Forty-three years ago, 100 prostitutes occupied a church in Lyon, France, for an eight-day strike. With the help of the Catholic Church, they, along with women in five other French cities, took refuge in protected sacred spaces and spoke out against police abuses of sex workers. Decades later, June 2 is still recognized as International Whores’ Day by sex workers’ rights groups.
This year, sex workers in the US — in cities including Chicago, San Francisco, and New York City — will focus their protests on the recent passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA-SESTA. The bills purport to fight websites that promote sex trafficking, but in reality shut down online venues that allow sex workers to safely communicate with clients and each other.
Even venues concerned with legal sectors of the sex industry, like stripping, went dark because their owners feared punishment under the law, which made websites liable for the “promotion or facilitation of prostitution” by third parties. The platforms don’t want to wait to find out how broadly law enforcement will interpret the law, so they shut down rather than risk a prosecution. The threat to online community has brought dancers into sex worker activism in huge numbers.
Strippers have long occupied an odd position in sex worker activism, which has traditionally focused on criminalized sex workers who are most vulnerable to being arrested on prostitution or related charges. While some strippers have always been aware of the fluidity of boundaries between legal and illegal sex work, others reject the idea that exotic dancing even falls under the umbrella of sex work. But strippers have always been targeted by the same laws and lobbies that want to eradicate prostitution, and they plan to speak out on International Whores’ Day.
In addition to legal pressures, dancers were fighting the kinds of problems faced by independent contractors long before “gig economy” became a common phrase. Two recent cases of stripper organizing illustrate how dancers have responded to outside threats and inside undermining of their working conditions: Protests by Bourbon Street strippers in New Orleans in February and March were a response to increased police action spurred by unsubstantiated panic about sex trafficking in the clubs. The #NYCStripperStrike, an Instagram-born movement in New York, began last fall as a social media-driven response to management practices.
It’s hard for workers whose experiences and working conditions vary not just between cities but between clubs in the same city and shifts in the same club to organize. And like a lot of service work done primarily by women, including child care or domestic work, stripping isn’t seen as career work worthy of full benefits; rather, it’s stereotyped as a temporary service job done by women who have “real” 9-to-5 jobs, or who are “really” full-time parents or students. Either that or it’s painted as a gateway to sex trafficking by evangelical groups or law enforcement.
Strippers face many of the same legal battles as escorts
I started working in strip clubs in the ’90s and left full-time dancing only last fall. Over the course of my stripping career, I used the internet — from Usenet, early on, to Twitter — to find and exchange information about my job and my industry. When stripper forums made it easy to talk to other strippers in other cities, we shared stories about how management would tell us, accurately, depending on the jurisdiction, that things like giving a phone number to customers or giving a lap dance could get us hit with a prostitution charge if undercover cops were in the club.
The broadness of prostitution statutes made it obvious they weren’t just about stopping prostitution but about having aggressive tools to use selectively in the name of public order. Seeing this play out in different cities made it clear to me that no matter what I thought the differences were between me and a porn performer or an escort, the law — and society — weren’t going to make that distinction.
Strippers face attacks from the same coalition of the evangelical right and anti-prostitution groups that other sex workers do. Over the past 10 years, local governments have changed their opposition to strip clubs from one based on the premise that strip clubs attract prostitution to one based on the idea that they are gateways to sex trafficking. The reasoning changes, but the intended effect — shuttering clubs — remains the same.
In response to those threats to their business, dancers are organizing. In Louisiana, dancers have endured several years of attacks on their livelihood in the name of combating sex trafficking: attempts to raise the minimum age for dancers from 18 to 21, a proposed cap on the number of clubs on Bourbon Street, and raids on clubs. (These didn’t yield a single arrest for trafficking but still led to clubs being shut down.)
”Many people, not only strippers, lost their jobs in the raids and club closures, and many people in New Orleans have already had negative experiences with the police,” said Lyn Archer of the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, or BARE, a group of New Orleans dancers that formed after the raids.
