Why Spearmint Rhino strippers are fighting to save their jobs

“I’ve had some of the most fun times of my life, it’s really transformed my world,” says Rachel McCoy who is 37, a mother to two children – and a stripper.

By Molly Williams
Wednesday, 22 May, 2019, 11:21

Rachel – who has worked at Spearmint Rhino in Sheffield for more than two years – said: “I’ve always worked hard but really struggled financially, so this is the first time in my life I’ve had some freedom and I can treat my kids.”

Strippers and supporters of Spearmint Rhino are fighting to save their jobs and livelihoods after a secret, sexually graphic video filmed inside the club threatened to shut them down.

Strippers from Speramint Rhino and their supporters make banners and posters in defence of their jobs. Celia Lister. Picture Scott Merrylees

The club, on Brown Street, is the only licensed sexual entertainment venue in Sheffield and has been open for 16 years.

Employees say the licensing restrictions have become more strict every year in an effort to ‘squeeze them out’.

They fear that if they are closed down women will have to work in dangerous environments, become financially unstable and their community would be broken up.

Heather Watson, 23, is a student and has been a stripper at Spearmint Rhino for seven months. She was raised a nudist and said the job had boosted her confidence and allowed her to study; she worries that without it she would have to quit her masters degree and leave Sheffield.

Strippers from Speramint Rhino and their supporters make banners and posters in defence of their jobs. Natalie Charlesworth, Harley Blair, Rosa Vince, Celia Lister, Rachel McCoy and Ella Smith. Picture Scott Merrylees

“The precariousness is really taking its toll on everyone. Every single year there is this feeling of ‘maybe we’re going to be shut down’ but this year it’s felt more likely.

“I think people are becoming more understanding of the industry but the campaigns against us are becoming more vicious.”

Rachel said it would be ‘horrific’ if they shut down.

Tension between the club and campaigners erupted earlier this year when it was revealed two ex-police officers were paid to secretly film the strippers at work.

Strippers from Speramint Rhino and their supporters make banners and posters in defence of their jobs. Celia Lister. Picture Scott Merrylees

Members of the Women’s Equality Party shared a detailed description of the footage, in which workers went further than their licence allows, in a full council meeting. Some elected members walked out, saying it was ‘too graphic’.

George McGhee, 27, has worked as a stripper at Spearmint Rhino for more than two years and also in other clubs before then.

She said the job had changed her into a better person and that Spearmint was one of the safest and friendliest clubs in the country. In response to the video, she said: “I felt attacked and that they had come in and violated our privacy. It triggered my anxiety and mental health, I didn’t want to work, but instead of taking a step back I chose to carry on.”

Rosa Vince, an expert in objectification and porn at Sheffield University who organised the campaign to support Spearmint, was at the licensing hearing last year. She said around three hours was spent on arguments against the club while hardly any time was given in support.

Strippers from Speramint Rhino and their supporters make banners and posters in defence of their jobs. Harley Blair. Picture Scott Merrylees

She said: “One thing that struck me at the hearing last year was that the council were given the false impression that feminism was decided on this issue, and that the feminist viewpoint was that strip clubs are bad.However, there have been disagreements on this within feminism for decades.

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“I wanted to make it clear to the council that some feminists, largely those committed to intersectional feminism, are not willing to throw women in the sex industry under the bus, and that there is a clear feminist argument to be made for keeping venues like Spearmint Rhino open.”

Several groups – The Women’s Equality Party, Zero Option, Not Buying It – have called for the licence to be revoked, claiming women were being ‘sexually exploited’ and the licence was being breached.

Signatures have also been gathered on a petition.

Heather said: “It’s stigmatised because it involves women doing things that we aren’t supposed to do. Patriarchal norms are we keep our bodies to ourselves and our sexuality private – but we broke that and now the feminists are the ones who are saying ‘you don’t hold up to patriarchal womanhood’.

“I completely respect their intention and goal – nobody wants women to be sexually exploited – but also it’s really important that they listen to our voices and actually consider the real material harm that is being done to our mental health, our privacy, our safety and our financial security.

Strippers from Speramint Rhino and their supporters make banners and posters in defence of their jobs. Natalie Charlesworth. Picture Scott Merrylees

“Stripping feeds families and we are all doing the best that we can in the system that we are in.”

Rachel, who also works as a sex and relationship coach, said they had faced a lot of online abuse in relation to the licence.

“Why does anybody think they have a right to make us feel like a piece of crap just because we’re happy to take our clothes off?

“It shocks me that there is still such a stigma around nudity and sexuality – our bodies are incredible organisms, we’ve got millions of neurons firing every second and our hearts beating – if we can use our bodies to be artistic and sensual and give somebody a really positive experience, why is that a bad thing?

“I was so livid with all the accusations and assumptions people were making who had never been to our club.

“There’s a need and desire for what we do, otherwise we wouldn’t have such a successful business. We love what we do.

“It’s so strange because if you don’t like strip clubs, don’t come in. We operate when all the other local businesses are closed, how do we affect them?”

Jordan Dean, 26,of Sheffield, who has a friend and a relative who worked at Spearmint, said working there was a personal choice.

“They’ve never experienced anything negative other than the usual going to work things – nothing that would stand out to me that would make me worry about them. It seems like a safer place to work than a lot of bars, food places and stuff like that.

“I think it’s ridiculous that someone claiming to have feminist views is trying to infringe on what is their choice – it’s their choice to be a stripper.”

South Yorkshire Police and Sheffield Council’s licensing department said they would be investigating the video.

Consultation on the licence ends on May 27. Employees and supporters are planning to protest on the day of the hearing in June.