Sex Shops in the Soho District of Central London. Photo by Getty Images

Narcisssism and the naked arts graduate

This call for an overhaul of the sex industry is self-indulgent and short-sighted

This article is taken from the April 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Mistress Bartosch’s Temple of Scrotum Squashing” was a fantasy that didn’t come to fruition. The idea came to me about ten years ago when I was working in a miserable job for a pittance. I began wondering how I could monetise my tendency toward misandry; stamping on testicles seemed an appealing option. 

But it wasn’t shame or fears about my safety that stopped me from lacing up my ball-stamping boots, it was the fact that I didn’t want to add legitimacy to an industry that destroys women and girls with fewer choices than me. 

Stacey Clare, author of The Ethical Stripper, has no such qualms. In a bastardised Marxist take, she argues “sex workers” of the world must unite, and that all they have to lose is their shame. Books about the sex industry are rarely humorous, and so I would like to thank the author for some unexpected belly-laughs. 

In this era of woke there’s some social cachet to be made from victimhood

Clare was a standard “radical” youth when she began stripping, a dreadlocked activist studying fine art. As with the vast majority of those who attend university, she found herself “amassing a hefty student debt”. Complaining that there wasn’t “family money to fully support” her, Clare took a gap year and chose to dance naked for money. This background has given the author what might be charitably called “unique” insights into the sex industry.

In one memorable passage she observes that strip clubs “were run by people who didn’t seem to give a fuck about my welfare, and weren’t open to conversations about how the business was structured or how it may be improved to support workers”. The book is peppered with similar mind-blowing revelations; at points I almost found myself pitying the gangland club owners who’ve been subjected to Clare’s business pitches.

The Ethical Stripper, Stacey Clare (Unbound, £20)

That “more marginalised LGBTQI+ and BIPOC groups” are underrepresented within the sex industry is lamented, as are the aesthetic standards imposed on strippers by club bosses. To Clare, it’s a mystery why punters are so choosy about the appearance of the women they pay to give them erections. She rails with wide-eyed idealism: 

There is still much work to be done before strip clubs can offer less misogynistic and more egalitarian spaces where all genders and identities can enjoy equal freedom and visibility.

Because what says “sticking it to the patriarchy” more succinctly than equal opportunities stripping? Bring on the middle-aged, hairy men gyrating in jock straps. I hear Prince Andrew is looking for a job.

There are some less forgivable, downright grotesque inversions through the book. Clare recalls the suicide of a woman, referred to as Catherine, whom she stripped alongside. As is not uncommon in the sex industry, Catherine is described as having had a “coke habit”. 

But in a staggering leap of logic Catherine’s death is presumed to be a response to “social stigma” against strippers. A vivid description then follows, which imagines people in Catherine’s hometown “gossiping at coffee mornings” without providing any evidence that they knew how she supported herself or indeed that they’d have judged her negatively.

Stigma as something that makes women vulnerable is a recurring theme throughout the book. In this current era of woke there’s some social cachet to be made from victimhood, though whilst Clare is willing to admit women in the sex industry are at risk from “whorephobia”, she would prefer it if feminists would stop telling stories which portray those in the business as victims. 

The book boldly makes the case for decriminalising the sex industry but baulks at the idea of legalisation. Apparently, although sex work is work it shouldn’t be subject to taxation nor any of the usual rules of commerce. Indeed, the idea that the state should have a hand in the regulation of clubs is an anathema:

The stigmatising of lap-dancing clubs over the last decade has led to increasing levels of state intervention and scrutiny.

The blame for “state intervention” has been laid on a moralising group of prudes she dismissively described as SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists). The reader is informed SWERFs “aim to end the sex trade by imposing and increasing state penalties and restrictions”. 

SWERF campaigner Dr Sasha Rakoff of the group Not Buying It (NBI) is named as the chief agitator. I sit on the management committee of NBI and consider Sasha a friend. In a darkly comic twist, NBI is accused of objectifying strippers, reducing them to “body parts to be viewed and scrutinized by the public”.

Part of the reason I became interested in the licencing of strip clubs was because I would see mainly Eastern European women bussed in and out of my hometown during sporting events to “service” men in strip clubs and brothels. Most spoke limited English, were very young and few had the choices available to women like Clare. According to the logic of The Ethical Stripper, sharing these women’s stories is harmful as it could increase the stigma so bravely born by empowered, stripper arts graduates. 

The vision outlined in The Ethical Stripper is that of the archetypal Millennial

It is true that there’s a tendency within radical feminism to perceive all women in the sex industry as controlled by pimps. This is incorrect: many women are drawn through a pipeline which starts with sexy selfies on Instagram and ends with Only Fans and prostitution. But this doesn’t negate the existence of trafficking, and nor do the choices made by women in the sex industry exist in a social vacuum. It is possible to view so-called “sex work” as both financially useful to some women and psychologically and socially damaging to women and girls more widely.

The book proposes a glorious vision of the future where sex workers’ unions, like the East London Strippers Collective that Clare established with her friends, ensure that strippers are treated as respected employees by club owners. This sits with the “harm reduction” approach, which is summed up by Clare as the “mission of the sex workers’ rights movement”. Ultimately, this seems about as effective and realistic as asking domestic abusers to pull their punches.

For all its faults, there are two things The Ethical Stripper gets right; first, there needs to be a change in the way the sex industry is regulated, and second, that reliable, unbiased data are needed. Clare is right that in 2003 a sloppy report was published by a now-defunct women’s organisation which clumsily linked an increase in sexual entertainment venues to an increase in reported rapes. 

But it is also the case that today a cadre of academics exist who are willing to sell the idea that “sex work is work” without having to prostitute their own orifices. Research, free from any ideological taint, is desperately needed.

The vision outlined in The Ethical Stripper is that of the archetypal Millennial; the pursuit of self-centred personal enrichment, no matter the cost to wider society. So close to parody, the book could be a masterful work satirising the narcissism of Thatcher’s grandchildren. Instead it is presented as a moral manifesto, albeit one steeped in entitlement and hiding behind a grubby façade of borrowed victimhood.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover