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.
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.
Meanwhile, workers in what was broadly defined as the sex industry were organizing. First came COYOTE -- Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics -- which fought for prostitutes’ rights. By 1976, activist Carol Leigh, a.k.a. Scarlot Harlot, coined the term “sex worker” to address the industry -- both legal tease and sex for sale -- through the lens of fair wages and workplace safety.
By the early 1990s, strippers, too, began to stir. Clubs had classified the women as “independent contractors,” stopped paying wages and begun demanding a “stage fee” to dance. Strippers with the Exotic Dancers Alliance, formed in 1993, successfully brought the first wage complaints before the Labor Commission.
Commissioners and courts have repeatedly determined that the dancers are employees, said commission attorney Miles Locker. Clubs were ordered to pay back wages and repay stage fees, which were deemed illegally taken tips. One 1994 class-action suit against the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theater yielded a $2.85-million settlement.
But victory was hollow.
Dancers who won judgments against Steve Moses and his Chez Paree club, for example, were never paid. Moses is now under a Superior Court injunction prohibiting him from doing any business in California until he posts a $100,000 bond with the labor agency.
“Hell could freeze over before [the women] got a penny from me,” he said. The dancers signed agreements stating they were independent contractors, made good money, then betrayed him, he said.
Other clubs paid their judgments but adapted. Many labeled lap dances a “service” and demanded a preset quota. Locker said fees charged to the women to dance jumped from $25 to as much as $200.
The strippers struck back. In 2000, they won support in the Legislature, which amended the state Labor Code to categorize money handed directly to dancers as “tips” and thus the dancers’ property.
The clubs adjusted again, devising new payment methods so that -- technically -- customers didn’t hand money to dancers.
Strippers at some venues are told to carry hard makeup cases and tell customers to slip the first $20 into a slot. Elsewhere, customers buy lap dance coupons or insert cash into a machine. Dancers keep money earned after their duty to the house is fulfilled.
Locker said those practices are legal as long as women receive minimum wage and are not asked to pay out of pocket to meet quotas. Several pending lawsuits allege such violations.
But whether the system forces women to prostitute themselves is less clear.
Few dispute that prostitution sometimes occurs in booths, but whether management encourages it is fiercely contested.
Joe Carouba, president of BSC Management, which operates 11 of San Francisco’s 15 or so clubs and continues to classify workers as independent contractors, said women who get “rambunctious” are terminated.
One recent BSC employee said she has never performed sex acts or been pressured to do so, has always felt safe and wouldn’t make her quotas without the booths. But in written and verbal testimony, about half a dozen women have told commissioners that they gave up dancing or struggle to survive because they refuse to prostitute. In some cases, the women said, management encouraged it.
“I can’t tell you how many times I have struggled to pay my stage fees ... after a night of hearing, ‘Why should I get a lap dance from you when another girl will give me oral sex for the same price?’ ” one dancer, who calls herself Datura Larsen, told commissioners.
City officials have heard it before. Anarchy and seven other women made statements to police about coerced prostitution and assaults after construction of the booths took off eight years ago. They also met with then-Mayor Willie Brown and then-Dist. Atty. Terence Hallinan.
But nothing happened. Anarchy blames snug ties with the industry. Brown once served as private attorney to a strip club owner and gleefully declared a “Marilyn Chambers Day” when the Mitchell Brothers’ famed porn star returned for a 1999 stage appearance. Hallinan, who lost a reelection bid to Harris last fall, now works for Mitchell Brothers.
Hallinan said he asked police to investigate but the effort fizzled -- after rumored intervention by Brown. Brown said recently that the women’s concerns rang no bells. “They’re having lap dance fantasies,” he chortled.
With Harris in office, however, things have changed.
“No one’s been talking about this for a long time, and that’s part of the problem,” Harris said.
Her office is pressing to make booths safer through stricter enforcement of codes that require the interiors to be visible.
As for pimping and assault charges, Harris said, she would consider them if women came forward with specific allegations. But the underlying question is vexing: Can the clubs be held accountable for exploiting women through economic coercion if that holds true only for some women?
Meanwhile, Anarchy battles another front of resistance, as longtime sex worker activists like Leigh argue that the dancers’ concerns about exploitative working conditions can be addressed through labor law alone. The involvement of police and prosecutors, they say, can only bring trouble for women who are selling sex.
“Many other communities may not have an open forum where people can feel safe talking about these kinds of issues,” said Shorter, the president of the Commission on the Status of Women, which plans to continue its review of the issue next year. “Does that mean that all the issues are resolved here around safety or sex workers’ rights? No.”