Activist Flashbacks circa 1999

I came into sex work activism as an undergrad planning a conference. One of the first people I met were the founders and fire behind the Exotic Dancer’s Alliance and the San Francisco “stripclub liberation movement.” One of the most important things that the EDA did was get A.B. 2509 passed. When AB 2509 became effective. Owners who require the payment of “stage fees,” “commissions,” or “quotas” from any portion of dancers’ tips were in violation of California State labor laws. This effectively set the precedent for any exotic dancer who was ready to exit out of the industry and file a labor claim against any of the clubs that she worked at in SF. Most cases, once filed and processed are awarded in the favor of the dancer/worker.

I came into stripping with previous knowledge on stage fees and fines, as I was mentored by some women who were either retired or about to retire and had already collected their renumerations from previous stripclubs. During my baby stripper days, there was a lot of drama and bickering between the groups of women involved and EDA soon became inactive, and the original founders of EDA became the founders of St. James Infirmary clinic, which is still open now. The EDA and many of the members made a lot of amazing strides for sex workers in SF, but stopped short of a stripper revolution, I believe because of the craziness that ensued between the members of the community. One of the women, whose personal suffering is always made known by herself, spent approximately 5 years showing up at meetings, throwing fits at everyone who didn’t agree with her, and really made it quite difficult for stripclub rights to go anywhere. Most of the women, burnt out on the drama exited the activist scene and are still supportive at heart but haven’t been seen actively involved in over ten years. Occasionally, waves of this inherited drama between the original stripper liberation movement in SF is still visible. One the most groundbreaking moves to unionize the Lusty Lady and then move it into a worker owned cooperative was also filled with horizontal hostility and drama that stunted its development into something that could have been much greater than it is now (I believe it is struggling?) I was burnt out on activism before I truly started! I and many other younger sex worker activists in SF inherited the drama of these women and would occasionally receive email diatribes between them on list servs that we were part of. One day, an email from Stacey, co-founder of Desiree Alliance asserted that “we [then] younger activists didn’t want to be a part of your drama” in so many words and that was a big turning point for sex worker activism in SF. Or, at least, it was a memorable point of entry for me to feel safe to enter with a clean, energetic state free from the baggage collected from all the fighting that had been going on between women that we didn’t even know that well.

I met Carol Leigh around this time and she introduced me to the prostitutes movement. Around this time, I also met Robyn Few and she and Carol and some others were just in the founding stages of Sex Workers Outreach Project. I remember thinking, wow, the prostitutes sure have more energy and direction than the strippers have had in years…

I guess with all of the issues that have ensued around the brothel issues, and other issues around social justice, class and privilege-I have gained some very visible opponents of my own and am starting to learn that taking the heat from any position that you are trying to organize, is part of organizing. Right now, in San Francisco all the sex worker activists have sort of unified around Measure K, the proposition to Decriminalize Prostitution in SF. Women who have sworn to never work together, women who are uncomfortable being in the same room together, have all somehow gotten together to be able to work together, but separately on this very important campaign even if they still don’t really like or trust each other. They know that they must unify their expertise to fight for decriminalization.  I am happy to see this happen, as many of us left San Francisco out of frustration so that we could actually make changes without inherited drama.

I know what my intentions are in the work that I am doing. I didn’t let some bitches’ at the brothel pouring tabasco on my computer stop me, and I shouldn’t let the voice of a hater silence me either, even if and especially if, she is part of the same organizations as I am.

The brothel issue is an interesting intersection between stripclub politics and prostitution politics. I feel, since I have experienced both that a lot of the issues are the same. There are many issues that are hotly debated that all of us from either side are not going to agree on, but enforcing labor rights was the right start that the EDA needed, and I feel that it’s the same tactic that can be enforced in Nevada too. If it is truly legal selling of sex, then we should be able to have recourse for injustice. When we speak of decriminalization, often folks will state legalization as their only understanding. Most of us knew that the brothel wasn’t the ideal model, but we had avoided talking about it in too much detail because we didn’t have representation from the brothels. Former brothel workers who have become leaders in our movement have confirmed that the way that management and girls try to break you down so you can get your stripes and then make your money existed then and as I confirmed, still exist. They have also pointed out to me, however that this is where they and other girls were at and I cannot harp on them for being brainwashed or damaged for doing so.  My words against the workers have been edited to be less critical, I am not apologizing to them for my blogs, but I was angry at every single one of them from the top down and blogging was the only fightback that I had.  No one admitted it, but they were all guilty to me. Management admitted her involvement by kicking me out after it happened, and I was guilty too because I was talking shit about their workplace which I had deemed was bootcamp and jail.  I was losing my mind from the inside out and writing is sometimes all I have to express my pain.  Later, I might write a song about it, but until then…

There is talk of getting current workers involved in any actions or recommendations that we make. I strongly believe that it is impossible to get more current workers than Amanda and I to the table, because you cannot be inside a house and critical of the master at the same time. Didn’t I find that out? Luckily for me, being kicked out and sent home didn’t have the same weight as it does for others who are given the same treatment, but it definitely wasn’t NOT a big deal. The same issue of current stripclub strippers speaking as the mouthpiece of management exists whenever there is some motion to close down the private booths that most of the dancers make their money in comes up. Some dancers have been assaulted in the private booths, and many dancers do full service sex work in these booths so there is a lot of divided camps of anti-prostitution, violence against women, current stripper, former stripper, and more which stops any progress on the issue. Current workers cannot speak their own minds about working conditions and still have a job.  So, no agreements are made and no changes occur.  There are still stagefees upwards of $400/shift and the private booths and full service sex work still thrive and prosper in many SF stripclubs.  Defacto legalization means no rights, and the stripper-prostitute hierarchy is still reinforced by the failure to address the issues in the stripclubs, but I don’t even think they are talking about this issue in their campaigning of measure K, because it might complicate the issue!

Since most sex workers are not protected by union laws, organizing against their employers (and blogging about them) usually means not having a job. And that is much scarier to many than having to deal with any of the things that I blogged about.  These days I am feeling on a strange tipping point with the sex worker rights movement in the U.S.  (I was so happy in Mexico!) Will we see the same shying away from clear cut labor violations because we are afraid of threatening the jobs of those currently working under those conditions?  We clearly don’t have as much power as them, but the EDA didn’t either and they got their resolution passed all the way to the state level!  I would just like to see the same precendent set for the workers in the brothel system.  This way,if workers felt that they could someday muster up the courage to fight for their rights, they had a method to do so.  It took me almost 2 years from the point I picked up paperwork at the Labor Commission to actually do something about it.  (and it took me over a year to get paid).  It is an extremely scary step, and many sex workers who do this are in fear and isolation of exiting the industry.  Sex worker activists agree that the brothel system is not ideal, but are not really working to change this.  But changing this is very very difficult indeed, and I’m sure has been tried by some before.  I feel that it is my duty to at least find out what has been done and if anything can be done in the future.  I have nothing more to lose in the brothel system. I am the perfect candidate.  This reminds me of the case I filed against the former Boys Toys club in SF.  I had only worked there for about 3 or 4 days and I was recompensated $1000 in backwages and illegal fees.  Never underestimate what the power of one and former precedents by others before you can do..

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