Nurses, grocery clerks, postal workers, Lyft drivers, and the folx who deliver your quarantine snacks — they can all wear masks at work without raising eyebrows. But strippers all across the country are required to wear zero (or tiny) clothing in order to perform in tight, sweaty quarters in close contact with strangers. At some strip clubs in Los Angeles, performers even sign contracts agreeing to be naked on the floor. If they break the rule and wear a single article of clothing, they are fined up to 80 dollars.
When COVID-19 raged across the United States, strippers, massage therapists, nail salon technicians, and many other workers who rely on human touch watched our livelihoods vanish without any warning — and for thousands of us, the possibility of any federal or state assistance remains frustratingly out of reach.
As a stripper for over 25 years, I know that every strip club makes its fortune by unlawfully misclassifying strippers as independent contractors, stealing our tips and charging arbitrary house fees and fines. On top of that, we tend to be deprived of basic human rights like a safe, sane work environment free from discrimination, racketeering, and assault. When COVID-19 cases spiked in California in mid-March, for example, Bliss Strip Club on Valley Boulevard in Los Angeles capitalized on the virus, advertising things like “quarantine specials with your favorite showgirls.” According to this LA Times article, Bliss refused to shut down and remained open for business as late as March 27, nine days after Los Angeles County issued safer-at-home orders.
Right now, strippers are laid off and don’t know when or if we will go back to work. As a workforce, we have been largely excluded from even the most progressive conversations about labor. We will be left out and penalized yet again if the Department of Labor fails to make a clear policy on tipped workers. Misclassified and unprotected workers in industries rife with abuse are at much higher risk of retaliation than other workers, and far less likely to understand our rights. Employers intentionally lie to us about our employee status. They may even hire professional help to spread the lies: Déjà Vu, one of the most craven corporate strip club chains in America, pays high-profile entertainers like Stormy Daniels to regurgitate disinformation, which rails against the legal benefits and protections of being an employee, and supports corporate messaging aimed to mislead strippers in order to keep extorting them.
Unemployment insurance wasn’t designed to accommodate the legions of gig workers and independent contractors who survive on tips alone — let alone stigmatized, marginalized workers like strippers who are routinely denied minimum wage and charged to work each night.
As it stands now, workers cannot count their tips in their unemployment benefit calculations, and the federal government is upholding Biblical “prurient” laws that discriminate against the adult entertainment industry at large because motor-boating and twerking is in our job description. On top of this, the Department of Labor only disbursed the CARES Act’s additional $600 per week for 13 weeks to workers who received at least $1/week in UI benefits, which strippers did and do not. This policy excluded workers from both state and federal unemployment because they were victims of wage theft and misclassification.
Strippers are a workforce of hundreds of thousands of people across the US. Why, then, are they excluded from benefiting from UI during a time that they, like millions of other workers, are unemployed and in a state of financial terror?
Then again, sex workers are startlingly resourceful. We have to be.
As a young queer femme dancing nude at The Lusty Lady Peepshow in the 1990s, I saw the effect of grassroots activism. Many of us were already members of ACT UP and Queer Nation, where, as queer people, we liberated each other from the policies and legislation that aimed to silence us when we were discriminated against. Meanwhile, at the Lusty Lady, strippers were separated by race and body types. If you were Black you could only cover a Black dancer’s shift, and so on. “Busty” girls were underlined on the schedule. I was told I was “too thick” by the manager. I could only cover curvy, small-boob shifts. When we fought and won our labor war to become The Exotic Dancer’s Alliance (SEIU Local 790), we changed this “same body” policy and many others. Stripping stopped feeling like a secret space to scurry to when I ran out of options, and became a delightful and safe place to perform, with job security, an anti discrimination hiring policy, a reasonable grievance procedure, and sick pay. It was the one time in 25 years of sex work that felt like I had agency and control over my show, my body, and my money.
Sex workers as a community have always cared for one another in ways that society, government, and family have failed to do. When the pandemic hit California and strip clubs closed, I knew that sex workers were going to surround each other with compassion and material help. We have always been the only ones who take care of us.
