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Exotic dancing and unionizing: the challenges of feminist and antiracist organizing at the Lusty Lady Theater.

On August 30, 1996, the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco made history by becoming the only women-managed strip club in the United Sates to unionize successfully. Dancers at the Lusty Lady joined Local 790 of the SEIU (Service Employee International Union) to protest racist hiring practices, customers being allowed to videotape dancers without their consent via one-way mirrors, inconsistent disciplinary policies, lack of health benefits, and an overall dearth of job security. (1) Despite this big victory, problems of racism remained at the Lusty Lady.

This article takes a first-hand look at the unionization efforts as well as the issues affecting sex workers of color.


To understand the events that took place at the Lusty Lady, it is important to view them in the context of the setting in which they occurred. San Francisco, a predominantly middle-class city in northern California with a racially diverse population that includes significant numbers of Asian Americans and Asians, Black Americans, Latina/os, Mexican Americans, and whites, has a history of activist struggles over race, class, and gender issues as well as politically active gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered communities. Its North Beach neighborhood, where the Lusty Lady is located, is a tourist area, with many Italian restaurants and strip clubs. Since North Beach also borders Chinatown and the financial district, the Lusty Lady attracted white businessmen from the financial district, Asian men from Chinatown, and Japanese and European male tourists. Its patrons varied from men in their 50s and 60s during the week to a younger, more racially mixed, crowd on weekends. The struggles of the Lusty Lady reflect both the racial demographics of its workers and customers and its location in a city with a long history of organizing among queer communities.

I began working at the Lusty Lady while I was a 22 year-old Women's Studies major at San Francisco State University. Like many college students, I was having financial difficulties. I knew a few women who were stripping to supplement their incomes. They told me about the Lusty Lady peep show, a female-managed strip club that started in Seattle in 1979 and expanded to San Francisco in 1982. I auditioned and was hired by Josephine, the only Black show director at the time. Dancers were paid $11 to $24 an hour, and didn't have to pay stage fees or hustle tips. Shifts were four to five hours long with a ten-minute break every half-hour.

Dancing at the Lusty Lady was very surreal, like dancing in a neon fish tank with its sultry red and green lights. The dance stage was small, with four or five women on stage at a time. Men (and occasionally women) would go into a booth, drop in quarters, and a glass window would rise up revealing a dancer, quite similar to a video arcade. Each quarter bought 10 seconds worth of viewing. The men usually masturbated in the booth. There was also a "Private Pleasures booth," where dancers charged customers $5.00 (now $10.00) for three-minute shows. These shows were more intimate, but dancers and customers were still separated by glass. The Private Pleasures booth was more lucrative for dancers, who could make $60 an hour in this way.

The managers of the Lusty Lady, themselves former dancers, were pleasant. They encouraged open communication and provided snacks for us in the dressing room. Because we danced behind glass and did not have physical contact with customers, it was relatively safe. The male support staff also did a good job of ensuring our safety, escorting us to our cars during late-night shifts. We never had to worry about them sexually harassing us, unlike many women who work in strip clubs. In this way, I felt that the Lusty Lady lived up to its reputation for being a safe, feminist strip club.


Within a few months, however, I noticed covert forms of racism by both coworkers and management. First, there were few women of color at the theater. Out of 70 dancers, only ten were women of color. Of these, five were Black, mostly light-skinned, one was part Chinese and Japanese, one was Korean, one was from Argentina, one was part Native American and European, and one was part Indian and French. Yet nonwhite women rarely worked with others of the same race. While white women were allowed to work at the same time, women of color were not. If a Black woman came on stage, she would replace the current Black woman on stage; the same was true for Asian dancers, Latinas, and so on.

Second, Black dancers rarely performed in the Private Pleasures booth. Like the other Black dancers, I was trained to work in the booth, but was hardly ever scheduled there. When I asked Josephine why Black women didn't work the Private Pleasures booth, she told me that the company lost money on Black women because white customers would rather pay a quarter than $5.00 to see a Black woman.

I was somewhat surprised by her answer. I had noticed that some white customers would lose interest in my show and walk out in the middle of it, or wave me out of view. I had also heard that when Josephine was a dancer and booth performer, a group of young white customers yelled through the glass that she looked like a monkey in a cage. Although racist comments like that were rare, they reflect on many of the psychological risks that women of color take when doing sex work for white men. However, in spite of some negative encounters with white men, I also knew that other white men enjoyed my show and asked whether I was going to do the booth. And, I had heard from various male support staff that white customers would ask them why Black women and other women of color did not perform in the booth.

