Black exotic dancers: undervalued and underpaid
- Published: 12 December 2010
- Hits: 19898
13 December 2010
You have to try harder to talk to the customers and ease them into buying a lap dance from you, smile at them, engage them more, because many White men are scared of Black women and sometimes Black men don’t want to see a Black woman either, whereas the White women have an easier time talking to customers. Some nights I make anywhere from $150 to $300 a night, whereas White women make around $500 a night or more.
- Alicia (24-year-old Black Canadian dancer)
On August 30, 1997, dancers at the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco made history by unionizing with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 790; the Lusty Lady became the only strip club in the United States to successfully unionize. I was one of those dancers.
When I was 22 years old I worked as an exotic dancer at the club while majoring in women’s studies at San Francisco State University. Before working at the Lusty Lady, I was familiar with the sex workers movement in the Bay Area; in 1973 Margo St. James founded the prostitutes’ rights group, COYOTE (Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics), which fought to recognize sex work as labor, and eliminate the social stigma against sex workers.
In the early 1990s, the movement was again in full force because of the influx of many women entering the sex industry, especially exotic dancing, as the service sector expanded.
For example, in 1992, former exotic dancers Dawn Passar and Johanna Breyer founded the nonprofit organization the Exotic Dancers Alliance, and organized in response to a move by management forcing exotic dancers to pay stage fees to work in clubs.
I was familiar with the Lusty Lady because many of the students in my women’s studies classes (most of whom were White) were working there; it was known as a feminist strip club because women managed it and the president of the company that owned it was a woman.
Like many college students, I was struggling financially, and was told by some of the women who worked there that the Lusty Lady was a safe environment. The starting wage was $10 an hour; $25 an hour was the top wage. There was no customer contact and the hours were flexible.
Because the Lusty Lady was a peep-show, surrounded with mirrors and neon lights, which operated on quarters and dollar bills, the women danced behind glass. I eventually decided to see what the club was all about and scheduled an audition—a week later I was hired by Josephine, a Black manager (called a show director) and former Lusty dancer herself.
In many ways, the club lived up to its reputation as a feminist operation: Women were escorted to their cars at night by male support staff, customers were not allowed to be disrespectful or abusive toward dancers, and overall there was a camaraderie among the dancers that made it a safe and supportive environment. During our 10-minute breaks, coffee and snacks were provided in the dressing room.
Yet, within the first month, I felt there was a major problem in the feminist equation of the Lusty Lady—out of 70 dancers only 10 were women of color, and of these, only 3 were Black. I noticed this while I was on stage; there was usually only one woman of color and four White women.
If a Black dancer was performing, White (and some Asian) customers often would leave the window and move to one where a White woman was standing, sometimes talking with other White dancers, and ignoring the customer all together. In an extreme case, a White man wanted his $5 back after placing it in the bill collector, and the window revealed a dark-skinned, curvy Black woman.
The degree of symbolic anti-Black racism at the Lusty Lady often was overwhelming, but not discussed among the White, Black, and non-Black dancers of color.
However, the full impact of the racism at the club was the issue of Black women performing in what was called “Private Pleasures,” a booth that was separate from the main stage, but a more lucrative way for dancers to perform, with wages starting at $5 for 3 minutes; dancers could make up to $60 an hour.
I told Josephine that I was interested in working in the booth; she trained me, and the following week I was placed on the schedule.
However, I was only scheduled on a “Private Pleasures” shift once, whereas other dancers worked there as often as three or four times a week. I noticed that although non-Black women of color worked in this booth, Black dancers were never scheduled.
When I asked Josephine about this, she explained that because White men would pay 25 cents to see us on stage, as opposed to the $5 required in the “Private Pleasures” booth, having Black women dance in the booth would lead to the club losing money.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing: Without any evidence of what these customers preferred, she controlled the degree to which Black women could work within the club. If Black women were having a hard time gaining customers in the “Private Pleasures” booth, how would limiting our exposure help?
Shortly after this conversation, I asked the other two Black dancers to join me in a meeting with the show director. This meeting resulted in an agreement that a Black dancer would be rotated in the booth schedule once a week for three months to measure customer response. It was a form of affirmative action, but only on a probationary basis.
I mentioned the problem of Black women not being allowed to dance in the booth to some of the White dancers. Although they agreed this was an unfair policy, they largely saw it as our issue and wished us well.
Although this was one of the most obvious examples of discrimination within the workplace, it was not the issue that sparked the union movement. That issue, instead, involved customers videotaping dancers through the one-way windows behind which they danced. Although the customers could see and videotape the dancers, the dancers could only see their own reflections.
Dancers at the Lusty Lady quickly organized to inform management that they wanted a no-camera policy for customers, as well as removal of the one-way windows so they could see who was watching them.
They started to question other issues in the workplace, such as not being able to call in sick (at least without fear of losing their jobs), or having to find dancers who resembled them physically to replace a shift if they could not come to work, which was difficult for women of color to do.
In order to deter the dancers from unionizing, management made two concessions: They replaced the one-way windows and they scheduled Black dancers in the booth. Despite these concessions, many of us knew unionization would be our only protection against management abuses.
