I was in the lap dance line with a customer who only wanted one dance. We’d been in the line for about fifteen minutes and there were still four couples ahead of us; I felt a sense of mounting desperation as I realised that by the time I got in there and a new song started, I would have spent forty minutes–almost an hour–with one person, for the take-home prize of $27.
“Are you sure you only want one dance?” I pressed. “It’s so much more fun when we have more time to get to know each other!” He shook his head. “Then sugar, I’m going to have to let you go. I can’t justify waiting in this line for forty minutes for only $27, sorry.”
“But the dance price is $40!”
I looked at him blankly. “The club take 30%, son. This is the sex industry. This is capitalism.”
I started at Casa Diablo after years of working at clubs where the stage fees were high, often dramatically lowering my take home once I’d tipped all the outstretched hands of the staff who are paid an hourly wage to be there. At first I was dazzled by the low stage fee at Casa: only a dollar? I would never leave in debt to the house. I wouldn’t start the night already owing hundreds of dollars like dancers at Deja Vu or Hustler do.
Of course, there’s the [metaphorical] fine print that my eyes were too dazzled to see. A one dollar stage fee, a five dollar tip out to each bouncer, and a 10% tip out to the dj, and they took a cut out of every lap dance or VIP dance. It would add up.
And it did! It did add up. We’re talking $40-60,000 a year I paid out, money I can’t claim on taxes because I have no proof of the transactions ever happening. Income the clubs get, tax free.
Or like at Casa, only reporting what’s on the credit cards, and leaving the cash transactions unreported.
Casa Diablo is interesting. In a city that prides itself on having “more strip clubs per capita than anywhere else” [a distinction, by the way, that isn’t true, having been claimed some time ago by either Salem or Springfield, Oregon, I forget which] no one looks too hard at the strip clubs, at what it takes to open, to run, to maintain them. They’re regarded as natural and inevitable, and Casa is the inevitable apotheosis. With as many clubs as Portland has, you need something special to stand out and attract customers. The veganism is just side schtick to the main attraction of live lesbian sex shows and the dirtiest lap dances in Portland: “We put the meat on the pole, not on the plate.”1
Unlike a lot of Portland clubs, Casa is set up with the stage as the main spectacle, the focal point of the room once you enter and get used to the ridiculous portrait of the owner [dressed as the devil] hanging over the bar, like an egomaniacal Satanist’s mockery of a church. All the chairs and tables surround the stage, so that even when socialising or hustling, we can all keep an eye on what’s happening up there. Bartenders and waitress are topless to encourage the sense of all-access anything-goes, something added to by Rule 11 on the big ass Golden Rules list:
You may bring a female patron onstage as long as they are attractive. You must try to disrobe as much of their clothing as possible.
On weekends you can tell which female customers have come to get onstage, they’re dressed for a night club, giving their boyfriends lap dances and telling anyone who will listen “I can do that.” A lot of them won’t, though, and have to get off the stage; a smaller minority get naked and let the dancers go down on them.
All this is at the center, and around the stage we circle, dodging the groping hands of the dj and the bouncers and the customers, hustling paying customers into the back room where the real money is made in lap dances:
70% for the dancers, 30% for the club.
“That’s not that bad!” my customer told me. I rolled my eyes silently. This isn’t the government we’re talking about. My 30% isn’t going to fund education and libraries, it isn’t even going to cleaning services or a new carpet in the dressing room, or a dressing room that isn’t entered through the dangerously puddly kitchen–my money is going straight to the owner, on top of the thousands he makes off the door and alcohol sales. 18-30 women a night, giving 30% of our income to this man who sticks his fingers in our buttcracks as he walks by, who demands to squeeze new boob jobs, who fines the drug addicts without firing them so he can wring out one more profit.
It’s not actually that Casa is unique in any of its practises; it’s unique only in the level to which it takes them. Fines for not standing in the correct spot by the stage within the correct amount of time, fines for not removing underwear in the correct amount of minutes, fines for being late, fines for leaving early, fines for canceling, and fines for not paying the bouncers on the shifts you cancelled even though you weren’t there.
Fines for disobeying any of the excessive amounts of control that a club cannot legally exert over its dancers if the owners want to continue to maintain that the dancers aren’t employees.
