“Honey, I guess you can sum up this business in one sentence,” stripper Bobbie Bruce told reporter Jack Griffin at Minsky’s Rialto Theater, a hub of early-1950s Chicago burlesque. “You grab as much sex as the law is allowing at the time, and throw it across the footlights as hard as you can.”1
In the 1950s, only seven states, including Illinois and New York, permitted striptease performances. Chicago law gave club owners full discretion about just how much strippers could or could not take off.2 Meanwhile in New York, dancers were limited to uncovering a single breast, for eight bars of music at a time.3
Griffin discovered “a stripper’s life is a tough one, made up of long hours. Although she may be on stage only a total of an hour or so, she has to be on call for 10 to 12 hours a day.” Moreover, he learned, “the private life of a strip teaser, one who takes her art seriously, is about as routine as that of a file clerk in a business office–and often duller. A stripper is doing five or six shows a day, seven days a week, isn’t in the mood for much of anything except going home–alone–and going to sleep.”4
In major cities like New York City and Chicago, nascent strip clubs like Minksy’s Rialto offered women better pay than working the counter at Macys or Bloomingdales. As Moira Weigel argues, retail workers were mostly working-class girls who hoped to entice just the right wealthy man and thus escape a life of wage labor drudgery.5 Strip clubs, meanwhile, stimulated desire and seduction in a manner not unlike the courtship of retail customers or the theatrical fantasies window displays brought to life for urban consumers.6 The women who worked in retail and strip clubs symbolized a new worker, proliferated by a mid-twentieth century boom in the US service industry. Feminized service workers relied on guile, cajolery and flirtation to attract customers and clientele to purchase commodities. As a unique form of service work, strippers turned this allure into the commodity itself. But then as now, stripping was nonetheless work, and hard work at that.
Stripping is hard work
“It didn’t take long. The touch of strange hands crawled across my thighs ass and breasts, and my first instinct was to swat them away. Soon, revulsion became compliance and compliance turned into assertive hustler. I enjoyed the power I had to turn men on with a gesture, a look, a phrase. I kept my feelings at bay in order to do my job.”7
In her memoir Spent, Antonia Crane explores the nuanced and contradictory experience of sex work – exploitative and empowering, and physically and emotionally exhausting, but no less so than other low-wage jobs. Similarly, in Stripped: Inside the Lives of Exotic Dancers, Bernadette Barton interviews erotic dancers, finding the women hardly thought of what they did in the “polarizing categories” sex work is usually confined to: either empowering or oppressive. 8 Instead, she found dancers “constantly negotiate these sorts of contradictory and extreme experiences with customers,” which, as part of the dancers’ work, takes its toll over their bodies, emotions, and lives outside work. This is of course in addition to the effects of heroic physical exertion necessary for the amount of flexibility and stamina that dancing the pole requires.9 “Despite how easy they make it look,” writes stripper Vanessa Fisher, “dancing in seven-inch heels, swinging yourself upside down on brass poles, and walking in those same seven-inch stilettos all evening long, is not an easy task and can be quite taxing on the body.”10
The stage is often the most visible part of the dancers’ workplace. In just one shift, strippers are expected to perform various tasks: dance at the pole, on the stage, give lap dances, and entertain customers in the VIP room. Over time, many among their audience become regular clients. As Katherine Frank notes in G-Strings and Sympathy, the adult entertainment clubs sell a particular form of commodity: intimacy, a form of emotional labor that is specifically catered to each client. Stripping doesn’t just involve feigning sexual desire and dancing; many male customers also want to be listened to. Given the deep understanding of human emotions necessary to build rapport with clients and manage boundaries, in addition to the amount of physical training required to dance the pole, stripping can be considered a form of skilled labor.
While precise statistics are hard to come by, credible estimates put the number of erotic dancers at 400,000 in 4,000 clubs around the country.11 Their work shifts can be irregular, with strippers always on call. Yet, for many working-class women, dancing requires less time spent working than any other occupation – and often for more money. Stage dancing itself does not pay much, and private stripping is actually where women make most of their money. However, these performances that are most hidden from owners, promoters and bouncers; it is where men can take advantage of women, crossing boundaries by trying to initiate kissing, oral sex, or even intercourse.
