I went to my first female strip club last month. My girlfriend starting working at a place in the Financial District this fall and I finally worked up the courage to visit her. Visually it was what I expected. Monetarily, it wasn't.
"How's the money?" I asked "Kiki" after her set. Kiki is a tall Japanese American woman getting her Ph.D. in psychiatry. After bouncing from unprofitable bartending job to another, she finally tried this. She's smart and beautiful; I expected her to drop a big figure into my lap.
"Depends on the day," she said. As it's currently organized, stripping is service work - and not unlike most service work in the United States, it's a field dominated by women who have to fight to be treated fairly. Kiki explained that she was considered an independent contractor and therefore didn't get a paycheck.
"It's how the owners get out of paying us benefits," she said. This includes worker's compensation, unemployment and health insurance. "They tell us we're independent yet we're still told to clean and do other small jobs. We're even charged a $80 'stage fee.'" This doesn't include tip-out: additional fees paid to DJs and other club service staff. Dancers' tips can vary widely, depending on factors as unpredictable as customer whims and volume.
"At least it's better than (other locations)," Kiki said.
I felt that she was wrong. From domestic workers securing benefits in New York state, to Chicago's teachers' strikes, to last week's Black Friday actions organized across the country against Wal-Mart, strippers are just another group of women being unfairly treated.
But something is starting to be done about it.
Two weeks ago strippers employed by the Spearmint Rhino chain came to an unprecedented $13 million settlement in federal court, the result of a class action suit to restore back wages and contest their status as independent contractors of the clubs.
Deciding in the dancers' favor was U.S. District Court Judge Virginia Phillips, best known for ruling "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (the official United States policy on homosexuals serving in the military) unconstitutional in 2010. It's one of the largest financial settlements awarded to dancers at a major chain in the United States.
Not only was it a big win for the 14 dancers named in the suit, but also for dancers in California. Judge Phillips ruled that within 30 days Spearmint Rhino must stop charging dancers "stage fees" for the right to work. Phillips also ruled that the chain is required to grant all dancers in their clubs employee status within six months, ending the illegal practice of classifying dancers as independent contractors while also placing workplace demands on them that exceed that legal status.
Dancers have brought suit after suit over misclassification as independent contractors for over 15 years now, starting with a string of high profile settlements in California in the late 1990's, leading to the founding of the Exotic Dancers' Alliance.
"Why don't you and the girls do something about it?" I asked Kiki.
"Because we don't want to get fired," she said. And also, according to Kiki, it's particularly difficult for dancers to fight for legal pay. The price of speaking out isn't just about the "whore stigma" that all sex workers face (dancers risk outing themselves to friends, family and others), but it could also mean discrimination at other and future jobs. "It could even provide a rationale for a dancer to lose custody of her children," she said.
Because a stripper's work is not respected or acknowledged culturally by a significant portion of the population, employers (usually male) get away with taking advantage of these women. In sex workers' ongoing fight for the same rights on the job that any worker in any profession should expect, I hope that the Spearmint Rhino case is a tipping point in the strip club business.