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Hustlers (preface)

In case you missed it, I recently closed a full production of my magnum opus, my passion project, From the Ruby Lounge. I put six and a half years (plus my life savings) into researching and developing this dramatic workplace comedy set within a fictional Portland strip club. My cast and crew put themselves through two years of pole dance training, beauty treatments, and immersive research into the local strip club industry before we even got to rewriting the script.

Our pole dance coach — later, our co-director — was an eighteen-year veteran of the local strip club industry. One of our actors was formerly a professional dominatrix. We hired a makeup artist and a PA, both of whom were actual current strippers.

We oversold every night. We got spectacular reviews. We raised $3,300 for SWOP Behind Bars.

We were boycotted by two different sex worker advocacy groups.

To be clear, we got the approval of every local sex worker who actually came to see the show. If anyone bought a ticket and came away unhappy, I never heard about it. Even so, we got called out online because it was a production about strippers being produced by a straight white male. (Never mind that both directors, my stage manager, my entire cast, and most of my crew were female.) More to the point, nothing less than a production made entirely of, by, and for local strippers would ever be authentic enough or empowering enough for these select few advocacy groups.

Obviously, I didn’t agree, because I still produced the show. But I still understood where they were coming from. Society has become so inundated with half-truths, misconceptions, and outright lies about sex workers, of course it would be hard for any civilian (read: “a person who is not a sex worker”) to sort fact from fiction. For that matter, it would be so much easier for an audience to take the portrayal seriously if they knew it came from actual strippers.

I could learn all about house fees, the industry rules and laws, all the precautions in place against stalkers and abusers, and everything else that the dancers in my city would ever think to tell me, but it would only ever amount to booksmarts. I could never really know what it’s like to audition for a club, taking off my clothes onstage for the first time. I could never know what it’s like to go onstage sick, or on my period, or even after a really bad day at home, knowing that absolutely everything — inside and out — would be plainly visible to the patrons. I’ve never swung my entire body weight around a pole for several hours straight. I’ve never had to live with the stigmas and stereotypes of this profession.

There are so many highs and lows and conflicting emotions that come with this job, things I could never convey to the audience because I personally have never felt them. Which is why I brought on the best damn cast and crew I ever could’ve dreamed of. That was our job as storytellers, we took it seriously, and we did everything we could to do the subject justice.

So of course I was always going to see Hustlers. Perhaps more importantly, I was going to pay close attention to the film’s reception from my cast and crew, from my connections in the local strip club industry, and from strippers on social media and in the news.

On the one hand, it’s a movie with an extremely diverse cast. We’ve got the Puerto Rican Jennifer Lopez, the Taiwanese Constance Wu, several African Americans, and even the white Julia Stiles. The racial diversity is to be applauded, but the movie is far more notable for putting women front and center. In addition to the majority-female cast, the writer/director is female, and a good chunk of the producers are also female.

It’s a movie about female strippers in which the male voice is pretty much wholly absent, something practically unthinkable in mainstream cinema. Moreover, Cardi B — who famously started out as a stripper prior to her current rapping/acting career — is in the cast. Jacqueline Frances — a prominent stripper/comedian/activist/artist — was on hand as a consultant, she got a cameo appearance in the film, and she’s done multiple interviews with national media outlets about the film.

On the other hand, this is still a movie (based on a true story) about strippers who set out to swindle the greedy Wall Street execs who destroyed our economy and got away with it. Yes, there’s an appealing “Robin Hood” element to the story. Yes, it’s true that strippers can be assertive in selling their services.

(Fun fact: Strippers have to pay house fees before they even get onstage, plus they have to share tip money with the DJs and bartenders and other staff, plus they have to process their own income taxes as independent contractors. All of which means that strippers could bust their asses hustling for tip money all night without breaking even.)

But doesn’t the basic premise reinforce the image of strippers as predators? Does it play into the stereotype of women as seductive swindlers, taking money from gullible and horny men? This is a very important question, because it’s literally a matter of life or death.

To repeat: The stigmas and stereotypes against strippers literally cost lives. I am not even remotely joking.

This is why strippers can’t find work or get a loan, even after leaving the industry. This is why strippers are unable or afraid to tell their friends and loved ones about their job. It’s why strippers are disowned, ostracized, or abused when they do. This is why strippers are stalked, harassed, assaulted, or even killed, and it’s why there’s virtually no hope of legal recourse for those victims.

Sex work is the only industry in the world in which the women make more money than the men. Stripping in particular allows women to work on their terms and on their schedule. So the next time you see a stripper onstage, there’s a good chance that she’s a mother, a student, a caregiver, an employee at another job, or somebody else who badly needs a lot of money and flexible hours like no other job can offer.

Or maybe that same stripper started at her job to feel empowered. Maybe she wants a job that allows her to get onstage, feel sexy, and take advantage of the patriarchy that insists she stay young and beautiful without ever making a buck off of it. I couldn’t possibly list all of the reasons why women take up stripping — they are literally as many and varied as strippers themselves. And every single one of them deserves to have a safe workplace, treated as a fellow human being, just like anyone else.

Which brings me to the malicious absurdity of FOSTA/SESTA.

Ostensibly a law aimed at pedophilia, sex trafficking, and other illegal perversions, the law in fact does absolutely nothing to stop the underground activity of sexual criminals. Instead, the law has been most effective at penalizing strippers and sex workers engaged in legal and harmless business between consenting adults. Thus strippers and sex workers are conflated with sexual criminals, consequently treated as criminals when they did nothing illegal or wrong.

In my experience, this very important distinction is why strippers and sex workers HATE being called “legitimate”. There are no “legitimate” sex workers, there are only sex workers and criminals.

More importantly, this online crackdown has deprived sex workers of many vital communication means. It’s become so much harder for sex workers to warn each other about hazardous patrons and places, once again making their job more dangerous for no reason at all. Moreover, their social media profiles are suppressed or even banned outright, severely limiting their ability to reach patrons, network with others in the industry, establish their brand, sell their product, or say much of anything online.

Actual strippers and sex workers are getting silenced online at an alarming rate, and many prominent social media sites are now hostile to them. Yet these exact same social media sites will autoplay umpteen advertisements 24/7, telling people to go see Jennifer Lopez play a stripper on so many millions of screens nationwide. The fake strippers get Oscar buzz and millions of box office dollars while real strippers get censored as they hustle all day for pocket change.

Regardless of the film’s quality or authenticity, that is a SUPREMELY shitty hypocrisy.

I still haven’t seen the movie and I can’t comment on its quality firsthand — I’ve been waiting to see it with some of my friends in the cast and crew. But if this movie and this blog entry accomplishes nothing else, I hope you’re encouraged to take a closer look at everything you think you know about strippers. These are powerful, intelligent, hard-working, beautiful people who’ve been made by society into a persecuted underclass.

By all means, go see them perform and marvel at the acrobatics on display. Ask them questions about their profession — strippers are not the least bit shy, and they’ll be happy to clear up any misconceptions about their job. But at the very least, remember to be a decent human being and treat them as such. Stick to your state and local laws, and the rules of your specific club.

Lastly, please don’t forget to pay them for their time. Sex work is work, just like any other job that demands a constant cheery attitude in spite of crappy customers, family drama, or whatever else is going on. If receptionists, waiters, and call center representatives all get paid for that, the least you could do is pay strippers for their time and courtesy as well.

I’ll see Hustlers and get a review up soon.

One Comment

  1. Ping from Zola » Movie Curiosities:

    […] I’d like to address the elephant in this particular room. Longtime readers may be aware of my own personal working history in researching and working with strippers, most especially for “From the Ruby Lounge”, […]

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