While stripping emphasizes the act of undressing and not the sex act to which it is meant to allude, memoirs and interviews with strippers reveal that women sometimes have sex with clients or participate in other sexual activities. Legally, lap dancing should not involve physical contact between dancer and customer, but the line between dancing and sex is often blurred. This puts strippers at greater risk of being arrested on prostitution charges. While erotic dancing is legal in New York, dancers can be arrested by undercover police for prostitution, a class B misdemeanor. “Sexual conduct,” which is part of the prostitution charge, includes vaginal intercourse, oral sex, and masturbation. The criminalization of prostitution impacts women in other industries, who could face potential jail time if convicted.
Stripping often compensates working-class women well, and offers them some autonomy over work conditions. This makes stripping an enticing alternative to long hours and low pay associated with dead end low-wage jobs, especially if women manage to find work in upper tier clubs. But stripping, like any other form of work, is affected by economic downturns. Vanessa D. Fisher notes, as economic slumps lead customers to have “less disposable income in general, there is more pressure on dancers to ‘do more’ in the VIP lounges in order to make the kind of money they used to make without hands on touching.”12 In a volatile labor market, success as a stripper often entails moving around a lot. Strippers who can do so often travel to other cities and states¸ chasing after economic booms and upturns, hoping to find work in clubs that offer more money.13 Stripping, some argue, deserves more attention as a form of migrant labor.14
Stripping also shares many qualities associated with the so-called gig economy, namely the fact that in states like New York, erotic dancers are classified as independent contractors. This allows club owners to cheat them out of vacation pay, sick leave, disability leave, or any other standard labor protections. Recent lawsuits by workers at Uber, Lyft, and Instacart, a grocery-delivery service, are challenging their misclassification as independent contractors, as well as demanding the ability to collectively bargain. In 2015, California decided Uber drivers should be qualified as employees and not independent contractors, ordering the company to reimburse workers for back pay.15 Uber continues to appeal. The company is currently facing another challenge in Seattle after drivers filed to form a union. The city of Seattle allowed unionization efforts, spurring numerous lawsuits and appeals by US chamber of Commerce. Uber and other startups are fighting tooth and nail against unionization efforts. In 2017, for example, the New York based the home services startup Handy pushed for a bill that would have allowed such platforms to pay 2.5% of each transaction into a benefit fund, in exchange for its workers to remain independent contractors.16
Unlike drivers working for Uber and Lyft, strippers have not historically been embraced as workers by labor law or the labor movement. Even valiant and necessary sex worker rights organizing remains largely focused on prostitution. While strippers also bear the brunt of laws that criminalize sex work, erotic dancing is often not talked discussed as a form of sex work that risks exposure to legal repression. The severity of the workplace exploitation many strippers endure is further masked by the rising popularity of strippers-turned celebrities like Cardi B, Amber Rose, and Black Chyna. Meanwhile, strippers have battled against wage theft and workplace discrimination across the nation. In 2014, for example, the owners of three Manhattan strip clubs were forced to pay 267 former strippers $4.3 million for denying them fair wages.17 Given a general lack of unionization, and scant support from labor law and mainstream unions, these struggles tend to be legalistic in form, relying on lawsuits that empower lawyers, and not workplace campaigns that nourish the power of rank-and-file workers.
A notable exception occurred earlier this year, when New York City strippers autonomously organized a kind of work stoppage the media dubbed “#nycstripperstrike.” This campaign caught our eye for a number of reasons. It presented an alternative to the class action lawsuits which have become a common way of fighting workplace discrimination and wage theft after decades of decline in US unionization and strike activity. Moreover, these strippers confronted the racial division of labor in the adult industry, and fought against the colorism and racism so rampant in workplaces, communities of color, and wider society. Finally, they did so with no formalized organizing structure or legal counsel speaking for them; they spoke for themselves. Following on the heels of the #genderstrike, when leftist feminists attempted a one-day strike across the nation to lay bare the exploitation of women and women’s work, we were excited by the #nycstripper strike and decided to give it a closer look.
