We are living in a world that workers built.
For instance, the Harbor Freeway – now known as the 110 – was built in the 1930s by construction workers, heavy equipment operators, cement mixers, engineers, and architects. The freeway was created as part of a public works program aimed at resurrecting our anemic economy after the depression. Other Los Angelenos worked in the garment industry, or did clerical work, or washed dishes in restaurants, or did domestic work at hotels, or sold perfume in department stores. Some workers moonlit at go-go bars and jazz clubs that peppered Sunset Boulevard, like the Trocadero – or the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue that hosted Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and a series of burlesque dancers who bedazzled the night.
Decades after the 110 freeway was finished, I worked as a live nude girl at a peepshow in San Francisco called the Lusty Lady. Minimum wage in 1996 in California was an abysmal $7.25, but starting wage at the Lusty Lady was $12 an hour – a godsend for a twenty-something year old. During the day I worked at a retail store on Haight Street, then I’d ride my roommate’s bike across town to punch a noisy timeclock before entering the crowded locker room at the peepshow where we’d all disrobe and glitter up.
One night during my shift, Star – who at 19 was not old enough to legally drink, but old enough to dance nude – noticed a tiny red light floating inside the dark depths of a corner booth, where we performed behind one-way glass, so the customers could see us, but we couldn’t see them. “Move over,” she said. “Your butthole is being filmed.” I thanked her and slithered away from that booth towards other windows where I could see faces bobbing up and down, contorting in spastic pleasure behind regular glass. Star stomped off stage. I figured she took her ten-minute break, which we were allotted every hour. When Star returned to her spot onstage next to me, she told me she’d spoken to the manager.
“I’m gonna change things around here,” Star said to her reflection in the glass. Maybe her declaration was meant as a warning to our eavesdropping boss. Or maybe she directed those words to all of us, our hips shaking in unison to the song “Doll Parts” from the album “Hole: Live Through This.” We gyrated with a sharp new awareness that our buttholes were both ours and not ours in this pornified public cyberspace where video cameras captured us beyond our reach. Either way, Star’s words sounded like the future.
After some discussion, my coworkers and I decided to form a union. We had a list of demands. We’d been sick of the blatantly discriminatory hiring and firing practices, favoritism, wrongful termination, and curiously negligent bookkeeping—and now management was refusing to stop customers from bringing in cameras to illegally tape us.
On August 28, 1998, two years after we initially revolted, the Lusty Ladies won our union election, becoming the first sex workers to successfully unionize in the United States. And although it’s taken more than two decades, I can finally say that the Lusty Ladies were not the last to do so.
For the first time in the 21st century, both the Star Garden Strippers in North Hollywood and the dancers at The Magic Tavern in Portland, Oregon have won their union elections, with the support of Actor’s Equity Association. Strippers from both clubs are poised to negotiate for safer, more equitable working conditions—not only for themselves, but for future sex workers everywhere. It’s taken a quarter century and a global pandemic to witness the gumption of strippers who, again, demand not only to be seen, but to be heard, in the bump and rattle symphony that is the vibrant labor movement in Los Angeles. From local stunt performers at Medieval Times United and the third film-based non-profit to unionize, Film Workers United to larger, longer union campaigns like GSWOC-UAW USC Graduate Students Workers at USC who voted on their first tentative contract agreement last week and, of course, The Writer’s Strike, the longest work stoppage in hollywood’s history.
Some battles remain heated as unionized workers take an offensive stance during contract negotiations that are not going smoothly.
Last week, the Equity Strippers of North Hollywood took to the picketline again outside of Star Garden Topless Dive Bar due to the club owners alleged chronic NLRB violations and what appears to be bargaining in bad faith. Many Los Angeles-based strippers and erotic performers have joined forces to form a Stripper Co-op where they host performances and fundraise with the idealistic goal of purchasing their own stripper-owned club. Their next show, “Tis the Season for Pleasin’” will be December 18th at 7pm at The Federal Bar.
In spite of these triumphs, anti-porn feminists like Pamela Paul and Catharine A. MacKinnon are attempting to reboot their second wave feminist fever dream of abolishing the sex industry altogether because they believe that destroying the sex industry will stop sex trafficking. They are wrong. Criminalizing and arresting sex workers and our clients exacerbates homelessness and income inequality.
Locally, sex work activities along the South Figueroa Corridor has captured the attention of City Attorney Hydee Feldstein Soto who has promised to crack down on prostitution without any awareness of the impact that arrests have on communities of color, specifically single mothers who are struggling to survive in Los Angeles, where the cost of living is 51% higher than the national average. Most sex workers are mothers trying to feed themselves and their children. Sting operations also disproportionately target Black trans sex workers.
The carceral response to sex workers causes more trauma, and prevents displaced sex workers from being eligible for jobs, healthcare, housing, and resources every person deserves.
It’s no accident that anti-porn feminists like Paul and MacKinnon are revving up at the exact moment when sex workers are making substantial gains: organizing and winning our union elections, working towards decriminalization, and defending the rights of local sex workers to operate along the Figueroa Corridor.
Attempts to undermine our existence has two main arguments: that our self-identifying terms don’t matter and the work we do is not valid. In three decades of working in the adult industry, I assure you; the job of sex work is so. Much. Work. Like many jobs, it can be draining, frightening, infuriating, fun, crappy, boring, and sometimes intoxicating. And like all labor, sex work taxes both our minds and our bodies within a system where our sense of choice, freedom and meaning are hard won.
I’ve never once met a sex worker who didn’t know and understand the difference between being forced into prostitution and performing a service which one has agreed to perform: one is a job, the other an atrocity. The idea that all sex workers are coerced and abused is not only infantilizing, but factually untrue.
It’s past time we stop conflating sex work with sex trafficking.
Even though I’ve spent most of my adult life working inside strip clubs, and massage parlors, I prefer to be called “sex worker.” The term “sex work” is unsexy and utilitarian. It’s also purposefully all-encompassing and refers to one of many jobs one does in the adult industry. More importantly, it connects workers in the adult industry, fostering a sense of non-hierarchical solidarity in our quest for human rights, labor rights and decriminalization. The term isn’t new. The origins of “Sex work” can be traced back to Margo St. James, who founded COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics) in 1973. St. James gathered sex workers in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and provided a space for them to fight for healthy and safe working conditions, free from police and client violence, as well as for the right to organize.
If you were to ask someone in the adult industry what they’d want to be called, you’d hear a variety of terms: escort, stripper, dancer, prostitute, hand-job whore, erotic service provider, porn actor, sugar baby, cammer, adult entertainer, etc. But, over the past decade, “sex worker” has become the appellation for both erotic providers and mainstream media.
I believe that Paul and MacKinnon genuinely care about exploitative labor practices and craven business owners who prey on vulnerable people surviving at the intersections of multiple kinds of oppression. Sex workers, too, care about these things. It’s time to listen to sex workers when we say we don’t need rescue. We want resources, reform, and solidarity.
Antonia Crane is a queer writer, sex worker, filmmaker, activist, and PhD candidate at USC. She is the author of the memoir, Spent.