TODAY I am a two for one. This is how it works: the first lapdance is free. The second one is 20 bucks. “Tenner Tuesday” is a weekly special, offering a bargain for customers on an otherwise sluggish day where I work, the only strip club for miles.
In my 23 years of stripping, I’ve worked at 17 clubs in four states. Now, I’m in Cathedral City, in California’s arid Coachella Valley. Just far enough from Los Angeles and Las Vegas to make it indispensable, the club caters to young Marines from a nearby base and their granddads — Reaganites who come to chase away loneliness and ancient regrets, eager to grope a person who’s not their primary caregiver and eyeball our half-clothed bodies. Dancing has helped many of us through our adult lives — paying for school, families, fledgling careers as creatives — but it is also exploitative.
Relegated to the fringes of the workplace, in part because of stigmas surrounding sex work, we are invisible. Clubs force us to work as “independent contractors.” We have no health insurance, workers’ compensation or other benefits. We have zero security. Strippers, or dancers, as some of us prefer, are women on our way to somewhere better or different, twerking topless in a club that will never have our backs — a club that will demand arbitrary fees from us and skim a share of our hard-earned tips all night, caring little if we are here again next week or if we vanish.
Inside the club where I work, hieroglyphs are painted along the walls; a bust of Nefertiti juts out above a doorway near the restroom and an elegant sphinx statue crouches behind the bar. Next to the pool table, fish tanks glow — splashes of life in a dim bar that smells like sweat and vanilla body spray. Beautiful women of various body types, ages and ethnicities strut by in minuscule outfits of ribbon and lace, buckle and bra. There is a raised stage at the center of the room with two gold poles.
The club maintains the building, bartenders, advertising and music; we’re the main attraction. I’ve seen clubs in various stages of disrepair, like half-flooded or with broken elevators. In my current club the air-conditioning has been turned off in 108-degree weather to save money. The plumbing backs up. Repairs are made only when the clientele complains.
Various circumstances have led dancers to places like this: lack of education or work experience, singlemotherhood, no child support or college-bound kids. Alcoholism, abusive boyfriends, student loans and car payments. The work provides us with a way forward. Despite the circumstances, the women I work with are resourceful and clever.
In 1997, I was part of a successful union organization drive at my former job, a peep show in San Francisco called the Lusty Lady. The boiling point came when customers videotaped us gyrating naked without our knowledge or consent; we feared our images would appear online. When management refused to protect us, we organized. As Service Employees International Union Local 790: The Exotic Dancers Union, we got rid of the one-way glass that had enabled the videotaping and pushed back against other discriminatory policies. We fought for a pay-raise system, sick leave, vacation and holidays.
And we won. We became one of the first unions in this country to cover workers in the sex trade.
Lusty Lady was a success story in part because we were employees who punched a time clock and paid taxes. But overwhelmingly, dancers are hired as independent contractors, paid on a tip-only basis.
We’re charged for simply showing up for work. I pay the doorman, the D.J., and the manager flat fees as well as hand over a percentage from every lapdance. The “dance counter,” who tallies our lapdances, may intentionally miscalculate pay. When arguments ensue, I’ve seen dancers dismissed or put on probation.
Salaries vary from dancer to dancer, from year to year. It depends on scheduling, fickle clientele and location; also whether the club is fully nude or just topless. It’s sometimes said that a stripper can gross up to $100,000 a year, but in my experience that’s rarely, if ever, the case. Most people I know make less than half that.
Whatever we bring home (and there is a lot of under-the-table money here), a pervasive, and frustrating, myth is that dancing pays enough for us to stop complaining — that we get paid enough to be cool with however we’re treated. But that’s not true. One day a dancer could do 20 lapdances — or she could do only one dance and make a couple hundred bucks on her stage show. No matter how large the money wad is, the establishment finds a way to skim from it.
After we’ve played therapist and plaything for pushy, often drunk customers, and the club sees us doing well in spite of these challenges, the “stage fee” that dancers pay can be raised capriciously. When we speak up, we may be intimidated behind closed doors, told to keep quiet or go elsewhere.
We have seen some gains, like a groundbreaking 2012 class-action lawsuit in which dancers asked for $13 million in lost wages and also contested their statuses as contractors. The federal court ruled in the dancers’ favor and ordered that club (a chain called Spearmint Rhino) to stop charging “stage fees,” as well as count dancers as employees. More recently, others have tried working directly with state lawmakers and lobbyists to improve conditions.
But I’ve seen no lasting change. Across the board, I’ve observed management simply finding workarounds, new ways to steal tips by coming up with new names for the same fees. The instability creates divisiveness among our trade (no one, after all, wants to risk everything and lose their job) which makes further organizing painfully difficult.
Strip clubs have provided me and many other dancers with steady income for our entire adult lives. I’m thankful to have enjoyed decades as a paid entertainer. But we deserve the same protections and respect given to any employee in any other work force. We are night laborers who have found a way to offer fantasy, entertainment, intrigue and human contact in an impersonal culture. We want to see a safe and sexy dance floor in every strip club in America. And we deserve to keep our tips.