Around 10 most nights, Nikeisah Newton hops into her car for a 10-minute drive into downtown Portland, Oregon, so that she can deliver healthy meals that include ingredients like massaged kale to strippers working the evening shift. “One of the best forms of activism is feeding people,” Newton said. Her company is called Meals 4 Six Inch Heels, and it’s intended to support a community that she feels has been shunned and taken advantage of for too long.
Newton, whose ex-girlfriend is a former stripper, has joined a wave of dancers and their allies across the nation who are fighting to reform labor practices; put an end to sexual harassment and discrimination in their workplaces; and stifle the stigma around what they believe is as legitimate a profession as any.
Members of this movement are sharing their experiences with the public through podcasts, books and visual arts; using technology to spread information about their industry; and protesting injustices in the streets. They are also finding ways to care for each other, with meal-delivery services, yoga classes, book clubs, clothing lines with slogans of solidarity, financial planning lessons and comedy workshops.
When you use the word “platform” now in the stripping community, it’s as likely to refer to social media as shoes.
At V-Live in Los Angeles, guests are encouraged to use their phones to take videos and photos of the dancers. On a recent evening, a photographer circled the dancers, taking images that they could later buy to use on their Instagram accounts.
The water-cooler conversations in the 1980s and ’90s, with the mainstream movies “Flashdance,” “Showgirls” and “Striptease,” may be coming back, as strippers return to the big screen in September with “Hustlers,” about dancers who steal money from their rich customers.
The film features the celebrities Jennifer Lopez, Lizzo and Constance Wu. Cardi B, a megastar, takes pride in and has spoken positively about her experiences with stripping. Beyoncé’s best-selling album, “Lemonade,” has a song called “6 Inch” about working as a stripper. Magic City and other clubs in Atlanta are well known among hip-hop fans as places where musicians test out new songs.
And across America, the face of stripping, and its audience, is changing. No longer the domain solely of finance bros and the like unwinding after hours, strip clubs these days are also frequented by couples and friends.
“Our audiences in the last 10 years, specific to my home club, have become more diverse, younger, more gender broad,” said Elle Stanger, 32, who has worked as a stripper for a decade and lives in Portland. “It’s not just middle-aged white men anymore.”
On recent evenings in strip clubs in Los Angeles, Portland and New York, the audiences contained a mix of men and women. Dancers in all three cities were unabashed in collecting tips.
After finishing a gravity-defying routine, an Amazonian dancer with strawberry blond hair that reached past her hips knelt on the stage in Jumbo’s Clown Room in Los Angeles to scoop up her cash. “Thank you, I love your money,” she said.
Later, as another dancer in a leather bustier and thigh-high boots landed on the floor in a split, a number of women oohed and aahed, and made their way to the seats surrounding the stage to throw bills her way.
At Kit Kat Club in Portland, tips are requested with signage and by a dancer who walks around the audience with a glowing bucket. At Pumps in New York, dancers come around to each audience member seated by the stage between sets and stare until tips are handed over.
“The entrepreneurship and the sense of owning oneself and one’s brand has blossomed,” said Jacqueline Frances, 32, a stripper, comedian and artist in New York and a consultant on “Hustlers.” “Nobody would amplify a sex worker’s voice before. I would not have this career I have without social media. If I tried to go through the traditional routes, nobody would book me.”
BEHIND THE CURTAIN
There are nearly 4,000 strip clubs in the country, according to IBISWorld, a market research firm. Some are glamorous and expensive, some are cheap and raunchy. Some have performers who display acrobatic feats (at Jumbo’s Clown Room on a recent evening, a woman clutched the pole and hovered several feet in the air, her entire body parallel to the ground), and others offer simpler entertainment: dancers swaying their hips and crawling seductively on the floor.
The clubs are governed by laws that vary by state and city. In New Orleans, dancers are required to maintain at least 3 feet of distance between the customer and themselves and be at least 18 inches off the ground; in San Diego, that distance is 6 feet. In Portland, nude dancers freely gyrate inches from customers’ faces.
Some clubs require customers to buy tokens for a lap dance; others allow them to hand the money directly to dancers. Some encourage the use of Venmo. Kit Kat Club, in Portland, takes bitcoin. Customers are certainly spending money, no matter what method they choose: IBISWorld estimates that the strip-club industry brought in $7 billion of revenue in 2018 and has seen continuous growth over the past three years.
