COMES NATURALLY #102
October 20, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg
LIVE NUDE GIRLS UNITE!
["Live Nude Girls Unite!" written and directed by Julia Query and Vicky Funari, 16mm, color, 70 minutes, First Run Features, 2000.]
In April, 1997, after a long and difficult struggle, the dancers and support staff at San Francisco's Lusty Lady peep show theater voted to join Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). It was a dramatic moment in the growing movement for sex workers' rights. Only once before had exotic dancers in the U.S. voted for union representation â^À^Ô and that union, an "open" shop in which workers were not required to be union members, was busted as soon as the unionized club managed to hire a new crew of dancers who agreed to vote to disaffiliate from the union.
When the dancers at Lusty Lady voted to join SEIU in an election monitored by the National Labor Relations Board, sex workers once again joined the rolls of the established American labor movement, complete with all the rights and benefits guaranteed union workers by seventy years of state and national labor legislation. We are workers just like everyone else, the Lusty Lady strippers were saying to the world. We deserve to be treated with the same respect as steel workers, truck drivers, teachers, and social workers. We will not allow ourselves to be treated as less than full working citizens, to be stigmatized and marginalized, just because our work involves taking off our clothes, just because our work deals with the forbidden subjects of sex and sexual desire.
The Lusty Lady dancers were soon to discover, however, that while successfully organizing a union was a major accomplishment, negotiating a meaningful contract to obtain improved pay and decent working conditions was another matter altogether. Stung by the dancers' vote for union representation, the relatively progressive owners of the Lusty Lady Theater hired San Francisco's largest and most notorious anti-union law firm, Littler Mendelson, to represent them in contract negotiations with the new union. They also opted to take a hard line stance with the dancers -- including everything from belittling tactics to punitive firings -- apparently believing that this group of mostly young women, inexperienced with the complex process of labor negotiation, could be intimidated, manipulated, or simply tricked into accepting what a weak contract. They were quick to find out that the Lusty Lady dancers possessed much more pride, smarts, courage, and perseverance than the owners had given them credit for.
The seven-month process of contract negotiations that led to the first of three progressively favorable Lusty Lady contracts forms the central theme of "Live Nude Girls Unite!," the powerful, informative, and entertaining documentary film by Julia Query that won both Audience and Golden Spire Awards at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival. "Live Nude Girls Unite!" goes into limited public release this month.
Query, an insightful thinker, feminist activist, and stand-up comedian who was herself a dancer at the Lusty Lady during the groundbreaking contract negotiations, has put together a thoughtful, well-crafted, and imaginative look at the world of exotic dancing. Her 70-minute film, co-directed by Vicky Funari, offers a combination of progressive politics, feminist analysis, humor, and personal revelation that effectively cuts through common, stereotyping misconceptions about this particular aspect of the sex industry. In place of the one-dimensional, titillating, and generally dismissive perspective that mainstream media generally direct toward the sex industry, "Live Nude Girls Unite!" gives its viewers a complex and sympathetic look at both the realities of the exotic dancing subculture and at a good number of the women who have chosen this particular form of work.
Most people who are unfamiliar with the details of what life is like inside the sex industry are understandably disoriented to hear people talking about strippers and contract negotiations, about sexual titillation and mundane decisions like whether to go to work or stay home when you have a cold, about offering oneself as fantasy material to dozens of men a day and maintaining a sense of personal integrity and perspective, all in the same breath.
Yet it is the intertwining of mundane reality and sexual fantasy, business and sexual arousal, emotional grounding and sexual theater, that makes sex work of any form such a complicated political and personal matter. And it is because people outside the sex industry have such a hard time addressing the sexual and personal issues of sex work in an integral way that sex work continues to be widely misunderstood, stigmatized, and feared.
Most of us are used to thinking of sex work and sex workers as if they are categories unto themselves, somehow unrelated to and disconnected from other forms of employment and other sectors of the labor force. The special status we customarily assign to sex work and sex workers is quite parallel to the unique perspective we generally reserve for sex itself. Most of us deal with our sexual feelings quite differently from the way we relate to other important aspects of our logistical and emotional lives. We certainly think of other people's differing sexual tastes and orientations very differently from how we think about their differing tastes in clothing, food, recreation, political beliefs, or the kinds of people they take as close friends. Once it's sex we're dealing with, everything changes, everything becomes colored by the peculiar -- generally negative and fearful -- biases we bring to the sexual arena.
What makes "Live Nude Girls Unite!" such an important, powerful, and enlightening film is that it lifts sex and sex work out of their customary classification as Special Issues and pushes us to relate to them on the rather mundane plane of everyday life, as indeed every sex worker must do. Here are real women -- not glamorized sex goddesses, not pathetic drug addicts -- dealing with the real issues of taking effective control of their real lives. Here are strong, worthwhile women, not so unlike ourselves, dealing with the often ludicrous consequences of the fact that they earn their daily living by offering their naked bodies to the sometimes condescending, sometimes worshipful eyes of a sea of strange, undifferentiated men, each floating on his own ocean of sexual issues, desires, and confusions. Here is Julia Query herself, politically conscious daughter of a politically progressive mother, grappling with the very recognizable fear that her mother will discover and disapprove of what she really does to pay the rent.
