In July this year, members of The Feminist Strip Club (FSC), a Minneapolis-based collective of strippers and dancers and artists, gathered to imagine their ideal workplace. This activity was facilitated by Amy Livingston from the University of Minnesota’s Labor Education Service. The FSC drew pictures of how they want their work and their clubs to be, shared ideas, and shared visions. What grew from this conversation reminds us that workers are the experts of their own experience and craft, and therefore should shape their workplace. 

The following are excerpts from their conversation. 

Facilitator: Let’s wrap these beautiful drawings and move into debriefing and describing them to each other.

Dancer 1: I didn’t have time to use my crayons, but this is my club. I wanted it shaped like a house because I wanted it to feel more like home. This is the front where you check in. This is the moneybox where you put your money, because you have to pay to be here because we’re worth it. This is the bar: it’s separate from the rest of the club and it’s in a separate room…Because no one works for free.

Dancer 1: We got a separate room that’s just for our lockers. Then you go up a level and it’s kind of like a homestay for the girls, which I think would be really helpful and nice. And we have a nice bathroom with a bathtub and showers. Yeah, very home-like. You cook for each other. There’s a stove. And a fridge. You can hang out. But there’s also a pole so you can practice.

Dancer 3: This is my club. Everybody’s happy. This is the manager being nice to the girls. And this VIP and you get a nice tip up in VIP and a nice tip for the dancers and everybody is tipping you lots of money. The locker rooms are pretty decent. Somebody actually walks out to your car and your walk out with a lot of money. And people at the bar. People are well paid and everybody is happy and treated nice. You don’t sit in a nasty-looking club.

Dancer 4: My club has multiple stages and is open to all genders… also gender-queer people, too, and trans people and whatever. I don’t know how this works logistically, but everybody is there. I was drawing stick people, then it was hard to figure out also how to do diverse body types…

Dancer 1: Not all sticks are skinny.

Dancer 2: This is our boardroom. I did five seats here at the board table to represent, and there’s five seats here for the girls getting ready in their makeup because this is our club, and all of the money goes to us. Everything that we make gets put back into our club and our thing and our situation.

Facilitator: So you are the managers, you are the dancers, you are the people.

Dancer 2: We are everything.

Dancer 1: We are the people.

Dancer 2: This is our whole shit. This is just us.

Financial stability, recognition of labor, work-owned clubs, and safe/clean workplaces are themes that weave through much of this conversation. 

Sex Work Labor Struggles

Recognizing the need and opportunity for collective support, The FSC has been meeting since March 2019, creating art and media to shed light on sex worker struggles. The FSC’s work is grounded in a national and global rise in sex worker organizing (examples here, here, here, here, here, and here). As one FSC organizer explains,

there’s been a lot more activism in the world of strippers. Especially when I started back in 2012, it was really hard to get strippers interested in activism and get them organized around things, particularly the financial aspects of it. [The financial aspect of stripping] has gotten a lot worse in that period of time [since 2012], and also people have gotten a lot more politically active.

Connecting to a larger scope of labor struggles,

people are in a place where they’re starting to understand labor rights again…and we’re absolutely a part of that. The things that are happening [include] wage theft, and are happening to vulnerable people in all parts of the economy. But people don’t understand how vulnerable this [sex work] population is and how mistreated we’ve been. I think that when they do, it puts this issue in a different light, and it becomes a thing about human rights, not about morals.

Let’s remember: sex work is work. Sex workers are workers. And everyone’s right to safe, sustainable, and nonviolent work environments needs to be upheld, protected, and supported. ‘Sex worker’ is a broader term that includes stripping and dancing. A majority of strippers and dancers work in clubs, where most are classified as independent contractors. Few are hired as employees, therefore making it impossible to form a union, have access to benefits, and file complaints against workplace abuse including; wage theft, sexual harassment, assault, racism, colorism, and descrimination.

