Working

Twerking Class Heroes

Strippers, sex workers, and allies march against workplace discrimination

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Vanity Redz wore a bright-red cape to Saturday’s New York women’s march, carrying a sign that read “Captain Empowering Hoes” in pink and sparkly-gold lettering — her twist on model Amber Rose’s Captain Save a Hoe costume at her SlutWalk in Los Angeles last fall. The cape also referenced the 1994 E-40 hit “Captain Save a Hoe,” which the rapper has said is about “saving” women who work in clubs with money, gifts, and childcare.

The 22-year-old stripper, who performs in New York area clubs from Queens to Yonkers, came out to support #NYCStripperStrike. The hashtag — which doesn’t represent a formalized walkout — started cropping up in November as a way for black dancers in Queens hip-hop clubs to speak out against discrimination and sexual harassment at work.

“There’s a plethora of issues that we’re covering, but our main ones are racism, the colorism that’s going on” — favoritism toward lighter-skinned women — and body shaming, Vanity told the Voice. She also decried payments, known as house fees, that strippers must make to venues: Dancers are required to pay in excess of $100 each shift, and it’s increasingly difficult to break even, she said. “We’re basically making money to pay the next house fee the next day, or we’re making money for the transportation that we pay to get from the Bronx to Brooklyn, or we’re paying for just food, after the clubs. So it’s not much of a profit.”

Vanity and other strippers marched with dozens of sex workers and advocates down Central Park West on Saturday to fight back against the stigma surrounding their jobs, which they say makes it difficult to acquire basic workplace protections. They carried signs reading “We Dance 4 Dollars, Not Disrespect,” “Twerk Is Work,” and “Black Stripper Lives Matter.”

In 2017, national organizers with the Women’s March temporarily removed a line from their platform that pledged “solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements.” (Some prominent feminists, including Gloria Steinem, consider sex work to be exploitative without exception, and therefore anti-feminist.) The snub discouraged many activists, who say the destigmatization and decriminalization of sex work would curb low-level arrests and increase safety.

“Whether you work at a factory, or in a strip club, or as an escort, it’s all labor,” said Melissa Sontag Broudo, co–executive director of the Brooklyn-based nonprofit SOAR Institute, which advocates for sex workers. “And it all needs to be recognized, acknowledged, and supported.”

“I myself did not march [last year], partially because of the exclusion,” she added. “This year a bunch of us got together and said, especially because of the stripper strike that’s going on, there seems to be sort of a new energy, a new wave in the sex worker movement in New York right now.”

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Simone Mendoza, 26, strips under the name The Real Black Swan. She marched on Saturday because she is fed up with club promoters and managers favoring lighter-skinned women for lucrative bartending gigs, and urging those women to get implants.

Mendoza recently took a break from dancing because the money she was bringing in didn’t justify the time she spent away from her 4-year-old son, who has autism. “We have to take the power back,” she told the Voice.

News coverage of #NYCStripperStrike has portrayed dancers’ complaints as a war against bartenders. “I think sensationalizing ‘bartenders versus strippers’ is very attractive to the media,” said Jacq the Stripper, a 30-year-old stripper and comedian who does not work in Queens, but stands in solidarity with black strippers there. “People just love pitting women against each other. It’s part of the problem, but it’s not the problem.”

More importantly, she said, “I really want strippers to feel proud of the work that they do. Feeling pride in work is going to be part of the fight for labor rights.”

Strippers in the United States have been fighting off and on for workplace protections for decades, according to attorney Juhu Thukral, program director of the nonprofit Narrative Initiative and a founding advisor at SOAR, ever since clubs started introducing house fees in the 1990s. Strippers are often labeled as independent contractors but treated like employees. Their informal status comes with none of the benefits of full-time work — health insurance, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies — and all of the downsides (strict hours, set lap dance prices).

Thukral said that harassment thrives in these work environments. “There’s a great deal of sexual harassment, and management encourages this by increasing stage fees and not having proper protections,” she said. “Women have to put up with more in order to get a livable wage.”

Three strippers on Saturday told the Voice that they’d been sexually harassed or assaulted on the job. Vanity recalled one customer who touched her between her legs while wrapping his arm around her neck in a chokehold. She managed to make eye contact with a bouncer, afraid to resist, because “I wasn’t sure if he was going to try to do anything hurtful or extra once I called out for help.” The bouncer did nothing, she said. Afterward, “he was basically victim blaming — ‘you should have done this, you should have done that.’ ”

Musician and stripper Cali Luv, 28, recalled a customer who slapped her buttocks. “This man hit me, hard, saying that because I’m a stripper that he can touch me any kind of way,” she recalled. “It was horrible and every time I see him, my skin crawls. People just violate you. They think that just because you dance you don’t love yourself and respect yourself, and that’s not true.”

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Months into #NYCStripperStrike, club management has yet to acknowledge the movement. It has helped connect strippers across the country, though. Gizelle Marie, a 29-year-old stripper from the Bronx and one of the strike’s lead organizers, told the Voice that “every day I get a story from a woman of color.” Gizelle said she started using the hashtag last fall because “I took these issues for so long, and I was just over it.” On Sunday, she flew to Las Vegas to march with strippers in that city’s Women’s March.

Gizelle told the Voice that she’d like to see mandatory licensing for bartenders and strippers, “to create boundaries for everyone.” She is also considering reaching out to the Teamsters union to see if it “wouldn’t mind having women in this line of work in their union.” As of 2015, only one American strip club had successfully unionized: the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, in 1997. However, stripper class-action lawsuits alleging misclassification as independent contractors have proliferated. According to Thukral, the hashtag is doing important work by amplifying stripper’s grievances. “It’s the first step,” she said.

Throughout the march on Saturday, women in pink knit pussy hats looked curiously at the sex worker contingent. “If it’s your free choice to be doing it, knock yourself out,” surmised Rosemary Andress, an Upper West Side woman marching with her two young daughters.

Mz. Holly Hood, 32, carried a “No More House Fees!” sign. She told the Voice that she’s been stripping in New York City off and on for ten years. She also hosts a podcast called Strip Talk Live, where she interviews strippers about their work. Holly has little patience for the stigma around stripping, which suits her outgoing personality. She ticked off dancers’ primary complaints: insufficient take-home pay, racism, sexual harassment.

“I’ve worked in the corporate world, so I know it’s the same thing,” she said. “Same issues.”

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