Labor unions are vital. They allow workers to negotiate with management through collective bargaining for better working conditions, pay and benefits without fear of retaliation. Union members sometimes picket for other causes as well, recognizing that one worker’s struggle is another’s, even if their industries do not overlap. It was this moment in Jennifer Worley's excellent book Neon Girls: A Stripper's Education in Protest and Powerthat moved me deeply. Neon Girls is a first-person account of the workers at the Lusty Lady, a peep show establishment in San Francisco. Its sister establishment was in Seattle. Although now defunct, the Lusty Lady was the first (and, as of now, only) unionized sex-based business in the United States. Before closing in 2013, it was also run as a co-op. The moment I’m referring to that deeply moved me was when the Lusty Ladies engaged in a work slow-down and picketed outside the theater. While picketing, they were joined by public service workers, city records employees, mayor’s office employees, clerics, firemen, bus drivers, and nurses, just to name a few.
Neon Girls is a fascinating look at organization, solidarity, sex work, feminism, capitalism, racism, intersectionality, and power. Once the dancers are in control of the Lusty Ladies in the form of a co-op, Worley and her cohort struggle to balance worker’s rights with profitability and performance standards. Capitalism is a dog that must be fed, and the dancers struggle to remain united and resist morphing into a replication of the dynamic they had once hated. Worley had moved on to become a professor of English at this point, but the Lusty Lady closed in 2013 at 3am on September 2nd. It was a Labor Day. For Labor Day this year, one of our Skirt Club contributors, Kelly Rae, spoke to Jennifer Worley about the iconic movement at the Lusty Lady.
Kelly: Jennifer! Wonderful to talk to you. One of the catalysts for the formation of the labor union at the Lusty Lady was a video recording that was taken of you without your consent. You could see, only barely, the little red dot through the one-way glass. Can you explain why you all felt this was such a violation?
Jennifer: It was different for all the different dancers. I felt really threatened. This was before we were all everywhere on the internet and taking images of ourselves, so it just was not a culture in which we were constantly filming ourselves or our friends or anything like that. There wasn't the expectation of “Oh, if you're dancing naked you're just going to be photographed.” That really wasn't part of the deal, and so I felt like it was a violation of my workplace rights. I also worried because, at the time, I was teaching as well. I was in graduate school and I was a teaching assistant so I had, you know, my own section of the class. I really worried someone was going to make a video and it was going to get out there. I was in my 20s and I had students who were only a couple years younger than me and I already felt like my authority was tenuous for those reasons. Other people had different reasons. Another dancer came from a very traditional kind of old world family where she would have been disowned if her family ever found out. And other people actually worked doing explicit photography or even porn films, but for them it was like “I get paid two or three hundred dollars an hour to do this, not $20 an hour,” or whatever they were making at the Lusty Lady. So for those people it was like they were not being paid properly for their labor. So it was different; the reasons that people were upset were different from dancer to dancer.
Kelly: That’s so interesting. When I read it, I got the sense that the violation was different person to person. I even thought about what it would feel like if it happened to me.
Jennifer: I think that even to be videotaped by a lover when you didn't know or say it was okay would be hard and horrifying. So it was similar in the sense that I agreed to do the dancing and this performance and “what happens at the Lusty Lady stays at the Lusty Lady.” But this just violated that, so it was really upsetting. And we identified the reasons the men were able to do it, but the bosses weren't willing to do anything about the one-way glass. It left us feeling vulnerable and also angry. We were told “if you don't like it, go and get another job, it's just not the job for you.” But then we realized, you know, actually it doesn't have to be that way. We can all stand up together. We have power to change it. And that's exactly what we did.
Kelly: I know you led another labor union and were active within biker’s rights, so it sounds like you've always been involved with advocacy. What same lessons can you apply across a range of different issues?
Jennifer: In this case, it was a workplace issue and that was my first experience with workplace organizing. You know, later, I was the president of the faculty union at City College in San Francisco and held various offices and was very involved in organizing there. In education now there's a real push for, I think in the UK they call it “making people precarious,” “precarious” workers, or the precariat. So there's a real push in higher education to make our jobs temporary, part time, and contingent, and that's been going on for several decades now. They want to abolish full-time professorships and tenure and all those things. And so I know in the UK they don't have tenure or job security. There is a push to make everyone an adjunct professor so you don't really know from semester to semester or term to term whether you're going to be employed or not. And really the way to fight back against that has always been to form labor unions in the academy and to fight for the stability of our jobs. And you can do that in your own individual way, but it's so much more powerful as a group.
