“L, the lusty lady isn’t like other strip clubs,” my classmate Bean explained to me. "It’s a really sex positive place to work. We’re unionized, worker owned, and we don’t abide by traditional standards of beauty. All of the dancers here look like real women. Not like those emaciated blonde giraffes you see on television.”
It had been two weeks since the ice cream parlor I worked at closed up shop. Bean certainly was making a good case for going to next week's auditions. She herself was covered in tattoos, sported a bobbed, spiked, Kate Gosselin-esque cut, and oversized non-prescription glasses that completed her naughty librarian look.
Coming of age in San Francisco California, I couldn’t go to a party, protest or gender studies class without running into someone who either danced at, or knew someone who danced at, the famed Lusty Lady Theater. A throwback to an era gone by, the peepshow features dancers, or “Lusties,” trapped in a pink box, twerking for strangers behind plexiglass windows.
In between classes, Bean danced to save up money for gender reassignment surgery.
"I dunno,” I told her. “I’m pretty big for the stage don’t you think?”
At the time I was at my heaviest weight, a size 14 or 16 depending on the day.
“No worries ma’am,” Bean assured me. "The Lusty strives to have women of a wide variety of body types and looks."
I stewed over it for a few more nights before finally deciding to give the open audition a try. As the first stage of the audition process, I sent an email expressing my interest in becoming a dancer. I was instructed that the audition would be full nudity. While makeup wasn’t required, it was certainly encouraged, along with a wig, solid shoes, and as few accessories as possible.
What if my belly poked out too much, I thought? What if my tits are saggy? What if I’m not hot enough?
I thought about these things but I still went through with it anyway. For the audition, we went on one by one to have our moment in the spotlight. Stepping on the stage, my heart was pounding and my legs felt like jello. I did my sexiest two-step to the music but as it turns out, “Rainy Days and Mondays” isn’t the most sexually inspiring song ever. Despite my wobbly two-stepping, I was offered a position at the theater as a dancer.
On one hand, I was excited for the chance to be involved in something that strived to be sex positive, counterculture and empowering. Then again, another side of me found the thought of being made sexually available to anyone with a few dollar bills disempowering.
The Lusties took a lot of pride in the fact that they were worker-owned and went against the grain in their hiring and management decisions. Just like Bean said, there were a wide variety of women on the roster. There were girl next door types alongside blonde bombshells, pierced and tattooed ladies of every flavor, and the occasional big girl, black girl or older lady sprinkled throughout the schedule.
During the day, we got a lot of lunch breakers, men who needed a live, sexually charged place to, ahem, release. A handful of tourists were always a mainstay, along with random packs of men out for fun on the weekends. On more than one occasion a window would pop up and there would be a couple doing things that couples do in the dark, only this time in front of strangers. Women were rare, but occasionally a few did come in.
Despite the feminist practices of the club, the business model was a failing one. One dollar a peep just wasn’t a match for bigger,jazzier clubs that had begun to sprout up. While The Lusty's mission to showcase dancers of a variety of body types and looks is great in theory, I’m not sure it was so great for business.
A few years prior to my time as a dancer, an all-BBW night was scheduled, much to the chagrin of customers. Many regulars reportedly walked out and an email that was sent by a disgruntled customer was circulated through the club and later in the media. As far as I could tell, not much had changed by the time I hit the scene.
Much like in real life, chubby girls were not a main attraction on the lusty lady floor.
Just like in the grocery store co-op I worked at fresh outta high school, the cooperative business model allowed some people to slack and coast along with no consequences. Some of the dancers seemed disinterested. Carrying on full conversations with each other while shaking un-enthusiastically at a window. The facility was in need of an upgrade but apparently not enough money was being generated to make that a reality.
Now that I come to think of it, no one seemed to be making much money at all. Working between 2-4 shifts a week I would make the equivalent of around 14-17 bucks an hour most weeks.Depending on how well the club was doing that week of course, which never seemed to be all that well.
During orientation, one of the head lusties, Mixxy said, “ Dancing at the lusty is a great part-time job for someone looking for a little fun and adventure.”
I certainly wasn’t planning on becoming the next Jenna Jameson, but if we weren’t dancing for the money, then what exactly were we dancing for? I’ve heard that the wage has since gone down to around 11 dollars an hour for the average Lusty.
While I’m sure dancing can be revolutionary and empowering for some women, it just wasn’t in my case. I didn’t find the reality of strangers seeing me naked, judging me and objectifying me, an empowering act.
My mental health was suspect at best during those days which no doubt had a big effect on how I viewed myself and those around me. There were plenty of other girls including Angelica, my lusty lady big sister, who seemed happy and well adjusted in their career as a dancer. Having low self-esteem and a poor self image doesn’t go well with being naked to the world.
By my sixth month dancing, I began to wonder if sex work was really the best career path for me. I was never going to be one of those lifers who traveled to the military bases in Guam to stack money for their future summer homes. I didn’t have the heart to continue to be myself and strip or to change who I was to become a better dancer.
Stripping was nibbling away at my soul and it didn’t seem like I was gaining much at all from being a Lusty. In January of 2009, I moved to New York City to finish my B.A. at Columbia.
Recently the theater has fallen on even harder times. I heard they started an indie a-go-go campaign to help with back taxes in addition to applying for status as a historical site in the city of San Francisco. Good for them.
I don’t see myself ever dancing again. It wasn’t the correct choice for me from the start. While my mental state and self worth have both improved since that time, I don’t have any interest in finding out if sex work is empowering to the woman I am today.