‘We’re not always treated like people’ | Feature | Chicago Reader

‘We’re not always treated like people’ 

Before the pandemic shuttered strip clubs, dancers were fighting exploitation and moving their work online.

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JOHN GARRISON
  • John garrison

On a cold January evening, Aurora lugged a box containing a chrome pole and wooden base into the Empty Bottle. Her eyelids were painted with silver glitter and she wore a white hoodie with a bedazzled script that read "Money makes me cum."

Aurora, an adult entertainer for the past 11 years, had assembled her portable pole many, many times before. But tonight was special. Other performers, dressed in red latex and lace, metal chokers, and shiny thigh-high boots, mingled with eager and friendly-faced patrons. They gathered around her in the center of the floor, allowing ample room to avoid being smacked by swinging platform heels. The Ukrainian Village bar was host to Capricorn Rising, a fund-raiser organized by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). The money raised from raffle tickets, T-shirts, pins, and tips given to the night's performers would help fund a free legal clinic, a "warmline" (for support without the urgency of a hotline), and street outreach programs.

As the trance-like music pulsed, Aurora circled the pole with perfected, deliberate measure. Her hoodie was zipped up to obscure her face. The crowd watched, enraptured, as she slowly slid out of the hoodie with practiced and theatrical ease, exposing a white bodysuit and sparkling silver bikini top. She pulled herself up the pole, inverted her body, and hung by one leg that gripped the metal like a snake. Aurora's gravity-defying movements elicited cheers and showers of dollar bills from the crowd. She later said how "amazing" it was to dance not for her regular customers, but for an audience gathered in support of sex workers' rights. "I love giving energy to them," she said. "It feels right."

The 38-year-old is part of an ongoing class-action lawsuit claiming that VIP's Gentlemen's Club was illegally misclassifying dancers as independent contractors instead of employees under federal and state law. The class-action complaint, filed in 2016 at the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, alleged that dancers at VIP's were de facto employees of the club, but were paid through customers' tips instead of with an hourly wage. One major purpose of the lawsuit is to give dancers back pay for the hours spent working while allegedly misclassified.

The original complaint also alleges that dancers paid "house fees" to work and were required to share their tips with "managers and with non-service employees or agents of the club," like the DJ, in-house makeup artist, and "house mom," who provided food and sometimes toiletries in the locker room. This is illegal to require of employees, but many strip clubs commonly enact these rules because dancers are listed as independent contractors on paper. Management at Rick's Cabaret (formerly VIP's and now under new ownership) said they were "advised not to comment" on the lawsuit.

This lawsuit is far from an anomaly. Two Chicago strip clubs are currently facing class-action lawsuits for worker misclassification (the second was filed against the Admiral Theatre in 2018). Adult entertainment establishments across the nation have been dealing with such lawsuits for decades, sometimes settling these cases by paying out hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Depending on how many dancers join the suit and how many hours each dancer worked, individual payouts can be in the hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Aurora chose a name for this story that she uses professionally—one that isn't her legal name. She understands that many dancers refuse to join lawsuits because they fear being blacklisted. Aurora said it can seem like legal action won't do much to end the cycle: clubs get sued, clubs adjust management, clubs lapse back into unscrupulous practices. This cycle, she said, delegitimizes sex work.

"The root of that mentality is that this is not a real industry, and this is not a real place of employment," she said. "And I want that to change. Now I know a lot of dancers don't want to be employees and I'm not saying that all dancers need to be employees. But I'm saying as contractors, we still need to be treated like people. You know? And we're not always treated like people."

Only three strip clubs featuring female dancers exist within city limits: Rick's Cabaret near Goose Island, Pink Monkey in University Village, and the historic Admiral Theatre, which first opened in 1927 as a vaudeville house and now features fully nude entertainers. Chicago's lack of clubs is certainly not for lack of space or population, not even for lack of interest among club frequenters. From the 1950s through the early 1980s, downtown Rush Street was Chicago's equivalent of Paris's Quartier Pigalle, boasting happening jazz clubs, endless bars and restaurants, clubs with nude or topless entertainers, and practically any illicit activity one could desire. The roar of the night scene on Rush was eventually silenced by redevelopment, higher rent for business owners, and more stringent city laws like a 1993 ordinance restricting nudity in establishments that sell liquor.

Outsiders to the adult entertainment industry may consider a dancer's work to be purely physical. But dancers often describe their work as sales, a business built on physical and emotional labor. Each night at VIP's, dancers would evaluate the crowd and engage with the most promising customers to sell undivided attention. They would observe, they would charm, they would perform in skyscraping platform heels, sometimes in ten-hour shifts. The payoff could be sweet: on a busy night, or when a dancer met just the right customer, she could bring home hundreds of dollars and on rare occasions break a thousand. On a bad night, though, she might leave with nothing.

