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

At 5 p.m. on Wednesday, May 5, three undercover vice squad officers walked into the nearly empty New Century lap-dancing theater and were, they say, all openly and unapologetically solicited for sex almost before their eyes had adjusted to the darkness. On May 18, the identical scenario unfolded at the Market Street Cinema. Nine dancers and three club managers were arrested during the two raids. The dancers were charged with prostitution, the managers with “keeping a house of ill repute.”

It's not clear why, after years of turning a blind eye to long-standing sexual activity in the clubs, the vice squad decided to raid the theaters. The timing was especially odd given that Police Chief Heather Fong and Vice Squad Lt. Joe Dutto had recently met with District Attorney Kamala Harris and agreed to postpone police action at the clubs until issues related to “abuse of the dancers, police misconduct during [past] arrests, and selective enforcement” could be addressed, according to a press release from the DA¹s Office.

The Chronicle's Matier and Ross suggest the vice squad may have dumped the politically delicate prostitution issue into Harris¹ lap to get back at her for not seeking the death sentence for an alleged cop killer in a recent, widely publicized murder case. Vice inspector Rich McNaughton says police wanted to check the prosecutorial resolve of the Newsom-Harris administration around sex-work issues. “Not knowing what the new DA was going to do with these cases, we felt we had to test the waters,” he says. Veteran sex-work activist Carol Leigh thinks the raids were prompted by an article, five months earlier, in the Bay Guardian that described sexual activity in the clubs, including allegations by some dancers that they were subject to “coercion and assault” in the clubs' private booths.

Whatever the police motivation, Harris set all political delicacy aside when she announced, a month after the raids, that she had no intention of prosecuting any of the people who had been arrested. “Prostitution and regulatory violations at the clubs raise complex issues involving worker safety, exploitation of women, equity, and fair notice,” she said in a statement dismissing the arrests. Until she had time to examine these issues more carefully, she said, she was not about to invest her office's time or money on anything as inconsequential as lap dancing. She announced the formation of an “Adult Clubs Working Group,” co-chaired by her office and the office of the city attorney, to examine issues related to the lap-dancing clubs and “develop enforcement options” for the future.

While Harris is not going so far as to publicly support decriminalization of prostitution in San Francisco, she has said for the record that 1) her primary concern about the lap-dancing theaters is the safety of the women who work there, not the sexual nature of their work, and 2) she intends to “prioritize murders, rapes, and narcotics crimes higher than whether people are paying for consensual sex in the theaters' private booths.”

Twenty-five years after nude dancers first came down from the stage to sit with amazed customers at the O'Farrell Theatre, hundreds of lap-dancing clubs comprise a network of entertainment and commerce that is a significant part of the sexual culture of every major American city, and many minor ones as well. The tenor of lap-dancing clubs varies from elegant to sleazy; working conditions run the gamut from pleasant to abominable; income for dancers can be anything from extravagant to minimal. Lap-dance privacy within the clubs goes from nonexistent to near-complete, and the degree of sexual contact slides from none to playful wriggling to surreptitious touching to full sexuality — depending on local laws, law enforcement priorities, club policies, individual dancer preferences, even time of day.

People in other parts of the country laugh at San Franciscans for thinking they're the most evolved sexual citizens on the planet, but San Francisco has a long history of leading the nation in matters of sex, sex work, and sexual openness. Kamala Harris' decision to refocus the concerns of law enforcement — from moral indignation over lap dancing to the protection of lap dancers — has all but decriminalized prostitution that happens in a private booth at a strip club, rather than on the street. The decision reflects a largely unpublicized consensus among politicians, neighborhood groups, strip club owners, dancers, and customers on the value of private sexual entertainment to San Francisco. The decision also has the potential to influence the policies of other cities as they craft their own responses to this latest addition to the American sex-entertainment palette.

Lap dancing came to San Francisco in 1980 when Jim and Artie Mitchell decided to have dancers at their O'Farrell Theatre sit, nude, on the laps of guys in the audience, for tips. The innovation put a whole new face on sexual entertainment in the city. Suddenly, for a $1 tip, guys in the audience could sit with, roll around with, and (to some ill-defined extent) touch the nude bodies of their revered fantasy objects. The “fourth wall” of theater — the imaginary barrier through which an audience sees the action of a play — had been torn down. Fantasy and reality were one.

