In many ways, working in the sex industry is like running a small business. From the hours spent on website maintenance, photography and video editing, ad copywriting, and social media marketing to the emotional labor involved in vetting difficult or demanding clients, many sex workers would agree with the common refrain, “there are no days off!” to describe the hustle and grind of their profession. However, for sex workers in particular, who are especially likely to be part of a disenfranchised demographic, there is no safety net in case of failure. The alleged “stain” of sex work is increasingly difficult to wash out in an era of repressive legislation, social media, and technological surveillance.
The permanent digital footprint of social media aside, the technological trails left by apps like AirBnB and Tinder, as well as payment processors that trade purchasing data for ad sales, leave indelible marks on those who work in the world of commercialized sex. According to Dr. Olivia Snow, a writer, professor, and research fellow for the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry, this digital scarlet letter transcends legality.
“People are flagged, not necessarily for breaking specific laws, but for engaging in behavior consistent with ‘high-risk’ activity,” said Snow, who also works as a dominatrix.
This “whore stigma” only compounds issues for workers trying to leave the industry, particularly for marginalized individuals such as trans people, returning citizens, single parents, and Black and Indigenous people. On top of other reasons, such as barriers to education, lack of workplace protections, assault or harassment, and disability, the most vulnerable people are forced into a permanent underclass that struggles to shed both the stigma and consequences of sex work.
Trixie, a sex worker, organizer, and consultant who is using a pseudonym, has had firsthand experience with shedding that stigma. “In the age of remote working and internet scrubbing, sex work content is regenerated and spread with extreme speed, often without your knowledge,” she said. Many sex workers have previously expressed frustration with stolen content spreading rapidly on social media, which makes it impossible to guarantee that future employers won’t discriminate or retaliate against former sex workers. Rejoining the “civilian” world of work is also often incompatible with the needs of those who turned to sex work in the first place.
“I left my previous job teaching because it created too much strain on my life,” said Trixie. As a single parent, the flexibility of online sex work and stripping gave her the chance to see her child during daytime hours.“It’s frustrating when people swear [working] a 9-5 makes you a better parent. That hasn’t been true [for me].”
Sex workers also often lack the legal and social protections afforded to workers in other industries. Without explicit legal or labor protections afforded by union support, sex workers are especially vulnerable to sexual assault, stalking, harassment, and other forms of abuse from law enforcement. As independent contractors, many dancers are also hesitant or unable to report clubs and management for labor violations like infrastructure failures or a culture of sexual harassment and violence.
“Customers will try to finger you,” said Trixie, “but the biggest issue in clubs is that they’re dirty, unkempt, and dangerous. The ‘anything goes’ nature of how an establishment is run [is the real danger].”
Though worker classification is a longstanding issue in sex work, with many hired as “independent contractors” rather than as “employees,” the tides seem to be turning in California. In 2019, the state legislature passed Assembly Bill No. 5, an amendment to the labor code that explicitly defines dancers as employees if certain criteria are met. For T, a semi-retired dancer from the West Coast, this bill went a long way toward mitigating the exhaustion and frustration that forced her out of clubs after a long battle to unionize her fellow dancers. In particular, T, who has done some combination of dancing and full-service work in the last 12 years, highlighted her time at the Lusty Lady, calling it “transformative.” A now defunct pair of peep shows in Seattle and San Francisco, The Lusty Lady was considered the blueprint for many sex worker labor activists as the first strip club to unionize in the U.S.
Opened in the 1970s, the Lusty Lady was subject to racial discrimination complaints in the 1990s. This discrimination persists today across many strip clubs—T alleged hearing and seeing similar sentiments about “too many Black girls onstage” at clubs across the Pacific Northwest. According to T, the casual acceptance of that racism and the unofficial quotas for dancers of color are a huge detriment to organizing.
“Dancers are close to management, and there’s a certain kind of nepotism,” said T. “In Portland especially, it’s a lot of very comfortable white women that don’t want to upset the status quo.”
At the Lusty Lady, that racism was the straw that broke the camel’s back for an organizing drive that cemented the establishment’s status in labor history. Galvanized by customers illegally filming and photographing shows, Lusty Lady dancers took their complaints to the dressing room and joined the Exotic Dancers Union, setting a precedent for sex workers fighting for better working conditions across the country. In March, the dancers of Star Garden, a topless bar in Los Angeles, went on strike for seven months to earn the chance at unionization. They stood outside of the club every weekend, putting together impromptu outdoor performances and chastising customers who attempted to enter. “You’re crossing a picket line,” they would admonish.
According to an episode of NPR’s “Consider This” podcast, Star Garden dancers said they were radicalized by unsafe working conditions like aggressive customers and apathetic management and security. T said this is an unfortunate truth shared across many clubs and that by making yourself a visible opponent, you could risk your financial well-being.
“I auditioned for a club in Portland,” recalled T, “and they singled me out, asking a bunch of questions about how it felt to not be union anymore because I had left the Lusty Lady.”
Accused of “causing drama,” many dancers are forced to choose between their safety and their ability to pay rent while management benefits from upholding the status quo. T says dancers are also difficult to unionize due to a work environment that forces everyone to fight for the same unequally distributed scraps.
“You struggle to pay the house fee. You’re dancing in two-to-three clubs because you’re an independent contractor, and you have the freedom to do so. [Dancers] don’t want to be employees. They don’t want to upset management,” said T. “It’s not quite union-busting, or it’s not intentional union-busting. But the chosen dancers control the floor, they control the club, and management benefits from that relationship.”
For T, the frustration of trying to break through these ingrained power dynamics and the accusations of trying to unionize at every club she danced at led her to “rage quit” her last club right before the pandemic. “The pandemic was a welcome relief, honestly,” she said. “The burnout and bad experiences caught up to me. I was drinking way too much. I wasn’t comfortable with the customers. I walked out.”
When asked if she regretted her repeated attempts to educate and organize her fellow dancers, T wasn’t quite so resolute. “I would be willing to try again at a smaller club,” she said, pointing out that having good relationships within the community was a major key in successful organizing. “The power dynamics were way more than one person can handle, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done again.”