Pushed to their breaking point in New Orleans, dancers took to the streets and the internet. Dancers massed in city council meetings and disrupted press conferences to protest the shuttering of clubs. The raids, dancers argued, also resulted in degrading treatment by police officers, some of whom took nonconsensual photos or made lewd comments about them.
The New Orleans dancers have had a taste of success: The city council rejected capping the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street. “I was impressed by the number of people who showed up with something to say, and proud — but also disheartened that so many people have had their livelihoods threatened and that we are in this position at all,” Archer told me by email.
Gig economy workers: pay attention to what strippers have been fighting
Some of the biggest work issues strippers face are not so different from those of other gig economy workers. Long before Silicon Valley entrepreneurs offloaded employment costs via app-based work (driving for Uber, say), strip clubs classified dancers as independent contractors.
The practice has its roots in the late 1980s when the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Street Theater in San Francisco stopped paying dancers and told them they’d have to pay to work. Today, that’s the most common working relationship between dancers and clubs: Dancers pay for the right to perform and earn tips, with the cost varying from club to club. There could be no house fee at all or they can go higher than $200 a night. Dancers pay whether or not they make money, and clubs almost always overstep the legal definitions that constrain an independent contractor relationship.
A lot of dancers are just fine with contractor status because it can offer dancers a degree of freedom; some dancers can come and go from work without scheduling and can choose their music and work attire.
But clubs also learned that even if they impose strict work requirements — mandatory scheduling, dress codes, requiring dancers to hawk club merchandise from stage cattle calls — it’s less costly to pay the occasional court settlement for worker misclassification than to maintain a payroll.
Every major strip club chain — these include Deja Vu, Ricks, and Spearmint Rhino — has paid out at least one multimillion-dollar class-action settlement in the past five years; none of them have chosen to convert their dancers to employees across the board. This is the Uber and Postmates attitude toward labor, with the added experience, in many clubs, of having to give your boss his cut at the end of the night while you’re still in your underwear.
If a dancer brings a sexual harassment or workers comp suit against a club, she has to first prove that she is an employee in court or through a state labor board to even have the standing to make the complaint. Independent contractors don’t have legal protections from discrimination or harassment, nor do they have access to workers comp.
Gig economy workers can take one (negative) lesson from strippers: Decades of litigation over the status of workers in an industry will have a negligible impact as long as independent contractors remain a cheaper, unprotected class of labor. Businesses will see occasionally paying fines or settlements for violating labor laws as a reasonable cost relative to the savings of keeping their workers classified as contractors.
Instead of pursuing the enforcement of employee status, often undesirable for sex workers for a host of reasons, workers would benefit if independent contractors were granted a greater number of enforceable rights. Extending legal protections against discrimination would be the least that could be done for the marginally employed. Shifting some of the self-employment tax burden back from workers to businesses is the next step.
The NYC Stripper Strike began with dancers who experienced discrimination calling out clubs that gave preferential treatment to lighter-skinned dancers and that allowed social media “startenders” to take dancer tips without having to pay the same club fees that dancers are required to. Gizelle Marie, who started the movement with an Instagram hashtag, travels to clubs around the country talking to dancers. “I can see the issues in clubs in every area,” she says. “[They are] similar to the ones in New York … as far as men having control of how we get to our money.”
There is no obvious or easy way to organize to change that state of affairs, no matter how many male customers think they have a genius idea when they say, “Hey, you girls should form a union!” The stripper strike isn’t even technically a strike so much as a protest; as independent contractors, the dancers aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act. But they are strategizing and working with New York City-based sex worker advocates the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute (SOAR) to discuss future plans. And the strike continues to gain national attention.
Sex workers have long been harbingers of attacks on free speech and the fight for safe working conditions. Some dating sites and Craigslist’s personals page have already fallen victim to the new laws. And as workers’ rights face hit after legal hit, it’s more apparent than ever that what comes for the sex workers eventually comes for everyone.
Susan Elizabeth Shepard is a journalist in Montana. She co-founded the sex worker media project Tits and Sass.