The Agency in Stripping: A look at Berlin’s Strippers Collective

Von Vanessa Berthold

Im Anschluss an die Sitzung zu diskriminierungskritischen Perspektiven und Praxiserfahrungen in feministischer Pornografie hat Vanessa Berthold mit einer Person, die selbst als Sexarbeiterin in einem Stipperinnenkollektiv arbeitet und organisiert ist, über Fragen von Agency gesprochen. Ihre Reflektionen zum Gespräch und passenden Texten hat Vanessa im folgenden Artikel festgehalten.

A pretty solid case can be made that general society and the institutions that come with it have a long track record of viewing those in the sex and sex adjacent industries such as escorts, strippers, or porn actors through a blended gaze of stigma and victimhood. As vulnerable individuals without agency ho are susceptible to exploitation and abuse and therefore need to be saved but not necessarily consulted in the process.

From the schools of feminism that view sex work as somehow further reducing women as a commodity for the patriarchy and counter productive to goals of equality. To the reluctance of the #MeToo movement in the US to include Sex Workers, because ‘How can you sexually assault a whore?’ And the academic community which seems overtly interested in studying sex work only in relation to topics such as trauma, health issues, and violence (Sullivan & McKee, 2015).

These repetitive and selective narratives in constant circulation need to be diversified for society to see the complexity and variety of reality that exists. And that means listening to the voices of self-determined sex and sex-adjacent workers in these industries.

There are of course reasons to question or be concerned about some aspects of the sex industry. But this can of course be said about many industries or groups which face stigma, lack adequate legislative protection, or are relegated by hegemonic structures to operate at the fringes of society.

This piece will not go into the layered details and twists and turns of complexity and nuance that the subject matters hold and deserve to have recognized for an in-depth analysis. There are waaaay more suitable works to read if that’s what you’re looking for. It will instead consider and explore the aspect of agency through a retelling of my chat with Trixie over tea and mochi as well as some moments from the Stripper Stories performance I attended. Between settling down, ordering, and having our vaccination passes verified, Trixie and I exchanged a bit about our backgrounds. Having a decade’s worth of stripping experience in the States, Germany, and the UK, Trixie is one of the earlier members of the Collective, a decentralized network of strippers in Germany that was founded during the pandemic in 2019.

BSC regularly puts on wonderfully creative, sexy, funny, and insightful events (more on that later) with the capacity to pull in a diverse audience one doesn’t tend to find in the average strip club. This can be credited to the collective’s phenomenal members, kick-ass presence and beliefs (I highly encourage you to check out their manifesto), and yes, as Trixie confirmed during our chat, partial credit must go out to BSC’s capacity to demonstrate or perhaps even perform its agency to the public.

The concept of agency, with its enlightenment roots, has typically been tied to free will and viewed as the capacity to decide and act. And while agency is viewed differently depending on the field of research, in feminist discourses it has often been viewed through its capacity to resist the patriarchal order (Goddard, 2000). And while resistance is an important kind of agency, reducing agency just to resistance solidifies dichotomies of the powerful and powerless, the resistant and the complacent. Such a dichotomy

“flattens out a complex and ambiguous agency in which women accept, accommodate, ignore, resist, or protest — sometimes all at the same time.”

MacLeod in: Ahearn, 2001

When discussing agency with Trixie, she talked about the power dynamics of the different roles in the industry. Something; she reminded me, that’s shared across all labor processes and structures in the capitalistic system.

She reflected on her experiences and how important the interpersonal dynamics and relationships were and what a difference that could make to the working experience. That the clubs with a management team made up solely of cis men who’d never stripped a day in their live typically ran on more vertical hierarchies which could make working difficult. And that the opposite was true when management did have a background in stripping. How a tendency could be drawn between high power gaps between dancers and management in the clubs which had a complacent atmosphere or where dancers had low levels of solidarity with one another. Just as how, when dancers did have solidarity, their decision and bargaining power seemed to be stronger.

I found it quite interesting that before performing, the topic of agency did not play much of a role in Trixie’s perception of strip work. It wasn’t until after she’d started stripping that she recognized; via external impulses on agency or rather the perceived lack of it in her new field, how closely others tied her work to the notion of agency.

Throughout her career, these kinds of inquiries and encounters continued. Perhaps ironically from some of the typically cis male patrons in the clubs she’s worked at in the form of a seemingly concerned ‘everything ok?’ or ‘they treating you alright?’

The concern or rather conviction that these workers lack agency isn’t just restricted to clients. We went on to speak about how; in most industries, various social identities and statues often lead to a difference in the amount of agency one is perceived to have within this business. This was observable in the practices of police who occasionally control the clubs, separating staff along perceived racial and linguistic lines, trying to identify which workers may come from outside Germany or the EU and potentially there against the law or against their will. Which is their priority, who knows.

It can be seen in the outreach attempt of a religious missionary group who arrived at a club Trixie previously worked at, handed out sandwiches to the dancers while offering a listening ear and helping hand; presumable to help the strippers get out of this ‘situation’. To which Trixie replied that if they really wanted to help, they should have asked for lap dances.

After a good moment of enjoying the absurdity of the scenario, the conversation moved on to the city of Berlin and not only the kind of setting, environment, and context it provides for sex or sex-adjacent work, but the perception and discourses that surround it, shape it, and is shaped by it.

One of the things Trixie was most adamant about was that the ‘Berlin Bubble’ is perhaps an exception or rather an outlier to the norm. She argued that the city’s dual characteristics of sex positivity and social consciousness meet to create the perfect crossroads for the city’s distinctive stripper culture.

Trixie’s point of needing to recognize the space in which her stories took place connects to the works of scholars Lalu and Ahearn. Lalu makes a case for the concept of agency to encompass the “norms, practices, institutions, and discourses“ through which agency is made possible. Ahearn continues to build on this notion while focusing on the dynamics of language and discourse in to shape the “socioculturally mediated capacity to act”.

And fortunately, the sociocultural landscape of berlin, while far from perfect, does result in a setting where a collective such as BSC can put together events such as the Life Drawing event which combines the art of striptease and the art of drawing. Here, performers will strip freeze, and hold poses, while the audience to sketches. The Stripperature event is a reading group for ‘women, femmes, and thems’ which encourages participants to get dolled up, discuss feminist texts, and challenge the binary notion that intelligence and sexiness are mutually exclusive.

In the Stripper Stories event, a series of pole performances and short stories are told in a comfortable space where exchanges between audience and performer are encouraged. In the show I attended, performers’ stories touched on topics such as boundary setting, the nature of capitalism, and how all our bodies are tools of our labor. They spoke of the need to prioritize the self in an increasingly loud society that tells us to hustle and grind and prioritize everything all at once.

Between wonderful performances which served humor, sass, drama, playfulness, and iconic looks, the event’s structure and welcoming presence of the performers allowed for questions to be asked which broke down boundaries of stigma and knowledge. The conversation turned to the different political models of sex work and some of the performers advocated for the political goals the community is currently striving for.

So dear reader, I ask you, if speaking and living one’s reality while working to better it through engaging with wider society on multiple levels isn’t an agency, what is?

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