to ‘all gender identities, all body types’, and actively anti-racist. Gemma says: ‘We want to get rid of norms, because people who go to strip clubs are into all different people and different looks. Catering to one ideal is very old-fashioned.’
Cybertease feels a million miles from old-fashioned. Each dancer has their own DIY set-up, some with full neon lights and poles, others in nondescript bedrooms. It is hard to shake the feeling of awkwardness while gazing at them expectantly through your laptop screen. But once the music cranks up, and performers get into a flow, that all falls away and it starts to feel like a buzzing, unpredictable club night.
During the show, each dancer gets their moment with ‘spotlight’ performances – pole dancing, paddle spanks, micro fetish shows, whatever the hell they want. And every time, the group chat is flooded with encouraging messages from their Cybertease colleagues: ‘OMG PIXIE how are you doing this!!… So hot Aya… Polly you are Killing IT!’. The spotlights can be as much for the performers as they are for the audience: ‘One of our dancers did cake sitting because it was her birthday, so she just sat in her cake during a performance. So having that artistic freedom has been really cool,’ says Ally*, a Cybertease organiser.
So far, Cybertease has got its tunes from the DJs behind Queer House Party, a massively popular live-streamed LGBTQ+ club night that’s been taking place every Friday since lockdown began. If J-Lo’s effervescent pole dance to Fiona Apple in ‘Hustlers’ taught us anything, it’s that choosing the right track is everything. The Queer House Party set lists are crammed with bangers – heavy on the Nicki Minaj and Cardi B – but for the spotlight moments the performers choose their own song.
As part of a non-financial exchange between the two communities, Cybertease dancers make guest appearances at Queer House Party’s Zoom nights. ‘A lot of sex workers are queer, a lot of queer people are sex workers,’ says Aya*, another organiser. ‘We understand each other's experiences, we’re marginalised in the same way. We need that kind of support from each other.’ But, she says, ‘You don’t have to be invested in socialist politics to come to our event, of course you can just come and have fun!’
Queer House Party’s involvement has seen Cybertease attract a completely mixed crowd: cool young queer activists, queer couples, heterosexual couples, singles, along with the much older strip club regulars who are still figuring out how to operate Zoom. Although the virtual punters are visible at first, everyone is asked to mute, turn off their camera and hide ‘non-video participants’ at the start of each show. That way, viewers can concentrate on the dancers as they do their thing, instead of getting distracted by digital strangers in squares.
Transitioning to a virtual club has given the performers more autonomy, but working online brings its own problems. The discrimination sex workers face means that many have to remain anonymous for their safety, which makes the internet tricky terrain to navigate. ‘In the club, it’s easier to hide it, there’s no page where people can spread it,’ says Aya. ‘There’s no digital trail of photos. Unless someone takes a recording of you. It’s a new challenge I’ve never had to think about.’ Ally gets around the issue by wearing a mask: ‘I wish I could have my face. You miss the facial expressions.’
The hostile treatment of sex workers on new digital platforms presents another challenge – social media accounts are regularly deleted for posting sexual content, cutting off an important line of income. ‘We struggled to find a web provider that would let us post something that even said “strip club”,’ says Ally.
Cybertease is like a blueprint for a more ethical stripping industry, a club where nobody is expected to pay to work, wages are distributed fairly and performers are given some form of security. Gemma explains that, while she had a fairly good relationship with her club’s bosses, the fear that she could lose her job was always there. But since joining the United Sex Workers union, she feels safer, like somebody finally has her back, she says, ‘It made me feel part of a community that really cares about these injustices, and it gave me hope that one day, things might change.’
In fact, if there is going to be one takeaway message from Cybertease, Ally tells me, it’s that sex workers can organise as a co-op and work for themselves. ‘That’s the thing that’s been said by strip club bosses for years, that sex workers can’t manage themselves, that they need a man to sort out all the finances for them. We’re saying: we don’t need that at all.’
*names have been changed
The last Cybertease was postponed in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. The next event will be on Wednesday June 17. Find out more here.
To support sex workers who have been affected by loss of income, you can donate to the SWARM hardship fund.
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