Wage theft is a major concern and organizing point for sex workers. Strippers and dancers pay all clubs a house fee to work, typically ranging from $50-$200 per shift depending on the area and time of day. At the end of a shift, dancers and strippers pay-out (give tips to) a long list of people who work at the club including managers, assistant managers, valets, DJs, and housemoms, sometimes depleting 50% or more of the money made in one shift. Sometimes dancers go home “negative,” particularly when house fees are high.

For perspective: it is illegal for managers to demand tips from servers in the food industry. Also, managers, assistant managers, valets, DJs, and housemoms do not tip out dancers and strippers for their work at the end of the night. As a FSC organizer asks, “why are the dancers, who are the reason the clubs exists, getting the short end of the stick?” 

The shift is house fees and corporatization of clubs is an increasing trend. A FSC organizer explains,

when I was a dancer we were paid by the clubs, we were paid a wage. Then as it moved to the current model, which is the model where dancers are actually paying to work, they’re paying a house fee, I thought that these were not changes in labor that were unique to stripping, but perhaps also were happening earlier in stripping. And, to some extent because of the stigma that’s associated with the work, and particularly in Minneapolis because of the zoning, it created a situation where corporate clubs could have a stranglehold. And some of the corporate clubs most definitely have some of the most egregious policies.

Chain clubs are known for high house fees, treating dancers as expendable, and demanding extractive pay-out fees. 

Sex workers face layered labor and human rights indignities that are similar to other gig economy workers, temporary farm workers, migrant construction workers, and care service workers like childcare and domestic workers. However sex work is also mired in stigma and criminalization. A former dancer and stripper explains, “often all of the things that are being talked about with labor issues are intensified in the dance world because we’re not sympathetic subjects.”

Police target sex workers, who sometimes come from backgrounds that place them in the most precarious parts of our economy, criminalized because of their identities as undocumented, LGBTQIA2s+, formerly incarcerated, etc. Additionally, public health policy has historically understood sex work as problematic, and therefore further stigmatizes sex workers. Most recently, the federal government signed SESTA-FOSTA into law, which criminalizes avenues for safe sex work, legal aid and advocacy, and coalition-labor rights work. Labor and human rights indignities, plus the corporatization of clubs, all wrapped up in the violence of criminalization and social stigma, makes for incredibly precarious work. 

Sex Worker Organizing

Despite these challenges to safe and just working conditions, sex workers are buildling movements from the grassroots with strength and wisdom from lived-experience, collaborating with university scholars and advocates, and influencing city-level politics to destigmatize and decriminalize sex work and check the power of corporate club politics.

Some members of The FSC are also involved with SWOP Minneapolis, a peer-based sex worker support and outreach coalition. SWOP Minneapolis holds sex worker rights trainings and legal aid workshops often, has researched and written “The Real Stripper Report: A Needs Assessment of Current Workers in the Minneapolis Stripping Industry,” and is now working closely with Minneapolis city council members as they shape city ordinance around the adult entertainment industry (information on 8/12/19 hearings below).

With the Minneapolis City Council Ordinance, SWOP Minneapolis is pushing for, amongst many things, 1) banning tipping of management and owners, 2) contract transparency, and 3) health advocacy and health standards. As SWOP Minneapolis and FSC organizer explains,

our situation is really unique in that the city council has changed so much recently. We have a lot of young, and queer, and people of color on our city council right now. And Cam Gordon, the one who put this ordinance forward, he is an older white guy who has a really long history of labor rights, he’s been really cool throughout this process…We’re trying to turn the levers of government to work in our favor, and the law is on our side in so many different ways.

Keep an eye out for: 

  • City Council hearings for the Ordinance affecting the Adult-Entertainment industry on August 12 @ 1:30pm, Minneapolis City Hall Room 317
  • The FSC zines fall 2019  
  • FSC artist residency with the Weisman Art Museum spring 2020 
  • And if you’re a dancer or stripper and would like to be involved, reach out to

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