In Conversation With: United Sex Workers, UK

In Conversation With: United Sex Workers, UK

On 31 March, Edinburgh Council’s regulatory committee voted to limit the number of strip club licences in the city to zero - a de facto ban on strip clubs in Edinburgh.

Two months later, ESWA's newest member United Sex Workers launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund legal challenges against strip club bans across the UK - starting with a judicial review against Edinburgh City Council.

ESWA Communications Officer Marin Scarlett sat down with USW's branch organiser Mina Karenina and co-chair Tess Herrmann to discuss their groundbreaking legal action against this discriminatory decision. 


Marin: United Sex Workers are ESWA’s newest member, welcome! What made you decide to want to join ESWA?

Mina: A friend of mine asked me about writing her a reference for her application to join the board of ESWA. At the same time, I was working on a USW funding application. The application prompted questions like: how do we represent more marginalised workers? How do we connect more with groups outside of the groups that we already know? How do we see how people are doing things in other countries? And that made everyone really enthusiastic about joining. At USW we have a good structure in place already – grassroots and non-hierarchical, and effectively working! So I think the main thing is just to be more connected. And also seeing how other people do things and learning from each other as well.

Tess: We’ve been following ESWA’s work for years through our sister organisation x:talk and thought it was time for us to become more directly involved ourselves. It’s important for labour movements to work internationally and connect with other organisations that are trying to achieve similar goals – especially in an industry that’s so difficult to organise!

Marin: USW are at the forefront of organising right now - can you tell me about the push to ban strip clubs that you're fighting against in Edinburgh?

MinaOfficially, there is no ban on strip clubs. The current approach is a licensing restructure that they call the “nil-cap”. It sets the number of strip club licences that can be issued at zero.

Tess: The law was first introduced in 2010 in England and Wales and since then, councils all over these countries have imposed nil-cap policies. Although most recently in Bristol, where they were discussing a nil-cap for years, our members campaigning there were actually able to change the outcome and prevent a strip club ban! This law was only introduced in Scotland in 2019 so we haven't had to deal with nil-caps until more recently.

Mina: That said, there's been a specific Member of the Scottish Parliament who has been trying to shut down strip clubs for at least fifteen years.

Marin: So was the decision in Edinburgh something you anticipated, or did it come as quite a shock?

Mina: It was a real shock. We knew some of the councillors on board and the vote itself was quite tight - just 5-4 in favour.

Tess: Oh god, I remember getting the message while I was at the gym and breaking down in tears because I couldn’t believe it. They didn’t even offer the currently open clubs the right to stay open indefinitely until they lose their licence because of something else – which is something that other councils have done when they decided on a nil-cap.

Marin: Did you immediately know that you wanted to launch a challenge?

Tess: (laughs) We actually mentioned to the council that we would launch a Judicial Review to challenge them in our statement at the licensing hearing so there was no way we weren’t going to do this. It was just a matter of finding a legal team in Scotland and fundraising enough money before the deadline.

Mina: We have an amazing legal caseworker and when it came through, she immediately suggested getting a judicial review underway, to ask them to revisit the decision because it is clearly unlawful. As a union, we’ve already been making our arguments on the basis of the 2010 Equality Act. Of course, not all sex workers are women, but the majority are and this decision does predominantly affect women, especially because all the strip clubs in Edinburgh only hire women or those who work as women. So the judicial review wants to take it forward under the argument that it is indirect gender discrimination, and is therefore unlawful. The challenge was then finding out that the judicial review is going to cost a lot of money – upwards of £60,000.

Marin: Oof.

Mina: Right, which would obviously bankrupt everyone! We don’t want to work with bosses or be dependent on them any more than necessary, as our interests will never be truly aligned. We considered applying for legal aid, but that would mean having one lead claimant that may be personally affected, and we don’t know how the process may be for them, and how emotionally taxing or difficult. We did have some people who put themselves forward but we didn’t want to put them through that, especially if we couldn't promise anonymity or just how stressful that process was going to be. So then, we thought about crowdfunding. We found an amazing legal firm who are genuinely passionate about the cause and have been great to work with so far. We discussed a budget that was set at £20,000.

Marin: That’s more manageable than £60,000! But still a mammoth task.

Mina: It was such an amazing community effort. Everyone came together for it: Decrim Now, ECP, Bristol Sex Workers Collective, Scot Pep, ESWA, as well as some more vocal community activists that have a following. Individual sex workers offered things in exchange for donations like a free month on their OnlyFans, there were pole studios donating proceeds from their classes, the kink community offered free rope classes. We pushed so hard to get it to £20k – and then we remembered the GoFundMe fees! So we had to have another push to get that covered as well, but within another couple of days we finally hit our goal.

Tess: We’re so grateful to everyone who’s donated, shared or organised fundraising events for this! 

Marin: It was amazing to see the community come together to support this, and a massive congratulations from all of us. Do you have a sense of when the case will go to court?

Tess: So, the club owners – who are obviously more able to afford this legal challenge – have officially submitted their motion for a judicial review already and our legal team put in a motion to join them as an interested party. It’s been tricky to work with club owners and they haven’t always been very welcoming but I think ultimately they know that the judicial review is a lot stronger if we’re able to join them. Our arguments are really good and we represent the workers that will actually be affected by the strip club ban. I think in the past, legal challenges of strip club licences have been fought between club owners and anti-sex worker activists and that makes the industry look really bad. Now, we have a union that can actually make sure that the voices of dancers are actually represented as well. We’re just waiting for the decision if we can join the motion because Edinburgh City Council has already opposed our participation – but we’re confident that we’ll be able to hop on the judicial review very soon.

Marin: What are you hoping for from the outcome? Beyond winning, that is!

Mina: The main thing, obviously, is if we can establish that nil caps on SEVs are unlawful and discriminatory under the Equality Act. That will stop city councils from trying to put this in place again, because there will be a legal precedent telling them that this is against the law. And fundamentally I just want to say this is not about saying that stripping is “empowering” or whatever, it’s that this is people’s livelihoods, and they shouldn’t have that taken away.

Tess: I think, beyond winning, we want to show that workers, in this case strippers, have to be included in decisions about their workplaces and these kinds of legal battles always need worker representation. 

Marin: Mina and Tess, thank you so much for talking to me and welcome to ESWA.


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