Despite having been recognised as an official profession since the 1950s, there’s still a lot of things we don’t know about what it’s like to be a stripper. Whether it be based off of misogynistic stereotypes or unfounded criticisms of the sex work industry, strippers’ identities, thoughts and feelings about their own work has been repeatedly pushed to the side or ignored.
What seems to keep happening is that rather than listen to those who’re actually stripping for a living, we rely on the discourse and opinion of a society whose attitudes are defined by media stereotypes and outdated modes of thinking to make up our minds on the profession. And, historically, society has always been unkind to women who break tradition.
One club set on rebalancing the power dynamics of the stripping industry is 23 Paul Street. Nestled in a leafy corner of Shoreditch, London, 23 Paul Street is a “townhouse of tease” which acts as a stunning backdrop to sex work done right. The club is female-led, and its number one priority is protecting the safety of its employees. Respect, boundaries, and rules are at the forefront of the club’s ethos.
There are so many misconceptions about strippers—for starters, sex work does not simply translate to someone who gets paid to have sex with people. Moreover, there’s often immediate presumptions about strippers’ personalities, interests and, most importantly, the reasons why they strip in the first place.
So, to try and gain a greater perspective on the industry, SCREENSHOT spoke with 27-year-old Skyla, a stripper who’s been 23 Paul Street for five months, and in the industry since she was 19.
Having “always loved dancing,” Skyla knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry. And then, when she turned 19, she spent the summer stripping with her best friend in order to fund their holidays in the sun. For Skyla, her first day in a strip club still feels like it was yesterday.
“I was so nervous, I have no idea how I got through it. I went to this little rundown club in my TK Maxx maxi dress (because you had to wear long dresses back then), stumbled around this pole and somehow got the job and it just then funded my lifestyle of having a really good time that summer,” Skyla recalled.
From there, she began working in different small clubs in East London, going from “low-end” venues to slightly bigger “tourist attraction ones.” Skyla noted how, as the years have gone on, she’s tried other forms of sex work such as Babestation and OnlyFans, but has always preferred the “personal touch, where you’re face to face with people.”
“I like the interaction with people, it’s one of the main reasons I keep coming back to it,” she continued.
As made evidently clear from the company’s website, 23 Paul Street is a rule-oriented environment, one where women run the show. Skyla shared: “It’s such an empowering club. I’ve never worked somewhere that is all-female run and not only female run, some of the managers have been strippers before. They understand what we’re going through and when we have our bad nights, they know the rules to put in place to keep us safe and to keep us [together] as a team.”
Having management that not only prioritises the safety and well-being of their employees, but can also directly relate to their day-to-day experiences and interactions, completely changes the energy of the environment and creates a space where dancers feel empowered rather than disrespected.
On top of this, Skyla emphasised the ways in which the management style and make-up can impact the performers’ dynamics as well. She noted how “there’s a lot of clubs where it is so catty because everyone has to fend for themselves,” whereas with 23 Paul Street being female-led, the hierarchy is completely different. The entertainer joked: “Men who run strip clubs are on a power trip, and they’re all assholes, I’ve decided.”
It’s definitely always been assumed that men are far more likely to visit a strip club than women are. And while that’s definitely not always the case, Skyla did reveal that she interacts with solo male customers much more often than she does solo women. However, she did also state that 23 Paul Street regularly has couples who visit together, predominantly to explore and try something new in their relationship.
While women have been at the forefront of sexual pleasure, it’s historically been for the benefit of men—almost as if we’re props for their own personal enjoyment. Skyla did express how she’s previously worked at a few different events which have been geared towards lesbians and bisexual women, and that she’d definitely like for there to be a more balanced gender split.
While platforms like OnlyFans have helped de-centralise the sex work industry and allow for more women to not only become involved as earners, but also as viewers, it’s definitely still the case that when it comes to in-person strip clubs, men are the dominant clientele.
While our chat focused primarily on the ways in which stripping as a profession has been historically misunderstood, I did think it was also important to showcase some of the ways in which Skyla has experienced abuse of power and intimidation within the industry.
When asked about her worst experience as a stripper, Skyla divulged that when she first started out, she was working in a club, and during her second or third shift, the “house mum” (aka, an informal manager of sorts for the dancers) took her and another dancer aside and said: “Just so you know, when you’ve finished giving any blowjobs, just make sure that you tip the bouncer.”
Skyla was understandably completely taken aback by the comment. She continued, explaining: “I just thought to myself ‘I’m never going to make money here’.” Following this, Skyla was confronted by a customer who, after she had given him a dance, demanded something more, complaining that he’d been given a “five knuckle shuffle” previously, and insisting Skyla find a girl who’d take her place. That was the moment when she decided to never go back to that club.
One of the most important points I wanted to touch upon with Skyla was how she felt regarding stereotypes and misconceptions surrounding both being a stripper, and the stripping industry as a whole.
Beginning to laugh, Skyla confessed: “My favourite one is when someone says ‘Oh, you know what, someone’s gonna really care for you one day’. I have a husband at home that loves me, so it’s very condescending to hear from a stranger ‘Oh somebody will love you one day’.”