Many dancers enjoy the freedom that comes with being an independent contractor, even if that means forgoing employee benefits like paid time off, health care, or worker's compensation for injuries. But without employee protections, dancers must come together to strike or sue when demanding better treatment. In 2017, a group of 30 New York strippers, led by dancer Gizelle Marie, created #NYCStripperStrike to protest racial discrimination at their workplaces. They claimed that the "bottle girls" and bartenders at their clubs, mostly Instagram-famous white women and Latinas, were stealing tips meant for dancers. They also claimed that club management excluded darker-skinned women from working VIP rooms, where most of the money could be made. Management, who hired the bartenders to bring in more clientele, refused to do anything.

The first American strip club to unionize was the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. The club had hired only five Black women out of about 70 dancers and did not allow the Black dancers to work in the more expensive VIP rooms. Because dancers at the Lusty Lady were employees, Siobhan Brooks—who worked at the club in 1996 and is now a sociologist and associate professor at California State University, Fullerton—was able to work with a local union to file a racial discrimination complaint against the club. But dancers who are listed as independent contractors usually don't unionize, largely because they wouldn't get the same protections and privileges as unionized employees. A class-action lawsuit is often a dancer's best option for reinforcing their rights.

Adelaide Pagano is an attorney at Lichten & Liss-Riordan, a Boston firm that's fought many workers' rights cases for exotic dancers, including the ongoing lawsuits against VIP's and the Admiral. She said that labor misclassification for dancers is prevalent, but dancers don't bring class-action cases to court often because of fear of retaliation from club management and personal privacy concerns. She advises that dancers who are hired as independent contractors document evidence of a club's control over their work, including photographs of written rules or manuals and copies of text messages from management.

"You know, that's just the way the world is," Aurora told me about the business. She sat in a low-cushioned chair in her living room, legs folded beside her, occasionally taking drags off a joint. The overhead lights were off, but a couple of desk lamps provided a soothing glow. Two stainless steel poles took up most of the free space behind us. "Everybody is gonna try and get something. I don't blame them. I get it."

Aurora first got into stripping after winning $1,000 in an amateur night Rack of the Month Contest at Jimmy's Restaurant in Chicago Heights. Soon, she was hired. She lived with her parents and kept dancing to help pay their mortgage and make enough money to travel. (Aurora took her first flight at age 26.) Since then Aurora has worked at venues across the country, and has even pole danced onstage for Snoop Dogg's tour. A few years ago, Aurora began teaching in-person pole dance lessons from her apartment, both for sex workers and those outside of the industry. She also runs the Tip Rail, where through social media and a blog she offers advice to dancers, a "source for leveling up your stripper career."

At first, Aurora was hesitant about joining the lawsuit against VIP's. "Then I got pissed," she said. "I've always been pissed off by it, but you know, you feel powerless. Like you want to do something, and you don't know who to talk to, you don't know who to trust."

Using Facebook groups and e-mail, we asked dancers in the city to fill out an anonymous survey about working conditions. While only a handful of dancers responded, we saw an echo of the complaints Aurora, and lawsuits across the nation, have described, including dancers being forced to wear a specific dress or hairstyle, and dancers of color facing racial discrimination. Still, the women who responded told us they did not join the lawsuit against their club. "I was worried we would all be left without a place to work," wrote one dancer, who said she worked at the Admiral. "Something like that could get you blacklisted from strip clubs," wrote another. (Management at the Admiral did not respond to questions about this story.)

For Aurora, joining the lawsuit is worth more than just getting her old house fees back. "What I'm hoping is that someone will take a step back and look at the way the system works and be like, This doesn't make any sense."

Minneapolis, which has less than a quarter of the population of Chicago but four times as many strip clubs, recently proved that sweeping change to outdated legislation is possible. In 2017 the state's health department found semen stains in most of the city's strip clubs. By September 2019, the city council passed an unprecedented ordinance to strengthen protections for adult entertainers and enforce improved working conditions. "We demonstrated to the city council that the problem with the clubs wasn't the falsely assumed problems of 'vice,' but problems of financial exploitation," Eric Sprankle, of Minnesota State University, Mankato, wrote in an e-mail.

Now it's illegal for club managers and owners to accept tips from dancers; workers' rights and customer conduct rules are posted in clubs; employees are given copies of their contracts; clubs must develop a written plan for how security camera footage is preserved; no one can be employed as a manager or security staff who has a domestic violence–related conviction within five years; and no retaliation is allowed against workers for reporting violations. "Time is up on the social problem or nuisance approach to how to address adult entertainment," said Jayne Swift, lecturer at the University of Minnesota and organizer of SWOP Minneapolis. "It's time to move towards a labor and human rights approach that recognizes that sex workers are members of whatever community they're in."

Codi Schei, a 29-year-old sex worker and board member of SWOP's Chicago chapter, said that aldermen have yet to make efforts to listen to what sex workers are saying they need. "Respectability politics are an unfortunate reality in this type of advocacy, and many groups in positions of power still hesitate to work with sex workers because of widespread criminalization, harmful stigma, and faulty stereotypes," Schei wrote in an e-mail.

