December 21, 2020

Clothed Until Further Notice: Being a Stripper in the COVID-19 Era

Berlin Strippers Collective

Like so many workers in Germany, strippers were hit hard by the lockdown and continuing government-imposed measures anti-coronavirus. Unlike other forms of sex work, stripping as a service was never explicitly banned, but with strip clubs forced to close, many strippers found themselves out of work for a while. In Berlin, strip clubs were closed for four months, and there were initially no clear prospects for re-opening, forcing strippers whose main source of income came from working at these clubs to contend with the prospect of sudden financial insecurity.

Many of those working in Berlin’s strip clubs come from outside of Germany. Our colleagues come from all over the world, including neighbouring Eastern and Western European countries, Australia, Canada and the United States. When the clubs closed, they returned home, as they had no source of income to support their living costs.  Those who remained in Berlin either had other sources of income or turned to other types of work in sectors still thriving despite the pandemic, such as delivery services or supermarket work. The low wages in these other jobs were a bitter contrast to what many of us were accustomed to earning.

Many also ventured into online erotic work, creating profiles on platforms where they sold photos, videos and other erotic content. At the start of the lockdown, the Berlin Strippers Collective opened a Patreon page where we uploaded videos of members dancing, doing menial tasks from home with an erotic touch, and published writings by members about topics like sex work and feminism in the capitalist system. The Collective also organized its first online show, featuring a series of striptease acts combined with comedy and acting. Since then, the Collective has hosted a number of other online events, such as life drawing sessions streamed online. These event have brought members some income.

Aside from income through gig and online service work, there was also the possibility to apply for social welfare benefits. This was available to strippers just as it was to anyone else living in Germany. As most strippers work on a self-employed basis, we were also eligible for an emergency stipend of 3,000-5,000 euros that the German government made available to all self-employed workers. However, this stipend was only intended to cover business costs, not living expenses. As many solo artists, including strippers, have little to no running business costs, this stipend was not very helpful to most of us, and those who applied for and received it will eventually have to pay it back to the state. In this sense, there was no reliable support from the state for us during the lockdown.

For those of us working precariously, there was a sex worker action fund supported by private and organizational donors, but these funds are generally only available to the most marginalized and low-income sex workers. For those who might have had enough to survive the lockdown, but continue to struggle due to the ongoing restrictions, there is no real help from the state or other organizations.

Once bars and performance venues began to re-open, there were opportunities for the Collective to perform in-person. However, the strict regulations in Berlin on how many people venues are permitted to allow inlimit the earning potential for strippers who have returned to work.

In general, strippers are affected by the same laws regarding freelance or self-employed work in Germany. This includes access to social protections, including health insurance. While the health insurance rates for solo-self-employed people in Germany have recently been reduced to accommodate low-earning freelancers, they are still quite high, as freelancers must pay for the insurance themselves. Especially in light of their reduced income as a result of the COVID-19 protection measures, strippers, like other small-scale artists and creative freelancers, are struggling to pay for basic social protections.

Even though strip clubs re-opened during the summer, they are still a risk for many who feel like they must choose between their economic security and their health. As work in a strip club is based on close, face-to-face interaction with a constant stream of new visitors every night, strippers are particularly exposed to health risks. It is difficult to enforce social distancing and other COVID-19 protection measures in the club environment. The club infrastructure and service concepts would need to change fundamentally to make the work environment safer for strippers.

One way to do this would be to introduce a peep show concept into strip clubs, where strippers perform behind glass windows and clients sit on the other side and pay tips each time they want the stripper to reveal more. However, in Germany, peep shows were officially prohibited in 1982 based on the ruling that it “undermines women’s dignity”. The law could be more supportive of strip clubs to create a safer working environment by overturning this prohibition. This would allow clubs to shift to the peep show concept and encourage them to revive this form of entertainment.

Generally, laws surrounding sex and erotic work in Germany should be less oriented by moral views and more guided by pragmatic ideas with input from those doing the work. This would enable safe working conditions in the long-term, beyond the present pandemic circumstances.

As Germany moved into a second lockdown in November, strip clubs were forced to close once again. With no further support from the state, strippers will continue to struggle for the rest of the year, and many will attempt to navigate the online market for erotic services again. The Berlin Strippers Collective has had to cancel some live performances that we had planned in November and instead we will use the time to come up with new concepts for online shows this winter, inspired by the success of the first two during the initial lockdown period.

We are already looking forward to the next time we can perform live and have optimistically started planning a cabaret show for next spring with the help of a local Berlin theatre group. If there is one positive thing that has come out of the closures, it is the drive among us strippers to mobilise our creativity to help each other survive, both financially and artistically!

The Berlin Strippers Collective is a creative and political collective that has grown out the solidarity and sister*hood, and difficulties, we have experienced in the industry.

Read of the other articles in this series or download the PDF:

Fighting for Money and Dignity: Sex Work in Berlin

How Germany Failed Sex Workers

Invisible: Sex Work and Mutual Aid During COVID-19

Sex Work Through NYC’s Pandemics