Stripping With the Union: San Francisco's Lusty Lady Closes Its Doors

In just a few days, San Francisco will lose an institution. On September 2, 2013, the Lusty Lady Theater, a fixture since the 1970s, will shutter its peepshow windows for the last time.

Strip clubs and porn palaces come and go, but the announcement that the Lusty would be closing down sent a sadness rippling through San Francisco. It wasn't unexpected — the Lusty has come within a hairs' breadth of closing a couple of times within the past few years, and maybe the real surprise is that it managed to last as long as it did. But expecting the shoe to drop didn't soften the blow when it finally came.

Nowadays, the Lusty Lady's claim to fame is as the only unionized, worker-owned peepshow co-op in the world, but that's relatively recent; the fight to unionize the Lusty's dancers was won in 1997. In 2003, the workers themselves bought out the management and made the theater into a cooperative. The theater's reputation was made long before that.

North Beach, where the Lusty Lady has lived for almost forty years, is a strange neighborhood even by San Francisco's standards. The usual segregation between highbrow and lowbrow doesn't apply there. Porn and pasta get equal billing on the main drag: as you walk down Broadway, gourmet tourist-trap restaurants alternate with gaudy strip club signs that make not even the slightest pretense to refinement. A little over a block from the Lusty is City Lights Bookstore, a mecca for aspiring intellectuals and poets since Lawrence Ferlinghetti founded it in 1953. City Lights has its own history of lewdness; in 1957, they fought one of the most legendary obscenity trials in American history when an undercover cop busted them for publishing and selling Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. With North Beach's history of keeping one foot in the gutter and one in the drawing room, the Lusty Lady could have no more appropriate home.

The Lusty Lady's reputation as San Francisco's sex show for radicals was well-established long before the famous drive to organize the performers. Sexologist Carol Queen, who worked at the Lusty in 1990, remembers it as a "hotbed of sex-positive feminism."

The original owners were a couple from Seattle with libertarian, free-love sympathies who found that in bohemian San Francisco, there were certain commercial benefits to promoting their theater as being "feminist." June, the female partner, managed the Lusty and became its public face so that it became known as "woman-owned and operated."

"That wasn't an accurate understanding of feminism," says Julia Query, a former dancer who was one of the organizers in 1997. "It's like saying that Margaret Thatcher had a feminist utopia in Great Britain. But the reputation helped them get workers, and they needed that, because anyone who was in the sex industry could go somewhere else and make so much more money than they could make at the Lusty Lady, that [they] needed a different group of workers." Query and Vicky Funari recorded the struggle to organize in Live Nude Girls Unite, which remains an exceptional document of sex work history. It not only shows the women articulating their complaints about work conditions and fighting back with labor strategies like "no pink" days (dancing without flashing their genitals), but it gives insight into the lives of the women themselves, just as a film about auto workers would strive to connect the people and their jobs. A big part of the film shows how the strike forced Query to come out to her mother about her work.

Even in those early days, the Lusty welcomed women who either didn't have the right look for the mainstream clubs, or wouldn't because of their own boundaries or temperament. Writer Greta Christina, who danced in the early 90s, speculates that the combination of the glass walls and an hourly wage made it more appealing to queer nerds: "Other kinds of sex work require more extroversion: more willingness to have lots of direct human contact, more willingness to hustle and put yourself out there. The Lusty didn't require as much of that. Maybe that made it more of a magnet for theorists, writers, artists, other introverts."

There has always been a much wider range of bodies than you'll see at the O'Farrell Theater, the New Century, the Hungry I, or any other club in San Francisco. Fat girls dance next to thin, and small breasts share the stage with D cups. In the early 90s, piercings, tattoos, and other body mods hadn't become popular enough even to be a symbol of hipsterism. No one would be allowed to get onstage at the O'Farrell with pierced nipples and sleeve work; those women danced at the Lusty. "I think that the women there were more likely to be punk rock," Queen says. "They were more likely to be dykes, they were more likely to already be part of the San Francisco alt cultures, and that was what colored the culture of the Lusty."

But body freedom only went so far. The movement to unionize was driven in part by the (literally) naked racism of the management. Black women were at a distinct disadvantage: they were rarely, if ever, scheduled for shifts in the "Private Pleasures" booth, where customers talk out fantasies one-on-one with a performer. That shut them out of the chance to make much more than the hourly wage. Furthermore, the theater's policy said that if a dancer had to miss a shift, they had to make arrangements for someone to take their place. The catch was that the replacement couldn't be just any performer — she had to have breasts as large or larger as the original performer, and skin as light or lighter.

If the Lusty Lady will be remembered for anything decades from now, it won't be the scores of activists and queer writers who came of age dancing behind its peepshow windows; it will be the union. For sixteen years, it stood as the only example of an adult venue where the performers had successfully fought for and won the right to organized labor. When the theater closes on Monday, the union goes with it.

So what do we lose then? The performers lose their jobs, as does the support staff and management, but what's lost in the broader sense when the only unionized strip club or peepshow in the country closes its doors?

First of all, anyone who works for a living these days should probably mourn the loss of any union, no matter what field. Unionized jobs are becoming almost as quaint and anachronistic as peepshows themselves, and as they've dwindled, so too has the job security, strong wages, and economic mobility that workers in the fifties, sixties, and seventies assumed was as American as apple pie. Every time a union shuts down, American employers move a little closer to treating their workers as being slightly more useful than condoms on a bareback porn set.

