Confessions of a former strip club manager

When I tell people that I worked at a strip club, the response is usually predictable and uniformed: “How cool, how awesome, how great it must have been working there, seeing tits and asses all day long.”

They’re anxious to hear about the details of naked women, happily prancing around, men throwing bills at their sexy, gyrating, sweaty and glistening bodies. There is a look of stark confusion on the faces of people when I tell them that my nearly decade-long stay in the adult retail and strip club industry were some of the darkest, saddest moments of my life.

Now, I’m not going to lie. When I first got hired as a sales clerk at a local scuzzy porn shop in the San Fernando Valley, I was excited. I was going to be surrounded by porn, sex toys and all the kinky elements that are associated with adult retail stores. But little by little, just a few months into working there I witnessed the high-level of drug-use amongst the clientele, the demeaning nature in which management and the ownership treated all the workers—many of which were African-American and Latino, some with questionable residency.

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A job, as is now, was hard to come by back then. I had just quit my FedEx job. I was doing poorly at Los Angeles Valley College, so I needed this job, however strange, however wrong. And for whatever reason, I excelled at it. I was promoted to assistant manager and then eventually manager at that location and other stores throughout Los Angeles and even in Oregon. My upward progression eventually landed me the opportunity to manage a strip club in the San Fernando Valley.

The place wasn’t your typical strip club. The front of the club was an actual adult store with toys, oils, lingerie and DVDs. In the dimly-lit back was where the actual club was. There was a marble-and-mirror stage which featured topless and bikini dancers and curtained-off private lap dance areas (also known as VIP Rooms). But in addition to this, there were rooms where dancers would perform full-nude private “peepshows” for customers, separated by one-way mirrors.

Before I started working there, the owners gave me simple advice: treat the women like shit; don’t show empathy or compassion; it’s a weakness and they will eventually take advantage of you. They took me to another nearby strip club where we met with club owners and managers. I was told to listen and take note of the advice and direction from the managers, which only reinforced notions of domination, sexist male hierarchy.

One of my first tasks as a manager was to get rid of most of the dancers and start anew with “better-looking women” and a contract that would favor a higher percentage to the club. All the dancers in all strip clubs, almost without exception, are technically not employees. They sign contracts with the club as independent contractors.

As independent contractors, dancers are paid cash every day, tax-free. At the end of the year, they’re responsible for claiming deductions and paying back-taxes. But as independent contractors, they have no vacation, benefits, bonuses—and little say in anything.

From each lap dance and peepshow, the dancer had to pay a percentage to the club.

Typically, it was anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent. If that wasn’t bad enough, oftentimes during slow days we had more than 10 dancers from the morning or early afternoon till the evening, and only a handful of customers. Competition is a normal characteristic of a strip club, but when there is only four or five customers for hours at a time, dancers are forced to be more bold with their competitiveness. In these scenarios, many women would leave their shift with as little as $20. Sometimes, and I will always remember this, I would be approached by a nearly-naked dancer, eyes spilling over with tears, a strange sad sight, and complain that it wasn’t fair or right, for her to show her body off, rub laps, have her breasts groped—all this, all for $20.

But I remembered what the owners had told me. So I said, “Tough shit. If you don’t like it, you can find work at another club.”

It’s with shame that I type this, but it would be worse to pretty up my role in all this.

Sadly, this isn’t the worst memory I have from working at the club.

I remember hiring a new dancer. She was a very attractive Spanish-speaking-only Latina. I interviewed her. We discussed the contract, the percentage that she would have to pay toward the club each shift. She seemed unbothered about the high-percentage payable to the club. We made small talk, asked me my ethnicity, where I grew up, she talked about her kid, and then she asked me when and where would be the best spot in the club to perform oral sex on the customers.

I asked her to repeat herself. Maybe I heard incorrectly. She repeated herself and made a hand-and-mouth gesture. I felt great pity for this woman, and then I was angry at myself for being at a higher moral ground to exercise pity.

I wish I could say that this was a one-time occurrence, but sadly it was not. There were different moments that showed the dire economic or emotional state of many dancers. Only the minority of the dancers came from affluent backgrounds. Most were struggling single-mothers, predominantly Latinas and other women of color. Some were college students, stripping at night to pay tuition and bills. Some had alcohol and substance abuse problems. Some were caught having sex with the customers—which of course is illegal, but many strip club employees look the other way for the right price.

I understand my position—my privilege—then and now, as a heterosexual, light-skinned Chicano. I don’t pity these women (anymore). I don’t belittle them and claim that they’re one-dimensional victims. No, if a woman wants to become an adult club dancer, she should have that right. I understand this. But my criticism is on the, at-times, drastic conditions that drive some women to do an otherwise undesirable job.