We sought legal advice from the Exotic Dancers Alliance and were put in contact with our union representative, Stephanie Bailey. The process of unionizing with SEIU Local 790 was exciting, but also hard work, including long nights at the bargaining table, media coverage, strikes and lock outs, deciding what we wanted in our first contract.
However, during that time, I remember fighting to have race recognized as a real issue for exotic dancers of color, and not eclipsed by the aforementioned issues that many White dancers viewed as the “larger,” more important issues and were largely quoted in the local and national newspapers covering the unionization.
The unionization of the Lusty Lady really put the issue of sex work on the table, not only for the labor movement, but also in feminist and queer communities, both of which have had rocky relationships with sex work (the feminists often question whether sex work is exploitative, and some queer circles question whether lesbians performing sex work for men are “selling out”).
Unionization was a big win for the sex workers movement, and yet some unfinished business remains: the role of race and stratification in US-based sex work, especially exotic dancing.
While working as a union organizer I noticed that the San Francisco clubs where many women of color worked were located in seedy areas surrounded by fast food restaurants, check-cashing venues, and drug dealers.
These clubs also had the worst working conditions: coerced prostitution, police raids, stage fees as high as $160 a shift, and sexual harassment from management.
The women who worked at these clubs were mostly women of color, with few White women; many were single mothers and immigrants. Even though I am proud of the work my co-workers and I did at the Lusty Lady, I recognize that we were in a very privileged position because, unlike most exotic dancers, we were legally classified as employees, we didn’t have physical contact with customers, we didn’t pay stage fees, and the club is located in the North Beach district, a desirable tourist area of San Francisco.
It is a somber fact that after the union, the club hired more Black women in its 14-year history, only to have many leave because they did not understand their rights under the contract; some were fired for being late and felt they had no recourse; some left because of dancer racism (i.e. some White dancers objected to rap or hip-hop (the kind that is not sexist) being played because they felt it was violent music).
Based on the racism I experienced working as a Black exotic dancer, I wanted to know what happens when one is considered not good enough to be objectified.
Many White, middle-class feminists (both those who are pro- and those who are anti-sex work) often assume all women are afforded the same opportunities for employment in the sex industry.
This just isn’t so.
Symbolic racism in the post civil rights era
On March 7, 2007 I appeared on National Public Radio’s (NPR) News and Notes on the Sex and Sexuality series hosted by Farai Chideya. I was asked to discuss my attempts to get more Black women hired at the Lusty Lady, as well as my research on the racial stratification of Black and Latina women in the exotic dance industry.
I talked about the ways Black and Latina women are hypersexualized (meaning overly sexualized compared with White women) through media images, especially in music videos, which usually show women of color in skimpy clothing supporting male rapper subjectivity.
I stated that because images of women of color in the sex industry are made so accessible through the media, male customers frequently underpay them for sexual services.
A few days after NPR aired the show, a man from San Francisco wrote a letter in response to my comments stating that sex work is about fantasy, and one cannot impose fantasies on customers through affirmative action.
He continued his letter by stating that Blacks are at the bottom of being viewed as desirable fantasy objects, and that the only way they will be viewed as more sexually desirable is if they improve the public image of their community and increase their wealth.
This man’s comment speaks toward the public response I encountered while examining racial stratification among Black and Latina exotic dancers in the sex industry. Racism against Black women in this industry is usually viewed as normal because, like other appearance-based industries (such as modeling, acting), the sex industry is based on ideas of customer taste and preference.
Thus, if Black women are not desirable, it is the objective result of customer taste within a free market—not structural anti-Black racism operating within the psyche of the customer or club management.
The letter also supports neo-liberalist ideas regarding the responsibility of Blacks to control their media image, and to improve their wealth status.
Both of these views reinforce the belief that Black people are to blame for their negative public image, for having less wealth than Whites, and therefore having lower erotic capital value in the exotic dance industry.
When it comes to issues of racial segregation and systemic discrimination in a post-Civil Rights era, many people, including some people of color, subscribe to the idea that racism does not exist in ways that hinder people of color from advancing economically, and that poor US-born Blacks and Latino/as do not want to work hard.
They believe that everyone has the same opportunities to advance within the current socio-economic structure.
This viewpoint is prevalent regarding Black women in the exotic dance industry, as evidenced by the letter responding to the NPR interview. What is missing from this position of the free-market and customer taste choice model is the role of structural and symbolic racism and classism within the exotic dance industry, as well as other industries.
My research shows that contrary to the notion that male customer taste is objective, it is carefully socially constructed through club marketing techniques, as well as the media at large, which overproduces images of White and mixed-race people as sexually desirable.
There are more images of Black people in the media (and now of Latino/as) especially in films, which challenge stereotypes of Blacks being lazy, hypersexualized, and/or violent. However, images with these messages targeting Black women constantly are reinforced in other forms of media, such as gangsta rap videos, which give men of all races distorted and racist sexist ideas about Black and Latina women.
