The Strippers Fighting for Justice

In the wake of a nationwide movement for Black lives, strip clubs are the next industry in need of a reckoning

Illustration: Ashley Floréal

BammRose was sitting in her backyard on a June afternoon, when it had only been a week and a half since George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police, sparking protests across the country in defense of Black lives.

A pole dance instructor and stripper, Bamm, 24, felt the time had come to hold her own industry accountable for the racism perpetuated against Black women, who perform at strip clubs for a living. She texted the owner of Sin City, a strip club in a South Philadelphia neighborhood, where she taught pole dancing classes: “He’s profiting off of Black and Hispanic women. I asked him, how do you intend to give back to us?” Bamm alleges her employer didn’t have her number saved. After telling him who she was, he didn’t immediately respond to her question. Sin City did not respond to requests for comment on the club’s treatment of its Black strippers.

That same day, Bamm announced that she would no longer work for Sin City via Instagram.

The post attracted over 500 likes and comments from strippers and allies supporting her decision, and became a call to action.

Bamm decided to switch to activism full time, and is now the CEO of Stilettos Inc., a grassroots organization led by sex workers that provides support to Black dancers, and has called for a strippers’ strike in Philadelphia. The Stilettos, as they call themselves, are not alone in mobilizing for the workplace rights of Black dancers in the stripping industry.

In Portland, more than a hundred strippers went on strike in June against what they claimed were racist hiring practices, and organized rallies pressuring strip clubs to hold racial sensitivity trainings, hire Black dancers, and give them profitable shifts. The hashtag #NoJusticeNoBooty trended widely on social media in late June.

The movement started when strip clubs participated in #BlackOutTuesday, participating in “performative activism” that frustrated Cat Hollis, a Black dancer and founder of Haymarket Pole Collective. Hollis alleges that the clubs claiming to support Black Lives Matter rarely hired or centered Black strippers, and her anger was shared by many other Black dancers in the city, and even gained the sympathy of non-Black strippers as well.

“Just in a moment of pure rage, [I told them], you guys should just strike,” Hollis, 30, said.

At the root of the strippers’ strike is a demand for better, safer working conditions, fair wages, and protection from sexual assault. Even though strippers are the main entertainers at strip clubs, most of them are independent contractors, who pay stage fees to perform. As a result, they are not guaranteed safety, fixed wages, health care, or recourse for the sexual harassment, stalking, and rape they experience on the job. And for Black women, the risks of sex work are magnified by racism.

“We have to pay to work here, and customers are coming in because they want to grope women,” Bamm said. “And if a girl defends herself, she’s out. She’s fired. Especially if she’s a Black girl.”

Misogynoir in the stripping industry

While stripping evolved from burlesque, a racy dance that emerged in the Victorian era, it has always found its roots in the creative labor of women of color. Bellydancing, a fixture at an 1893 Chicago exposition that displayed a racist human zoo, paved the way for exotic dance and the foundation of the modern strip club industry. Stripping flourished in the enclaves where people of color resided, such as the French Quarter in New Orleans or Harlem.

Black women struggle to find work at gentlemen’s clubs, and are pushed to work at urban clubs, where customers tip at a lower price and working conditions are often unsafe.

Today, strip clubs are divided between upscale gentlemen’s clubs, which are colloquially referred to as “White clubs” attracting a moneyed clientele, and “urban clubs” located in low-income, majority Black and Latinx neighborhoods. Black women struggle to find work at gentlemen’s clubs, and are pushed to work at urban clubs, where customers tip at a lower price and working conditions are often unsafe.

“When you look at housing markets and educational systems, strip clubs mirror that in terms of spatial racism,” said Siobhan Brooks, a professor at California State University, Fullerton, and the author of Unequal Desires: Racialized Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. “Most Black dancers work in clubs that are considered ‘easy access,’ where people can come in and touch dancers, or not pay them what they ask.”

Philadelphia has a population of 44% Black residents, and ranks as the poorest big city in the United States. This same citywide segregation is reflected in the strip clubs, where gentlemen’s clubs like Delilah’s and Cheerleaders market White dancers to middle-class clients, and clubs like Vanity Grand, Sin City, Oasis, and others cater to Black and Brown customers in areas distant from the city’s center. At urban clubs, light-skinned dancers are favored at the expense of darker-skinned women, and safety can also be an issue. In 2019, a stripper sued a South Philadelphia strip club for $1 million after losing eight teeth in a brawl.

