What would you do if the strip club you worked at became a brothel? That’s the question Hima B. asks in License to Pimp, the feature documentary she is currently raising funds to complete. The controversial premise is that, by charging house fees, strip club are essentially pimping out the dancers, leaving them little choice but to become prostitutes in order to pay the house and make some money for themselves. License to Pimp follows the stories of three San Francisco dancers as they negotiate the changes in their workplaces and respond in three very different ways.
I was excited to hear about Hima’s film, but I also had some tough questions for her. Although she and I have many things in common—we’re both former strippers who share a hatred of house fees, and we’ve both been fired from clubs for trying to fight labor violations—we haven’t always seen eye to eye. So I figured it was time we sat down and had a proper conversation.
I agree with you that house fees add a huge economic incentive for dancers to turn to prostitution, but there has always been an overlap between stripping and prostitution. The premise that house fees “turned strip clubs into brothels” doesn’t take into account the dancers who would be working as prostitutes anyway. I also think the idea that dancers shouldn’t be “doing extras” in strip clubs is unrealistic, and it prioritizes the needs of the more privileged women in the industry—those who can afford not to turn to prostitution.
I think we disagree on that matter. I started working in 1992, and for the first three years you’d hear about dancers who were prostitutes, but they would leave with the customers instead of having sex in the club. Then the stage fees started going up. At first it was pretty gradual—the fees went from $5 to $25 over about five months. It went from being fully clothed lap dancing where they can’t touch your boobs to, OK, they can touch your boobs, to, now you can get fully naked. And then the stage fees spiked. I distinctly remember it went from $25 to $200 in one day at the Market Street Cinema, and when that happened it was no longer about lap dances. It became survival of the fittest.
And I agree with you, at first the women turning tricks were less attractive, not as young, more women of color, the junkies—those were the people who were initially feeling pinched to do it. It’s the super hot blonde who might get twenty customers vs. the woman of color who might get five. Women with these disadvantages are going to offer a lot more for a lot less. It’s the unfortunate inequality of the industry. But when you have a club where everyone is paying $500, there’s no way that any of those women are just doing lap dances.
You argue that dancers should be classified as employees, rather than independent contractors, because as employees they have so many more rights and the clubs aren’t allowed to charge them house fees. But I’ve heard that, in clubs where dancers are classified as employees, the dancers aren’t entitled to keep the money they make selling lap dances. That sounds like a pretty big deal, considering most dancers make the majority of their income selling dances.
That system—the so-called “piece rate” system—is also illegal, and I agree that it’s totally whack, especially when the clubs use it in a way that parallels a sweatshop system. The money that dancers make selling lap dances should be classified as tips. When a customer pays a dancer $20 for a lap dance, he thinks he’s giving her a tip. But the clubs have figured out ways to break down that whole tip thing, because when it’s a tip it can never be the club’s property.
In San Francisco there were several clubs that started using the “piece rate” system after they were forced to recognize dancers as employees. They give each dancer a quota of, say, ten dances, that they have to do by the end of the night, and they decide on the percentage the house gets. Then they create a barrier between the dancers and their customers. They have a machine, like a vending machine in a Laundromat, and each girl is given an electronic key. The machine registers that this dancer named Cindy is now doing her fifth dance that she’s paying for. So before, the dancers were able to say, “[the customer] gave me this money, he put it in my hand,” but now the club says, “the customer’s putting it into this machine that’s owned by the management.”
At three clubs in San Francisco there were class actions on the “piece rate” system, and the clubs lost all of them. The clubs are just trying to bide their time and make as much money as possible before the next class action.
If all clubs were legally required to classify dancers as employees, what would happen to all the women who dance because they need to be working off the books—undocumented immigrants, women receiving public assistance, women already working two or three other jobs, who just go into the club to make a bit extra when rent is due?
That’s part of the problem. What happens to the workers who are even more marginalized? But does that mean that the majority of women who do have legal rights should lose their rights and be denied wages? What’s the percentage of women who are undocumented? And then, when you talk about women getting government benefits, it gets into a complicated area because they’re committing fraud on a certain level.
But I worked in a club with a lot of undocumented immigrants, and when the club was mandated to recognize them as employees they didn’t go away. They got fake IDs and they stayed. And even undocumented workers are still protected under labor law.
In your response to my article, where I suggested that being an independent contractor stripper doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, you argued that, legally, dancers can’t truly be independent contractors. I see what you’re saying, but I also think it’s not just a case of following the letter of the law—it’s a case of figuring out what actually works for most dancers. If a club is charging a small fee and giving dancers lots of freedom to make their own schedules and generally treating them well, and if the dancers prefer that to being classified as employees, does it matter if it’s technically illegal?
I’m going to say it again: dancers are employees. The way the clubs are set up, they’re always going to be employees. What the women want is the flexibility to schedule when they come in. But the clubs could give them this flexibility if they wanted. They could set it up like a temp agency where you can say, “I don’t want to work this month,” or “I want to work this month.” Clubs could do that if they wanted, but they choose not to.
So what’s the solution? If the clubs continue to find ways to exploit dancers, even when they’re forced to recognize them as employees, how are we ever going to improve the situation?
In a lot of the class action lawsuits, the lawyers just want a big paycheck—they’re not interested in enforcing the law. When you settle, you don’t set a precedent with the case. There’s no legal binding on the clubs to change their practices.
Also, most dancers don’t file complaints while they’re still working, because of the horrible reality that they will get fired. I understand that. My ass got fired from every club I worked at. It’s hard to stand up unless you have some kind of privilege, like you know you could get hired in some other job outside the industry. But we need to get some solidarity on the stage fees. No dancer wants to pay to work, but until every one of those women stands up and says, this is wrong, it’s not going to change.
But that’s never going to happen, for all the reasons you just mentioned.
One of the hopes I have with my film is that, when dancers see it and understand that this is seriously illegal, and you can recuperate all your wages, something might click. When they start to see how much money is actually owed, and how they’ve been screwed over. I worked at this one club for less than a year and they owed me $30,000, and the stage fees there weren’t even that high. I got all of it back. At what point are these women going to stand up and say, no more?
There are no easy answers when it comes to labor rights and the strip club industry. Although I don’t agree with Hima about everything, I backed her film on Kickstarter because I want more people to know about these issues, and I think the film looks pretty great. You can find out more and support the project here.