The news is another form of media that supports ideas about Black and Latina women by focusing on them as welfare recipients in need of former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 welfare reform policy, or as undocumented immigrants, taking advantage of hard-working tax-paying citizens.
These images of Black and Latina women have consequences that affect the life chances of Black and Latina women in the exotic dance industry by influencing how they are positioned and treated regarding skin color stratification, job rank, safety, and earnings.
Spaces that provide sexual entertainment in Oakland for lesbian and queer-identified working-class Black women also are tied into larger urban structures.
However, for queer Black women, the marketing of erotic capital is a way to form community and exercise autonomy, not just an avenue for making money as exotic dancers. Additionally, these spaces both challenge and reinforce notions of patriarchy and masculinity, while responding to the specific needs and desires of working-class Black lesbians who mostly are ignored by mainstream White-dominated gay and lesbian institutions.
In a post-Civil Rights era in which a Black and Latino/a consumer-based middle class has increased, (although still a minority compared with the White middle class), there are more media representations geared toward these groups (i.e., Essence and Latina magazines, which illustrate Black and light-skinned Latina women in respectable heterosexual middle-class settings).
Yet, the dominant image of both groups is associated with stereotypes of lower-class Blacks and Latino/as, even when they are in a middle-class socioeconomic status. This is particularly true of Black people because people of all races frequently view their relationship to blackness as a signifier of success within the United States—the further one is from blackness, the better one is perceived to be doing.
Thus, Black people in the United States remain, irrespective of their socioeconomic standing, symbolically at the bottom compared with other racial groups, which is illustrated in how Black women are treated in the exotic dance industry.
However, this form of symbolic racism against Black women and darker-skinned Latinas does not just function within the exotic dance industry, but also happens within marriage markets, educational institutions, real estate markets, areas of employment, health industries, and the legal system.
A recent example of Black women’s low erotic capital value within the legal system appeared in the May 24, 2009 edition of the Post-Crescent, Appleton-Fox Cities, Wisconsin newspaper, which printed an article concerning the unsolved murders of five Black Milwaukee women, who police claim were prostitutes. The murders took place between 1986 and 2007.
It was not until the week the article was released that police revealed recent DNA tests linking the murders of these women. According to the article, many people in the community felt that the women’s race and the stigma of being prostitutes kept police from pursuing these crimes aggressively, and that some officers referred to prostitutes as “crack whores.”
All of the women who were killed were Black, except for one White woman, who police believe may have been murdered by someone else, although the suspect’s DNA was found on her body.
This case reveals a great deal about how erotic capital is valued and how racism and classism function to devalue the lives of people from marginalized groups, such as sex workers.
Another case of the intersection of race and erotic capital in the legal system is the 2006 case involving three White male lacrosse players from Duke University. The students were accused of raping a Black exotic dancer.
Although DNA tests from the lacrosse players came back negative and they were not convicted of the rape of Crystal Gail Mangum, issues of racism, sexual violence, class inequality, and gender were prevalent in this case.
My research on racialized erotic capital among Black and Latina women in the exotic dancing industry demonstrates one example of how symbolic racism functions on an institutional level in the post-Civil Rights era.
When women of color are working in predominately White clubs that offer more security and are located in areas with higher property values, they often are paid less than their White counterparts, marginalized as token hires, or employed in lower-tier job positions.
Women of color working in clubs predominately employing people of color, may make good money, but are subject to unjust working conditions, customer expectations that services will be cheaper, and unsafe neighborhood spaces—erotic capital is not separate from institutions or other forms of capital.
There are institutional consequences for not being viewed as sexually desirable and/or attractive, especially for dark-skinned Black women. The low erotic capital of Black and Latina women who work in desire industries impacts their labor and immigrant rights, violence against them within and outside of their neighborhoods, ideas about community investment, and how they support their education and/or provide for their families by working in desire industries.
Therefore, policymakers, immigrant rights groups, queer organizations, and feminists advocating sex workers’ rights need to be aware of how women of color are positioned in this industry, and how that affects issues of fair housing policies, affordable health care, immigration policies, access to good legal advice and representation, and safe working conditions for exotic dancers.
Finally, although it may be challenging, they need to finds ways to remedy the symbolic racism stratification and marginalization of women of color by implementing symbolic forms of affirmative action within clubs (i.e. making allowances for dancers experiencing symbolic racism from customers in the form of shift scheduling or promoting the shows of dancers of color more).
In the era of “colorblindness,” and particularly with the historic 2009 presidential election of Barack Obama, many people in the United States believe that, as a nation, issues of race and racism no longer present the barriers they once did in the pre-Civil Rights period.
However, even as the meanings of race, gender, and class shift, structural oppression is still occurring among poor and working-class people, as well as for individuals of marginal middle to upper middle class groups (people of color, White women, queer people), both symbolic representation and oppression connected with cultural stereotypes of the past mark their experiences in these new times.
This is an edited extract from Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry by Siobhan Brooks. Published by SUNY Press (2010) and reproduced here with permission of the publisher.
Siobhan Brooks is Visiting Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Temple University.