Are San Francisco Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris and the state Division of Labor Standards Enforcement the patron saints of strippers? Last year, instead of doing business as usual and prosecuting strippers arrested for sex acts in private booths of strip clubs, Harris took a radical step: She moved to investigate "fairness," "safety" and "exploitation of women" in local strip clubs. Now, the division is going one step further and launching an industrywide investigation of the clubs to make sure employees are treated properly.
These moves are the latest sign that the debate over strippers' rights -- which has been rumbling for several years in San Francisco -- is gaining ground. For city officials and the labor commission to hold club owners responsible for the well-being of strippers reveals how far we've come from 1964, when waitress Carol Doda did her famous topless shimmy on top of a grand piano, making San Francisco's Condor Club the first topless bar in the nation. But the full meaning of Harris' decision lies even further back, in the history of America's love/hate relationship with the striptease.
From the start, Americans have never really been able to decide whether striptease is a legitimate part of show business or merely another branch of the sex industry -- what used to be called "vice." When striptease first appeared in the Jazz Age, many considered it not quite prostitution but the next best thing. Yet there's no question that from its beginnings in burlesque, it was a strange hybrid of Broadway and smut.
During the Depression, Gypsy Rose Lee, "the striptease intellectual," did elaborately staged erotic vaudeville routines in which she would drop the names of, say, Racine or Edith Sitwell. Other strippers impersonated Hollywood stars or did comic turns. Clearly this was more than just live pornography. Audiences were often working class, although Edmund Wilson and e.e. cummings were also aficionados. Many women as well enjoyed strip performances.
Reformers and politicians condemned striptease and tried to squash it by changing zoning laws, taking away theater licenses and generally making life difficult for the performers. Those efforts were fruitless, of course; wherever reformers succeeded, striptease just moved on and popped up somewhere else.
But working conditions were always bad. Strippers first tried to unionize in the 1930s. In an era when labor movements were gaining power, New Deal administrators at first sanctioned these efforts. But ultimately, the strippers' inclusion forced the burlesque union to collapse. The nation wasn't ready for naked women in the AFL-CIO.
Back then, the complaint of the burlesque show impresarios was that the high salaries of the strippers were putting them out of business. It wasn't true, of course. Although star strippers' salaries skyrocketed to hundreds and even thousands of dollars a week, most strippers were paid less than $30 per week. Striptease has come a long way since the 1930s. The tease is gone. Lap dancing and private booths are the burlesque stage du jour. Everyone is a lot more nude than before.
But working conditions remain difficult. Some strippers say they are so poorly paid that they're forced into prostitution to feed their families. These days, again pleading financial hardship, many club owners actually charge strippers "stage fees" -- between $120 and $430 a night -- for the privilege of taking off their clothes. Even in a sluggish economy, this is clearly unjustifiable.
Today, we puritanical Americans still cling to our ambivalence about whether stripping is prostitution or entertainment. And we haven't -- at least until now -- wanted to accept strippers as working women with rights who are trying to make a living.
It's too early to say what will happen in San Francisco. But maybe by bringing the strip clubs' financial practices -- and our own sexual ones -- into the light, our ambivalence about striptease will finally be ended.