Hearing that the strike had been organized on social media, we scrolled through our Instagram feeds, finding a poster calling for a meeting of NYC dancers to discuss working conditions, striking, and a way forward for addressing their grievances. We spoke with the woman who started it, Giselle Marie. Originally from the Bronx, Marie started as a model and began stripping at the age of 18. She told us the #nycstripperstrike began with three Instagram posts on October 22nd in which she went “full throttle.” Addressing issues of wage theft and colorism which have long existed in New York City strip clubs, Marie’s posts focused on the divisions between bartenders and dancers. Her grievances ranged from bartenders receiving preferential treatment from owners and promoters, to lighter-skinned Latina and white women being hired more frequently as bartenders (a position with higher pay), to bartenders beginning to dress like dancers and actively stealing their tips. The general sentiment of the posts concerned the disrespect to which black dancers in particular were subjected. And these grievances resonated across social media platforms.
“I just spoke on how I felt about management treating dancers versus bartenders,” she told us. Her “venting” session garnered unexpected attention from other dancers, who responded in kind. Those first few Instagram posts reveal the deep-seated tensions and injustices in the erotic dancing industry. One fellow dancer commented:
“I personally stopped doing strip clubs in NY period becuz of this……. Every time I go outta town I make bands cus they still have dancers as dancers and bartenders as bartenders… the owners, managers and promoters don’t care what their dancers make long as that house fee paid & that’s fuked up cus we do all the work!”
Marie’s posts also addressed the issue of colorism, and in the ensuing discussion, the blame was placed on promoters, for their favoritism towards lighter-skinned women in the industry. One dancer lamented:
“so for a dancer to ‘survive’ she gotta bleach her skin? Get 10 different surgeries, do photoshoots, be a Instagram model and that may still NOT work so now she gonna be a bartender too cuz ‘times has changed.’ And ya (promoters) fucked the game up.”
A black dancer replied:
“that’s not even half of it niggas will ignore you all night in front of their friends and only tip Spanish girls, but I mean fresh off the boat Spanish. Then turn around and ask to take you to breakfast because they’re just ‘dying to get to know me’, when their friends aren’t around. I’m like what type of shit. You couldn’t tip a black girl in front of your homies?”
The dancers themselves didn’t call their collective action a “stripper strike,” rather, #nycstripperstrike was a name given by the media. Nevertheless, the dancers involved were happy to take on the moniker and use the hashtag to promote their grievances. What the “strike” actually amounted to was some strippers in New York City electing to work outside the city to protest (and escape) the stolen wages and unfair working conditions in New York clubs. Many have since decamped to clubs in New Jersey, Atlanta, or Pennsylvania. “Not all the women who support the strike can take off of work,” Marie told us. “This job pays for a lot of people’s school, their bills. A lot of women have families and this is how they support them.” Marie estimated that “around 30-40 girls” were choosing to work outside New York City in protest of conditions in their previous places of employment.
The strike received the support of Cardi B, the 25-year-old Bronx rapper, herself a former stripper. “Have you ever been to a strip club in New York?” she asked a reporter. “It’s kind of sad. Do you know that right now in the strip club – in New York – the bartenders are the new thing right now and if you notice they don’t even hire black bartenders.” The bartenders, or “startenders” as they are increasingly called, are often recruited by promoters for their social media popularity. They come with their own Instagram-curated fanbases, who often frequent the clubs and exclusively tip them. More recently these bartenders are being required by promoters and club owners to be as scantily clad as the dancers, often wearing outfits purchased by the clubs. Strippers on the other hand, have to buy their own clothes, and are typically required to tip out the other club staff from their earnings, as well as paying a house fee to the club. Some strippers have claimed that bartenders actively steal tips from dancers, sometimes swiping the money right off the stage.
Since the #nycstripperstrike, many dancers have taken to social media to share their stories, bringing, in particular, the issue of colorism in their industry into the open. One black dancer and strike supporter recounted her story of attempting to dance at Sue’s Rendezvous:
“I recall once I went into Sue’s with a friend of mine, this mixed chic by the name of Jackie. Tall, light skinned, sorta looking like a young Mariah Carey, she was half White and Black. I went into Sue’s with her with the confidence that I would be allowed to dance in another club and increase my chances of making money. Young and naive, it didn’t dawn on me that when they told me Jackie could audition and I couldn’t it was the result of discrimination against my complexion. Jackie ended up working at the high-end clubs in the city. Me and my Black ass had to keep it gutter and stay where they were not too picky.”18
Black dancers are often told that customer preference governs who gets dancing time and tip money. However, several dancers, including Marie, state that the favoritism of lighter-skinned black and Latina women amongst the promoters is what actually determines dancing time and the distribution of tips.