The Mitchell brothers didn't invent lap dancing. That distinction goes to New York's Melody Theater, which pioneered the idea of strip shows with audience participation, both on- and offstage, during the 1970s. But when the Mitchell brothers brought lap dancing to their extravagant San Francisco sex-show palace, the idea took off as it never had in New York.

It wasn't long before the Market Street Cinema copied the O'Farrell's new form, followed by many of the city's other strip clubs. As is so often the case, the rest of the country was alert to what was happening sexually in San Francisco. Within a decade, lap dancing had established itself from coast to coast as a new, often predominant, form of sexual entertainment. [page]

As substantial tips for lap dances supplanted wages and stage tips as the core of dancers' income, San Francisco club owners realized they could stop paying dancers wages — and proceeded to do just that. “Our dancers work entirely for tips,” announcers proclaimed over club loudspeakers, encouraging the audience to fill the salary gap by being generous with the women who were wriggling on patrons' laps. What else was transpiring between customers and dancers varied widely — from club to club, dancer to dancer, seat location to seat location, and mayoral administration to mayoral administration.

In the early 1990s, the clubs began charging dancers “stage fees” — fees dancers paid the clubs for each shift they worked. At first the fees were minimal — $10 or $15 for an eight-hour shift. There was grumbling about the clubs taking a cut of tips, but over time dancers adjusted to the new policies.

In 1993, however, when some clubs hiked stage fees to $25 per shift, dancer resistance grew strident and organized. One group of women — led by Dawn Passar, a fine art photographer and tirelessly energetic dancer at the Market Street Cinema — formed the Exotic Dancers Alliance and began to file protests with the San Francisco Labor Commission. Dancers, the alliance argued, were employees, not independent contractors as club owners claimed. As employees, they insisted, they were entitled to hourly wages, and to the basic protections of California labor laws — laws that prohibit employers from harassing workers, firing workers without cause, charging workers for the “right to work,” or taking a share of workers' tips.

The Labor Commission ruled in the dancers' favor in late 1995. Clubs were ordered to pay dancers wages, and to stop charging stage fees. Dancer Carla Williams was awarded $52,600 for back wages, stage fees, and penalties.

Dancers in other parts of the country began filing claims with their own labor commissions. Court rulings in Oregon, Alaska, and Texas all affirmed that dancers were indeed employees rather than independent contractors. Dancers who sued for return of stage fees and back wages almost universally won their cases.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, Ellen Vickery and Jennifer Bryce, two ex-dancers at the O'Farrell Theatre, pursued a class-action suit against the theater in the name of more than 500 ex-dancers, eventually winning a monumental $2.85 million judgment.

A big change was in the wind. “There is definitely a trend favoring employee status over contractor status,” admitted attorney Nanci Clarence, who represented the Mitchell brothers in the Vickery suit. “Any club without awareness of the legal landscape is wearing blinders.”

At the beginning of 1996, three factors converged, completely changing the nature of San Francisco lap dancing. First, the Labor Commission ruling forced the Market Street Cinema to begin dealing with dancers as bona fide employees. Second, San Francisco's flamboyant new mayor, Willie Brown, and radical new district attorney, Terence Hallinan, took office, bringing a decidedly more sex-positive and sex-work-positive perspective to City Hall. Finally, neighborhood groups in downtown San Francisco — aware that the city's Task Force on Prostitution was about to issue a report urging the city to “immediately stop enforcing and prosecuting misdemeanor and felony [state prostitution] laws” — undertook a vigorous campaign to protest prostitution on the streets.

It's anyone's guess how important each of these factors was in what happened next, but in January 1996, the owners of the Market Street Cinema redesigned their club, constructing a number of private booths — small rooms with chairs and upholstered platforms, protected from prying eyes by dim lighting and curtains — while raising the fees they collected from dancers from $25 to $120 per shift.

In an interview, Habib Caruba, a Market Street Cinema owner, argued that the new fees were not a share of dancers' tips but the club's share of lap dances sold by dancers on commission. Nevertheless, he noted ominously, dancers whose “commission sales” delivered less than $120 a shift to the club would face review, suspension, and potential loss of their jobs. The new rationale for collecting fees from dancers was eventually ruled just as illegal as stage fees, but by then the Exotic Dancers Alliance had become moribund, dancer protest had receded, and the new arrangement — raised fees, private booths, and all — had become accepted protocol citywide.