One thing that appears to be almost universal is the cost of lap dances: $20 to $30. Dancers report that the price has not changed since at least 1990 and argue that inflation should have brought it to $40. “If you ask the customer to pay more than $20, they’ll look at you like you have two heads,” said Zara Moon, 27, a stripper and artist in Los Angeles.
Ride-sharing drivers and others challenging the labor customs of the gig economy have much to learn from strippers’ experiences. Beginning in the mid-80s, such dancers were reclassified from employees to independent contractors in large numbers by clubs that followed the lead of the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater in San Francisco, according to Gregor Gall, a professor of industrial relations at the University of Leeds, who wrote “Sex Worker Union Organising: An International Study.”
In 1998, a group of San Francisco dancers won $2.85 million in a settlement with the O’Farrell after suing for back wages. That was just the beginning.
“I think the strippers are the canary in the coal mine,” said Michael LeRoy, a law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who studies labor and employment relations, regarding the loss of various protections.
Most clubs classify dancers as independent contractors, and this allows them to not pay employment taxes, including Social Security and Medicare, and to not offer workers’ compensation for injuries on the job or health benefits. Through this classification, the clubs also do not have to pay minimum wage and overtime.
Clubs typically do not pay strippers a salary. And yet the clubs also tend to control dancers’ hours, outfits, performances and the amount they can charge for private dances. “As an independent contractor, in my nine years, every single day there’s something they do that’s against the contract,” Frances said.
For years, strippers have been filing lawsuits challenging their employment status, and in most cases the courts have sided with them. LeRoy has found that in 93% of rulings, the court agreed that the strippers had been misclassified. In some cases, the dancers won millions of dollars recovering wages and “stage rental fees.”
“I signed on to one lawsuit,” Frances said. “They paid out, and nothing changed.”
A recent ruling from the California Supreme Court, in a case brought against Dynamex, a delivery service, would toughen the rules by which to assess whether someone is an independent contractor and automatically classify strippers as employees. The ruling could be codified as Assembly Bill 5, which passed in California’s assembly and is awaiting review in the state Senate.
Antonia Crane, a dancer, author and writing instructor at UCLA Extension, is hoping to capitalize on the Dynamex decision. Crane, who did not want to share her age, is a founder of Soldiers of Pole, a labor movement of strippers striving to become a union. “Right now, the Supreme Court is saying, ‘You don’t even have to convince us,’ ” Crane said. “‘You’re employees, you have rights and the ability to organize.’”
Strippers have tried to unionize before. In the early ’90s, about 30 women formed the Exotic Dancers’ Alliance in San Francisco, touting slogans like “Stop looking for support in the lingerie department” and “Like an orgy, it only works if there’s a lot of us.” A few years later, strippers at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, including Crane, joined the Service Employees International Union.
Since December, Soldiers of Pole has been hosting meetings where strippers can seek advice from lawyers and other advocates. Dancers in California have reported that managers will not allow them to take contracts home; that they are strongly encouraged to sign away their employee rights; or that they are pressured into signing release of claims contracts, in which they promise not to sue the club for any violations and to solve any dispute through arbitration.
Moon said she has never been able to take a copy of a contract home. “If I asked for a copy, it would be, ‘Don’t come back tomorrow,’ ” she said. “I was talking about contracts at a club and talking about labor rights. I got texted by a manager saying, ‘We don’t want you to come back anymore.’ ” Crissa Parker, 30, a dancer in Los Angeles and the creator of a club-rating app called The Dancer’s Resource, said that once, when she asked for a copy of the contract, the manager ripped it up in front of her face.
In New Orleans, some dancers organized into a group called Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, in response to raids on the clubs by the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission in 2015. More raids followed in 2018, after which several clubs were closed for weeks at a time.
The police and the Alcohol and Tobacco Commission initially said that the purpose of the raids was to weed out trafficking, but the itemized lists of violations enumerated instances of individual dancers exposing their breasts or genitals, offering to sell undercover police officers drugs, and soliciting undercover officers for prostitution.
To reopen, several club owners signed consent judgments promising to, among other things, use undercover “customers” to report on working conditions.
In response, dancers have protested and attended city-council meetings. One of the members of the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers has joined with a student at the University of Tulane to conduct a study about the effects the raids had on dancers.
The billboard went up in early February, about 200 feet away from Skin Gentlemen’s Club in Los Angeles. “I’m Stephanie. I was raped by a guy like this in a place like that. I told the club and the police, but no one did anything. So I painted this billboard,” the sign said. Next to the words was an illustration of a woman holding a man’s severed head.