These grievances and the movement they fueled reveal New York City strip clubs are a hotbed of inequality. Black strippers are routinely subject to discriminated, receiving less stage time and less access to VIP rooms than white and Latina strippers. Consequently they receive less income through tips than their lighter-skinned counterparts. Colorism also rears its head when it comes to the better-paid bartending positions, which are almost exclusively given to non-black women. The division among strippers, and between strippers and bartenders, is not just a by-product of the color line, but a management strategy that by all accounts is working well to keep the workforce divided. These conditions are what gave rise to the #nycstripperstrike. But while some of the particulars may be new, the deeply exploitative nature of stripping as racially-stratified feminized labor is built into its history.
“This is a dance you can’t tell your mama about”: From the “hoochie coochie” to burlesque
While the genesis of strip tease is commonly associated with the Moulin Rouge, historians trace its roots back to the “hoochie coochie” or “coochie” dance, an integral part of the American traveling circuses.19 One of the first visual representations of the “cooch” dance was captured by Thomas Edison in his 1896 short film “Fatima’s Coochie Coochie dance.”
The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair first introduced the “cooch” dance to mainstream American audiences, drawing 27 million participants celebrating 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival to the “New World.” Patrons explored an ornate set called “White City,” an ode to the achievements of white civilization. The audience was then ushered to the Midway Plaisance, where they were met with the depravity of the “darker races,” from Turkish, to Arab and Chinese, and could experience all the “exotic” and “barbaric” practices of each culture. The last stop showed visitors what was considered the most savage, the lands inhabited by the American Indian and the African. The “street of Cairo,” exhibit, held in the Midway Plaisance, just one block away from the University of Chicago, was one of the most popular exhibits.
Dressed in skimpy costumes that bared their midriff, women danced for onlookers, their bodies adorned in jewelry, glistening gemstones brought to life by the twist of a shoulder or the shake of an abdomen. They lured paying customers inside tents where other women gyrated topless on a makeshift stage. If customers wanted to see the women entirely naked, they had to pay for what was called a “blow-off,” where women danced in the nude and struck erotic poses. The pole that is the mainstay of strip clubs today can be traced back to this era, when women danced around the tent pole that kept the whole structure standing. Women also laid on the floor to imitate the “hoochie cooch” dance. The salaciousness of the dance would be forever linked in the American mind to the vulgar, exotic and repulsive “Orient.” The French colonial name for the dance – the danse du ventre or “dance of the stomach” was named for the traditional folk dances of North Africa. The dance was translated to “oriental dance” or “bellydance” for American audiences. To this day, “exotic dancing” remains common parlance, though not without controversy. (We have opted to call it “erotic” to reflect a growing consensus.)20 The world fairs, and by extension erotic dance, were part and parcel of race-making around the world – concretizing whiteness with civilization which would be quintessential to how we would come to think of modern race formation.