Kelly: I’d love to know what you think about something. There’s been an update to the way Actors Equity Association works. It’s now an open enrollment, instead of a points-based so-called merit system. Do you have any thoughts on that and how it relates to the Lusty Lady model?
Jennifer: In organizing we call the original a service union model. At the Lusty we were almost the opposite extreme. We were an organizing model, which meant that we didn't see our union as something separate from us. Or we didn't see it as an institution or office or other person outside of our group. We very much saw that we are the union. Me, our co-workers, and that girl over there, and that girl over there, and the janitor, because the support staff was also the union. So, we are the union and we decide what standards we want and collectively decide what we're going to push for. I think that particular organizing model tends to lend itself to a more democratic structure and it tends to be more powerful because it really is based on the solidarity of the union and the workers and not a top-down approach. Which leads to one of the issues that occurred later when we organized a worker co-op, or collective ownership. When we took over the club, there was a replication of the us versus them power structure. And I think we’re socialized to do that and I think if your union has a service model, like I pay my dues and other people do the work of representing me, it tends to create that us versus them dynamic. When I was working actively with the union at City College when I was in the leadership, we always said our union. We always said we. We never said the union. It was just an exercise in making real and remembering that the union is made up of members. That we are the union.
Kelly: With the socialization that you mentioned that created the us versus them mentality, can you talk a little bit more about that? Where do those lessons come from?
Jennifer: It's such a good question and it's one that I've been really thinking about for all these years, since it first happened. And I describe it in Neon Girls. We were a traditional unionized workforce for a few years, and then we eventually bought the club from management and ran it as a co-op. And when that happened, some of the dancers really positioned themselves as the workers and positioned those of us who were really working to make the co-op go as the management or the boss. And, in fact, we were all workers and we were all still dancing on stage and we were all just still us. But there was this real drive to “other” those who were working hard to make the co-op work. We were making decisions and were elected to leadership and we had a board, which was all workers. I think that my best explanation is that on the left, on the political left, we see activism as fighting the power. We see activism as always being in resistance to a power structure, whereas on the right I think people see themselves as aligned with the power structure, somehow. So I think we tend to see activism on the left as resistance to power and we don't have any models, or we have very few models, for activism as holding power. And exercising power. And so once a group of us was making decisions for the theater and our workplace conditions, suddenly we were the man. We didn't have any apparatus to say, “if I want to have a say I need to show up and I need to speak out and be involved in the work of it.” So I guess that's my best analysis.
Kelly: Do you see the problem as the left eating at itself in a way? Does that continue to be an issue and serve as an impediment to real progress?
Jennifer: Yeah, I do. Not always, but I do see that persisting somewhere. Where if someone is in a position where they’re making decisions or in a leadership position there's an impulse for some to resist that. I feel like it's really strong in women's organizing. There was a really strong internal backlash within the second wave feminist movement against the women who galvanized it and who were original organizers. There's a really good book called Daring to be Bad by Alice Echols where she recalls how there was all this infighting and they actually named it. They called it trashing. Like if one woman got too powerful the others would trash her. And they had different analyses, like as women we’re afraid of power and we have to punish other women for having too much power or for being seen in the world as having too much power. And it was also apparent in the '90s in the Riot Grrrl punk movement, but they called it horizontal oppression. And if one person got too many media interviews or got too much attention or were seen as the leader, there was this pushback against her which, again, they named. And it definitely came up at the Lusty Lady with dancers who were resentful and who really needed to have a boss in order to have a feeling of pushing back against the boss.
Kelly: I wonder if you also see some of those parallels in other progressive causes? Where there is a need to be morally pure and they need to envision the right way to pursue a progressive cause? And if that winds up inhibiting them more than it does helping them achieve their cause?