From my limited experience, most of these women didn’t wake up and go, “I can’t wait to be a stripper!” It was for a lack of economic resources and opportunities.

After returning to college, I demoted myself at work in order to be part-time. Nearly immediately, I was fired for incorrectly filling out a shift report. A minor offense, but giving up my bloated managerial salary and benefits was an affront to the owners, and could not go unpunished. Nonetheless, I walked away relieved that I would no longer be part of the exploitative and sexist culture of strip clubs.

I walked away radicalized, seeing first-hand how women can be subjugated, how men are trained to treat them, and how divided we are in the workplace hierarchy. It was my first rudimentary feminist analysis.

I think the only way we can really defend strip clubs is if women had more control in the workplace. Get rid of the managers and owners that are conditioned in thinking that they have to psychologically subjugate women. Get rid of the independent contractor statuses. Put in place a workers cooperative where all profit is shared and distributed without having to factor in paying some greedy, slimy, hairy-chested legalized pimp or pimps (that doesn’t have to take off a single article of clothing for their paycheck).

This kind of strip club, I would support. Sadly, only one exists. The unionized Lusty Lady in San Francisco is part of Service Employees International Union, Local 1021. It prides itself as “the world’s only unionized worker owned peep show co-op,” and despite instances of economic hardships, they’re still around.

Personally, I don’t go to strip clubs anymore. I can’t bare the idea of giving my money to a club—let alone any place—that treats its workers like second-class people. This is my choice. I certainly don’t advocate that all strip clubs be boycotted, but rather call on men out there to think critically about what they’re perpetuating as consumers.

  • Michelangelo Landgrave

    Wanting to improve the livelihood of the people involved in the sex industry is commendable, but I must advice against a Union-run strip club if that is your goal.

    Most of the new competition the sex industry is facing comes not from other strip clubs, but from free porn on the internet. This is important to keep in mind because the power of Unions comes from trying to monopolize the labour of a given sector. Unless a sex worker’s union manages to regulate porn on the internet (good luck!) they won’t be able to stop free internet porn from driving down prices.

    What would help sex workers out more would be by increasing the demand for their services. This would increase their wages and benefits as managers were forced to compete with one another to meet the increased demand.

    Alternatively legalizing prostitution and deregulating the sex industry would also help greatly. Zoning laws in particular have considerable influence on the number of sex shops that can open in given areas. If you could get rid of these restrictions you’d likely see more firms enter the industry and bid up the prices of sex workers.

    • Actually, Internet porn exists regardless of sex club patronization. I don’t see how the two compete with one another. When I was working there the patrons that bought DVDs or rented them were rarely the same that visited the club. Also, the experience of a strip club and watching a porn are almost completely different.

      Speaking of monopolization, and I wanted to touch upon this in the commentary but I declined to since it was already so verbose, there is an allusion of competition within the strip club industry. But in reality most are owned by a handful of individuals or partnerships. The club in question was owned by the same owner of a very well-known national chain. I don’t see it being possible to have true market competitiveness in this industry–or in any, really. It seems to me that the natural progression of market economies is a race to become monopolies.

      Thanks for the insightful comment. It’s refreshing to see non-racist, sexist, mature individuals engaging in adult (no pun intended) dialogue.

      • Michelangelo Landgrave

        It’s actually well documented that porn and sex are partially substitutes for one another. I’m assuming you’re familiar with the conflicts over porn in Japan right now? One of the arguments for legalizing fictional child porn in Japan has been that its reduced sexual abuse of children since would-be abusers end up just enjoying the fictional child porn instead of real children. So that’s why there has been research between the competition porn and the rest of the sex industry experience.

        As long as your here, would you mind sharing what the process is like to open up a strip club? Was there alot of paperwork or permits you needed to fill out? I know in Nevada the reason prostitution is so monopolized is because zoning laws restrict where they can exist. That’s why I brought it up in my initial post. Is the same true for strip clubs in California/Oregon?

  • Jon Soto

    Men don’t think like a Feminist. We go where the staff treat us like kings and we compensate them for that. We liked to be entertained to keep our minds off troubling world. The plight of adult entertainers is not what worries us most. Those of us with children worry about pedophiles in our neighborhoods. Those of us with wives or girlfriends worry about the rapists Liberals give early release to because of crowded prisons. We worry about the thugs in our streets and the lack of police presence and the difficulty of obtaining a gun to defend ourselves. If the strippers want a union, let them have their union. The world needs less problems.

    • Michelangelo Landgrave

      To be fair to liberals, the reason jails are overcrowded is largely because of the War on Drugs that both Republican and Democrat administrations have supported.