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Sex Workers Try to Unionize in ‘Live Nude Girls Unite!’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Dr. Joyce Wallace, a New York internist well known as an activist in the effort toprovide safe houses and AIDS prevention education for street prostitutes, raised her daughter, Julia Query, to be strong, independent and unashamed of her body. But Wallace could never have anticipated that her little girl would grow up to be a nude peep-show dancer in San Francisco’s North Beach.

Julia and Vicky Funari’s lively and provocative--mainly in the intellectual sense of the word--"Live Nude Girls Unite!” tells us how Julia, a lesbian, struggling writer and stand-up comedian, discovered the seemingly easiest and most lucrative way to make ends meet was to go work at the Lusty Ladies peep show on North Beach.

The hours were flexible, the pay was good and Julia was delighted to find that many of her co-workers were young women like herself--bright, articulate, strong and self-possessed.

The women danced naked in one big mirrored room as men in telephone booth-size cubicles watched them for a quarter each 15 seconds. But some women got a chance to earn more by performing in private booths, but never the African American dancers. Darell, the club’s young manager, matter-of-factly states that surveys have shown that men buying adult videos have a decided preference for busty blonds.

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As time passes, Julia and her co-workers find that they’re being increasingly pressured to do more for less pay: The practice of charging performers a “stage fee” to enable the dancer to go to work, the removal of the one-way mirrors that separate the dancers from the customers and the demand for lap-dancing are all on the increase.

The last straw is the dancers’ discovery that customers are videotaping their performances, with the tapes turning up on the Internet.

What to do but contact the Service Employees International Union to get its support and help in organizing the dancers at the Lusty Ladies?

Thus begins the performers’ long battle to form a union, a struggle that reveals the conflicting opinions feminists have of sex workers. Some maintain that the activity--working conditions aside--exploits them; some performers say they feel empowered; Julia says that for her, the work is simply boring. Oddly enough, management’s attorneys put forth the argument that because nude dancing is “fun” temporary work, the performers are in no need of union protection.

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As the struggle persists, Julia grapples with her inability to tell her mother what she’s doing to pay the bills. She senses that her mother will find out sooner or later but feels certain that her mother won’t be nearly as accepting of how she’s earning a living--she’s also a professional dominatrix, but the film doesn’t go there--as she is of her sexual orientation. How this situation unfolds for mother and daughter proves to be unexpectedly ironic and gives the picture an extra punch.

Any consideration of sex work as a legitimate occupation deserving of the same protections and security as other forms of employment is inevitably controversial and ever the source of often stupefying hypocrisy. “Live Nude Girls Unite!” grapples forthrightly with these issues but is also a warm group portrait of the hearty, scrappy women of the Lusty Ladies and a mother-daughter sketch of Joyce and Julia that is honest and touching.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: Language, strongly adult themes and situations, considerable nudity.

‘Live Nude Girls Unite!’

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A First Run Features release of a Query? production. Directors Julia Query & Vicky Funari. Producers John Montoya & Julia Query. Executive producer Gini Reticker. Cinematographers Julia Query, John Montoya, Sarah Kennedy, Vicky Funari. Editors Vicky Funari, Heidi Rahlman Plumb. Music Allison Hennesy and Kali, with Alex Kort, Blaise Smith and Dale Everingham, Khayree Shaheed.. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

Exclusively at the Nuart through Thursday, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.


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