Strippers’ greatest protection is each other

Caroline Leigh describes her experience working in the stripping industry and the urgency of organizing it.

The American strip club industry is worth about $7.4 billion on the books, and certainly more in cash. Although strippers are a quick cure for loneliness, the industry works very hard to make sure strippers feel alone. To audition at my first club, we were pitted against each other even before we got hired. I competed at a weekly hiring event against ten other novice strippers for one of us to win $500 and a mostly illegal contract. One dancer was too drunk to participate, and she was escorted outside to the street to find her own way home.

The history of formal organizing within the industry is slim, with an apparently singular example of a certified union at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco in 1996, with SEIU. In this campaign, the workers at a peep show protested against racist scheduling procedures that limited the number of Black dancers who could work per shift, as well as the installation of one-way mirrors that enabled customers to nonconsensually film the workers. They won their campaign and a union contract, until eventually forming a worker cooperative in 2003. They closed after not being able to make rent around 2013.

This lack of unionization is partially due to strippers nearly always being classified as independent contractors, which excludes them from mainstream labor organizing. The societal stigma around sex work often not being considered a “real” job, even though it makes “real” money, can also make unions wary to taint their reputations, which makes workers devalue their own labor. As a result, the strip club industry has been capitalizing on the power of owning and banking on your own desirability and sexuality while still keeping workers vulnerable to rape, violence, lifelong workplace injuries, rising house fees, and firings for everything from gaining weight, getting pregnant, not allowing customers to film you, being a woman of color (particularly when you are Black), asking for your contract, wearing the wrong outfits, not taking enough of your clothes off, talking back to your boss, being accused of soliciting sex, not having your nails done, being late despite illegal scheduling, or charging customers too much. These are just some of the firings I have seen or heard about. Strippers often develop an air of invincible confidence — but we need confidence in ourselves because there is virtually nothing else you can rely on in strip clubs.

In the modern mental health world, “healthy boundaries” is one of the most referenced topics. Conceptually, it’s talked about as individual choices to make sure you feel safe in your relationships. However, in the club and in the world, you can set all the boundaries you want, but you can still get raped. But perhaps even more insidious is the way our bosses and staff set up an environment that makes that happen.

My experience is that setting boundaries when you feel alone is just a way to get more nightmares and feel smaller. In my first week of working in a strip club, there was a lunch special where customers were supposed to get a free lap dance with their lunch. After giving a dance, a customer handed me an “admit one” ticket instead of money and smiled up at me. I stared at him in disbelief. I immediately went up to the day shift manager and asked for a copy of my contract. At the end of my shift, the owner of the club handed it to me and told me never to come back. He said it was because he had decided that they were “too full” of girls at that time — on a Sunday day shift where three other dancers were working. When they had hired me a week ago, they had been “desperate” for more girls.

My fellow IWW members encouraged me to fight back. We organized a phone zap and got Wobblies from all over the country to harass the boss. With my comrades’ encouragement, I went back into work to confront him as my contract stated they needed to give me 30 days’ notice before firing me. The daytime managers tried to get me to leave, telling me I was wasting my time, while the owner of the club threatened to call the police if I did not leave the premises. I brought out my colored pencils and waited patiently for four hours until he came into the club to talk to me directly. When he finally came in, I set really clear boundaries and told him he was wrong, and that he was violating nine different parts of the contract. He grabbed my arm and took me to a camera-less back room of the club, yelled in my face, and continued to threaten to call the police and sue me.

The part of that story I usually leave out is that the boss showed up in my nightmares for months. At the next club I worked at, the lawyer of the club that had fired me came in and I saw him and froze, and went home immediately with no money, scared I was going to be blacklisted at all the clubs in Baltimore and not be able to pay my rent.

Getting fired in my first week acclimated me to shut up when the club did anything to mess with our jobs. I got acclimated to literally paying the club to be able to work my shift (nearly all strip clubs charge a “house fee” which is a standard amount we pay to the club at the beginning of our shift, ranging from $20-120, in addition to an expected “tip out” to staff & security). I learned that when customers got violent, we often get blamed, as I saw my coworkers and management blame girls who had ribs broken or who got raped in champagne rooms. I got acclimated when dress codes got more arbitrary and stricter, and when the club raised their cuts to over 60% of our room and lap dance fees because, as my new boss told me, “You can always leave. A new girl turns 18 every day.” It showed me that disposability was not merely an option, it was actually preferred by the industry.

