Art, Sex, and Sisterhood
The story behind Berlin Strippers Collective
Chiqui Love had it all planned out. For her first stripping audition, she was going to dance to Shakira’s ‘Whenever, Wherever’. “She talks about her breasts being small and humble and I have small boobs, so I thought ‘That’s it, that’s the tune!’” Chiqui didn’t have any former experience dancing professionally. In clubs, she’d loop her legs around the pole and dance as people gawked, but this time it was different – she actually had to impress. Before heading into the audition room, Chiqui knocked back four tequilas and went to collect the Shakira CD from her bag. “I realised I’d forgotten it and momentarily panicked. But then I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just dance to ‘Livin’ la Vida Loca’ by Ricky Martin’,” she says laughing.
Needless to say, Chiqui got the job and started stripping on a regular basis at Sports Bar in Shoreditch, London. This was in 2002, when strippers danced on stage in front of an audience and went around the room shaking a jug to collect donations and there weren’t many places that offered private dances. “At first I thought stripping was going to be like the film Showgirls, you know, with Elizabeth Berkley and all the leopard print,” says Chiqui. The reality was nothing like she had imagined. “It was just a bunch of dudes drinking pints in front of the football match while you were on stage with your tits out,” Chiqui continues. “I kind of liked it, though. I find the British humour really funny and the pub circuit had that kind of Benny-Hill-esque slapstick vibe that spoke to me way more than being in a luxurious strip club with leopard print carpets.”
Chiqui started stripping as a way to earn money because she was broke, but it became so much more to her than that. Not only is it her source of income, it’s a way to keep fit, hang out with her friends, and express herself creatively. “I’ve been in the industry on and off for 18 years and I know it inside out – the good as well as the bad,” says Chiqui. Now, with BSC, Chiqui and the other founding members want to lift the lid on the industry, exposing its perks and difficulties, and to invite a wider audience into the world of stripping.
At 22, starting out her stripping career, Chiqui started to develop her own identity as a dancer. While other strippers would rock up to the club and do a “standard routine to a boring R&B song,” Chiqui would take the stage in different masks and costumes. “Once I dressed up as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. Another time I went into work wearing a wedding dress and danced to ‘White Wedding’ by Billy Idol,” says Chiqui with a smile. “I became known as the girl that would just do crazy shit on stage.”
After private dances were introduced, however, that aspect of Chiqui’s work started to change. Strippers spent less time performing on stage and more time competing for customers to earn enough cash. “You really had to play more into the sensual femininity thing, because if you wore a clown outfit, the men in the audience wouldn’t get turned on enough to want a private dance from you,” says Chiqui. The social side of strippers’ work changed too. “Before, you could just drink with the guys in between shows and get to know them. But after that, it wasn’t just about having a simple conversation. You really had to hassle them for dances.”
Stripping is an art form, and we wanted to show people that what we do is really beautiful.
In 2009, the industry turned on its head. In a bid to give local residents greater say over the number and location of strip clubs in their area, the Policing and Crime Act reclassified strip clubs as sexual entertainment venues. This gave local authorities the power to control the number of strip licences issued in the area. As a result, the number of places where strippers could work was greatly reduced.
Strippers were already dealing with other problems, even before this change in the law. Club managers generally saw strippers as “walking cash points,” says Chiqui, and still do. While clubs typically don’t pay strippers a salary as, in the eyes of the law, they are independent contractors, they still control dancers’ hours, outfits, and even demand they pay a fee to perform. And that’s not all. “At one venue, strippers were starting to get fired an hour before a shift. We were told we were disposable and could be sacked at any time,” says Chiqui. In some instances, strippers were fined up to £150 by London clubs if they cancelled a shift.
By 2013, Chiqui and her colleagues had had enough. They decided to set up the East London Strippers Collective (ELSC) to promote high standards of employment and good working conditions for every performer. “It was also about bringing creativity back to stripping,” says Chiqui. “Stripping is an art form, and we wanted to show people that what we do is really beautiful.” ELSC started hosting life drawing sessions at the White Horse in Hackney, featuring striptease dancers as models, in order to give artists and other interested parties a glimpse into the world of stripping.
Sisterhood and Solidarity
Chiqui moved to Berlin in 2018. Although she found the German capital to be a more open, inclusive, and sex-positive place with less “slut shaming” than London, the working conditions for strippers didn’t seem much better. Club managers proved to be just as controlling and penny-pinching, charging strippers €30 or more if they cancelled a shift, even if they were sick.
Similar to when she was in London, Chiqui met two dancers, Suki and Edie, who were equally sick of being at the mercy of club restrictions and unscrupulous managers. Inspired by ELSC, the power trio founded their own collective in 2019. “I remember Suki and I met in a bar. One beer turned into two, three, four beers and we just thought ‘Fuck it, let’s do it’,” says Edie. Growing up in Italy, sex was largely a taboo during her youth. Edie moved to Berlin six years ago and has been stripping ever since.
You can express nudity and sexuality, and it doesn’t always have to be catered to the male gaze.