Having the union did more than give the workers resources and a way to talk back to management. To an extent, it also legitimized what they were doing as work to the world as large. Siouxsie Q, the producer and host of Whorecast, got her start in sex work by dancing at the Lusty; it was the union that allowed her to come out to her parents. "My dad is a union guy, and he was wicked proud. He was like, 'My daughter is on the forefront of unionhood! This is all I've ever wanted.'" It also shaped her own identity as a sex worker: "I always felt like an honest, hardworking American, working this upstanding Union job. I think that really shaped how I see myself as a sex worker today. It's like, don't tell me that I'm on the fringes of society. I have a good job. I pay my taxes. I think that the Lusty was a part of that."

According to Sandy Bottoms, the director of the Bay Area chapter of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOPBay), the union gave sex workers a voice not only in how the Lusty Lady was run, but in broader labor issues. As an example, she mentions a proposed ordinance in San Francisco that would have imposed a "sin tax" on strip clubs. The Service Industry Employees Union (SEIU), which represents the Lusty Lady workers, was poised to throw their support behind the ordinance. "But they didn't recognize that there were people it would affect in an adverse way," she says. "As small as we are, in terms of the numbers of SEIU, we could be there and be like, 'Wait a second, this would adversely affect members of your own union as well.'"

A big part of the Lusty's financial problems might be traced not to the union, but to the co-op structure that was instituted in 2003, when the owners sold the theater to the workers. Many thought the co-op was unwieldy and impractical, especially when immediate action was needed. Sandy Bottoms worked there from 2009 to 2012, a time when the theater's financial issues were becoming increasingly dire. "I think the co-op structure that the Lusty Lady had was missing some flexibility that could have allowed it to adapt to the changes in the marketplace as quickly as it needed to," she says. "You needed to have consensus on everything, essentially. If we needed to make a radical change in our business, that took time. And sometimes these things don't have the time."

But San Francisco took less time to make radical changes, and with each year, the Lusty Lady looks more and more like a quaint anachronism. Only last year, they started to bring performers out from behind the glass twice a week to do lap dances. Some people say that working at the Lusty is more akin to doing cam shows, and that's the root of the problem: why sit in a glass booth in the middle of North Beach when you can have your choice of live cam girls?

"The Internet offers everything that the Lusty Lady offers, better, faster, cheaper," says Tristan, who worked on the support staff until last year. "Certainly the people who continued to be our mainstay customers were the people who tended not to have internet access or privacy in their own homes. As internet moved into more homes and as the city in general priced people out who were sharing space and didn't have a lot of privacy, less people came in." There was actually talk about starting webcams and an internet presence, but it never happened. Two offers to buy the place were considered and rejected last year: one came from a consortium that would have essentially taken the name and eliminated the theater; after much debate, the workers rejected it because because the offer of $25,000 was considered insultingly low by many. The second came from Scott Farrell, who had been hired to manage the theater. That offer almost went through, until the landlord, Roger Forbes, told them that he wouldn't give a lease to a new owner.

But on Monday, August 19, the word came down that Forbes was denying the Lusty Lady a new lease nevertheless. They had only two weeks to close up a business that had nurtured generations of sex workers.

Princess, who's worked at the Lusty for twelve years and serves as their PR officer, spoke about the closing with an exhaustion so heavy that it transcended heartbreak. "The big surprise was the two week line, because that is a ridiculously short amount of time to break down a business," she said. "They should have given us a month. We had to scramble to give everyone their proper paperwork." The Lusty has been struggling to make rent and payroll for a long time now, but Forbes is hardly a disinterested party in its demise. He's also a partner in Deja Vu Consulting, Inc., which owns almost every strip club in San Francisco, and scores more across the United States. One of Deja Vu's properties, the Hustler Club, sits right door to the Lusty Lady.

In other words, San Francisco loses not only the unionized strippers; it's losing its one and only independent strip joint. "Deja Vu is the Wal-Mart of strip clubs," Princess says. "It's homogenized, it's huge, and you walk in, and you know what you're going to get. So we were the one that was different."

Two weeks may be a ridiculously short period of time to tear down a business, but it's even more brutal to have to tear down a home in that time. And everyone, no matter what their doubts or hesitations about the Lusty Lady, comes back to talk about it as a home. Courtney Trouble, founder of Indie Porn Revolution, speaks lovingly about her days there: "While it may not have been a very lucrative place, it was a coming of age institution for many a queer femme living and working in the city..... It was a safe place to be smart, political, radical, queer, and unique. I think the Lusty Lady is a shining example of running a sex work company fairly and ethically."

That example of ethics, activism, and community has been invaluable to people on both sides of the glass. What San Francisco can be without it remains to be seen.

Check out Jolene Parton's piece on the Lusty Lady.


More reading...

Not Your Passive Blow-Up Doll: An Interview with Creatrix Tiara

July Westhale interviews Creatrix Tiara about the process, discipline, and self-care that surrounds being a performer.

Chicago: A City So Sexy It Will Blow Up Your Skirt

It's always hotter in Chicago! Home to one of the most famous brothels in the United States, Illinois heats it up with the salacious history of two industrious sisters, their brothel, and the golden age of adult entertainment. Enjoy this small historical snapshot of Chicago's hot sex history.

Return to Slixa Late Night