But I also learned from my coworkers, who helped me set consistent boundaries with customers, how to value my own worth, and that I was powerful. Strippers taught me how to ask for exactly what I wanted with no apology, in a society where I was literally never encouraged to be assertive. They taught me how to manage my money, glue on eyelashes, and savor some good champagne. The dressing rooms served as a refuge where solidarity was cultivated. When our boundaries were pushed by customers or management, strippers in the dressing room would always be down to comfort you or compliment the hell out of you.

Five years into my working in the industry, my coworker X got sexually assaulted by our DJ in a camera-less back room of our dressing room where the champagne was kept. X did not acclimate. X talked to all her friends and coworkers about it. X got loud about it, and organized a group of 15 of us to all confront our boss about why the DJ was neither being investigated nor fired. During the confrontation, other dancers also came forward to tell our boss to his face they were also raped by him. We continually asserted that he made many of us feel unsafe. My boss claimed no responsibility, talked in circles about at-will employment law, and threatened to sue my friend who had come forward.

In response to our action, the DJ was eventually fired… and then re-hired a year later, then fired again. The win was not decisive or simple, or necessarily healing for all the survivors. Some dancers left the experience feeling strong, some felt angrier, some left blaming other survivors, and some felt a huge mess of emotions in the aftermath. However, the experience of confronting our boss collectively gave me hope when I had felt like I needed to harden my hopelessness about the everyday risk of sexual assault, misogyny, and extortion by the club. When we came together, we were a force to be reckoned with, instead of just to be disposed of.

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Adrienne Maree Brown talks a great deal about generative somatics. Somatics, at its heart, is about embodying emotions, sensations and physiology to shift actions towards a larger purpose of social change. It is a valuable tool in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder, where overwhelming guilt and shame, numbness, struggling in relationships, always being on guard, etc., are par for the course. Organizing is hard to separate from mental health and trauma because we are engaging with people’s suffering from deeply disempowering situations and relationships with their bosses. I was trained in the IWW about how to do one-on-ones, connecting your struggles with one other. Figuring out what sex workers have in common throughout the industry can be done through those foundational conversations. As Adrienne asks, “how can we be a fight for each other?” What could empowering our collective sexuality mean when we are linked to fight back together, rather than just sole proprietors of our bodies? How do we fight for an industry that moves forward for us, instead of just being on the defensive to whatever is thrown at us? The backlash against sex work as just another form of objectification under patriarchy has truth if we are not allowed to be treated full human beings at work. Sex work can be sacred, repulsive, empowering, traumatizing, altruistic, among an infinite amount of experiences, but the conditions in which we do sex work determines whether we can flourish.

As has been told to me over and over again, sex work is an industry that is difficult to organize. Organizers need to value sex work to be able to understand what the risks are of not organizing this industry. I should not even have to say that sexual assault should not be a job hazard. Just last week, my co-worker had their drink drugged at 9 pm by the first customer they spoke to, and was puking for half the night, and management told her they didn’t feel like spending the time going over the camera footage to confirm who the customer was so he could be banned. Some argue that there is no such thing as consent in a paid dynamic, or that the industry itself is a moral aberration, or supports the patriarchy by objectifying us. I don’t care about debating those arguments as much as I care about my coworkers not getting raped at their job.

As I write this, there are strippers picketing every single night in North Hollywood against a new policy that forces security guards to first check with management (who are often not even on the premises) before stepping in to intervene when customers violate dancers’ boundaries. Dancers’ managers refer to them as “paper towels” — to be used up and thrown away. This is dangerous as hell, and reflects again that strip club management has never been particularly interested in protecting dancers. Due to the passing of the AB-5 law in 2020, California expanded the legal protections of strippers to unionize, making them much more likely to be classified as W-2 employees. The dancers at Star Gardens are trying to take advantage of this. But as aforementioned, this is more of the exception than the rule. This can mean that the IWW model of direct action is much more accessible for strippers. I also think it is important for strippers to viscerally feel our collective power, instead of fully relying on a group of professionals to negotiate for an often all-too-feeble contract. The other night, strippers in North Hollywood put a slip n’ slide on their picket line for their swim-themed night. That feels a lot like praxis to me.

In sex work, you are often put in positions to feel alone — against customers, against management, and competing against your co-workers. This is traumatizing. Alone, we are always the weakest. Reconnecting with the power of when our bodies come together feels like a beautiful shot at freedom — even when it doesn’t change everything. I know I feel strongest when I feel supported by my co-workers, knowing that they will take risks alongside me, that we care about our safety more than the next dollar, and we will savor a little bit more freedom together.

Caroline Leigh is a sex worker and mental health therapist, currently residing with her pit bull in Baltimore.