Much of what makes San Francisco's Lusty Lady legendary is under attack. The unionized peep show, which is owned and operated by its workers, is often held up as a successful paradigm for empowered sex work: Dancers perform behind glass to prevent unwanted advances from customers; the standard of beauty is more girl next door than blow-up doll; and, most important of all, the workers call the shots. But a recent flap over an evening of entertainment from "Big Beautiful Women" ("BBW") has threatened much of what makes the strip club so unique.
The Lusty Lady has a rep for displaying a diverse range of body types onstage. But on the "BBW" night a few customers walked out at the sight of a stage commanded by full-figured ladies, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Davide Cerri, a male cashier at the club, sent an e-mail to the Lusty Lady's board of directors complaining that they were employing "unwatchable girls." "People comes [sic] asking for refunds, because they do not want to see girls that they would not want to have sex with even if they were completely drunk," he wrote, according to the San Francisco Bay Guardian. "This is reality, not question of options. We sell fantasies, not nightmares."
Miffed performer and board member Emma Peep then posted the e-mail in the dancers' dressing room, where everyone, including the "unwatchable girls," could see it. Peep was fired "for creating a disruptive, hostile work environment." Peep contends that the offending e-mail was the real hostile disruption, because it encouraged other workers to call for "the termination of women based on their size." When the local union threatened a lawsuit over Peep's firing, the board agreed to mediation.
Certain male Lusty Lady workers had already been agitating to deunionize the club, and the Bay Guardian reports that the recent controversy has only fanned the anti-union flames. (Some claim the club doesn't even have a current union contract on file.) Staffer Brian Falls argues that the union, which formed several years before the Lusty Lady became a co-op, no longer has a valid reason for being. "Before the formation of the co-op there was a common enemy, the management, who treated the dancers and the support staff badly. But once we became a co-op, there was no reason for the union to be there," Falls told the Guardian. It's a reasonable argument. Unfortunately, it seems the conflict is now being set up as male staffers versus female dancers.
The Lusty Lady is a bravely defiant operation in an industry especially prone to exploitation; it's "sex-positive" feminists' dream come true. Still, this sandstorm raises questions about just how far empowerment can be pushed in the sex industry. Battling appearance-based discrimination in a business driven by looks seems a Sisyphean task. As an anonymous board member told the Guardian, "It's great what we at the Lusty think the standards of beauty are, but the reality is that we're in the adult entertainment business."