For decades, Chicago's liquor ordinance has prohibited nudity in clubs with liquor licenses—the fully nude Admiral Theatre has a strict no-alcohol policy; topless Pink Monkey uses BYOB; and at Rick's Cabaret, which serves liquor, dancers must apply obscuring layers of liquid latex to their nipples and lower breasts. In December 2019, the Sun-Times reported that aldermen Matt O'Shea and Michele Smith have insisted that topless dancers in clubs selling liquor is exploitative and leads to human trafficking.

In the same month, however, the city settled a 2016 federal lawsuit brought by artist and entertainer Bea Sullivan-Knoff, who alleged that the liquor ordinance was sexist and transphobic, as it required only the "female breast" to be covered in establishments that sell liquor. Part of the settlement required the city to introduce an amendment striking the ordinance's current gendered language and allowing all adult entertainers to perform topless, even in establishments with liquor licenses. The amendment process to the ordinance is waiting on further approvals from the City Council. The Chicago Department of Law did not comment on the ordinance's current status.

For Aurora, getting rid of the liquid latex nipple coverings at her job is welcomed, mostly because latex irritates her skin. "I have hope," Aurora said. "And I think things will get better. I just think it's going to take a long time. We just need more sex workers in office. That's the solution. We need more sex workers to go out and become politicians."   

Aurora dances at the Empty Bottle for an audience gathered in support of sex workers’ rights. - SAMANTHA PRESSER
  • Aurora dances at the Empty Bottle for an audience gathered in support of sex workers’ rights.
  • Samantha Presser

The interviews for this story took place before the novel coronavirus pandemic. The night at the Empty Bottle now reads like a social-distancing nightmare and the future of clubs—as things reopen, or after another outbreak, and really, until there is a vaccine—is uncertain.

A Houston strip club was permitted to open, as long as it functions as a restaurant without dancers, "even if the entertainers are fully clothed." A Portland club started a "drive-thru" service, where dancers perform under a tent in the parking lot as customers wait for food. And a club in the Chicago suburbs opened illegally, but "no one showed up." Meanwhile, some clubs film private shows with solo dancers in empty VIP rooms and sell the videos. Apps like OnlyFans, where users create their own content for paid subscribers, and other social media virtual strip clubs have been popular choices for those performing sex work. Sex workers are among those filing for unemployment, though some are unsure whether they even qualify for benefits. Aurora's income has almost disappeared, and she fears that she and her partner will have to leave their apartment by August. She mentioned the possibility of moving back in with her parents.

Only a few months ago in January, Aurora shuffled around her kitchen, dressed in a red plaid onesie and fuzzy white slippers. Instead of working at Rick's that night, she had opted to focus on her personal website the Tip Rail. One blog post, titled "How to Be an Ally," discusses common misconceptions about sex workers and what terms industry outsiders shouldn't use (for example, dropping the word "prostitute" from your lexicon). "I know it's about to be 2020, but we still get side-eye, we still deal with some dumb shit, and honestly, we just don't want to be reminded about work outside of work after being up til 5am dealing with that coked out investment banker that wouldn't stop making us look at pictures of all of his yachts," Aurora wrote. "We just want to eat a goddamn omelette and look at dogs on instagram."

Aurora said posts like this directly benefit sex workers not just by addressing stigma, but by creating community. "It helps us to know that there's a cohesion of thought," she explained. "We've all experienced some degree of stigmatization, and that hopefully will empower other people in our industry to know how to identify it when it's happening and what to say."

Aurora charges $297 for an expert mentorship course and $57 for an essential course, but she provides her public content for free. She knows not everyone can afford to pay for services. "There was a point in my career when I did not have a lot," she said. "It's important to help people that really can't help themselves whatsoever."

She said she hadn't eaten enough carbs that day, so she whipped up a single pancake. She told me that on Instagram Live she was going to tease apart the meaning of "self-care" and demystify the word for any of her 154 followers who would be tuning in. "Sometimes, yes, [self-care is] getting a massage, getting some rose petals sprinkled across you. But there's a concept of knowing how to address what parts of your life need the self-care."

Aurora sat at the kitchen counter and propped up her phone. When the stream went live, she explained her ideas with warm directness, even as she struggled to keep a wandering black cat from blocking her screen. Aurora said that no matter how her shift at the club goes, she always comes home and takes care of herself. She slips her tired and bruised legs back into sweatpants or leggings. She drinks magnesium water and wears foam toe separators, sometimes even to bed. When she has more time and more energy, she burns sage and meditates. "I thank the universe for helping me show up as the person that I'm meant to be," she said. "I thank it for the gifts that it gave me. I let go of any negativity, and I breathe in positivity."

Speaking on Instagram Live comes easy for Aurora. She has spent years of her life holding conversations with strangers, men at the bar drinking overpriced beer and half-heartedly watching whatever sports game happened to be on the television. But her real passion is in performance and nurturing other dancers. After ending her 15-minute livestream, Aurora told me about the programs she planned to offer: essential tips and tricks for "baby strippers" (a term for those newest to the industry), and, for more experienced dancers, personalized methods to keep income flowing inside and outside of the club.

"I love this way more than dancing," Aurora said. "I mean, I still love dancing, but this is different. I get to help people. I've helped lots of men. I want to help women."  v

Additional reporting by Logan Cruz

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