The fines are so numerous and so blatantly illegal [and so shamelessly and repetitively posted everywhere] that they make Casa an excellent first case to make the point that, in Portland, strippers are treated as employees. Treated as employees: told when to work, working in a space provided for us that’s only open and successful because of our presence, told when to go onstage, what to charge for dances, when we can leave, and often what to wear [mandatory heels at Rose City and Mary’s Club, for example] but told that we’re contractors and denied all the benefits of employee status: workman’s comp, paid sick days, unemployment, and yeah, an hourly wage and the 7.5% of taxes that employers normally cover, we occupy a financially [and sometimes sexually] exploited middle ground that most dancers, like most customers, have no idea is illegal and no idea how to rectify.
Stripping is a great job for a lot of reasons, but it’s especially good for women with who don’t have a lot of social capital, no connections or degrees to pry open the higher wage jobs, women without the resources even to begin to access that social capital. It’s good for women with kids because of the flexible hours and short shifts with a higher return than minimum wage–especially if she works night shifts when kids can be left with friends or family instead of paying for a babysitter. It’s good for women like my friend Annie2, arrested and convicted of drug possession, a conviction that bars her from ever getting financial aid or higher education. And it’s good for women like me: I started off a teenage high school drop-out with no skills, who wanted enough money to pay rent and bills in an environment where I wouldn’t get in trouble for reading books when it got slow.
Stripping is a godsend for me and people like me, offering a passport to a lifestyle we never dreamed of. But there are other side effects to not having social capital: with nothing else to compare it to a lot of strippers, especially newbies, normalise the things that happen, especially harassment and boundary pushing. “It’s just part of the job, just the way things are, don’t rock the boat, they don’t mean any harm.” The bar set for bad behavior in the sex industry is so high, things that would never happen in other industries [a manager firing a dancer after they break up, for example] just elicit a shrug and a “sucks for her.” Even actual sexual assaults don’t merit much more than “Well, you’re the one who chose to work there.” We don’t know where or how to look for legal information, and, as a stigmatised group, most of us inherently distrust authority figures whom we might otherwise look to for information. When has the state ever bestirred itself for strippers?
The lack of information became really clear last fall when the National Association of Social Workers hired lobbyists to put together a bill which would give protections to strippers. The NASW is very supportive of sex workers rights and the Oregon chapter includes Stephanie Wahab, a professor at PSU who’s written extensively about sex work and sex workers’ rights and human rights abuses against sex workers. They don’t have the power to come into the club and change things for us, but they can hire lobbyists–PacWest–to talk to strippers about what protections we want and to represent us in the Oregon legislature, pushing legislation that gives us protections, which was scary enough that the Association of Club Executives sent out this message in their Fall newsletter:
By the second meeting of strippers with lobbyists everything was confused. Neither group knew much about the legal rights of strippers, about what factors make up the BoLI test for independent contractors, what protections could be legally written in and what would be immediately thrown out by the legislature for being unconstitutional [making two way contact lap dances illegal, turns out, is unconstitutional in Oregon. Not only did neither group know anything about strippers’ status, the lobbyists had the additional failing of being unable to control their [pardonable, I guess] curiosity as the conversation moved from “hating contact dances” to a game of one-ups-manship about the worst things we’ve seen or had happen to us in a lap dance. And hour and a half passed this way, nothing decided, lobbyists listening with perked ears as we moved bad customers to bad bouncers to bad owners, treating dancers as a private dating pool, imposing racist preferences on hiring policies, and on.
By the end of the meeting a poster with rights had been gestured at, possibly a hotline too, someplace where dancers could call to make reports without putting their jobs in jeopardy.
Employees get to call and make complaints about discrimination, unsafe or hazardous working conditions, assaults, without risking their incomes. Independent contractors don’t have that luxury. Independent contractors can be–and are–fired for these things.
The fact that this wasn’t mentioned at the meetings either bothered me. There was a lot of talk about anonymity, about needing stay anonymous to avoid discrimination, but no acknowledgement that true independent contractor status is no more or less anonymous than employee status: in both cases employment papers or a contract is signed, tax paperwork is filed, sent to the IRS and state and–that’s all. In neither case should stripping show up on a background check short of an FBI style background check, and independent contractors are as vulnerable to being publicly outed or having someone call to see if they work as a stripper as employees are.
The lobbyists didn’t create room for the lawyer [Corinna Spencer-Scheurich, who won in arbitration against Rose City Strip] to clarify these matters, and in fact banned her from coming to any other meetings. The fact that independent contractors don’t have any of the rights and protections of employees, and only have the protections given them in their contracts, was left unsaid, as was the fact that most strip clubs in Portland don’t even have contracts: a copy of an ID is the most that many clubs keep on file. The idea that it’s possible to be an independent contractor without signing anything, without tax paperwork being handed out and filled out–that’s a result of Portland club owners being lazy to the point of breaking the law, probably because they don’t want to pay taxes on this undocumented income. In other states I’ve worked at, at legit clubs like Sapphire or Crazy Horse, this paperwork is mandatory. [And it doesn’t show up on a background check.]
