‘I’M a normal person, I live with my partner and my dog and we’re happy together.” It’s a simple declaration, but one that 31-year-old Emma*, who works as a stripper at an Edinburgh club, feels it necessary to make.

“We’re all just trying to live our normal lives and support our families or have happy relationships, and the more stigma we face, the harder that is for us,” she says.

Emma, who was born in Estonia, has worked in strip clubs for eight years, on and off, and says she has no immediate plans to stop.

“I like my job and I like the lifestyle it provides me,” she says. “I’ve graduated from uni, I’ve worked normal jobs, but I just feel stripping offers a good work-life balance and allows me to earn enough to pay my bills. There’s no reason for me to have to look for anything else.”

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No reason, that is, except a decision by City of Edinburgh Council last month to introduce a nil-cap on licences for Sexual Entertainment Venues (SEVs). In effect, strip clubs will no longer be allowed to operate in the capital from April next year.

This follows the introduction of new powers in 2019 for councils to limit or ban SEVs, and interventions from women’s groups who argue the venues promote the objectification of women and attitudes which lead to gender-based violence.

However, a number of dancers are challenging this characterisation, and are backing a judicial review from the United Sex Workers Union, which says the outcome of the ban could be far worse for the workers.

“To say it’s exploitative is, in my experience, incorrect,” Emma says. “Sex work doesn’t automatically mean sexual exploitation. We can talk about labour exploitation, which will only increase if there are no legitimate venues that the authorities can keep an eye on.”

If the clubs close, Emma intends to travel to other cities to work but fears others could end up working “in unofficial venues or private parties where there’s no security” or be forced into low-paid employment or out of work altogether.

“I don’t think we should push workers into unsafe conditions or poverty and remove working rights based on pure conjecture. I understand they’re concerned for women’s safety, but this isn’t safe for us,” she adds.

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Instead, Emma believes the focus should be on supporting dancers to unionise. She says: “My colleagues and I want to organise so we can negotiate better working rights with the clubs, so we could get holiday pay, maternity pay, maternity

leave, sick pay, job security and proper procedures in place to report any harassment by staff or customers.”

Sasha*, a single mum of five, started working in Edinburgh strip clubs 15 years ago when she was 23.

“It was something I’d thought about for a few years. Something I was tempted to try but I wasn’t sure I could, or wasn’t sure I had the guts,” she says. “I thought it might be seedy or dangerous or something. Then one day I saw an advert in a window for dancers in one of the clubs and I just thought, ‘I’m going to give it a try’.”

As for the other women, the flexibility was part of what attracted Sasha to the job. “You can choose your shifts week-to-week and aren’t pressured to work certain days. No job is perfect, but it had enough about it that was positive for me to keep doing it, on and off,” she says.

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The main thing she’d like to see change about the industry is “a little bit more regulation” to prevent practices such as “raising house fees at the last minute without warning, which isn’t entirely fair”. As the dancers are self-employed, they pay the venues to work there, and only make a profit once their earnings from customers surpass the fees.

The closure of the clubs wouldn’t have a great personal impact on Sasha, as she plans on moving on to start studying graphic design. “I don’t think I want to be doing this beyond the next few years, because once you start ageing, and there’s a lot of young girls dancing, you obviously get compared to them,” she says.

While Sasha says she can “understand the point of view” of those who have concerns about the objectification of women, she believes “there has to be room for a bit of play”.

“I don’t think all forms of titillation and performance that allow women to use their bodies sexually should be banned. I think if women actively want to do it, they should be allowed to,” she said.

Amanda*, a 35-year-old full-time student who started dancing in 2019 to help pay her mortgage, says strippers “are just an easy target” for the council.

She said: “If they really don’t want us to provide this service, they should find ways of giving us better paid work, affordable childcare, a universal income, capped gas and electricity bills so we can actually afford to live on one job’s salary instead of having to supplement an income.”

Amanda has hopes of becoming a translator but says she won’t be able to if the clubs close. “I’m planning on going to uni for four years to become a translator, but that wouldn’t work if I lost this job. If I got another part-time job I wouldn’t make as much money, so I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my bills – it’s just not feasible.”

Furthermore, Amanda believes the ban “perpetuates stigma” which already limits dancers’ options. “Part of the problem of getting into a different industry is you have to leave a gap in your CV because of the judgment. That’s not because we’re ashamed, but because of being afraid of how people are going to treat us.”

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For her, working in a strip club is “generally good fun” but “hard work physically, and mentally draining”.

“You’re talking to people all night. A lot of the clubs cater to stag dos, so you’re there to liven it up and have a laugh,” she explains.

But when it comes to attitudes towards women, Amanda feels focusing on strip clubs misses the point: “Unfortunately, we’re all objectified. You saw that in the news last week with the front page about the Labour MP [Angela Rayner] because she was sitting with her legs crossed, wearing a skirt. That’s objectification. That’s harmful. That’s got nothing to do with strip clubs. That’s our culture that needs fixed from the roots up.”

Asked to comment on the concerns raised by the dancers, a City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “It’s important to note that SEVs can still apply for a licence and committee would consider them against the policy agreed.”

*Pseudonyms have been used for all the dancers quoted in this article