COMES NATURALLY #147 (April 23, 2004)
Copyright © 2004 David Steinberg
SEX WORKER SELF-DETERMINATION: THE LUSTY LADY WORKERS' COOP AFTER ONE YEAR
Being part of a worker-owned, democratically-run business collective is an empowering, freeing, liberating, even revolutionary experience.
It's also emotionally complicated, time consuming, psychologically confusing, interpersonally demanding, and a lot of just plain hard work.
Especially if the people in your collective are exceptionally headstrong, independently-minded, rebellious, suspicious of authority, and generally opposed to rules and regulations.
Especially if the business of the collective involves taking off your clothes and displaying your naked body for the sexual gratification of your customers.
Just ask the women (and the support staff men) who work at San Francisco's Lusty Lady peep show theatre -- the nation's one and only cooperatively-run, worker-owned, democratically-governed sex entertainment enterprise.
On June 1, 2003, the workers at the Lusty Lady bought the theatre they had been working at and set up their collective. After a year as their own bosses, the Lusty dancers are alive and kicking, one-fifth of the way through their purchase payments, and still full of spirit, determination, and fierce independence. But they are also distinctly sobered by the nuts-and-bolts details of running their own sexually-charged show, and the complexities of building a culture of community within the highly individualized, nobody's going-to-tell-me-what-to-do sex work subculture.
Perhaps you know about the Lusty Lady Theatre from your own erotic wanderings. Perhaps you know about it from Julia Query's award-winning documentary, "Live Nude Girls Unite!" For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Lusty Lady is San Francisco's unique, long-standing private-booth "peep show" venue. Every day from nine a.m. until three the next morning, three or four nude (or nearly nude) dancers move about the theatre's mirrored main stage while customers watch from behind glass windows in a semi-circle of a dozen private booths. Dancers alternate between pressing up close to the individual windows and performing for the gallery-at large. While a respectable number of couples and women comprise an increasing portion of the Lusty's clientele, men and masturbation are still the main show in the booths. For those who want custom shows and are willing to pay a little more, there is also one (larger) Private Pleasures booth, where patrons can converse with their private dancer by telephone across the glass and request shows tailored to their particular sexual tastes and fantasies.
Over the last seven years, the erotic dancers at the Lusty Lady have repeatedly established themselves as groundbreaking pioneers in the nether world of sexual entertainment. In 1997, they persuaded Service Employees International Union Local 790 to represent them and became the only unionized sexual workplace in the country. From 1997 to 2003, they successfully negotiated annual labor contracts that brought them increased pay, health benefits, guaranteed work shifts, protection against arbitrary discipline and termination, and a general sense of power and control over their work environment.
In the Spring of 2003, when the theatre's owners responded to the latest contract negotiation by announcing they were simply going to close up shop, the dancers and support staff at the Lusty banded together and decided to buy the business and run it themselves. After negotiating a purchase with the Lusty's surprisingly cooperative owners, the dancers at the Lusty found themselves the collective owners of one of San Francisco's oldest sex entertainment institutions.
Giddy with their back-to-back successes, the dancers looked to the future with unbridled creativity and enthusiasm. "We're about to see a new Golden Era at the Lusty Lady," Board Member Pepper (her stage name) predicted last summer. "Now that we're working for ourselves, everyone feels fresh and friendly, and that affects how we relate to each other and how we relate to the customers. The quality of everyone's performance is going up. The theatre is cleaner than ever, and we're considering a number of capital improvements."
Innovative ideas for reorganization and performance events blossomed like flowers in the Spring. A series of Women's Nights were organized to expand the Lusty's welcome beyond its traditionally male customer base -- with dancers greeting nervous new women customers at the door, giving them guided tours, helping them become comfortable in a new environment. Men were barred for the night (unless accompanied by a woman). One set of viewing booths was reserved for women, and interested women could even get showgirl makeovers from dancers, borrow some sexy lingerie, and take a shot at being erotic dancers for a day -- for the enjoyment of their partners, or the general public, as they wished. A Valentine's Day special event came six months later. "Girl Storm Night" -- a big sexy sleepover on stage -- is coming soon. On May 14, the Lusty will celebrate it's first anniversary of sex worker self-determination with an all day (11 am-3 am) "May Day Play Day," complete with backstage tours, a variety of special stage shows, topless shoe-shines, shower shows in the dressing room, makeovers for women, and what Board Member Donna Delinqua describes as "lots of shenanigans."
