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Beyond the pole: cultivating community and destigmatising sex work

Talking Sexquisite and Riot Party with Maedb Joy

Illustration by @npl_illustration

On a cold February evening, I went to see the sex worker cabaret, Sexquisite. The show opened with an aerial hoopist twirling around and around to Christina Aguilera’s ‘Hurt’, bathed in light by the giant pink heart which illuminates the back wall of Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club.

They were followed by a dancer dressed like a Barbie spinning round a pole to Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed A Girl’ as her girlfriend cheered her on from a front row seat. The crowd were shy at first but were soon won over by the charming host April Fiasco, and made their pre-paid fake dollars rain down on the stage. It wasn’t all pop music and poles, though; the evening also allowed for moments of reflection, with lived-experience led poetry readings and talks advocating for sex workers’ rights – most notably, from the founder of Sexquisite, Maedb Joy. 

The birth of Sexquisite

Maedb is a talented poet, theatre-maker, actor and writer who set up Sexquisite back in 2019. After leaving school without any GCSEs and battling with personal issues, the odds were stacked against her, yet she received a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. While she was there, she was inspired to combine sex worker art with activism after the passing of FOSTA/SESTA in the United States. This law aimed to curtail the selling of sex work online, in turn making work more dangerous as it made sex workers unable to vet clients before meeting them in person. 

Enraged and mobilised, Maedb did a callout on Facebook searching for sex worker artists for a university project. It was here that she met April Fiasco, who asked her to meet her at a coffee shop before her shift at a central London strip club. 

“I’d never spoken to anyone else about me doing sex work before, and it was really cool to meet an older woman and for her to be like ‘yeah, I’m a stripper’ and be able to be open about it,” says Maedb as we catch up over coffee. Their relationship grew from there, and April went on to become the host for their first sex worker cabaret: the birth of Sexquisite. 

Over the pandemic, Sexquisite hosted online writing courses for sex workers to process their experiences during lockdown and how this impacted their livelihood. They’ve also gone on to write and perform a play, Stripped!,, which was based on people’s lived experiences in the strip club. While it’s most well-known for its monthly sex worker cabaret, which I attended, speaking to Maedb reveals how multidisciplinary the collective really is. 

Building community 

“As soon as you’ve done sex work you’re excluded from society and completely isolated,” Maedb says. “So, in Sexquisite, I created a space that I really needed: a space for sex workers to come together, connect and process their experiences through art, form friendships and community, and to protect sex workers at risk of isolation.” 

Sex work can also be isolating due to the practicalities of the job. Stigma also often leads to people being isolated from their friends, family and makes traditional dating more difficult. The work is often carried out online at home via camming or OnlyFans. When done in-person, it’s actually illegal in the UK for sex workers to work together under the same roof as this can be viewed as ‘brothel keeping,’ so there’s little opportunity to build a community through the job.

The Ethical Stripper, author of the book by the same name and founder of the East London Strippers Collective, also asserts this need for community: “when sex workers have peers they can talk to, share their experiences with and ask for advice, support or even just friendship – this can be life-changing to many people who would otherwise lack these social connections.” 

This isolation is also an issue of safety. “Isolation keeps sex workers invisible and without peers, which in turn leaves them more vulnerable to coercion and exploitation,” explains Maedb. This instability is compounded if sex workers also identify as marginalised in other intersecting ways, such as having insecure asylum status, sex workers of colour, and being a single mother. 

Discrimination and online censorship 

Just as the FOSTA/SESTA law claimed to clamp down on trafficking but in reality just made sex workers in the US more vulnerable, the UK Online Safety Act (which came into law in October 2023) also further threatens sex workers in Britain with isolation and exploitation. 

The bill was created to prevent trafficking or exploitation online but, as the Ethical Stripper points out “policies [are] being designed and produced by people who are deeply out of touch with those it will impact.” In reality, these restrictions curtail the ability of sex workers to advertise online, which has the potential to force them into street solicitation where it’s less safe. 

This online censorship also affects the advertisement of events that companies like Meta could view as any way related to sex. Maedb worries that her social media channels for either of her sex worker run events could be deleted without any notice. This could be detrimental to the small businesses since social media is where they’ve built a following and promote their events. 

While Sexquiste provides an important space by and for sex workers, Maedb also wanted to create an additional space which celebrated queerness and kink with “activism at its core.” And so, with her co-founder Alex, who she originally met on Feeld and quickly became her event-promoter-mentor, she set up Riot Party.

Culture versus costume

When Alex and Maedb attended kinky raves, they never felt quite right to them. “I felt like people were always wearing sex work attire, without joining the fight for sex workers’ rights,” says Maedb. Celebrities with huge followings have worn the famous sky-high stripper heels, Pleasers. After Kim Kardashian wore them at the 2022 Met Gala, her followers flocked to buy them – but when this happens, it creates shortages for strippers who need the shoes to protect their feet and often can’t work without them. Strippers can also be detained for carrying Pleasers in their luggage. 