One “hoochie-coochie” dancer in particular scandalized elite New York society. On December 19, 1896, Herbert Barnum Seeley, 25-year-old nephew of the late showman P.T., threw his brother Clinton Seeley a bachelor party attended by wealthy members of New York society. After a thirteen-course meal, guests were treated to a performance by an erotic dancer named “Little Egypt,” the stage name of Annabel Whitford, the eighteen-year old daughter of a Chicago telegraph employee who was hired to strip nude.21 The party was broken up by police, and Annabel, who was managed by Oscar Hammerstein, testified she was forced to strip against her will, in violation of her contract.22 The story garnered widespread media attention and popularized the “hoochie-coochie” dance for mainstream audiences. And Whitford would scarcely be the last white dancer to pose as an exotic import from the Orient. White dancers were able to uphold white standards of beauty, while simultaneously exploiting racial stereotypes as part of the show. This practice still plays a role in erotic dancing today. Annabel’s whiteness also offered her protection from the police not extended to other black and brown women
Over time, the “cooch” dance was assimilated into the American circus show, and later an integral part of the traveling carnival shows.23 For instance, P.T Barnum’s traveling circus in particular gained fame for “combining human oddities with menagerie animals,” which eventually won over audiences to “freaks and curios.”24 Fairs were “populated by dancers sporting exotic names like Fatima, Houri, Husaria, Farida and Marietta.”25 The cooch dance was subsequently incorporated into burlesque, the quintessential form of working class entertainment featuring cynical comedy poking fun of bourgeois norms, dancing girls and a permanent theater as opposed to the traveling lifestyle of vaudeville performers.26
Broadway’s first Burlesque club was established in 1912 by the Minskey brothers, whose grandfather escaped Czarist Russia and settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Over the course of two generations, the family saved enough money to invest in a movie theater. When they could no longer compete with the big chains, against the old man’s wishes, the four grandchildren adopted burlesque, or the poor man’s Follies.27 During the Great Depression, their shows offered entertainment to working class men who couldn’t afford fancy Broadway shows, as well as provided jobs and in some instances fame to unemployed working class women. Yet the burlesque at Minsky’s, like many around the country, observed the racial order of the time. Black dancers were banned from entering and performing at Harlem’s Apollo Theater when it opened in 1914 as Hurtig and Seamon’s New Burlesque Theater. It was not until the 1950s that black burlesque performers were featured in white entertainment venues. Black dancer Jean Idelle subsequently became one of the most famous black burlesque dancers – performing at Minsky’s Burlesque show in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s and even purportedly had her own bodyguards
Despite its racialized origins, the mainstream history of burlesque has largely erased the lives and experiences of black women, save only for the image of Josephine Baker clad in her infamous banana skirt, playing for audiences in 1927 at Folies Bergère in Paris.28 Black female burlesque artists such as Belle Davis, Ada Overton Walker, and others helped define the genre, getting their start as early as 1890 as part of the Creole Show, an all-black production in New York City –headed under white management, as was the case with most forms of entertainment at the time.29 The show traveled for five years, playing for mainly working class audiences in industrial cities throughout the United States.30 Its theme and content focused on the urban black experience and mocked the racial dynamics of the day, specifically the nostalgia for plantation life that was so central to the minstrel show. Black burlesque dancers challenged not only the gendered norms of the day but also took control of their own sexuality and contributed to the critique of American race relations.
It was until during the roaring twenties that strip tease, which some claim was the outcome of wardrobe malfunction, became the centerpiece of burlesque.31 America was becoming an urbanized nation and social relations were undergoing rapid transformations. The English translations of Freud’s writings made it acceptable to talk about repressed sexual desire in public, Prohibition created underground social scenes where women partied in knee-length skirts, and the Jazz age introduced “the shimmy” to white audiences. The shimmy dancer, as Rachel Shteir argues “exaggerated her femininity on stage, flirted boldly with the audience and sometimes extended into comedy.”32 This dance “prepared Americans for the curvaceous shape of the female body as burlesque dancers would later present it.”33
At the Winter Garden Theater, located on 2nd avenue and Houston Street in Manhattan, the Minsky brothers were forced to compete with other more risqué burlesque shows by offering customers more and more flesh. According to legend, Mae Dix was the first Minsky’s dancer to perform strip tease in front of audiences. She usually removed her collar at the end of her act, and once backstage with the audience demanding an encore, she returned, removing her detachable wrist cuffs. As Morton Minsky later recalled, during one show “between the heat and the applause May lost her head, went back for a short chorus, and unbuttoned her bodice as she left the stage again.”34
The police arrived two weeks later, and would return several times to crack down on such performances. This was emblematic of the decade-long campaign against burlesque in New York by anti-vice activists, chief among them Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who came to power during the Great Depression, promising to clean up the immorality along 42nd Street. La Guardia blamed the city’s economic downturns on the rampant availability of sex, drugs and bootlegging all of which resulted in a ban of burlesque in 1937.35 Yet, vice enforcement simply pushed sex entertainment venues into other areas of the city, undergoing constant extortion from police, and attack by opportunistic politicians and moral reformers.