But even Cinderella and Prince (or Princess) Charming have to deal with the realities of married life once the magic of pumpkins and glass slippers wears off.
"It's been a hard year," Delinqua acknowledges, as we meet for lunch at an inexpensive Chinese restaurant a block from the theatre. "We've been hurt by the downturn in the local economy, just like everyone else. And we've found that the skills and attitude that it takes to hold together when you're fighting a common enemy are not the same skills it takes to run a business when there's no outside focus to supply a shared sense of purpose and perspective."
Delinqua, a graduate student in English Literature who's about to complete her doctorate, notes that we live in a culture oriented to hierarchies of authority, rather than to institutions with a more democratic distribution of power and responsibility. "We were all used to relating to the theatre management as the boss," she explains. "After we became a collective, it was easy to think of the Board of Directors as the new bosses and relate to them as such."
In the absence of imposed outside authority, it was up to the dancers to decide how they wanted to deal with potentially explosive issues of conflict and discipline. "Everyone thought, 'Great, now we're free to do what we want,'" Delinqua remembers. "But when people were habitually late for work, or just didn't show up, we began to realize that we needed systems of discipline to hold the whole thing together. At the beginning, people were excited about the privileges of working for ourselves, but they didn't always want to step up to the responsibilities."
An elected Board of seven directors, together with a Lead Team of four dancers and two support staff, took charge of developing rules to ensure that the business functioned properly. "Some people feel that everyone should get to make every decision," Delinqua notes. "But if we did that we'd be meeting all the time."
Records were kept of times when people were late to work, and those who were late repeatedly were disciplined. "The difference [from before] is that where people used to be fired for being late, now they're just suspended, at least at first." Board and Lead Team members don't receive financial or disciplinary privileges, and are treated the same as everyone else. Delinqua notes that Board members have themselves been suspended at times.
Beyond simply showing up to work, dancers are expected to be "professional" about their hair, their make-up, and their costumes. They're also expected to make good eye contact with customers, to help customers feel welcomed and appreciated, and to stay creative and bring variety to their dance routines.
The most difficult issue, says Delinqua, is evaluating the performances of the dancers. An initial system of broad peer evaluation was abandoned as too time-consuming. Now evaluations are done by the members of the dancers' Lead Team. It's a sensitive process, and Delinqua notes that it's easy for dancers to become defensive about criticism of their shows or their appearance.
"After so many bad experiences with management trying to make people fit into a specific mode, we try to stay away from judging people's bodies or their shows, but we do expect dancers to be professional about their appearance and to have a positive attitude about their work," she explains.
The four Lead Team dancers (elected for six-month terms) are responsible for scheduling, hiring, firing, and discipline. Dancers typically work three or four four-hour shifts per week. Many are artists or students and happy to work only 12-16 hours a week, but some want additional shifts and there is some competition for work shifts. Shortages in available shifts are spread through the group as evenly as possible, Delinqua says.
Dancers presently earn $20-23 an hour, and keep 55% of receipts when they work the Private Pleasures booth. Dancer turnover, notoriously high throughout the sex entertainment industry, has dropped to a trickle. Of the 40 dancers who worked at the Lusty when the theatre went coop a year ago, about 30 are still there. New dancers are hired through "amateur night" auditions, held twice over the last year.
The collective has just completed its first annual review of the union contract negotiated last Spring with the theatre's old management, a process that put them in the odd position of effectively negotiating a contract with themselves. The proposed new contract incorporates provisions suggested at meetings by participating dancers and staff. Changes include a pay increase for start-up support staff, mandatory coop and union membership for all workers and, most significantly, a new revenue-based pay system in place of fixed hourly wages, that will pass the ups and downs of revenue receipts directly along to the dancers. "Everyone will have a clear sense of how the quality of their work has direct financial consequences," Delinqua points out.
The new contract will be voted on in the weeks ahead, and a new Board of Directors is to be elected at the membership meeting in May. I ask Delinqua if she's going to run for a second term on the Board. "Hell no," she says, shaking her head with a laugh. "I'm tired." Significantly, none of the current Board members are running for re-election, though a full slate of new candidates has been nominated to take their place.
There have been disputes and hurt feelings, but the general feeling among the dancers is far more positive than it was before the collective was formed. "The ongoing internal challenge is for us to change how we think about work and our jobs," says Delinqua. "It's something we're going to be struggling with for a long time."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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 email@example.com. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
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