There are also some lingerie and fashion brands who rely on the aesthetics of the sex work industry but don’t want to be associated with sex workers. “It’s sad because some of these companies are hugely influential and actually have the power to really move the conversation forward around sex workers’ rights,” says the Ethical Stripper.

“There’s also a problem in the pole fitness industry of those seeking to ‘professionalise’ the sport by massively distancing themselves from strippers and sex workers.” An online movement was created as pole has moved from the strip club to the dance class with pole fitness dancers putting #NotAStripper on Instagram posts. And as Maedb points out, “the kink world is adjacent to the sex work community, but there’s not much co-ordination between the two scenes.” 

Diversifying kink

As a person of colour, Alex was also concerned with the lack of diversity in the kink spaces he attended. “With Riot Party, we felt it was important to create intentional spaces where our communities saw themselves represented within the organisational structure,” he explains. With all of this in mind, they primarily book queer POC artists, DJs, and those who have lived experience of sex work. 

Constantly looking to improve their outreach and thinking of ways they can target their communities – especially, as Maedb/Alex says, “if they have previously felt disillusioned or hadn’t really engaged with the kink scene” – Riot have now launched a free / low cost monthly social to incentivise newcomers to engage with the Riot community in a more chilled setting. 

Clampdown on events of a sexual nature 

Another barrier to hosting sex worker-led events is the lack of venues willing to host them. Maedb had first-hand experience of this when first starting out. “People seemed really interested in the idea of a feminist cabaret, but when I said sex workers were involved they’d be like something came up in the diary,” she says. Eventually she found hosts at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club – as I got to enjoy first-hand – and her residency there has been going on for four years. 

💌

However, as willing venues are few and far between – Fire and Lightbox, the Vauxhall club, have recently announced they are no longer hosting events of a sexual nature – there is a worry that these events will remain on the fringe. “Our community is really beautiful,” says Maedb, “but what if it’s not able to grow outside its own echo chamber?” 

While the Sexquisite and Riot Party event-goers are supportive and open, there’s no denying the prevailing conservative public attitudes. Recently, The Independent released an article stating ‘a quarter of women think sex work should be stigmatised’, showing the extent to which the movement still faces an uphill climb. 

Financial discrimination

Another area in which sex workers and affiliated organisations face barriers is within banking. Sexquisite recently had their business bank account with Revolut shut down. When Maedb questioned it, the bank wouldn’t provide any further details. Previously, the limited company had already been denied by five banks. On top of this, Sexquisitive actively needs a business bank account to be able to apply for any Arts Council funding.

Both Sexquisite and Riot, whose events are linked to the ticket-buying app Dice, have not been able to receive payouts from their events due to the payment provider service for Dice – Stripe. I reached out to another similar sex-positive event who wished to remain anonymous over fear that they’ll have another account deactivated. They confirmed a similar problematic encounter with the payment processing platform. Their account was shut down by Stripe within 24 hours of being live as their event “went against the terms of service”, the event holder said. 

It wasn’t until 1975 when single women could open a bank account in their own name, and Maedb draws on this similarity. “They’re trying to erase a whole sub-section of society,” she laments. 

Taking the wins

However, the community aren’t taking these restrictions lying down. In another attempted clampdown last year, Tower Hamlets council tried to introduce a policy that would prohibit nudity within nightlife venues. However, Karl Verboten, founder of the kink event Klub Verboten, organised a #SaveKinkSpaces protest which saw hundreds of kinksters, some in full fetish wear, descend on the town hall. It was an important moment, kinksters coming out in daylight proudly showing off their gimp gear and protesting to keep their spaces, and they won. 

Another win worth celebrating is the Bristol Sex Workers Collective fighting against a blanket ban of all sexual entertainment venues in the city. But there’s still a way to go, and Maedb is continuing the fight. 

Both Sexquisite and Riot are doing everything they can to make sure that sex workers aren’t erased, whether that is by telling sex workers’ stories, providing creative opportunities for their marginalised communities or creating a space for sex workers to feel safe and just enjoy themselves. I ask Maedb what she hopes for the future of both of her sex worker-led events and she replies: “I hope that it’s not a phase and that people join us in the fight for sex workers’ rights beyond a fun night out.” 

Having had the pleasure of attending both, I know that Riot Party and Sexquisite are such great nights out that attendees in the wider sex positive community might forget who they were set up for. It’s just as important to enjoy watching aerial hoopists in 10-inch heels as it is to listen to sex workers tell their stories and to learn from their lived experience to advocate for their rights. 

Illustration by @npl_illustration who says: “The picture shows a collage of individuals striking various poses in the forefront. This is mixed in with line drawn figures in the background. In a vibrant yellow, the line drawings depict figures acrobatically dancing around poles and hoops. The pink box in the top left of the piece holds the title of the piece: Destigmatising sex work.”
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