Just over a few short decades, “pretty girls in frothy costumes who tantalized the crowd lost the stage to a new breed of jaded girls who had to twirl tassels on their breasts to get a reaction.”36 With the rise of the sexual revolution and the demise of anti-obscenity laws in many states, strip clubs became the mainstay of adult entertainment. By the 1970s, the strip club was a more or less accepted figure in the cultural landscape, and an increasingly common workplace for working-class women. In various moments, work conditions in strip clubs led women to come together and organize. These instances provide an important window into the sort of collective action that women organized that helped to frame erotic dancing as sex work.
Sex workers of the world unite
Sex work, like all work in capitalist society, is exploitative. Accordingly, sex workers have long organized to demand better work conditions and wages. In the United States, the first instance of an organized response by erotic dancers to work conditions occurred in 1955 with the founding of the Exotique Dancers League of America. It started when a woman’s pasties washed off during a performance. The club was raided, the women working arrested, and then fired. Other dancers undertook a work stoppage in solidarity with the fired women. This display of solidarity provided the opportunity to fight for a percentage from door sales, clean and safe changing rooms, and other bread and butter concerns. The dancers became incorporated into the American Guild of Variety Artists.37 Yet, as go-go dancers and stripping gradually replaced burlesque in the 1950s, many unions refused to organize erotic dancers. Exclusion from labor organizations was compounded by New Deal era policy38, namely the National Labor Relations Act, which denied public employees the right to organize and join unions. A massive boon to private sector unionism, the NLRA did not extend to independent contractors – the category in which erotic dancers, and domestic workers, tend to find themselves in. Agricultural and domestic workers were also exempt from NLRA protection, meaning some of the country’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers, most likely to be female and non-white, were excluded from this landmark legislation.
Exclusion from the mainstream labor movement has resulted in episodic militancy outside of it. In 1975, sex workers in Lyons, France occupied St Nizier Church to demand an end to police harassment and anti-prostitution laws that endangered their lives and forced them to work in dangerous areas of the city. During the strike, hundreds of sex workers participated in the occupation of five churches. In the same year, in England, the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP) was founded. One of its most vocal supporters was Selma James.39 In 1983, James penned “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” an account of a twelve-day 1982 occupation of a London church led by sex workers affiliated with the ECP. A decade earlier, James had written Women, the Unions and Work for a national conference on women’s liberation in Manchester. James presented a feminist critique of the limits of working within labor unions and left organizations, arguing that working-class women should organize autonomously outside of them. In 1983, she saw this potential, under the banner of organized sex workers. Today, an international sex worker movement has framed sex work as a form of work like any other, and in some places sex workers are organizing accordingly.
The 2000 documentary “Live Nude Girls Unite” examines the 1996-1997 organizing campaign at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Dancers approached the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 790 and planned an election. In April 1997, the employees voted to unionize 57 to 15. In February 2003 faced with threats of closing, the unionized dancers purchased the business for $400,0000 and established a workers’ cooperative. As a result of their unionizing efforts dancers at the Lusty Lady were not independent contractors and receive an hourly wage and overtime, until 2013, when the club became another victim of San Francisco’s rampant gentrification.40
More recently strippers working in New Orleans, Louisiana began to organize themselves, this time against criminalization. Strip clubs along Bourbon Street have been the latest target of police raids as part of the ongoing gentrification of the city. Reese Piper, a stripper originally from New York City who travels to New Orleans three months out of the year for work, marched in the streets to demand an end to the raids. She argued that “the crackdowns are a threat to our livelihood and survival” and demanded the “outside” also “see that we’re more than fishnets and lace, but people from all walks of life who work in the industry out of love or need. Regardless of how or why, stripping is our job – and it’s our right to work without fear just like everyone else.”41 As strippers move from city to city looking for work, making connections and sharing experiences, the potential for spreading the seeds of resistance grows.