Soldiers of Pole (SOP), a labor movement of unionizing strippers in California that was founded in 2018, was uniquely positioned to respond to the pandemic. By conducting a survey at the beginning of the pandemic, the organization was able to assess how to offer strippers immediate, vital resources: advice about taxes and filing for UI, links to small need-based grants specifically for women artists, and urgently needed cash for food and diapers. SOP received 342 answers from strippers in 39 states (including Puerto Rico) about how their livelihoods would be affected by the pandemic. Thirty-six percent said they believe they are not eligible for unemployment insurance, and 64% said they are not considered employees at their job — even though a majority of the survey takers stated they live in California, where they are legally considered employees. Eighty-one percent said they are not receiving minimum wage. Twenty-nine percent consider themselves to be undocumented. And, although 79% were told by their employers they will have a job when their club reopens, this remains to be seen. By the time this survey was shared, 99 percent of strip clubs were closed with no formal plan in place to reopen. Two hundred and forty-six strippers answered the last survey question:
“Is there anything else you want to say about how COVID-19 is impacting you?”
“Everything is on pause but these bills,” one stripper answered.
In the words of another, “I’m 18 weeks pregnant and don’t know how to make money and was relying on this job before I start showing.” Most importantly, 63 percent said they are experiencing a shortage of basic resources right now.
The Soldiers of Pole immediately began a month-long fundraiser called $trippingfor$trippers.
The idea came from A.M. Davies, an SOP organizer and coordinator who lost her job when she was badly injured in an accident last year and found that she had no disability insurance from her long, celebrated stripping career in California. She decided to dance for five days on her live Instagram feed — a few dances every night, so she could privately donate to a group of dancers who were out of work. She raised more than she anticipated. Soldiers of Pole decided to expand her plan to include dancers from all over the world. Twelve dancers participated, from Chicago and Los Angeles to England and Australia. According to Davies, “Our fundraiser was an example of solidarity and staying connected to each other while also showing who needed to be supported the most and responding to that need.”
Here’s how it worked: each dancer chose her day and her time to dance for three songs on her own feed on Instagram Live. Viewers donated on SOP’s website. After each dancer’s three-song set, one of the Soldiers of Pole organizers or allies went live and talked with the dancer for a couple minutes to recap what the fundraiser was for, and how funds would be dispersed. Natalie Clark, board member and community organizer for SOP, played an administrative role for the live shows. She stated that one important aspect of the fundraiser was that “At a time of crisis, Stripping for Strippers showed that dancers are looking out for dancers.” Aside from the winners of the funds, Clark noticed another benefit. “The dancers who performed likely gathered new followers and perhaps a deeper respect from their supported base because of the giving aspect,” she said. A sub-committee of SOP contacted the eight chosen nominees, eventually dispersing anywhere from $300-$1200, focusing on undocumented workers, dancers of color, and single mothers suffering from financial hardship due to COVID-19. Soldiers of Pole raised over $7,200 from 205 donors. As a participant who danced and performed administrative tasks, I saw first-hand how generous and kind people can be. But also, while emergency funds may buy diapers and food, we collectively need a long-term solution.
Let’s say you’re a stripper who has been out of work for five months now. Work was slow before the epidemic so you worry it will be slow if and when clubs reopen. You weigh your options: returning to work too soon could mean contracting COVID-19, higher stage fees, tip gauging, and the same bullshit. Not returning to work looks like hunger and eviction. On the internet, you notice virtual strip shows which leads you to Soldiers of Pole, where rumbles of a revolution thrum. Pop up virtual strip shows appear on Instagram and Zoom like Cool.Cats.Online, Cybertease, Onyx420show, and Cyber Clown Girls. Crowd funding, Fundraisers, Mutual Aid, and Stripper Strikes invite more community support. BIPOC dancers and all sex workers join with Black Lives Matter to take to the streets to fight systemic racism. Collective despair becomes collective exuberance. You want to believe change is possible. After all, ever since AB5 passed in 2019, which confirmed basic employee rights and wages, your employer finds new, baffling ways to steal your tips.
Last time you worked, the club manager told you that you had to“make your wages” like it was the most natural thing in the world to expect from an employee. You refused to hand over your tips to the bouncer who hovered over you while you lap danced for a regular. He got jumpy when you argued with the bouncer and he left in the middle of the song. Next time, you decide, you’ll carry pepper spray. When they snatch your tips, you’ll aim for their eyes. You picture doing a running man in the air from a stripper pole, upside down, your bare muscles shimmer and flex as you stare into a bleak, sticky landscape. Then you imagine a unionized virtual strip club. Workman’s comp. Maternity leave. Sick pay. Your untouched bag of hard-earned tips and the smell of cotton candy hope in the air.
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Disclosure: Ashley Bennett worked with the unhoused residents of this PRK site to write this letter. She is a founding member of Ground Game LA, which is affiliated with Knock LA.
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