It’s a massive misconception that in order to be a stripper, someone must be automatically single, alone, and in need of a man to swoop in and save them—this just is not the case. Of course, there are cases of sexual and emotional exploitation within the sex work industry, but it’s irresponsible and plain wrong to assume this is the default.
Judgement will always exist in the sex work industry, which is why it’s so important to get more testimonials from the people who actually navigate that world every day.
Moreover, as previously mentioned, sex work is not one thing, there are individuals who participate in so many different facets of the industry and it’s incredibly offensive to bundle everyone all together.
Skyla noted: “We’re just normal people at the end of the day. I guess it’s better now because it is more talked about, but you still get people that do make judgments. If they get to know you, you’re just doing what you need to do, sometimes you don’t even take your pants off!”
“It would be nice for people to realise that actually, we’re just normal people and we’re going to go home at the end of the night. You might have another day job and some people may have kids to go back to, it’s just a job. It’s the oldest job in the book and we’re just using what we’ve got to do it,” the dancer concluded.
For Skyla, her time as a professional stripper has allowed her to make “the most amazing friends. I’ve still got friends from nine years ago when I started in my first ever club. I actually recently got one of them a job at 23 Paul Street, so that’s been amazing.”
Skyla continued: “I’ve also had some amazing experiences. One night at 23 Paul Street, before I’d even started working there, one of the managers invited me over for this ‘pecking order’ night. It was all about empowering women and using the men as coffee tables and things like that.”
It was at that event that Skyla met this group of guys who subsequently took her and a few other dancers to Thailand, Nikki Beach and on a number of other incredible trips.
“I’m potentially never going to be able to do that again. And that’s all thanks to the people that I’ve met through stripping, because it’s not about sex. Sometimes, people just want friendship and to go enjoy some time outside of the club.”
The last thing I wanted to ask Skyla was when she might consider taking a step back from the stripping industry. Almost immediately after I posed the question to her, she jumped in and exclaimed “until it’s not fun anymore.”
Of course, she recognises that “you can overdo it” but, as long as someone is “getting enough sleep and doing it because they want to, not because they have to,” then Skyla doesn’t see why there needs to be a cut-off point.
For the 23 Paul Street dancer, she’s never wanted to strip solely for the money, it’s always been so much more than that. Skyla rounded up our chat by explaining: “I genuinely enjoy my time here, and of course I like being able to get paid well. That’s the beauty of it. When you’re not seeking it out, you always have a great night with great people and just meet individuals from all different walks of life as well.”
We all know the name of that film that took to the box office in 2015 and brought the word ‘BDSM’ to our living room conversations. The moody Christian Grey and his infamous ‘Red Room’, where pain becomes pleasure, were inescapable. BDSM soon became a code word for the world of whips and constraints, consent forms signed in boardrooms and tall white men who live ‘scandalous’ double lives as a dominant (dom) to a female damsel—one who is a meek submissive (sub).
However, the movie (as well as the books it is adapted from) failed in presenting the fact that BDSM expands much further than such binaries. From women in the position of the dominatrix to men finally finding a safe space to explore an identity outside toxic heteronormative masculinity, the subculture is a catalyst in redefining what the face of femininity looks like and could be the key to changing the idea of gender norms as we know it.
The acronym BDSM represents ‘Bondage’ and ‘discipline’ (or domination), ‘sadism’ (or submission) and ‘masochism’. Within the movement is an explorative playground where partners can take on different roles and delve into a wide array of sexual activities, kinks and dynamics. Generally speaking, in these dynamics, there’s often a dominant/master, who is a sadist and administers pain, coupled with a submissive, who is typically a masochist and receives pain—both derive pleasure from their respective roles. This can be through various physical forms such as spanking, biting, bondage, role-playing and more. Through BDSM, one can find pleasure in pain but also discover other, intimate hidden parts of themselves—a journey that uncovers their personal limits and desires through means that are not always sexual in nature.
A journey that is now, thankfully, being led by women.
When we think of those who would be considered dominant in BDSM relationships, we often marry our ideas with those who society has conditioned us to believe normally hold power. This is why we often think of men as doms. These concepts are further reinforced by, pardon-the-pun, dominant pop culture moments that have us in a chokehold like the Fifty Shades of Grey era, whereby a dom is depicted as a tall brooding white cis-male who solely possesses the authority to dominate in the dom/sub dynamic. Yet in the real world of BDSM communities, women and non-binary people can also be doms—a fact that is often ignored. It is the assertive confidence and curiosity of female and non-binary doms that continue to breakdown the rigid binaries that still exist in gender conformity.
Aurélie, an afro-feminist dominatrix from Brussels, first entered the world of BDSM when she met a romantic partner who wanted to push her into further exploring herself. “I have always been a free spirit,” she told SCREENSHOT. “I believe that rules are made to be broken, especially if they are not there to protect me.” Through BDSM, Aurélie has been able to further exercise her naturally dominant and expressive energy—despite the fact that, as the dominatrix herself admitted, it has always been rare to meet women who are doms in the BDSM scene, “especially black women.”