Jennifer: Absolutely. And I definitely experienced a lot of that at the City College union. Some folks, you know, had a very purist mentality and just thrived on how they could never see a victory because every victory is imperfect, particularly when you're talking about negotiating a labor contract. I've been in a lot of contract negotiations in the different unions I've been in and I don't know if I've ever seen a contract where we got everything we wanted. That's what a negotiation is, and I think that there are definitely people who have a very purist mentality and if things are not following that, they see it as a failure. And it’s always a failure unless it's perfect. So that was really... It was almost oppressive sometimes in the faculty union.
Kelly: How do you mediate that? How do you overcome those feelings? If the strength of a union is its solidarity and that solidarity is fractured because people have different goals, what do you do?
Jennifer: It's difficult and you just have to persist. You have to live within it. My experience is that it doesn't go away and you can't correct it. We had some great organizers in our union, so for example we were deciding at one point whether to go on strike and there were a lot of people who were saying we need XYZ in the contract or we're going to strike. And we had these organizers who basically gamified it and said, “Okay, you're the boss and you're the workers and this is how it's going to play out.” And we would really see the cost of going on strike. And going on strike is hard! You don't get paid and you don't know when it's going to end. It's really hard to be on a picket line for even a day. You know, a full day. So, if you really get people to inhabit a position, you know what it would look like if you really made this decision. What would be the consequences if you made that decision? There are ways of mediating that dynamic and it's definitely hard. I think it's part of what burns a lot of people out on the work.
Kelly: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between being principled and having hard nos and yeses as an organizer in a union, and having hard nos and yeses as a constituent?
Jennifer: Definitely as a constituent private citizen I can be way more true to my ideal. I can write a letter to Nancy Pelosi, who is my rep in Congress or whoever it is, or call them or email them and I can say what I think and it can be raw and very inline with my beliefs and my ideals. But when I was the leader of the union, I was speaking for this group of 1500 faculty and I couldn't do that. I saw it as my responsibility to represent the collective vision and what we had decided collectively was what we wanted, so in a sense that represents a schism. There's a responsibility if you're representing people to really represent what the group has decided. And for me that wasn't always consistent with what I individually wanted. I think the way to combat that is to rotate positions, and I think once you're in one of those positions you really feel what it means to represent the best interest of everyone. And not just to do it the way that you would personally do it. Or the way that you would do it to get it done. And I think that's the antidote, is to get people to rotate.
Kelly: Your book does a really wonderful job of describing your evolving sense of power. Do you have a way that you conceptualize power now?
Jennifer: Yeah, I guess I would conceive it in a Foucauldian model and that it's not a thing that you have, it's a position that can be inhabited. And I think that's what I mean about rotating positions of power because it changes where you are within a structure. Whether you're in a position of power or not. So for example, our dancer stage directors, we called them Madams which I never really liked, but the Madams could decide who to hire and they would evaluate the dancers. It was their job to write evaluations, to watch the show and say “hey you're doing great” or “you shouldn't fall asleep on the stage.” Literally there was a girl who started napping on stage and the Madams had to say “hey you can't do that.” They would issue a warning that you couldn’t do XYZ. “You're coming in late and you can't do that again.” And they could fire people. So yes, that's power. I would say that they were in a position of power. And whether or not you're in that position of power defines your relationship to it and defines how you feel about it. But being in that position can really open people's eyes to the difficulty and limits of idealism. And the merits of compromise and the merits of consensus, as unsexy as those ideas might be.
Kelly: I thought your other observations of power when you first started working at the Lusty Lady were interesting. About how the other women were actively being scornful towards the people who were watching them. It made me think of how some political theorists say the best way to undercut power and authority is to show contempt. It was so fun to see that in action. And such an artful way of shifting the power dynamic.
Jennifer: That's so interesting. It was very surprising to me to see the ways when I first started working how contemptuous the women were towards the customers. And I think that’s because I had been socialized, like all of us, into capitalism and my work experiences were “the customer is always right” and then my preconception about the sex industry would be that you have to be nice to these men. You have to be nice to them in order to do the job right. And that just was not true. We were kind of nice, but the way that people were disciplinary with the customers was really surprising to me. And that was really a necessity in a lot of ways. They would just go wild if we didn't keep an eye on them and correct them and enforce boundaries. I think I imagined the dancers would be the nice ones and then there would be security who would enforce the rules, and it just wasn't that way. It was that we were enforcing the rules too. And mostly doing it by denying them access. Visual access. To us. So that was super interesting. And the laughing could also be very effective, but often people were quite stern towards them which was funny to us.