Beyond the “stripper strike”
While darker-skinned black and Latina dancers who bear the brunt of racial bias have spoken out for years, it was not until the recent collective action that colorism in the stripping industry became an industry-wide conversation. Previously, when dancers spoke out against this practice many lost their jobs. The strike also called attention to the sharp divides within the strippers’ workplace, and demonstrated the need for the organizers to overcome them. While media accounts have pitted strippers against bartenders, Marie stressed to us their need and desire for unity. “The bartenders don’t understand they’re pawns as well,” she told us. “They just see the money and they’re stealing dancers’ money. I want unity between the dancers and bartenders. I want bartenders to do their job and respect ours.”
What comes next is uncertain, but in a political moment when it seems just about anything can be expected except a return to the status quo, the field remains open for more actions like the strike. “We see this as a movement,” Marie told us. “This is not only about dancers. It’s about equality for all women. This goes on in all occupations. We are doing this for all women. We want other women in other industries to know they are not alone.”
The broader political context is also worth noting. The #nycstripperstrike occurred on the heels of the historic Women’s March on Washington, in which millions of women clad in pink hats flooded the streets to protest Trump, Pence and the bigotry their campaign embodied. A few weeks later, many of these participants were involved in marching at airports to protest Trump’s travel ban. Seeing opportunity, radical, leftists and militant feminists organized a “gender strike” calling attention to the invisibility and centrality of women’s labor in reproducing capitalist social relations. These protests were the biggest in New York and California. Literature was produced and short videos explaining concepts like social reproduction were widely shared on social media.
While we cannot deny the important role of these protests in politicizing many women, especially those who took to the streets for the very first time, it remains unclear to us how much “gender strike” transcended an already-existing activist milieu. Moreover, talking with women on the streets, we found that many of them simply joined the protests after work, afraid of retaliation or not wanting to use up their carefully saved sick and vacation days. To be perfectly frank, it wasn’t much of a strike at all. Making this obvious observation has been a point of controversy, but we don’t think it’s such a bad thing to say. Maybe it was the necessary first step, a dress rehearsal towards a real strike. Or perhaps it was just what we needed at the moment – to see each other in the streets, together in a raucous crowd rocking red, chanting and holding beautiful, funny, and clever political signs. Likewise, the #nycstripperstrike wasn’t much of a strike at all. But it was something besides nothing. It was part of a long history of exploitation and resistance that will only end with deliverance from capitalism once and for all. We don’t set the terms of this history, and all we can do is wait for the opportunity to arise, and take our best shot. You never know what’s going to work.
Women with the #nycstripperstrike arrived at similar conclusions. While the strike was itself symbolic, and only deemed a strike by media, it nonetheless gave dancers a space to voice their collective experiences with racism, discrimination, and wage theft across clubs and boroughs. It also allowed sex work to be framed as legitimate work, and gave the women involved the opportunity to connect to a larger women’s movement that has arisen in the wake of Trump’s victory. In this moment, these contestations and moments of solidarity are important. We want to believe they’re a bridge to something bigger or more militant. But regardless, in the most basic sense, they’re all we got.
Tanz and Zhana both live in the Bronx. When they are not binge watching Netflix shows, they are out dancing or cursing at the MTA as only beleaguered Bronxite commuters can
*The authors would like to thank Jarrod Shanahan for his helpful criticisms, feedback and superb editing skills.
1 Jack Griffin, “Secrets of the Striptease Queens.”
2Bettie Paige, “This is as Far as You Can Go,” Carnival, 1953.
4 Griffin, “Striptease Queens.”
5 Moira Weigel, Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2016.
6 L. Frank Baum, The Art of Decorating Show Windows and Drygoods Interiors, Show Window Publishing Company, 1900.
7 Antonia Crane, Spent, Rare Bird Books, 2014.
8 Bernadette Barton, Stripped, New York University Press, 2006, 41.
9 Barton, Stripped, 42.
10 Vanessa D. Fisher, “Stripped: A Look Inside the Life and History of Exotic Dancing,” Metapsychosis, June 27, 2016.
11 Victoria’s Friends, “Strip Club Statistics.”
12 Fisher, “Stripped.”
13 Susan Elizabeth Shepherd, “Wildcatting: A Strippers Guide to the Modern American Boomtown,” BuzzFeed, July 25, 2013.
15 Mike Isaac and Natasha Singer, “California Says Uber Driver is Employee, Not a Contractor,” New York Times, June 17, 2015.
