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tripping Away the Beauty Myth

By Siobahn Brooks


"Coffin For Sale" by (a.k.a.) Heather


When women run things -- even sex shows -- female workers are better off. Exotic dancers in women-managed strip clubs don't have to put up with sexist attitudes, abusive behavior, and the pressure to conform to the "perfect" body image.

Or so you'd think.

As the dancers at the Lusty Lady theaters in Seattle and San Francisco recently discovered, a women-managed strip club can be just as exploitative as any other kind of strip club. This is particularly true when it comes to the way dancers of color are treated. Just like in other industries, women of color sex workers are forced into the worst-paying jobs and told they are not wanted because of they way they look.

So the Lusty Lady turned out to be not that unusual after all. What is unusual is that the dancers at the Lusty Lady took action and organized against abusive management practices. And they won.


"The Very Elegant Pebbles" by (a.k.a.) Heather


The Nice Girl Next Door

The Lusty Lady was started in 1979 by an entrepreneur in Seattle who experimented with making a 25-cent movie house into a live nude peep show. The business was so successful that in 1982 another Lusty Lady opened in San Francisco's North Beach district.

When I was hired two years ago, I was in college and the Lusty Lady offered some good benefits. The company was willing to schedule around the dancers' classes or other jobs (this also allowed management to have a lot of variety on stage). The male support staff was friendly and never sexually harassed us; dancers didn't have physical contact with customers because we were separated by glass. The pay was $11 to $24 an hour, depending on how long we had worked there, so we never had to hustle for our wages like dancers at other clubs. The theater was clean and had a nice "girl next door" image. Management encouraged open communication. We even had coffee, hot chocolate, and soups provided for us on our ten-minute breaks.

There were some problems I noticed right away, however. The main one was that only a handful of women of color worked in the theater. Aside from former dancer/show director Josephine, out of seventy dancers, only ten were women of color (five Black). According to Stealth (dancers use their stage names to protect their identity), a Chinese-American dancer who has worked at the Lusty Lady for five years, the theater used to encourage women of color to apply.

"When I started at the Lusty Lady there was an ad in the paper encouraging women of color to apply," she says. "But as the years went by that part of the advertisement was taken out. However, Josephine made a point to hire women of color. We have more women of color now than five years ago. The theater also hired heavier women, but that stopped. I think the managers thought they could make more money if they uphold the image of the beauty standard."

Women of color rarely danced together on stage. Lusty Lady management said they wanted variety -- in hair color, body size, and energy level -- but not too much variety. Black dancers also rarely performed in the Private Pleasures booth, a separate, more lucrative show. The starting rate for the booth is $5 for a three-minute show, so dancers can earn up to $60 an hour. Other Black dancers and I took management up on their "open communication" policy and asked why we weren't scheduled to work in the booth. We were told that white customers wouldn't pay $5 to see Black dancers in the private booth. "When I inquired as to why I wasn't being scheduled in booth I was told it was because Black dancers didn't make any money," says Sunny, a Black dancer who has worked at the Lusty Lady for two years. "Every time a white dancer wanted to trade a booth shift with me, the trade was denied. The show director would tell the white dancer to find someone else, because I didn't make any money. They want the blond busty stereotype of what beautiful is, but customers always used to ask me if I worked in booth. I would tell them, 'Not often.'"

Despite management's claim to the contrary, white dancers didn't always bring in a great sum of money in the booth. "I was scheduled in booth pretty regularly, and I didn't always do well," says Peri, a white dancer who has worked at the Lusty Lady for three years. "Sunny and I pulled in the same amount of money [for each shift], about $100. I was briefly taken out of booth because my wages were irregular, but after a month I was scheduled to work booth again."

"Dani" by (a.k.a.) Heather


Black Dancers Take Action

The African-American dancers got together to formulate a plan, and decided to submit a petition to the Lusty Lady management demanding more booth shifts for Black workers. Management reacted defensively -- they told me that if I really wanted to work in the booth all I had to do was ask -- but they did agree to a meeting between the Black dancers and June Cade, the general show director.

At the meeting we demanded to see documentation proving that Black dancers were bad for business. No such documentation was provided. In fact, June acted surprised that race was even an issue at the Lusty Lady and conveniently looked to Josephine for answers. Fearing a racial discrimination suit, June decided to start rotating Black dancers in booth. The dancers -- both white and of color -- were energized by this minor victory and decided to take action on a range of issues. The Lusty Lady dancers went on to unionize with SEIU Local 790, becoming the only strip club in the country to currently have a union.

The main issues had to do with body image and the discrimination that results from management's wanting dancers to look like customers' supposed ideal: a busty, yet skinny, blond. The Lusty Lady not only treated dancers of color worse than white dancers, but the company also disciplined dancers who (in management's opinion) were overweight or had gained weight.

Body Issues At Lusty Lady

"I had to audition twice before I was hired," says Star, who has worked at the Lusty Lady for three years. "I came back a week after my first audition and was hired by Josephine, who was bigger than a lot of the women there, so my weight wasn't an issue for her. My weight was the same as when I first auditioned, but I was told by another show director to come back after I lost weight. After I got hired, management would always referred to me as one of the bigger women there. I was also told in meetings about my show that my breasts were sagging, and that I needed to wear a bra on stage."

However, for Josephine some dancers' weight was an issue. "I was called into a meeting with Josephine to talk about my show, and she told me I was getting chubbier," says Belladonna, a dancer at the Lusty Lady for two years. "She implied that if I gained any more weight she would take me off the schedule. I didn't think my weight was a problem until I met with her, then I started to look at myself more in the mirror and judge my body. I eventually did lose weight, and customers noticed this. One customer was sad that I lost weight [because] he liked my weight the way it was before."

The management at the Lusty Lady justifies race and weight discrimination by stating that they are just giving the customers what they want, but most of the dancers think this attitude reflects more sexist stereotypes than reality. The customers themselves say they want to see more than the Barbie stereotype. "I want to see a variety of different women," says Bill, who has been patronizing the Lusty Lady for three years. "I want to see women of different races and body types. I also want to see women of different ages. Most of the women there seem to be in their early twenties; I would like to see some women a little bit older than that, like in the thirties age range."

"Pony" by (a.k.a.) Heather


Racist Stereotypes Still Haunt Us

In spite of Black supermodels like Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, and Veronica Webb, Black women are still perceived as unattractive, undesirable. In relation to white women, and even other women of color, Black women, regardless of what hue they are, must fight to be recognized as worthy and beautiful. One of the most evil and dehumanizing images that haunts Black women is that of the mammy/Aunt Jemima. This image, created by a white supremacist, patriarchal society, reinforced the notions that Black women are asexual and that the only employment they are good for is cleaning white people's homes. This image of Black women as obese, happy slaves and/or maids is one of the reasons Black women are economically exploited in this country. White supremacists and colonized people of color buy into forms of these images when they deny Black women higher-paid positions.

What happened at the Lusty Lady is just a reflection of our society. This image hurts all women who are poor, working-class, heavy, nonwhite, or in any way different from the white patriarchal definition of what a "beautiful woman" is. In order for all women in this society to live a meaningful, worthy, healthy and economically stable life, the racist/sexist stereotypes of what beauty is must be eradicated along with capitalism.

reprinted from Third Force magazine.
published by CTWO (Center for Third World Organizing)


Siobhan Brooks has worked at the Lusty Lady for two years and is part of the union bargaining committee. She holds a B.A. from San Francisco State University in women's studies and is currently working on a book about men and women of color sex workers.

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