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In S.F., Weighing Strippers' Rights

Hundreds object to steep fees clubs charge them; some say private lap dances encourage prostitution. State plans an industry audit.

December 19, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — This city claims a proud history in the realm of tease.

Stripper Carol Doda made her 1964 debut at the country's first topless club atop a baby grand piano. Then the wild and raunchy Mitchell brothers one-upped her -- promoting the heavy-contact lap dancing that has become the national norm in strip clubs.

Here, sex and free speech walk hand-in-hand -- often donning leather chaps or a G-string. So when Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris declined this year to prosecute exotic dancers arrested for soliciting prostitution in the private booths of strip clubs, some saw it as another dose of sexual tolerance, San Francisco-style.

Not so. Behind the district attorney's decision was a long-simmering controversy that has put the city's sensibilities toward sex with its attitudes toward labor rights.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Strip clubs -- In an article in Sunday's California section about strip clubs in San Francisco, the words "on a collision course" were mistakenly deleted from a sentence that referred to the district attorney's decision not to prosecute exotic dancers arrested for soliciting prostitution in the clubs. The sentence should have read: Behind the district attorney's decision was a long-simmering controversy that has put the city's sensibilities toward sex on a collision course with its attitudes toward labor rights.

Now, in a frank public airing typical of this town, city officials are weighing whether conditions in the strip clubs are exploitative -- as some women have alleged for years.

At issue are steep fees that clubs charge strippers -- fees culled from cash that customers hand over for private lap sessions. About 200 strippers here have complained to the state Labor Commission in the last decade.

All but a handful have prevailed, after commissioners and some Superior Court judges determined that clubs improperly classified dancers as independent contractors, failed to pay minimum wage and illegally took dancers' tips.

Some women also contend that the high fees, coupled with the growing prevalence of private booths, have compelled strippers to engage in prostitution -- with tacit urging or direct encouragement by management. They also say the secluded booths provide cover for sexual assaults.

Daisy Anarchy and others who support her union-backed organization -- Sex Workers Organized for Labor, Human and Civil Rights -- say many dancers must prostitute themselves to make the $120 to $430 in fees they relinquish each shift.

"The most vulnerable women end up doing the most for the least amount of money in the most dangerous conditions," she said. Anarchy, whose legal name is Tracey Buel, is a former dancer who has won quiet support from some strippers and the vocal enmity of others.

Her opponents have a different message: Nancy Banks insists it is her refusal to engage in prostitution that keeps her high-end customers coming back -- and paying big tips.

Thanks to private booths, she says, she earns as much as $400,000 a year -- and owns a Bay Area home, three cars and two horses. She likens her $120 fee to the New Century Theater -- one target of the recent raids -- to a barbershop's charge for the freelance use of a chair.

"All this boo-hooing about, 'I only brought home so much.' Well, all I can tell you is that person did not exert themselves," said Banks, who has formed a group to help women manage their earnings -- and counter Anarchy's allegations.

Eliminating the private rooms, Banks said, would smother the financial promise of stripping in San Francisco.

"We would not be able to make money just with lap dancing. That's not what [customers] come for," Banks said. "They come for a one-on-one experience with a beautiful showgirl."

After a long silence on the stripper debate, city officials are taking note. This summer, Harris declined to pursue prostitution solicitation charges against dancers netted in vice raids, saying she wanted to see the broader issues of safety, exploitation and fairness explored.

State labor officials said last week that, at the urging of Harris and the Board of Supervisors, they will audit the financial practices of San Francisco's strip industry.

Also last week, San Francisco Supervisor Bevan Dufty directed the city attorney's office, police and other departments to look into booth safety, as well as whether the city can regulate the fees women are charged to work.

The San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women, meanwhile, has been conducting hearings on the issue for months and plans to explore legislation to better regulate the booths.

"We have to make sure that every woman feels safe, no matter what her occupation," said commission president Andrea Shorter. "There's a whole politic around how we discuss these issues in San Francisco. The history is deep and complex."

In many ways, that history begins with Doda. But it was Jim and Artie Mitchell who took the strip industry to another level. Although they did not invent the close-contact lap dance at their famed Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell Theater, it could be said they institutionalized it.

In response, then-Mayor Dianne Feinstein ordered club raids in the 1980s, prompting foes to put her unlisted home phone number on the marquee. But a bond would eventually be forged between club owners and San Francisco politicians.

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