By installing private booths, the Market Street Cinema simultaneously increased its take from dancers, penalized dancers (dancers alleged) for their victory at the Labor Commission, provided a way for dancers who were willing to be more sexual with customers to earn enough to pay the inflated fees, and moved a portion of the city's sex work indoors and out of the range of neighborhood complaints.

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. [page]

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.

“The Late Night Coalition believes in civil liberties and the rights of adults to choose their entertainment. If the DA feels the evidence in these cases does not rise to the level of a prosecutable offense, then that activity is supported by the LNC.

“This is, after all, the milieu that has made San Francisco what it is for over 100 years.”

Nancy Banks is the main organizer of a group of dancers alternately known as Success to Retire Into Prosperity (STRIP) and the Strippers Society of San Francisco (SSSF) — a group that claims to be “the real voice of current active dancers in San Francisco,” one of whose main purposes is “to stop Daisy Anarchy.” Banks says her group has more than 100 members from most of the strip and lap-dancing clubs in the city. In addition to providing a forum for dancers to discuss work issues and counter Anarchy politically, Banks says, group meetings have brought speakers to talk to dancers about investment options, real estate, 401(k) retirement plans, group health insurance, and child-care arrangements responsive to the unusual schedule needs and social stigma attached to working as a stripper.

“I've seen lots of beautiful girls come into the industry and not utilize the money they make to have a powerful position in their lives, and so end up feeling defeated. As sex workers you have so many stigmas attached to you that you don't feel like you are capable of doing good things with your money. We want to work with dancers to effectively use what we do every day for our future.”

Banks says that conditions have changed since 1996, that hostility between managers and dancers is “history,” and that most dancers who currently work in clubs with private booths accept the sexual nature of work in those clubs and the stage fees. She feels the fees are legitimate, given the benefits that clubs provide dancers — both those who do sex work and those who do not. [page]

“We're not on the streets,” she says. “The managers run the clubs, make sure we have customers. We're provided with an enclosed area, private booths, a safe work environment, security guards, panic buttons, and managers who are willing to work with us on areas of disagreement.” She says current managers generally support and cooperate with dancers, settle disagreements between customers and dancers in a businesslike way, and are conscious of dancers' economic issues — scheduling limited numbers of dancers during slow daytime work shifts, for example.

Banks denies there is physical danger for dancers in private booths. “It's not like being in a hotel room with doors and locks. We have panic buttons that light up in the manager's office when we push them. One time, I hit the panic button by mistake, and within seconds there were four security guards and a manager at my booth to find out what was wrong. Once guys are in the private rooms, they're in our space, our office. If we're not comfortable with something, we just walk out of the room.”

Since the recent police raids, Banks has met with Kamala Harris and with representatives of the City Attorney's Office, the Police Department, and the Department of Building Inspection. It was a meeting set up by the District Attorney's Office, says DA spokeswoman Debbie Mesloh. Banks says Harris was respectful of dancers' concerns and invited input from dancers on conditions in the clubs.

Harris has also met with Daisy Anarchy, according to Mesloh. A meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women to hear testimony from dancers and others “regarding labor and safety conditions of exotic dancers in San Francisco” is scheduled for Sept. 22.

“One of the top priorities for Kamala when she took office was the exploitation of women,” says Mesloh. “Is she going to prosecute sex between consenting adults in the clubs? No. But if there's exploitation in the clubs, she wants to address it. She also wants to place the issue of prostitution in context, addressing not just the prostitutes, but also johns, pimps, and club owners.”

Two issues that remain unaddressed by both police and the District Attorney's Office are the continued collection of illegal stage fees by virtually all strip and lap-dancing clubs in the city, and the failure of the clubs to pay dancers wages, despite repeated rulings by the San Francisco Labor Commission, San Francisco Superior Court, and the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission requiring such pay.

Mesloh acknowledges the illegality of the current situation, which she says is under review by the district attorney. In the meantime, she says, dancers have the option of bringing civil suits or class-action suits against the clubs.

