Organizing Jizz Joints

Imagine if you had a job where your work schedule and location depended on your race. You couldn't call in sick, and you could be fired without reason or notice. You could be put in unsafe situations, and management would look the other way. All this sounds illegal and unfair, right? While you might assume that Kathie Lee Gifford or Nike has another third-world sweatshop up and running, think again: These are the conditions that a certain class of workers face every day in this country. Would you support their efforts to organize a union in order to secure a better work environment? If I told you that these workers bend over, shake their asses, spread their legs, and play with their pussies in front of strangers for a living, would it make a difference?

After eight months of stripping, student and stand-up comedian Julia Query and her fellow dancers were sick of the draconian rules and unfair practices at the club where they worked, the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. They decided to organize and attempt to form a union. Media-savvy and aware that their activism was historically important, Query also picked up a camera to capture their efforts on film. She later joined forces with filmmaker Vicki Funari, and the result of their collaboration is a new documentary called Live Nude Girls Unite! (First Run Features), which follows the dancers' struggle to unionize.

The Lusty Lady was a unique place even before all the union hoopla. It's the only sex shop in the city that promotes itself as the hip, feminist peep show; its recruiting ads emphasize that it is owned by women (actually, some, but not all, of the shareholders are women), managed by women, and therefore a great place for women to work. Yet, this same supposedly cool company had a policy that if a dancer could not work her designated shift, she was required to find a replacement dancer whose skin was as light as hers or lighter and whose breasts were as big as hers or bigger. Not even a wacko "neo"-feminist like Camille Paglia would go for that. By setting itself up as a fun, slightly slutty, grrrl-powered slumber party, the Lusty Lady was a perfect target for union organizing. Of all the clubs in San Francisco, this one had an image to protect and couldn't afford the bad publicity.

Because of the way it positions itself, this particular jizz joint is not a haven for working-class girls in a dead-end town or junkies supporting a habit. Peering into the mirrored box from a booth, one sees a carpeted room full of brainy strippers—grad students, lefty activists, and starving artists. They are bright-eyed, intelligent girl-next-door types. The politically and socially conscious stripper has been around since the '70s (thanks to the women's movement), but there are a lot more of them now, and plenty of these liberated chicks are at the Lusty Lady. To me, the Lusty is so San Francisco—a city overrun with idealistic sex-radical women who need real jobs and plenty of dotcommers titillated by the idea that the girl behind the glass might have been his sister's college roommate at Vassar. What's next, a worker-owned cooperative strip club? Hey, if it can happen anywhere, it's San Francisco, where lefty collectives are an institution.

So the peep-show girl who's working on her Ph.D. may appeal to consumers, but this brand of stripper is a club owner's worst nightmare. Management should have seen the union effort coming: When you hire strippers with college degrees in women's studies, they aren't gonna take any crap. Like all other clubs in the industry, the Lusty Lady counted on the marginalization of sex work to thwart any attempts to unionize. What credible union would actually take on the fight to get strippers a fair contract? Fortunately for the women of the Lusty Lady, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) did take on the Lusty owners—and they won, forming the first and only Exotic Dancers Union four years ago.

The Lusty Lady is the only peep show or strip club in the country where workers belong to a union. While membership in the union is not mandatory (management would not agree to become a union shop), Query says that of all the workers who've been on staff for more than four weeks, 100 percent are union. The film is tedious and self-indulgent when it veers away from the unionizing effort and toward Query's own stripper experiences and her relationship with her mother, prostitute-rights advocate Dr. Joyce Wallace. I overlook that flaw and give credit to Query for documenting such an important moment in the women's movement, the sex-worker movement, and the union movement. Says Query, "It was a powerful experience for everyone on the bargaining committee, and our working conditions have improved dramatically. We fought against the odds. It took the miners 100 years to have enough work sites unionized so that they could get better working conditions. We did it in less than a year. Stripping is such a stigmatized profession, and there is so much internal shame, that the fact that we accomplished what we did made us feel like superheroes!"

1
 
2
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Loading...