Kelly: Do you think that was part of the men's expectation? That they would be scolded and that that would be an unwritten part of the play? Or no?
Jennifer: I think there was some of that going on, but that would be more in the private booths. In the private pleasures booth, they would sometimes come in and try to get you to do a bit of a BDSM thing without actually asking for it. But I think in most cases it was just male privilege and misogyny. “Oh it's these girls and I can do what I want.” I don't think that in most cases it was them trying to get a sexual charge out of being disciplined or having a woman be mean to them. I think it was much more, for the most part and for the most typical case, because they didn't respect women in general.
Kelly: Is that what led to the breaking point that you refer to in the book? Can I ask what led to that specific moment?
Jennifer: I was closing in on finishing my PhD. I already had two masters degrees and I was getting to an age where I thought I can't keep doing this. I'd been doing it on and off over the course of 10 years. And I felt shame. You know, “I'm still doing this stupid fucking stripping job. What's wrong with me?” So it was really hard. And meanwhile I'm about to defend my dissertation which is in itself a big pressure and it always takes forever to write your dissertation, so I was just feeling a lot of disappointment in myself. And I was ready to leave, in a certain way. And then to have this guy come in and treat me really disrespectfully, it all just compounded to really really break me in that moment. It was brutal.
Kelly: Do you think the decisions you made at the beginning of your time at the Lusty Lady were healthy? Do you think it ultimately harmed you and led to that breaking point?
Jennifer: No, I think they were good decisions that I made and I'm really glad that I had that experience. Working at the Lusty Lady was really powerful in so many ways. So I don't have any regrets about working in the industry. And yes, it was a real question for me. I think that for me the way I approached it was, you know, porn is exploitative to women and basically I'm about to do a lot of porn. And I guess my take was, well, I'm going to see what I think. I'm going to do this and see what I think about it and it's going to be part of my thought process. And where I came to with that, you know within feminist thinking that's like a 40-year-old conversation starting in the late 80s, the sex positive versus the sex negative, and in most of my interviews people try and frame my position as sex positive. And I think I am, but I think that people who are critical of porn are also sex positive, in a sense. I think that it can be really harmful. I think that porn has gotten particularly toxic, in the last 20 years it seems, but I'm not super familiar with the industry anymore. But it does seem that there is a real problem with it, particularly with addiction to it which just seems really toxic in a lot of ways. In terms of my feminism, I think what I came to was yes, the sex industry exploits women, however as does marriage, as does motherhood, as do many institutions that aren't stigmatized in the same way. And so my take is that yes we live in a patriarchal society and it would be odd if the sex industry were somehow unlike every other part of our society exempt from that. So yeah, I am bothered by the certain hypocrisy where I'm going to be critical of things that are socially stigmatized like prostitution and sex work and pornography, but I'm not going to be critical of the things as a feminist that are socially accepted and celebrated like marriage, heterosexuality and motherhood. I think we need to be critical of all of those things and to frame them all as in need of feminist analysis. So I guess that's where I've come out in the end. And I think the other thing in terms of feminism is that particular argument of we want to be sex positive, but that’s not helpful to us as workers. We just needed decent working conditions, and restrictions around video taping and abolishing racist stereotypes, getting healthcare and benefits, etc. You can be destigmatized and have all these people saying, “Oh yeah! Girl power! Sex work!” But that doesn't get us what we want. The actual power is in organizing with your co-workers and standing in solidarity to demand the working conditions that you need.
Kelly: When you did a work slow-down and then a picket, what other industries joined you? It's a really wonderful moment in your book where you are joined by people from other labor unions and I was just curious who they were.