If lobbyists, the people being paid by the National Association of Social Workers to represent our interests, to have researched these interests and know what protections we want and create a way to give it to us–if lobbyists who have now spent months on this–can’t be trusted to know what our rights are, and to pass this information on to us so we can make the best and most informed choices about what protections we need, then who the hell can?
This situation continued over the months. The lobbyists washed their hands of a bill actually mandating adherence to a certain standard of hygiene in strip clubs, writing it off as a Hail Mary pass doomed to failure before it had been anything but mentioned. Energy was focused on a bill that would make a poster mandatory in all dressing rooms.
What the poster doesn’t acknowledge is that an independent contractor only has the rights written into the contract, whatever they may be; moreover, it ignores the fact that in every Portland club except perhaps Golden Dragon, dancers hit all the major checkmarks of employees. If we already have all the drawbacks of employee status, why not give us the protections too? Or at least admit the huge difference in rights and protections between independent contractor and employee status. Fully educate people on what their options truly are before you start lobbying for them to sign them away.
The good thing, though, is that if you’re being treated as an employee it doesn’t matter what you sign saying you’re an independent contractor, you still have those employee protections under the law. That’s how the stripper this fall won her case against Rose City Strip, that’s how dancers have won against Rick’s, Sapphire, Spearmint Rhino, and Deja Vu, among scores of others. Clubs keep treating strippers like employees because they want scheduling power and calling strippers independent contractors because they don’t want to pay payroll tax, wages, overtime, benefits, workman’s comp. Can you imagine if you got unemployment when the boss got tired of you? If you slid in a puddle of beer at work and cut your hand open and got workman’s comp and paid sick leave to recover? In Portland, employees get paid sick leave! What if, no matter how bad the shift, we still walked away with more than gas money.
Lawsuits don’t change things, that’s something we need to understand. Losing in arbitration didn’t change Rose City: strippers still aren’t employees there. Winning against Casa Diablo will not magically make Casa dancers employees: that’s not how the law works. What lawsuits do is create a legal precedent: strippers across the country have been creating this legal precedent for twenty years now, and it doesn’t just benefit strippers. It also benefits FedEx drivers, Uber drivers, massage therapists, and even Nike workers. Lawsuits create a financial impetus for clubs to change how they work. As club owners see that they can be held responsible for the illegal things that they do, they make moves to change.
Often these changes are for the worse, like Deja Vu, which offers “employee status” at minimum wage, and you have to give them the money from the first ten dances you sell. Deja Vu makes it so unappealing to be an employee that people would rather gamble and pay hundreds of dollars to work in the hopes of keeping all their tips after. This kind of fuckery makes it really obvious why dancers have been leery of employee status; but the thing is, it isn’t legal either. Deja Vu has an illegal clause in their contract saying dancers who sign it are signing away their right to sue: also not legal.
But to not be frightened by this, dancers first have to know it isn’t legal, then they need access to lawyers who will help them challenge it, a supportive community to keep them strong through the stress of all this, and most importantly, another source of income for when working for Deja Vu becomes unbearable [that’s the thing about employee protections, right? You cannot be fired for standing up for your legal rights].
In Portland right now we have this remarkable, unheard of opportunity. We have a body with some social capital [NASW] standing behind us and funding our access to lobbyists [PacWest] who have access to the people who write bills and the people who sign them. We have a chance to do what other dancers in other states exhaust themselves trying to get: we have a chance to protect ourselves from this kind of manipulation and exploitation. We have the chance to do what suing a strip club cannot: create industry wide change.
The legislature is in session now, and I don’t know what will happen with the poster bill. I do know that we deserve more, we can ask for more, and we should ask for more. What about making a non-disclosure clause mandatory in all strip club contracts, whether employee or independent contractor, so that our status as workers in the club remains anonymous? Let’s start work on anti-discrimination legislation so that if any of us do get outed, we can’t lose jobs, housing, child custody, or anything else for our current or former status as sex workers.
What do we actually want and need? How can we use this opportunity to make it happen? Let’s talk about this.
1. I have a whole parodic essay boiling inside me about The Sexual Politics of the Vegan Strip Club.↩
2. Not her real name.↩