Aurélie’s upbringing was rooted in femininity. Without a significant father figure in her life, her family life consisted of just one strong woman who raised her children independently. Despite this, Aurélie was still unable to escape the traditional African and colonial-Christian ideals of womanhood in the midst of her adolescence. “When you grow up in an African household, at parties, the aunties only tell the girls to get up and serve the food—but I am wearing heels and tired. Why do I need to do that when the men are wearing sneakers?” she said.
Being a dominatrix has allowed Aurélie to live in complete actualisation of who she is without the constraint of false, arbitrary ideas of femininity that continue to envelop us in a patriarchal society. “BDSM allowed me to discover myself more and to inspire others. I’m not less of a woman, I’m just being myself and for that, I don’t care [what people think].”
Mistress RaeRae, a dominatrix and LGBTQIA+ activist, has also experienced the rigid gender ideas that plague black womanhood. “Black women are told how they’re supposed to be, how they’re supposed to act and what they’re supposed to be doing—be it through society, music or the media,” she told SCREENSHOT. RaeRae, who was introduced to BDSM after being approached by someone at a party, found that being a dominatrix allows her to re-appropriate the power she thought she had lost after being a victim of a sex crime. She explained, “BDSM is a way of communicating and making sure that everyone is feeling how they want to feel, everyone is feeling safe and heard and actively giving consent.”
For RaeRae, the notions of femininity that she had been taught as a young black woman are now non-existent in her BDSM practices—which ripple into the safe spaces she creates for her subs. “In BDSM, we are trying to remove all of these types of gender roles and coding,” she shared. “Femininity is a broad spectrum and the definitions of femininity that we normally look at in our society are very one-sided. Femininity can be expressed in many different forms.”
Mistress RaeRae embodies a form of domination that allows for the fluidity of gender to exist—doing away with such gender-restrictive boxes. And in a community where most subs are expected to be women, RaeRae believes that even receivers hold their own power, dominating doesn’t indefinitely equate to ‘the strongest’—further challenging the prevailing ideas of womanhood. “Being a dom has made me understand that there is power even in submissiveness. It isn’t a bad thing to be a nurturer and you don’t lose any power in this because subs are letting the dom know whether they can or cannot continue what they are doing.”
Domme Claire is a dominatrix who has TikTok in the palm of their hands. With over 200,000 followers, their daily videos about their experience as a dom incites curiosity and inspiration. For Claire, BDSM has been a vital tool to tap into both their feminine and masculine energies. “I have always felt a bit weird with the idea of femininity. I think my autism plays a really big role in that because for me, gender is such an abstract concept,” they said. “Even if I’m wearing my seven-inch boots, I feel very powerful and I feel both masculine and feminine at the same time.”
Claire’s ability to tap into both sides of themselves mirrors the vastness of their clientele. “I thought only straight men would want to submit to me—I never thought women would want to pay for my services or even gay men,” they admitted. Domme Claire first got into BDSM while working in a strip club. After getting interesting requests from men, they soon started to play around with kinks and explore their naturally-inclined dominant nature. Their continued professional work as a dom has allowed them to self-actualise themselves in their everyday life, “BDSM has helped me to be more confident and not afraid to speak up. It has been incredibly empowering to break down the social constructs that I have had growing up and become myself more.”
Pop culture trends tend to often mimic—or react to—the core, foundational beliefs of our otherwise-conservative societal structure. Therefore, it is no surprise that BDSM and other alternative ways to practise sex, intimacy and physical relationships continue to be seen as deviant and taboo—take the controversy around solo polyamory, for example. The issue with this perception is that many people are repeatedly blind to how these alternative ways of exploring oneself can actually breed transformational growth within a person and change them positively forever.
Domme Claire has witnessed an inner-growth in their clients that continues to surprise them. “BDSM is a very useful tool, especially when you want to deal with trauma, [though] it is best when you use it in conjunction with therapy,” they said. “There are men who have feminisation kinks which allow them to explore their femininity in a way that is safe and away from misogyny and it’s honestly incredible to watch them grow and embrace all parts of themselves.”
Aurélie further pointed out how BDSM is not just about pleasure nor is it really about pain. “BDSM is about communication, listening and respecting boundaries,” she mentioned. These are all pillars of human connection that need to be constantly worked on and developed, ones that can be nurtured in healthy BDSM relationships and in turn, evolve into the core of our everyday relationships. Mistress RaeRae echoed the same sentiment, “Everybody practises a level of BDSM—they just don’t realise that what they are practising is BDSM,” she said, adding how the practice centres around consent, asking and checking if the participants are okay. “It is a constant exchange of power,” she summed up.
As we speak, female and non-binary doms are redefining gender and pushing a form of BDSM that has personal evolution at its centre. Through the practice, people can find a power within themselves that is often present when one is curious and in tune with their sexual being. With that said, let’s rid ourselves of the limiting taboos surrounding the BDSM community and instead be pleasantly surprised at the transformed version of ourselves that appears on the other side.