In general, the younger, racially mixed weekend crowd at the Lusty Lady preferred to see both women of color and white women, while the white and Asian businessmen preferred to see exclusively white women. The management, however, assumed that the latter group had more money and placed their desires first. When I asked the general manager (a white male) to provide an estimate of how much money the company made and the alleged economic risk of having Black women and other women of color in the booth, he refused to answer. (In fact, it is hard to obtain exact figures as to what owners of strip clubs and porn video shops make per year. We were never able to obtain figures on how much the Lusty Lady made and were forced to rely on estimates based on competitors. According to a U.S. bankruptcy court, the San Francisco-based Bijou Group, Inc., which owned the Market Street Cinema and a chain of Deja Vu Gentlemen's Clubs, made over $5 million per year between 1992 and 1994. (2))


A few months after my meeting with Josephine, a white Jewish coworker wrote a petition stating that dancers who worked the booth should receive a higher commission (at that time dancers kept 30% of their wages while the club kept 70%). She directed the petition to the general show director, June, and posted it in the dressing room. A number of dancers (most of whom were white) instantly agreed that they were being exploited and signed her petition. I felt angered by her petition because if it were to pass, it would only further widen the wage gap between the races at the Lusty Lady. When Black dancers complained about not being scheduled in the booth, the white dancers were sympathetic, and some were even angry, but most saw the situation as our problem. Unfortunately, because of the society we live in, they could not see that their struggle to acquire a higher percentage of their booth wages was directly related to the practices that excluded dancers of color from the booth and disparities in the workplace in general.

To rectify this situation, I decided to write my own petition, also directed to June, stating that it was unfair that Black dancers were not regularly scheduled in the booth. I posted my petition in the dressing room, and many dancers signed it. Within a few days, Josephine called me into her office and asked about my petition; I told her it was pretty self-explanatory. She then arranged a meeting with the Black dancers, herself, and June. Unfortunately, the meeting was not productive, Josephine and June accused me of calling them racist and blamed me for not being in the booth. They argued that if I had "wanted to work the booth so bad," I should have simply asked. I tried to explain that it wasn't a matter of how "bad" I wanted to work the booth; it was a matter of discrimination. Once again, we asked to see documentation of the claim that Black dancers in the booth would hurt business, but no such documentation was produced. Further, we asked to see the Private Pleasures incomes of the Black dancers in Seattle, and found that Black dancers there did pretty well.

One of the Black dancers suggested that we try rotating Black women in the booth once a week. This was done, but in retaliation for this concession, management called a general meeting about the "misunderstands" of my petition and prohibited the posting of any political literature (especially dealing with the workplace) in the dressing room. Only posting about shift trades and parties was allowed.

Not satisfied with management's response to the racism I was noticing, I filed a racial discrimination complaint with the Department of Fair and Equal Housing to put pressure on the company to hire more women of color. After an investigation, and in an apparent attempt to avoid unionization, the management of the Lusty Lady did hire more women of color, most of whom, initially, were Black.


The main issue that led women at the Lusty Lady to unionize involved one-way mirrors. The booths were set up so that customers could see in but dancers could not see out. This allowed customers to videotape dancers without their knowledge or consent. Management was alerted to this situation but did not make the necessary changes in a timely manner.

In response, women at the Lusty Lady teamed up with the Exotic Dancer's Alliance (EDA), a nonprofit organization started at the Market Street Cinema in 1992. The EDA began in response to a number of issues, including the requirement that dancers pay stage fees, substandard working conditions, and health and safety issues in the exotic dance industry. Through several court battles, EDA tried to get exotic dancers recognized as employees rather than independent contractors, so they would no long be forced to pay stage fees, but this is still a site of struggle. In fact, the owners of the Market Street Cinema and other clubs filed bankruptcy in order to avoid paying their dancers back wages due under this judgment.

The racial differences I had already noted continued to play out during the union organizing efforts at the Lusty Lady. It became clear that white dancers and dancers of color had different priorities. The main priorities for white dancers seemed to be the one-way window and, later, the problems of wage and disciplinary policies. Race did not seem to enter into their thinking. In contrast, my biggest concerns were increasing the number of women of color, ensuring wage increases, and instituting a fair disciplinary policy.

After six months of long, tedious negotiations, we voted in our first contract. We received four paid sick days, basic contract language regarding sexual harassment and racial discrimination policies, wage increases, free shift trades, (3) and a grievance procedure. Even male support staff, who originally felt uncertain about having a union, voted for the union to support the dancers. With unionization, there was an overall feeling that as a sex worker, one had rights, and one couldn't just be fired without a voice, which had happened frequently at the Lusty Lady. Now we knew that management was required to follow a contract and accept certain procedures, such as just cause policies.


For the first four months following the contract vote, the theater had more Black dancers than ever in its 17 year history. I loved dancing with the other Black women on stage. The jukebox now had more of a musical cornucopia (in addition to rock, punk, and country, we had hip-hop and gangsta rap), and, with a variety of beautiful women on stage, I did not feel so racially isolated. The customers, especially customers of color, also loved the racial diversity. However, some subtle problems emerged in the interpersonal relationships between the new Black dancers and white dancers.