Stephanie Montgomery, 28, the billboard’s painter, said she was attacked while working in a private room at Skin Gentlemen’s Club in June 2018 by a man who was a regular at the club.
Unhappy with how management responded when she reported the incident, and after hearing that the man had been accused of assaulting another woman, Montgomery took action. She reported her assault to the police in August; after several months, a detective told Montgomery that the prosecutor’s office would not take her case, Montgomery said.
David Chew, who described himself as an executive of Skin Gentlemen’s Club in an emailed statement to The New York Times, wrote: “The allegations made by Ms. Montgomery are false. Sexual assault is something our organization does not take lightly We take numerous security measures to ensure that the environment is safe for our dancers, and to make clear to our patrons that this type is misconduct is not tolerated on our premises.”
Of the billboard, Montgomery said that the man she said assaulted her “was telling me my no didn’t mean anything, that my voice didn’t mean anything, that I didn’t mean anything. For me to come back with such a strong visual voice, it’s the biggest clap-back I can produce.”
A survey of several dozen dancers in Portland found that 84% had experienced unwanted groping, rape, forced or coerced sexual acts on the job. Only 6% said they received any resources from their employers, like access to therapy, to help them cope with the trauma.
Moon, who has worked with Soldiers of Pole, also said she had been assaulted, while in a private room with a customer at a club in Los Angeles. When she tried to tell the manager on duty what had happened, she said, he told her that it looked as though she was soliciting the customer for sex.
“I said, ‘I never asked him to do any of that,’ ” Moon said. “They fired me. They called me dirty. ‘We hope you aren’t doing your dirty practices at the other clubs.’ “
Before stripping, Moon earned a bachelor’s degree in performance art and worked as a bartender, a delivery driver and a mechanic at a bowling alley. When she first began stripping, Moon said that she felt liberated and that the money she earned gave her a sense of independence after years of struggling to make ends meet on a minimum wage.
But after the assault, she said, “I couldn’t go back to work. Every day that I had to go back to work at that point, I was so upset and miserable and terrified.”
Finding a way to prevent violence in strip clubs, especially in private rooms, was the goal of a coalition of Seattle dancers, Strippers Are Workers, last year. In December, two of the group’s members, Aaliyah Topps, 25, and Aubrey Watkins, 38, traveled to Olympia, Washington, to speak with state legislators during a work session on labor standards.
“We talked about how we didn’t have working water sometimes,” Topps said. “About not having toilets that flush, not having paper towels and soap. A lot of people have no clue about our industry. They thought our main problems were us tripping over our shoes.”
Their efforts led legislators in Washington state to pass a bill in May that directed clubs to install panic buttons in spaces where dancers could be alone with customers and to maintain blacklists of customers who have been violent. The bill also mandates training for dancers to learn about their rights, and established an advisory committee, half of whose members must be current or former strippers.
Topps and Watkins said they were fired from the club where they worked, Little Darlings, which is owned by Déjà Vu, a strip-club chain.
Topps and Watkins said they were told they had failed to pay their “back rent”: debt that accumulates when dancers do not make enough money to pay their customary “stage rental fee” for the night. Also referred to as the “house fee,” this can range from $10 to several hundred dollars.
But Topps and Watkins believe the true cause was that they had been quietly recruiting other women to join Strippers Are Workers, which now has about 50 members.
Topps, who worked for Déjà Vu for four years, and Watkins, who had worked there since 1998 in multiple capacities, including as a manager, said that they went to Déjà Vu’s corporate offices to speak with someone about the money the club said they owed. “No one would even talk to us,” Topps said.
“If someone hasn’t paid their rent, it is an avenue to say, ‘I don’t think you fit well here,’ ” said Eric Forbes, who has managed all of the Déjà Vu clubs in Washington since 2010. “Every time that’s used, there’s something else more going on than just back rent. We’re not in the business of chasing entertainers away. We don’t have a business without them.”
House fees were first introduced to help owners pay for capital improvements to the club: for example, to renovate the stage, install better lockers or repaint the walls. But many dancers say they rarely see the money used for such purposes, that house fees are simply an accepted way to make them pay to work and that they should be abolished.
According to contracts and receipts provided to The Times, Déjà Vu charges house fees that range from $140 to $180 per shift at several of its Seattle clubs. The contracts also state that dancers must pay $140 if they miss one of their scheduled shifts without providing a week’s notice.