16 Josh Eidelson, “It’s a New Game for Uber Drivers If New York Passes This Law,” Bloomberg, January 10, 2017.
17 Stephen Rex Brown, “Dancers Win $4.3M Class-Action Suit against Three Manhattan Strip Clubs,” New York Daily News, October 7, 2014.
18 MF Akynos, “Why the #NYCStripperStrike Is So Relevant and So Long Overdue,” Tits and Sass, November 13, 2017.
19 Robert C. Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture, University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
20 Melanie, “Exotic vs. Erotic: What’s Correct in the Pole Dancing Community,” Pole Positive, February 6, 2019.
21 In Striptease (Oxford, 2004) Rachel Shteir argues Annabelle Whitford was the “Little Egypt” dancer. A New Yorker concurs. See: Lucius Beebee, “The Awful Seeley Dinner!” January 16, 1932.
22 M.H. Dunlop, Gilded City: Scandal and Sensation in Turn-of-the-Century, William Morrow, 2002.
23 Outside of the United States, erotic dancing was popularized by Mata Hari. Born Margaretha Zelle, Mata Hari was a Dutch erotic dancer enlisted to seduce German officers as a spy by the French secret service. For a fictionalized account of her life, see Paulo Coehlo’s The Spy (Vintage, 2017). A new collection including previously unpublished photographs and letters written by and about Margaretha Zelle was published last year in Dutch.
24 A.W Stencell, Girl Show: In the Canvas World of Bump and Grind, ECW Press, 1990, 5; Robert Bogdan, Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, University of Chicago Press, 1988, 235-40.
25 Stencell, Girl Show, 5.
26 Katherine Frank, G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire, Duke University Press, 2002, 48. See also: Laurie Penny, “Burlesque Laid Bare,” The Guardian, May 14, 2009.
27 The Ziegfeld Follies were a theater production that transformed the Broadway musical, combining vaudeville and the aesthetic of top-tier Broadway shows. Burlesque was in many ways a more affordable version of the Follies, filled with girls, comedy and music entertaining working class audiences.
28 Chicava Honeychild, “Black Burlesque: Live Nude Girls,” Ebony, January 14, 2012.
29 One major exception was The Theater Owner’s Booking Association, which played for black audiences from Chicago to New York City from the early 1900s until the Great Depression. One of veterans of black vaudeville was Dewey Markham. His comedy routine “Here Come De Judge” mocked the formal courtroom at a time when black communities were terrorized by lynching.
30 Jayna Brown, Babylon Girls: Black Women Performers and the Shaping of the Modern, Duke University, 2008, 93.
31H.M. Alexander, Strip Tease, The Vanished Art of Burlesque, Knight Publishers, 1938, 303.
32 Ibid., 75.
33 Shteir, Striptease, 74.
34 Allen, 250. Also see Minsky’s own account in: Morton Minsky and Milt Machlin, Minsky’s Burlesque: A Fast and Funny Look at America’s Bawdiest Era, Arbor House, 1986.
35 Becki L. Ross,“Bumping and Grinding On the Line: Making Nudity Pay,” Labour/Le Travail, 46 (Fall 2000): 229.
36Frank W. Hoffman and William G. Bailey Arts and Entertainment Fads, Volume 1, Harrington Park Press, 1990, 305.
37 League of Exotique Dancers, documentary revisiting this history, came out in 2015.
38 Thanks to Ben Mabie and Shuja Haider for reading through our first draft, for their suggestions on this particular point as well for calling our attention to the recent protests against the criminalization of sex work in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
39 Selma James, “Hookers in the House of the Lord,” in Sex, Race and Class: The Perspective of Winning: A Selection of Writings 1952-2011, PM Press, 2012. See also this interview with Selma James about her experience organizing with the English Collective of Prostitutes.
40 Lily Burana, “What It Was Like to Work at the Lusty Lady, a Unionized Strip Club,” The Atlantic, August 31, 2013.
41 Reese Piper “French Quarter Stripper: We’re Real People with Bills to Pay, Have Right to Work without Fear,” The Advocate, February 1, 2018.