One of the most controversial clashes in feminism today surrounds sex work. Within the film Live Nude Girls Unite! we are introduced to the strippers of the Lusty Lady Theatre in San Francisco and see how these workers unionized what was to become the first and only unionized Strip Club in the United States. One major plot twist in this documentary, was that the film’s director (Julia Query) was the daughter of Dr. Joyce Wallace – a feminist and advocate for prostitutes’ rights. Although Query was comfortable with her position as a stripper both in her personal life and in her life as a comedian, she was hesitant to reveal her line of work to her mother.
This got me to thinking about sex work, the sex industry, and the much heated debate over whether or not “the oldest profession” or any work that is associated with it, is controversial even through a feminist lens. Where Live Nude Girls Unite! succeeds in addressing this controversy, is in addressing poor management and poor working conditionings.
Under poor management, these women, like any other group of non-union employees are subjected to unfair wages, lack of sick days, lack of medical care and a number of other grievances concerning privacy, race, and gender. In her work Feminism and Antiracism, International Struggles for Justice author (and exotic dancer) Sibhan Brooks illuminates the struggles she faced as a Black stripper during her time at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco. Brooks states that acts of racism were impending upon her livelihood and (literally) her self-worth.
In an interview with Indiewire, Query says, “Sex work is not sex. It’s work.” She chose to omit the story of how she came to work in the sex industry to avoid essentialist stigma. “Women who work in the industry can sometimes feel different from women who don’t. You get the feeling that the reason I do this is because I’m ‘this kind of woman’ and ‘I’m different from other woman’ as opposed to feeling like I do this as a job choice that was made for various reasons.”
It seems that sex work is often confused with sexual exploitation. Often times, as authors like Catharine MacKinnon note, women are subjected to inequality, abuse, and exploitation through sex work. Of course this happens when women are forced into the industry against their will or are coerced. Sex work needs to be a choice, and a positive choice at that, made by no one other than the women seeking employment. The lack of unionization in the sex work industry only furthers the social stigma surrounding the field.
As Query states, she can differentiate between sex and work. The women of the Lusty Lady Theatre took action towards fighting back against exploitation (2-way mirrors in peep show booths, inequality, racism, unfair wages) to claim agency over their bodies and their work. Perhaps we need to investigate the working conditions for women in the sex industry and advocate for equality and fair treatment within the work place. Because whether or not you’re stripping or waiting tables, any job where a woman relies on tips to pay her rent subjects her to exploitation and harassment.