The last night of The Lusty Lady

#tripping at a co-operative peep show as gentrification beats radicalism in San Fran

Lusty Lady Neon Lady
Lusty Lady Neon Lady Alexander Young

All this month, we're tripping out with daily adventure stories. Iconic journeys, recent travels, sideways looks at out-there places and the sharpest of shots of the world’s underreported zones. Everest to Ibiza. Sahara to Big Sur. Under the sea to higher than God. Check back daily on dazeddigital.com/tripping. Right now, however, we're following our LA friend and union activist Matthew McDermott as he visits a rapidly gentrifying area of San Francisco as a worker-owned peep show holds its last hurrahs:

As the clock struck midnight on September 2, Americans could officially celebrate Labor Day, a barbecue-oriented supplement to the more "radical" May Day. At the same moment, throngs filled San Francisco’s Kearny St. to toast the untimely end of the Lusty Lady Peep Show. The club’s grimy hallways and cramped booths surround a mirrored tank of a stage, where dancers mill about waiting for the automated rise of metal doors, often exposing a masturbating spectator. For years, this Lynchian aquarium has served as an unlikely nexus of vanguard worker organizing tactics and a case study of sex-positive feminism.  But today, as the peep show doors slam shut for the last time, a bastion of San Francisco radicalism succumbs to the city’s skyrocketing rents.

As the end approached, Lusty Lady performers and regulars carried a pink coffin through North Beach

As the end approached, Lusty Lady performers and regulars carried a pink coffin through North Beach. Topless dancers stopped honking motorists.  Makeshift shrines adorned the feet of the club’s iconic neon girls. The funeral procession may have marked the end of the Lusty Lady, but the celebration served as a reminder that the San Francisco neighborhood – thanks in no small part to the Lusty Lady – is as animated as ever.

Originally established in 1976 – just steps from former beat-haunts City Lights Bookstore and Vesuvio’s – the peep show attracted dancers who embodied the neighborhood’s working-class bohemian spirit. In 1996, employees began to grumble. Complaints ranged from the objection to unauthorized taping from behind one-way mirrors, to the use of racially discriminatory hiring practices and the capricious enforcement of workplace policies. A documentary, Live Nude Girls Unite!, documented the dancers’ unionization drive and the grueling negotiations that spawned the Exotic Dancers Union. The Dancers Union formed as a branch of the SEIU (a labor organization better known for representing janitors).

They’re not exploited just because they’re exotic dancers. It has to do with the club and the management. I don’t think [dancers] would be exploited just because their job is selling pussy

The film displays the gravity of exotic dancers undertaking an effort to unionize – an effort that, on some level, seems to support and oppose exploitation. Indeed, one dancer speaks on whether sex work is necessarily exploitative: “People assume, oh well see you guys are being exploited [because] you deserve it... They’re not exploited just because they’re exotic dancers. It has to do with like, the club’s fucked up, the management’s fucked up, they’re not getting their tips. If [appropriate policies and procedures were] in place, then no, I don’t think [dancers] would be exploited just because their job is selling pussy.”

Stage Shot (Courtesy Lusty Lady)
Stage Shot (Courtesy Lusty Lady) Courtesy of Lusty Lady

The 71-1 vote in favor of the union inspired a thousand think pieces and positioned the club as a popular part-time employer for Women’s Studies majors. But the radical import of the dancers’ actions was unable to preserve the club by itself; the original owners went broke in 2003. The dancers, seeking to preserve their haven of worker solidarity, took over operations, and implemented a worker-owned model. Former board member and Lusty Lady Madam Elizabeth Dunn recounts the support received from community allies: "We got a lot of enthusiasm and encouragement from the Co-op Association in the Bay Area, places like Arizmendi Bakery and Rainbow Grocery. Thing is, they’re not selling vaginas, they’re selling cheese and bread. I remember going over to their apartments and being offered cold little vegan snacks."

[Other clubs] parade the girls out like cattle. They expect girls that the girls will do actual fucking, blowjobs and all of that

Indeed, existing organizing models have little to say about transient worker populations balanced precariously on six-inch heels. Efforts to empower dancers typically rely on legal actions aimed at overturning the illusory distinction between employees and independent contractors. Dancers at other clubs, such as the adjacent Hustler club, are forced to pay exorbitant “stage fees” that result in the possibility of a net loss unless a dancer is able to perform multiple private dances. The fees produce a palpable spirit of competition between dancers and even implicit motivation to perform illegal sex acts. Dunn, who was fired from a club in Washington D.C. after she complained about a lack of changing facilities, speaks bluntly on conditions at other clubs: “It’s really depressing...Those clubs are set up expecting a high turnover rate. They parade the girls out like cattle. They expect girls that the girls will do actual fucking, blowjobs and all of that.”

Elizabeth Dunn Alterego
Elizabeth Dunn Alterego Courtesy of Lusty Lady

By contrast, the dancers at the Lusty Lady took literal and figurative ownership of their bodies at work. They appeared in groups and controlled every aspect of the small club. San Francisco’s radical community recognized their efforts; during the Labor Day funeral procession weaving through North Beach, crowds celebrated the convivial spirit of current and former Lusty Lady employees. Meanwhile, inside the club, workers chose the Q Lazzarus tune "Goodbye Horses" to signal the final dance.

Comparisons with normal clubs aside, the co-op model is at least partially responsible for the inaction which led to the club’s demise. Dunn refers to a managerial deadlock between union governance and the co-op ownership, speaking of serious conflict when flagging business forced club-wide pay cuts. The now-quaint peep-show business model  set the club back as North Beach property values continued to rise. Roger Forbes, who owns the building housing the Lusty Lady and operates nine corporate strip clubs in the neighborhood, raised the club’s rent from $5,500 to $16,500 since acquiring the building in 1998. The club brought on former porn actor Scott “Big Red” Farrell as a financial advisor and gave him unilateral power to act without board approval, but it was too little, too late. Forbes attributes the eviction to a predictable lateness on rent but also admits frustration with the co-op model.

In his book Rebel Cities, Urban Studies theorist David Harvey espouses a Marxian criticism of the worker-owned model as being limited in its effect.  He states that such entities “can only survive for a while before they are eventually re-absorbed into the dominant [capitalist] practices.” One of the dancers, Sandy Bottoms, griped that she was making about $11 an hour at the club, low pay for “highly stigmatized work that is not recognized.”

Elizabeth Dunn (Dahlia Decay) In Hallway
Elizabeth Dunn (Dahlia Decay) In Hallway Courtesy of Lusty Lady

For Elizabeth Dunn, changing the face of sex work was more important than take home pay. It’s several days after the raucous closing, and Dunn is still committed to the cause.  She’s just spent five hours cleaning up the now-vacated club, but still takes pride in having taken a radical stance on sexual and economic politics. Referring to her years performing, attending board meetings, hiring new girls and acting as a PR representative for the club, she says, “If I had just shown up there and danced, I would have made more money.”  But money was never the primary driving force. Dunn and others worked to empower women in an industry where profit motive and ingrained sexism obliterates almost any hope for such empowerment. Dunn says, “Sex work is one of the last frontiers of feminism...I feel that the work that I did at the Lusty Lady was revolutionary.”

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