In Portland, people of color make up 23% of the city’s population, but aren’t represented on the stage in strip clubs, which Hollis alleges are dominated by White dancers. Portland has 43 strip clubs, the most per capita of any city in the U.S., but few cater to Black people. In 2015, Exotica International Club for Men, one of the few clubs that hired Black dancers, shut its doors after a shooting in its parking lot, and club owner Donna Thames unsuccessfully sued the city for racial discrimination.

In New York, the pervasiveness of gentrification has led to many strip clubs that employed Black dancers being shut down, and the rise of the “startender” or “bottle girl.” Startenders are Instagram-famous influencers, who are light-skinned or White, and embody the Insta baddie aesthetic. Bottle girls work the bar and don’t dance, but that doesn’t prevent them from allegedly stealing strippers’ tips.

In 2017, Gizelle Marie launched the New York City strippers’ strike, which outed the managers of strip clubs publicly denounced for allowing bottle girls to take strippers’ wages. The strike drew 40 dancers in New York to its ranks, and was supported by rapper Cardi B, who had started stripping at 19 to escape an abusive boyfriend and go to college.

“Our stage and platform, that’s where we perform,” Gizelle, 32, said. “The clubs allowing the bartenders to work against us became a huge issue for me, because I should be able to feel comfortable in my environment. And it was more of an issue if you were a woman of color, because they looked at it like you could be easily replaced.”

The stakes are particularly high for dark-skinned dancers, who find it difficult to even be considered for an audition. “A lot of clubs downtown don’t accept darker-skinned girls, or they have a limit, which is one or two girls, so you can’t call them racist,” Diamond Simmons, a 20-year-old Bronx native and stripper, said.

And when Black women are hired, they aren’t allowed in VIP rooms, and are given slow, weekday shifts.

“There was one club, where they hired me specifically for day shifts, and I noticed that the only girls coming in for day shifts were Black women,” DeCarri Robinson, 26, the leader of the Chicago chapter of Haymarket Pole Collective, said. (Rick’s Cabaret, the club Robinson worked at, did not respond to comment.)

Many dancers told ZORA that they have to wear weaves to cover their natural hair. “The woman who took me to my first club and taught me what I needed to know, told me, ‘You need to buy a wig for your audition,’” Hollis recalled. “It’s expensive to appeal to Western beauty standards when you’re a person of color. You’re paying more to look how you look, and then you only come in on Tuesday mornings, and never get [to work on] a Friday.”

And for Black exotic dancers, this means lacking access to gentlemen’s clubs because of their race. “I want to go into these clubs and take these old guys’ money,” Bamm said. “But I can’t because I have braids and melanin in my skin.”

Fighting for justice in the workplace

On July 25, strippers in Portland marched in demand of civil rights for BIPOC sex workers, and strippers in Philadelphia gathered at Malcolm X Park to pole dance and educate the neighborhood about their fight for justice.

In addition to direct action tactics, dancers are building connections with other sex workers to secure workplace protections. In Chicago, strike organizer Robinson is conducting a survey for sex workers on the violence they have faced in the industry.

“Eventually, if we identify sex workers as a protected class, this will lead to the decriminalization of sex work,” she explained.

“They don’t have a lot of the federal and state protections. And we’ve challenged that, arguing that it’s a misclassification. Courts have uniformly agreed they’re employees.”

In New York, most strippers returned to work a couple weeks after the strike, but continued to publicly criticize the racist culture of clubs. A few even brought lawsuits against clubs for violating labor and human rights law in the workplace, which are still ongoing today.

“The hardest thing for many dancers is that the clubs claim they are independent contractors and not employees,” Susan Crumiller, an attorney who represents various New York strippers, said. “They don’t have a lot of the federal and state protections. And we’ve challenged that, arguing that it’s a misclassification. Courts have uniformly agreed they’re employees.”

As many clubs remain closed because of the pandemic, dancers have started to make money in creative ways, and are sharing resources with one another. The Stilettos organize webinars educating dancers on their workplace rights, and do raffles and cash giveaways for strippers in need.

“We’re making sure dancers and sex workers have resources and information on how to become independent contractors, protect themselves, and have access to food and money if they need it,” Tabz, 27, a sex educator and webcam model, who sits on the board of Stilettos, said.

The ultimate goal of the strippers’ strike is to channel power back to the workers, who have been silenced for so long. After all, without strippers, there would be no strip clubs, and Black dancers are on the front lines of this growing movement.

“These clubs have to realize that if you don’t take care of your people, we won’t take care of you,” Bamm said. “They don’t need to be making money off of us; they need to make money with us.”

Iman Sultan is a Pakistani-American journalist covering culture and politics. Her work explores identity and how communities shape politics.