Last week, when news broke that the Lusty Lady, North Beach’s famously unionized and worker-owned peep show, would be closing, you’d have been forgiven for not understanding exactly what all the fuss—the national press, the voluminous online chatter—was about. After all, businesses close in San Francisco all the time, even beloved ones; the club had been in financial trouble for awhile; and it’s not like North Beach looks to be facing a dearth of strip clubs anytime soon. But to hear activists tell it, the club had a unique importance for sex workers’ rights in the Bay Area and in, fact, the world—and its closure represents a significant loss for the movement.
“It’s the end of an era for San Francisco sex workers,” said Jolene Parton, who worked at the Lusty for three years starting in 2009 (and whose given name is not Jolene Parton). She’s part of a long lineage of sex workers and activists—including the author and sexologist Carol Queen, the progressive porn pioneer Courtney Trouble, and countless others who’ve kept their histories at the club private but were undoubtedly affected by their time there—who started at the Lusty. “Many activists I know worked at the Lusty; for many of them it really informed their participation in sex work and brought them to sex-work activism,” said Carol Leigh, a longtime San Francisco sex-work activist who in fact is credited with coining the term “sex work.”
San Francisco has long served as a meeting place, jumping-off point, and spiritual center for an entire generation—a new breed, really—of third-wave feminist, activism-oriented, politically progressive, often queer sex workers, the Lusty Lady is, at least in large part, why. “We were so fortunate [for] the courage of the original founders,” Leigh says. “They are heroes in our movement and always will be.” And the movement Leigh’s talking about has wide-ranging impacts on local and national politics and public health. Either directly or indirectly, in part or in full, it’s because of the Lusty Lady and its alumnae that St. James Infirmary, the world’s first occupational health and safety clinic by and for sex workers was founded in SoMa in 1999; why organizations like the Sex Workers Outreach Project and the Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network not only exist but thrive; why the huge (but long ignored) problem of violence against prostitutes has been brought to the fore; why sex workers are increasingly out, proud, and a political force to be reckoned with.
“Sex workers are out of the closet now, and demanding rights,” Roxanne Redmeat, a current employee-owner, told me last week, standing outside the club’s Kearny Street home as customers, curious first-timers, and a not-insignificant number of reporters streamed through its doors. “We’re a movement. We’re loud mouthed troublemakers and that’s not going to stop.”
Being unionized lends professional legitimacy to a line of work that hads long been maligned and belittled, and being worker-owned subverts a lot of long-held ideas about sex work and empowerment. “When you tell people you’re a stripper,” says Parton, “you never know what the reaction is going to be. But when you tell them you work at the Lusty Lady, it’s different. We were in charge, really.” Parton credits the club with teaching her management and interpersonal skills, plus the nuts and bolts of running a small business. “I learned more than at any other job I’ve had. We all kind of mentored each other,” she says. “It was unlike anywhere else I’ve ever worked.”
The club’s closure also means that North Beach has one fewer small business, and San Francisco’s strip industry is that much more homogeneous: When the Lusty closes next month, every strip club in San Francisco will be owned by Déjà Vu Entertainment, a Seattle-based chain whose employees are independent contractors, don’t receive health care, and are, by and large, much more like the blonde-and-buxom stripper stereotype than the Lusty’s band of diverse ages, body types, and aesthetics. “I identify as a feminist,” a customer—and fellow SEIU 1021 member—recently told me. “So I don’t know how I’m going to go somewhere else now.”
“It’s the Wal-Martification of sex work, and it’s really sad,” Parton said. “What I’m worried about is that there won’t be a safe space for that radical queer feminist sex worker. The Lusty was the only place like that in the United States.”