While dancers who bring suit for back wages and stage fees almost always win their cases, few dancers take the clubs to court. The main reason for this involves the acute social stigma associated with stripping, lap dancing, or any form of sex-related work.

Gennifer Hirano, who holds what she calls a “moderate stripper perspective,” feels that police intervention in lap-dancing clubs is wrong, no matter how much sexual activity is going on. “I was horrified that women were arrested for prostitution at the clubs,” she says. “It always feels like an invasion when institutionalized authority is brought in.”

At 27, Hirano has worked at the Crazy Horse, New Century, and Boys Toys theaters. She recently left the clubs to set up an independent outcall stripping service. Hirano is also a writer, photographer, and filmmaker. Her bitingly funny film, 1-900-ASIANPRINCESS — the story of an outcall stripper who turns the tables on three obnoxious and potentially abusive customers — was a hit at the third San Francisco Sex Worker Film Festival last year.

When she left the strip-club scene, Hirano became one of the few dancers to sue her past employers to retrieve back wages and stage fees. She negotiated a settlement of $18,000 in back fees from the Crazy Horse Theater, and an additional $1,200 settlement for three shifts she worked at Boys Toys. She plans to use her settlement money to attend graduate school. “It's like a tax refund,” she says, “money I paid out that then got refunded to me.”

Hirano, who did not engage in sexual activity when she was working at the clubs, confesses that she initially had negative feelings about dancers who did sex work there. “I didn't want to have anything to do with any woman who was doing more than dance. I didn't understand why you would do that, when you can just sit on a guy's lap, touch his hair, and make good money. I used to think all sex workers were dysfunctional, that the best thing was for everyone to get out of sex work as soon as possible, that the more sex work you did, the more fucked up you were inside. I saw sex work as an addiction. 'Am I always going to be naked? Is this the only way I can make money?' I understand it differently now. Everyone has their own limits and boundaries, and they're all valid.

“I had to address my internalized stigma when I decided to go to the Labor Commission to get back my stage fees. Why would you think, as a stripper, that you could get justice? But the Labor Commission is used to these suits. They don't treat you as anything less than if you were working in a garment factory. They're not judgmental. They don't initiate enforcement, but they're responsive to dancers when they bring in their complaints.

“We have internalized so much social stigma associated with sex work, even as strippers. Once I realized where all this anger and hatred was coming from, I became proud of myself instead of hating myself. Sex work is a wonderful way to survive. It's all about asserting control and power. Women have always known how to use their bodies for survival. [page]

“Learning how to marry a rich man is nothing more than nuclear-family-model sex work.”

The face and form of sexual entertainment and sex work evolve over time, not unlike nonsexual cultural expressions, shaped by changing social and economic conditions, shifting mores, and the creative ingenuity of opportunistic entrepreneurs and the broad range of people who choose work that puts their bodies on the line for sexual arousal or fulfillment.

True to its tradition, San Francisco has for the last 25 years been in the vanguard of the particular sexual form called lap dancing — by introducing lap dancing to national consciousness, by developing physical environments that allowed the blending of lap dancing with sexual interaction between dancers and customers, and, most recently, with a district attorney's bold redirection of official concern about this sex-entertainment hybrid from questions of moral imposition and indignation to more practical matters relating to the health, safety, and working conditions of sex workers.

How this will play out over time — in San Francisco, and in the rest of the country as well — is far from settled. The local political reactions to Harris' decision not to prosecute lap-dancing arrests have yet to emerge.

Vice inspector McNaughton says that police will continue to enforce prostitution laws in lap-dancing venues. Harris' new Adult Clubs Working Group has yet to make its recommendations. A poll of San Franciscans by the David Binder Research Group, commissioned by the Sex Worker Outreach Project last month, showed “overwhelming support” for decriminalization of prostitution in the city, according to project coordinator Robyn Few.

Just as Gavin Newsom's decision to give same-sex marriage the blessing of City Hall catapulted public awareness of that issue to a broad new plateau, so has Kamala Harris' stance regarding arrests for sexual activity in lap-dancing clubs dramatically shifted the framework for public discussion of sex work in San Francisco. Whatever happens next will send legal, cultural, and political shock waves far beyond the boundaries of a small but sexually adventurous city by the bay.

David Steinberg can be reached at

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