The Berlin Strippers Collective represents female and non-binary strippers. In addition to performances and life drawing sessions, it also holds events. Now 12 members strong, the collective aims to start a dialogue about sex work, dismantle common stereotypes about strippers, and provide a safe and inclusive space for performers of all backgrounds. “As sex workers we experience so much stigma,” says Edie. “A lot of people think that strippers are drug addicts or girls with daddy issues. Or worse, that we earn a lot of money, when actually, we’re just normal people. With the collective, we’ve created a family to help and support each other. My colleagues are my sisters.”
According to Edie, a lot of the stigma attached to stripping and sex work is rooted in the harmful ways women are viewed by society. From a young age, many females are taught to feel ashamed of their bodies and are forced to conceal them. “It’s considered wrong to show and capitalise on your body,” explains Edie. BSC is all about women reclaiming power over their work, their income, and, most importantly, their bodies. “How many times do we get harassed in the street or in clubs by men and we’re told to just deal with it?” continues Edie. “In the strip club, if someone wants to touch my ass, firstly they have to ask me, and secondly they have to pay me. I demand compensation for what people expect for free.”
“Society doesn’t like sex workers because we go against the system. Sex isn’t controllable, and that bothers people,” says Trixie, one of the early members of the collective. The fact that sex workers get paid for their services is another thing mainstream society isn’t comfortable with. “But that’s bullshit,” Trixie adds. “We’re all living in a market economy, we’re all subject to capitalism, so the least we can do is allow everyone to earn money the best way that they can.” Vivi, another member of the collective, agrees. “There’s a fear of people who can put their sexuality out there like that – a person that sells their body and makes money that way. But we all sell ourselves; if not our bodies, then our labour and our time. It’s crazy that sex is something to be feared rather than embraced.”
For many women, stripping presents a good career opportunity because it’s so flexible, says Chiqui. Single mothers with kids or people with mental health issues that struggle with nine-to-five jobs can work fewer hours and earn the same amount of money. This flexibility also allows strippers to pursue passions outside of their working lives. Chiqui is an avid costume maker and Trixie likes to write and perform pole dancing outside of club settings. All of these skills come together in the collective. “We’re all creative people with different personalities and things we’re good at, and now we have a platform to showcase that,” adds Chiqui.
Destigmatising stripping and the sex industry as a whole is all about raising awareness. “Just putting ourselves out there and showing that we’re normal, relatable people is really important,” says Trixie. In this vein, the BSC hosts ‘Stripper Stories’, a spoken word event where strippers talk about their experiences. “I think humour really helps with destigmatisation. When people see that we’re laughing about our experiences, it helps them realise that it’s not all exploitation in the sex industry.” The collective is also using its platform to increase access to the stripping world. “There are probably a lot of people who are interested in our work, but they don’t dare come into strip clubs,” says Edie. “We’re trying to bring our stories and performances to places that aren’t strip clubs to reach a wider audience.”
Another important aspect of the collective is reclaiming eroticism in art. Traditionally, eroticism has been confined to certain spaces like galleries, where paintings of female nudes are commonplace. “For some reason that’s socially acceptable, whereas stripping is not,” says Trixie. “We want to make a statement that there are other spaces where you can express nudity and sexuality, and it doesn’t always have to be catered to the male gaze.”
In Trixie’s experience, dancing at strip clubs is completely different to performing as part of the collective. “I don’t have to move in a way that will attract and satisfy men, which is still largely the audience in strip clubs. Instead, I can choreograph eroticism in a more creative and sophisticated way, using costumes and really focusing on the craft of stripping.”
It doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are, what matters is that everyone feels welcome.
The Future of Erotic Entertainment
2020 hasn’t been an easy year for BSC. Clubs and venues have largely closed due to COVID-19, and many strippers have been out of work as a result. Edie says that some strippers have moved to online work, but this isn’t feasible for everyone. Not only do performers need certain equipment, including a tripod, camera, and decent lightning, but the online industry has also become so oversaturated this year that it’s hard for performers to stand out.
However, the pandemic has yielded some positive things for the collective. During the summer, clubs and party venues reopened as exhibition halls, giving many organizations opportunities to showcase their art. Wilde Renate, a club next to the Spree, used its rooms to host art installations and performances, and BSC was one of the acts. “That was an amazing project that we wouldn’t have taken part in if it wasn’t for the pandemic,” says Edie.
Performing in art spaces is exactly what Chiqui has in mind for the future of the collective. “I think strip clubs are outdated spaces now. Society has become more queer, more creative, and more open, but strip clubs still cater to a heteronormative, mostly white audience.” Instead of opening their own club, Chiqui has a vision for the collective to open a gallery where it can hold workshops, female domination performances, and a queer strip-club night. “This is the future of erotic entertainment. It doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are, what matters is that everyone feels welcome. And Berlin, with its sex-positive attitude, is the perfect place for that.” BSC wants to celebrate sex and power while also making sure its members have sovereignty over their work. “This is the way forward – us taking control and running our own thing.”
Special thanks to LUPAE for supplying the amazing outfits, and thanks to Wilde Renate for the perfect location.