Forbes said the clubs will periodically cancel debts or offer to reduce back rent by $140 if a dancer works on a slow night (during which she will still pay the $140 stage-rental fee). Customers pay $20 to $22 to enter.
Shira Cole, 34, a member of Strippers Are Workers, said she constantly engaged in an internal debate about whether going to work would have a payoff or whether she would end up owing her club more money. “I would have panic attacks the whole day leading up to work,” she said.
Forbes said: “This is a free country. Nobody is forcing anybody to work anywhere.”
In many clubs, strippers are required to pay not only house fees and additional fees for each private dance, but also a portion of their earnings to other employees at the club, including the DJ, the manager on duty, the bartenders and the security guards.
This allows club owners to shift the cost of the operation from themselves to their workers, said LeRoy, the law professor. “You have one worker’s wages cannibalized to support another worker’s wages,” LeRoy said.
“The percentages that venues will take destroys morale, and creates unhealthy competition between the workers, which the customers can sense,” said Stanger, the Portland-based stripper and creator of “Strange Bedfellows,” a “self-help sex and politics” podcast with more than 62,000 subscribers, on which she and her co-host talk about issues related to sex work, including financial planning and childhood trauma.
At Lucky Devil Lounge in Portland, where she works, Stanger pays a $5 or $10 stage fee and gives at least $10 or 10% each to the DJ, bouncer and bartender. There are only a few dancers per night, which keeps the competition for customers to a minimum, and a schedule is created based on dancers’ preferences, Stanger said.
“A lot of us stay there because we’re very happy,” she said. But, she added, “everybody who wants to work there is not getting booked. We’re a small club.”
On a Saturday in May, about 300 people filed into a warehouse in Los Angeles that had been converted into a pop-up club called Thicc Strip. It was created by Alison Stevenson, 30, Elizabeth Flores, 28, and Linda Douglas, 27, and the idea was to provide an opportunity for women of all sizes to take their clothes off and dance in front of a crowd.
“There are fat strippers out there, but it’s much harder to break out there when you’re not the size they think they want,” Stevenson said.
Douglas said, “Who is picking these girls and why do they have to be this cookie-cutter style?,” referring to the typical look that managers opt for when hiring strippers.
Aspiring Thicc strippers had to join a four-week workshop with a pole instructor and a performance coach who kept tabs on their psychological states. The creators wanted to foster a sense of unity rather than competition among the dancers. “You have to root for each other in the class,” Stevenson said. “You have to give positive affirmations.”
Part of the motivation for the creators was to counter the popular narrative that being thin is good. “To gain confidence, I’ve been told that the solution is always, lose weight,” Stevenson said. “My whole life I was told that losing weight is — “
“Is a cure-all,” Flores said.
But that was before the growth of the body-positivity movement, which is directly connected to the sex-positivity movement. “I don’t think Thicc Strip could have existed 10 years ago,” Flores said. “The platform for larger bodies is fairly new. It would have been a straight fetish event 10 years ago.”
There has long been a perception that the preferred type of dancer is thin, white and young.
In a 2010 study about strip clubs, Siobhan Brooks, an associate professor of African-American studies at California State University, Fullerton, found that black women routinely complained of being inappropriately touched and having customers attempt to haggle.
Though Brooks believes there is now more representation of strippers in media, particularly black strippers, the stories that are told about them are the same as a decade ago, she said. These are narratives that say they are “cheap, accessible, you don’t have to pay a lot for them, you don’t have to protect them,” she said.
Frances, the “Hustlers” consultant, said, “We need Savage by Fenty strip clubs,” referring to Rihanna’s lingerie brand, which has been lauded for inclusivity.
Frustrated with clubs that discriminate against dancers who do not fit the standard mold, Parker, of Los Angeles, created The Dancer’s Resource app, a cross between Yelp and Glassdoor for strippers.
Users are able to search clubs by name or location, receive a breakdown of the club’s payment structure and scheduling requirements and read other dancers’ reviews or see the ratings they have left for various categories, including how the club treats black and Hispanic dancers, how the management is and how staff is. For $4.99, users can access the Dressing Room, a private chat room where dancers ask each other questions and share experiences.
“Clubs have never been held accountable on a collective level,” Parker said. “I wanted to create an official resource for dancers everywhere, where they could meet and rate and review clubs.”
Since the app was introduced two years ago, its monthly impressions have grown to 100,000, said Parker, who also maintains an Instagram account where she posts information that dancers around the country send her.
“This is going to be a force,” Parker said. “I’m not playing anymore with these clubs.” She added: “There’s a big change coming.”