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Flexible Workers: Labour, Regulation and the Political Economy of the Stripping Industry

1 Comment 🕔02.Dec 2014

The introduction to this timely book, “Beyond the Stripping Wars,” sets the scene for a welcome anecdote to much of the contemporary literature. Moving away from a deviancy paradigm, Sanders and Hardy conceptualize their work firmly in that of labor. A thorough Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)-funded research project, the academics interviewed nearly 200 dancers in the first nationwide United Kingdom (UK) study of strip venues. The title of the introduction is a welcome move to avoid being accosted by an often tedious polarized debate, and instead the authors want to consider the dancers’ narratives in the context of wider political-economic shifts. Flexible Workers conceptualizes stripping work as work, but so the critics will not confuse this with an empty slur of ‘sex positivism’, let me be clear, this work is a highly critical piece from highly esteemed researchers.

By understanding stripping as work, as well as placing it within a continuum of sexualized female labor irrespective of industry, Sanders and Hardy avoid adding to the stigmatizing literature that pathologizes women who strip. Accepting stripping as work also means that the ‘work’ is not removed from discussions around sex work, as Maher et al. (2013) argue. Hardy has argued before that it is necessary to recognize commercial sex (and here, stripping) as work “even if that work is deeply exploitative – as many forms of labour are” (Hardy in Wolkowitz et al., 2013, p. 52). Hardy has also argued before that labor theorists contend that labor-power is exchanged with capital for financial gain (Wolkovitz et al., 2013, p. 46). This is not to say the work is good or bad, but to leave moralizing to campaign groups and instead undertake rigorous empirical research that furthers the understanding of such labor relations and conditions. Stripping labor, as with any labor, has the potential to be exploitative, but in Flexible Workers the focus is on the conditions the labor is executed under and the experience of the workers.

The scare mongering moral panics of lobby groups such as OBJECT seek to fuel the fire against Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVS) and indirectly (or sometimes in the case of picketing workplaces, directly) the dancers who work in them. As Sanders and Hardy rightly point out, despite the gross methodological flaws of the zombie statistics OBJECT recite, the group has had success in convincing local politicians, residents and some of the wider public that the strip industry is wildly increasing and presents a danger. Of course, missing from such ‘sex wars’ discourse populated by OBJECT were discussions surrounding the feminization of poverty and other feminized labor that may be fragile, precarious or exploitative in nature. Sanders and Hardy demonstrate through this book how the ‘disposability of labor’ and the wider political economy of reductions in real wages underpins the continuous supply of labor. In contrast to certain campaign groups would have us believe the industry is driven by ‘demand’; Sanders and Hardy argue that the industry is supply – not demand – driven. Women are seeking out flexible and potentially lucrative labor that fits in with their needs.

In Chapter 1, “Locating the Strip-Based Entertainment Industry,” the authors emphasize the ‘zero hours’ basis that self-employed dancers work under are reflected in the wider labor market, where part-time work is mainly made up by a female workforce, is insecure and poorly paid. This is crucial for discussions surrounding stripping: strip work is not a stand-alone topic – it is labor which is reflected in the wider gendered labor market. The alleged proliferation of strip establishments must be put in context. Sanders and Hardy argue that at the peak of lap-dancing in the UK, there were approximately 300 clubs, yet in the 1970s there were some 250 pubs in London alone where stripping took place. Therefore this is not a new phenomenon, and the industry is not expanding; it is, in fact, currently in decline. While much work has established to precedent that sex work is work, a lot has focused on the relationship(s) between dancers and customers. Sanders and Hardy seek to rectify this by focusing on labor relations and working conditions.

As the authors’ identify, there has been an effervescence of literature about the strip industry. Yet much of this literature ascribes to the deviancy paradigm, individualizing and pathologizing the women who choose to work in the field. Much of this brand of literature seeks to account for women’s decisions to enter the industry as opposed to researching from an economic perspective. Sanders and Hardy helpfully argue that much of the radical feminist writing on the strip industry continues to stigmatize strippers. Writing on the feminist politics of stripping (Frank 2002), Sanders and Hardy include valuable contributors to the progression of critical feminist scholarship in the area. This alternative feminist research moves beyond simplistic understandings of power and exploitation, to examine the personal, social, cultural, and economic context that stripping operates within. The authors argue that much of the challenge to the radical feminist perspective of stripping has been borne out of ethnographic accounts of the strip industry, analyzing the complexities of the socio-spatial and structural organization of the industry, the club, and relationships within. As a feminist researcher and former dancer, I find this progressive and a welcome alternative to repetitive macro-level cries of ‘exploitation’ that do little to take us forward. Indeed, Sanders and Hardy cite Frank (2002) in arguing that it is a critical understanding of power that enables erotic dance to be understood.

This book is timely and of great importance, both to scholars of sex work and stripping, and to the fields of sociology, criminology, geography, gender studies, work, and employment alike. It is an excellent example of high-quality research from a methods perspective also. Flexible Workers is not only the first nationwide study of UK strip clubs, but it also provides a space for counter-narrative to the populist assumptions on stripping created largely by radical feminists, which then influence licensing laws, wider sex work policy, and the media. Regarding dancers as intelligent and articulate subjects, Sanders and Hardy avoid objectifying and marginalizing women working as strippers, and instead respectfully engage with them. This should be the basis of ethical feminist research, not ideology over-ruling the lived experience of participants. This book is well-written, engaging, and takes the discussion of the feminist politics of stripping further. I recommend this book to any student, academic or layperson wishing to read a reasoned piece of work on sex work, gender or feminist politics.

Reviewed by Gemma Ahearne, Leeds Beckett University

Flexible Workers: Labour, Regulation and the Political Economy of the Stripping Industry
by Teela Sanders and Kate Hardy
Hardback / 206 pages / 2013
ISBN: 978-0-415-67918-3

Frank, Katherine. 2002. G-Strings and Sympathy Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Maher, JaneMaree, Sharon Pickering, and Alison Gerard. 2013. Sex Work: Labour, Mobility and Sexual Services. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.
Wolkowitz, Carol, et al., eds. 2013. Body/Sex/Work: Intimate, Embodied and Sexualized Labour. Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.


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