Lap Victory

How a DA's decision to drop prostitution charges against lap dancers will change the sexual culture of S.F. -- and, perhaps, the country

Other clubs followed the Cinema's lead, creating private spaces of varying forms and raising fees charged to dancers to as much as $360 per shift. The private areas at the O'Farrell Theatre had comfortable couches, curtains, and lights to announce which spaces were occupied. The cubicles at Centerfolds contained nothing but a chair and were not curtained at all.

Perhaps not coincidentally, as the booths came into use, the vice squad stopped checking clubs for illegal sexual activity. Perhaps also not coincidentally, there was, according to San Francisco prostitute-rights activists, a noticeable increase in police activity against prostitutes working the streets.

How much of this arrangement was a deal among club owners, city officials, and police? How much of it came about by tacit understanding? How much of it was pure coincidence? Willie Brown's prior legal representation of Market Street Cinema co-owner Sam Conti raises at least some hypothetical eyebrows. Whatever the political mechanism, a new era of sexual entertainment and sexual commerce had been inaugurated for the City and County of San Francisco.

This new system -- while working to the clear benefit of club owners, neighborhood groups, and sex workers interested in doing business inside the clubs -- also had (and still has) its detractors. Dancers who found themselves at clubs with private booths, but who did not want to engage in sex with customers, were angry at having to pay huge new stage fees. Many felt they had to choose between working at clubs without private booths and dropping out of the lap-dancing/stripping scene entirely. Others were angry that their victory in overturning the independent contractor artifice had been used against them.

Since 1996, activist, ex-dancer, and organizer Daisy Anarchy has been the principal voice of these dancers' discontent. For eight years, Anarchy -- mother of an 11-year-old daughter and fiery campaigner for women's and prostitutes' rights -- has vociferously protested both the increased stage fees and the sexual activity that takes place in clubs with private booths. Her position is a delicate one: protesting sexual activity in the clubs while simultaneously supporting prostitution more generally as a legitimate sexual activity worthy of decriminalization.

Anarchy walks this ideological tightrope by focusing on the illegality of the augmented stage fees, which, she says, pressure women into prostitution; on building-code regulations she says are violated by the private booths; and on the danger of physical assault and harassment, which, she claims, exists for women when they are alone with customers in booths. Anarchy says that several dancers have filed police reports alleging coercion and assault in the booths, and DA spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh confirms that some reports of coercion and assault were filed years ago, when Anarchy was still working in the clubs.

But current dancers vigorously deny that the booths are unsafe. And SFPD vice inspector McNaughton says he has no knowledge of any report of rape or assault at the clubs being filed with police in recent years.

Many dancers and other sex workers in San Francisco's vocal and politically organized sex-work community strongly disagree with Anarchy's objections to private booths and to sexual activity in the clubs. When Anarchy went so far as to advocate police intervention to shut down the private booths, she alienated sex workers who felt, nearly unanimously, that police action would only result in harassment and prosecution of dancers without doing anything about the stage fees. Indeed, that is precisely what happened in the recent club raids, which Anarchy herself condemned.

"I've known Daisy for many years, and I know she means well," says sex-work activist Carol Leigh, "but it's upsetting when we have people coming up with repressive strategies to deal with these issues. Instead of 'not in my back yard,' we have strippers saying 'not in my strip club.' Daisy wants to return stripping to the old days, but we can't roll back the clock on what has become part of the evolution of sex work in our culture.

"I'd like to see dancers speak for themselves about what they want in the clubs. Most strippers I talk to do not want to see the private booths closed. The city should enforce existing labor regulations and empower strippers to come up with their own recommendations of how to improve their working conditions."

Terrance Alan is a queer activist, president of San Francisco's Late Night Coalition, and past chairman of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission. He is also the landlord of the Chez Paree strip club on Jones Street. Alan complains that Anarchy's portrayal of lap-dancing clubs as places where women are forced into prostitution is grossly inaccurate. "These women are more like athletes at the top of their game than helpless victims," he says.

Alan feels that a stripper caucus within his Late Night Coalition could provide an effective political voice for dancer concerns. "Strippers are saying they have a legitimate part in the entertainment industry. The question is how the city can design a policy to protect public health and safety in adult entertainment venues without discriminating against that activity. If safety is our primary concern, it's not clear there's even a problem that needs to be fixed. Eliminating private rooms is not the answer. There are enclosed anterooms at Davies Symphony Hall and the Opera House. There are private rooms in restaurants and in convention hotels.

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