Fortunately for herself and for her film, Query relates to all these complexities with a vibrant mix of seriousness and humor, personal immediacy and political perspective. The issues of personal respect and integrity faced by dancers at the Lusty Lady Theater (and by sex workers everywhere) are indeed intensely serious and funny, personal and political, all at the same time. What Query insists â^À^Ô to herself, to her mother, and to everyone who sees her film â^À^Ô is that we acknowledge them as such.
Over and over again, "Live Nude Girls Unite!" immerses us in the kinds of details that combine these paradoxical perspectives. Query's cameras record, with uncompromising and often excruciating intimacy, a complex spectrum of conflicting emotional realities. We watch with amused understanding as Query prepares for an unexpected visit from her mother, racing about to convert her apartment from the home of a dedicated stripper and union organizer to one of a properly dutiful, if not entirely chase, feminist daughter. We listen with amazement as the lawyers of Littler Mendelson insist incongruously that the work contract under negotiation include an affirmation that the work the dancers do at the Lusty Lady is "fun." ("Do they say this to the steelworkers?" Query jibes in one of many clips from her comedy performances that punctuate the film.)
We witness dancers perform their rather magical dressing room transformation from girls next door to glamorous icons of men's most cherished sexual fantasies. We laugh when picketing dancers chant, "Two, four, six, eight, don't go in to masturbate," and when dancers inside the peep show scrawl messages on the palms of their hands surreptitiously imploring patrons of the theater, "Please don't spend $ hereâ^À¦ Unfair to labor." We hear a loyal customer devotedly (and self-servingly) explain how he's going to call the theater and threaten never to patronize it again unless management agrees to rehire a dancer who has been fired without due cause. ("He's going to get a great show if we're allowed to organize," an attractive picketer promises, to the man's obvious delight.)
In some of the film's most moving and personal footage, we watch the confrontation between Query and her mother build to its inevitable conclusion as the truth of Query's work as both stripper and union organizer is revealed. And we see the fear, uncertainty, strength, determination, and sheer exhaustion that circulate among the dancers' negotiating committee as late-night contract talks go down to the wire on the core issue of whether the Lusty Lady is to be a closed or open union shop.
The story of the Lusty Lady's first contract is interesting in itself, but "Live Nude Girls Unite!" also makes a point of connecting that story to other efforts to organize exotic dancers, and to the ongoing movement for prostitutes' rights and the decriminalization of prostitution. Early portions of the film provide a veritable primer on the nuts and bolts of peep show and lap dancing, with detailed descriptions of working conditions at both the Lusty Lady and other sex-related San Francisco theaters and statements from a variety of dancers about what they both like and dislike about their work.
Happily, the film avoids the dual temptations to either romanticize sex work as an idyllic affirmation of sexual freedom or condemn it as demeaning to those who choose to make their living in a sex-related way. The film quotes both porn actress Nina Hartley on the virtues of sex work ("A woman can choose a job in the sex industry and not be a victim. She may become stronger, more self-actualized.") and anti-porn activist Catherine MacKinnon on the evils of pornography ("Pornography turns a woman into a thing to be acquired and used.") before rather blithely rejecting both polarities (and, indeed, the whole tired issue of whether sex work is "good" or "bad") in favor of Query's wry, summarial judgment that sex work is, most fundamentally "boring," nothing more, nothing less -- and thus, by implication, not so different from other forms of repetitive, uncreative work.
Parallels are drawn between organizing efforts at the Lusty Lady and other attempts to organize erotic dancers â^À^Ô notably the long struggle by the lap dancers of San Francisco's Exotic Dancers Alliance to be classified as salaried (and organizable) employees in place of the independent contractors status preferred by theater owners. Similarities are noted between the issues raised by dancers at the Lusty Lady and those publicized by Margo St. James, Scarlot Harlot, and the prostitute rights advocacy organization, COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), with regard to the lives and working conditions of prostitutes.
The film emphasizes that the success of the Lusty Lady dancers in forming a union and successfully negotiating a contract with theater owners has had impact on other exotic dancers as well, encouraging dancers in other parts of the country to start union organizing efforts of their own. Activists from the Lusty Lady, hoping that their union experience will be the start of a larger, national movement of dancers, have devoted time and money to provide on-site support for organizing efforts in other parts of the country. Thus in the film, dancers in Philadelphia and Anchorage speak of how they were inspired by the Lusty Lady to wage their own, ultimately unsuccessful, battles to win union representation of their own.
Initial public release of "Live Nude Girls Unite!" includes Montreal (September 26), San Francisco (October 6), Berkeley (October 13), Rochester, New York (October 13), New York City (October 20), Austin, Texas (October 27-November 12), Hartford, Connecticut (October 28-30), Buffalo, New York (November 22), Seattle, Washington (November 24-30), and Los Angeles (January 12-18, 2001). Additional information on the film and bookings is available at <www.livenudegirlsunite.com> or from First Run Features (212-243-0600).
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at email@example.com. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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