Jennifer: So we organized under SEIU, which is the Service Employees International Union. So SEIU also represents the city workers of San Francisco, so the people who work in all of the city offices, and the city of San Francisco is a huge employer, so locally it's a very powerful union that has a huge membership. So a lot of the workers were from other chapters of SEIU. A lot of them were public service workers, people who worked in the city records office, or people who worked in the mayor's office, clerical workers and so forth. But also firemen came out, bus drivers came out, nurses came out, probably teachers, although I didn't have a lot of conversations with them. People from all walks of life and all different unions came to support us. For sure on the picket line I remember it being mostly women. There were some men who came to the picket line from other unions to support us, and the firemen came with their truck, but the people on the picket line who were with us were mostly women from public service work and a lot of women of color too. And a little bit older than us. You know, we were kids, we were in our 20s, and they were women in their 40s and to me they seemed so grown up, you know? Like... they have real jobs, and I think I felt a little bit surprised. Organizing I felt very alone and it was a scary process. I always thought I was going to get fired every day and so I felt very alone in it. And so it was super powerful for us to get support and care from women with real jobs, you know. They really came out for us and picketed for us and that was super powerful. It felt really good.
Kelly: What do you think that tells us about how we rank different jobs in our minds? And the different classes in America? And the different class of workers? Even your own biases that you didn't realize you had that were so ingrained?
Jennifer: I think for sure we definitely value white collar jobs and I think we devalue blue collar jobs. We devalue work with our bodies and our hands and I would say that sex work is one of those. And I definitely think I had internalized a lot of that and felt this kind of internalized shame. Or at least that other people would think it was shameful. So it was really powerful to have the labor community and movement of the city say, “No, you are just as respected as us and we are going to stand with you.”
Kelly: Looking at other aspects of sex work, I did want to ask you about OnlyFans. If you had any thoughts about their attempted ban of explicit content? Do you think it could be a democratizing form of sex work? In theory, at least?
Jennifer: I think in theory it's actually very isolating. Because you're competing with all these other people on there and so I wouldn't say it's democratizing. I might say populist in the way that it pits workers against each other instead of creating solidarity. And I think it does that in the same way that other strip clubs did by making the dancers work in competition with each other, which I talk about a bunch in Neon Girls. In other clubs you were hustling for tips and competing with all the other women around you and, also, in San Francisco at the time, lap dance clubs treated their workers as independent contractors so that was the kind of legal thing that made it hard to unionize. But there was also a psychological element, which was that we're all being pitted against each other. So why am I going to be in solidarity with this other dancer if I am competing with her? I want to get the money from the customer and I don't want him to give it to her. Whereas at the Lusty, we were wage workers so we didn't have that same direct competition with other dancers. I think, as with stripping, there's a ton of mythology around work like this. People think “I'm just going to go on there and make tons of money and make $20,000 a week,” but that's just not reality. And then also it's the platform that's making the money, not the workers. So that's my take. I'm cynical about it and I definitely don't see it as the new democratic venue. I think that a democratic model would be a version in which the workers, the people who are performing and doing shows or videos, also owned it. And that it was collectively owned by the people who were participating in it and they had ownership and hired the technical people to run the platform, or those people were also part of the ownership. To me that would be a democratic version.
Kelly: The Lusty closed at 3:00am on a Labor Day. I wondered if Labor Day meant anything to you and if there's any work that you're most proud of?
Jennifer: That's such a good question. I think that the decision to close on a Labor Day was deliberate and it was a very poignant day. I'm most proud of having helped organize the Exotic Dancers Union at the Lusty Lady. And of being one of the organizers of the Looking Glass Collective, which was the cooperative at the Lusty Lady. So I'm incredibly proud of those accomplishments and even though the Lusty is closed now I am really glad that it was able to run and even outlast the traditional capitalist model in Seattle. So I'm proud of having done and accomplished that. Also super proud of having worked with AFT 2121 and having negotiated a contract with them a few years ago and having been elected to lead them. So all of those things I'm really proud of.
Kelly: Are you writing anything at the moment?
Jennifer: Yes, I am! I'm writing a book about the decision to remain childfree. It’s a similar memoir where it's not just the story of my decision, but also reflections on that and maybe some historical context about what that means and the role of being child-free in history and literature.
Kelly: Thank you very much.
To purchase Neon Girls: A Stripper's Education in Protest and Power go to Bookshop.org, an independent alternative to Amazon.