Some white dancers were uncomfortable when they were outnumbered on stage by women of color. In the middle of a shift, white dancers would comment about being the only white woman on stage and some would go as far as to block a customer's view of a woman of color who was dancing, sure that the customers only wanted to look at white women. We tried to explain that these comments were crass, racist, and disrespectful, and that we were outnumbered by white women all the time, but the white dancers insisted that they were not racist, and continued their behaviors.

The jukebox was another site of racism. Dancers were paid $40.00 to create a jukebox of 50-100 songs, and the jukebox was played the following week. When a Black dancer created a jukebox, it would most often include R and B and gangsta rap, as well as modern rock. When these jukeboxes, played, however, white dancers often complained that they could not dance to the music, or that the music was too violent. Although I understand feminist concerns about violence in gangsta rap, the violence of rap artists like Tupac Shakur is about the legal system or the street; it is not misogynistic. These complaints were voiced in the presence of Black dancers, who, not wanting to deal with further racial harassment, remained silent.

More covert forms of racism included comments that some Black dancers wore too much hair oil and that it smeared the mirrors on stage. There were many incidences in which I saw a white dancer taking a bottle of rubbing alcohol (used to clean the stage) and wiping the mirrors or the pole where a Black dancer was standing. Again, we tried to explain that this could be interpreted as suggesting that the Black dancer was dirty, which could be unnecessarily hurtful; nevertheless, the behavior continued.

After four months, I noticed that many Black dancers had left the Lusty Lady. I asked them why they had left, and their response was that the Lady was just "too white" and that they were working at other clubs that were more "down to earth." I respected their choice to leave, but I was hurt, because the Lusty Lady had the best working conditions of any strip club in the country. The alternative was to work at clubs like the Market Street Cinema, which had a higher percentage of women of color, but also horrific working conditions such as stage fees and, reportedly, coerced prostitution.

Unfortunately, few dancers of color became involved in the union. As a union shop steward, my job was to bring new dancers into the union. We had a cross between an open shop and an agency shop, which meant that dancers did not have to join the union to work, and could enjoy union benefits without being members. Most dancers did join the union, and, whenever there was a new dancer of color, I went out of my way to explain the reasons that we had unionized, stressing the race issues. But I remained the only woman of color who served on the union bargaining committee and worked as a shop steward. I found this very frustrating because I felt pressured to represent all women of color, and often felt like a token. The other women of color said they did not have the time to serve on the bargaining committee, which did consume a lot of time and energy, but I suspected that they felt that their presence would not make a difference.

Black dancers were also less likely to take advantage of the benefits of unionization. After unionization, when a dancer was fired but felt that her termination was unfair, she was permitted to file a grievance with a shop steward. Few Black dancers did this, however.

For example, two Black women who were close friends worked at the theater for more than a year. They both were tall, friendly, and beautiful. Everyone loved them. At some point, I stopped seeing them at work and assumed they had quit. I later learned that they were fired for calling in sick too many times. Other shop stewards and I were angry that no one had told us earlier, and that they had not come to us. When I called them, they told me that management had insisted that there was nothing the shop stewards could do to get their jobs back. We then met with management to make sure that women of color had equal access to shop steward representation and were given fair treatment.

Ultimately, we insisted on a program of cultural competency training to deal with the problem of racism among dancers and to ensure that all dancers had equal access to union benefits.


It is dangerous to separate issues of race, gender, and class from issues of sex work. As an exotic dancer, I have observed that most workers in the sex industry are poor or working-class women. This is especially true in sex clubs with poor working and health conditions. Moreover, the stereotypes that society holds about people of color--for example that Blacks and Latinas, especially light-skinned mixed-race women, are sexually desirable and domineering, that Asians and Native-Americans are passive, and that Middle Eastern women are exotic--do not enhance our economic status in the sex industry, but rather serve to justify the economic exploitation of women of color. We are still seen as "other" compared to white women. (4)

The situation faced by women of color in the sex industry has a profound effect on the health status, immigration situation, child rearing practices, and future of all communities of color in the United States. It is up to those of us who identify as feminist to take part in the sex-workers' movement. Sex worker activists need to challenge racism and white supremacy within the sex worker movement, while at the same time activists of color need to challenge sex phobia and sex worker phobia within movements of people of color. Coalitions among sex-worker activists across the racial divide are a difficult, but necessary, aspect of the struggle.


1. For more information about the unionization process at the Lusty Lady, see Siobhan Brooks, "Organizing from Behind the Glass: Exotic Dancers Ready to Unionize," Z Magazine (January 1997): 11-14.

2. Case no. 95-3-3389-TC

3. Prior to unionization, dancers had to find a dancer of their own race and body type to trade shifts or give them away.

4. Patricia Hill-Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York: Routledge, 1991); Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race, and Class (New York: Random House, 1981).

Siobhan Brooks

Graduate Student

The New School University

New York, NY
COPYRIGHT 2005 Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S., Inc.
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Author:Brooks, Siobhan
Publication:SIECUS Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2005
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