"I’ve had conventional jobs. This is as real as it gets": A stripper's crusade to improve dancers' working conditions

Stripper Elle Stanger on Oregon sex workers' fight for safety -- and why they're going to the statehouse themselves

By Jenny Kutner
Published February 6, 2015 3:03PM (EST)
Elle Stanger   (AP)
Elle Stanger (AP)

The ubiquity of strip clubs in Portland, Oregon -- a state with some of the most powerful free speech protections in the country -- means a few things: first, that the city rivals Las Vegas with the sheer opportunity it offers to engage in the sex work economy; second, that there's plenty to be done about the state of strippers' rights. After all, in this world, free speech protections might afford more strip club operators to set up shop and stay in business, but they certainly don't result in safe or sanitary conditions for strippers, for whom stigma and discrimination are intimately connected to the line of work.

New efforts by a coalition of strippers, social workers and professional lobbyists aim to change all that, though, through the unprecedented move of lobbying the state legislature directly. Their ultimate goal is to improve safety standards for Oregon's live entertainers, a task that could turn out to be tougher than it seems in the face of the state's First Amendment protections.

The group, which was organized by the National Association of Social Workers, is fighting for legislation that would, at minimum, require all live entertainment venues -- not just strip clubs -- to display signs indicating performers' rights. The coalition is also attempting to establish an anonymous hotline, staffed by industry veterans, that would allow strippers to call and ask questions, get information or report abuse.

Elle Stanger, a Portland-based stripper who has worked in the industry for half a decade, is a member of the coalition and one of the measure's most outspoken proponents. Her advocacy wasn't borne of her own negative experiences; in the years Stanger has worked at the Lucky Devil Lounge, she's been managed with the utmost professionalism. But, she told me when we spoke by phone on Thursday, it's not like that at every strip club in Portland, or around the country.

"I’m able to be public and speak out about the changes I’d like to see happen because I don’t fear retribution from my bosses, my management, my peers -- because I work in a good environment where I'm treated well, where I don’t feel harassment or the fear of the bouncers and of management," Stanger explained. "But I know that it’s not as good all over town, all over the state, all over the country, as where I work. So I’m not trying to focus on the negative aspects of sex work, adult entertainment, or live entertainment. I just really want to reach out to people who need to be aware of their rights and how good it can be, so I can try to create a better environment for everybody."

In addition to working with the coalition, Stanger has also engaged in her own advocacy work to combat the discrimination many sex workers face. In September, she published a collection of strippers' stories, called "Strange Times: Tales From American Strippers." "I think that a lot people, when they think 'stripper,' they think of one type of person, and again, we exist in all spaces," Stanger said. "We’re very diverse human beings, just like anybody else."

Stanger told Salon about the improvements she and other strippers would like to see in their work environments, the stigma underpinning poor working conditions and her personal efforts to humanize sex workers in the public consciousness. Our interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

How long have you been in sex work?

I’ve been involved in adult modeling and sex work for about ten years. I have two degrees in criminal justice. I formerly wanted to be involved in street-level law enforcement but then actually just fell in love with stripping. I think that the negative stigma that’s associated with sex work is really the most harmful aspect of the trade. If you didn’t have negative connotations that people have about the adult entertainment industry, you wouldn’t have poor treatment of its workers.

One of the things that I find really compelling about your role in this is how you’ve been able to say, “No, I do work in a good place and I can speak out because I don’t have any of these issues.” What specifically are the issues that you don’t encounter but that you think are prevalent in the industry, in Portland or elsewhere?

I’ve been in the [stripping] industry about five or six years. I’m the longest running female columnist for the industry’s magazine Exotic. This has made me privy to a lot of backstage goings ons as far as when we do events. I’ve seen some of buildings are literally falling apart. There’s one club in town that when it rains, the ceiling leaks onto the stage. I’ve seen poles that weren’t permanently affixed. I’ve heard of venues not mopping their stages regularly, or even worse I think is if they are mopping it, they aren’t using the proper cleaning supplies or perhaps using the same mop as in, say, the men’s bathroom. You maybe don’t really think about structural integrity, but it is very important for entertainers. If you have unsafe working conditions, it shouldn’t really surprise you that there isn’t a lot of recourse when entertainers are injured on the job, because we don’t have worker’s comp and many of us don’t have insurance unless it’s through either a loved one, spouse, or if we have another occupation. Some of just started applying for the Affordable Care Act. So if you minimize these risks in the first place, then you won’t have as many injuries. We should have safe working spaces, and again, whether it’s outlets or stages or poles or microphones or speakers, I think that’s the very minimum to ask. We’re trying to enact a bill that would create a set of minimum safety standards that these venues would have to comply to in order to keep operating.

I have a lot of questions about that. I know it has to apply to all live entertainment, but I want to talk about why it’s necessary for strip clubs. I think you and I can both agree that there is a lot of stigma inside and out of the industry, and I’m curious how you think that relates to the reason these safety standards haven’t been enforced in the first place, of operators’ own accord.

Yes, Portland is progressive. It likes to think that it’s very progressive. Hate to break it to you: It’s not. We’re talking about a country, a nation, that is steeped in hundreds of years of puritanical values. So if I were to say I might be stalked by a patron, or I might be robbed by a patron, or they might refuse to assist me, or I could be assaulted on the job, I think it’s very easy for a lot of people who consider themselves superior to tell me, “Well, you know your line of work so you should accept to be treated terribly.” That’s my sneaking suspicion. I would say one reason that it’s very easy to let performance areas go by the way-side is that in Oregon, places where food and drink are prepared are regulated and inspected -- but regulators don’t set foot in my working area because it doesn’t pertain to them. And by the state standards, entertainers are not considered employees, and so OSHA doesn’t necessarily pertain to us.

I know that one of things you want to keep is contractor status, correct?

Currently, we exist in a loophole. It leans more towards the independent contractor side. I don’t have all the answers as to how we can reconcile or find what our true status is. I don’t think we’re there yet. Certainly, the vast majority of strippers that I’ve spoken with and club operators and owners, we pretty much only understand that we don’t want to be considered employees and there are several reasons why. First of all, there are so many venues in town. If you enact minimum wage and force these venues to pay us minimum wage, it’s going to put a lot of them out of business. Economically, I don’t want to put people out of work. The second reason is a lot of people working in entertainment or the adult environment, we do have other hobbies, education, and we have other jobs. But due to discriminatory hiring, if Susie Stripper with her PhD in literature wants to go back to school and continue being a college professor -- and I’ve met women who are college professors and strip in secret -- if she’s subject to a background check and it shows up as entertainer on her work background because she had to list it, since she was considered an employee, she may or may not be hired, whether or not she’s qualified, simply because of discrimination. A lot of entertainers really don’t want to have to be forced to list this work because we know that it could affect our future conventional work choices.

One thing that stands out to me about the route that y’all are taking by lobbying the legislature directly is that legislation can’t quite fix the discrimination you’re describing. The point that you just raised gets to some much deeper cultural issues that aren’t going to be remedied by passing laws. How do you reconcile those things, if there is a way to reconcile them? How do you direct your activism on one front and not the other?

I think I understand what you’re asking. There’s two other bills that we would push. One of them, and we’re still writing these terms, would require a posted and mandatory list of worker’s rights that would be present in every common area, so a dressing room most certainly. This would include stuff like the right to refuse service, which a lot of entertainers don’t really currently know they have. I spoke with a woman who had been stripping about seven or eight years. She was working in a downtown club. She was asked to do a VIP room with a man that she didn’t feel safe with because of the way he was behaving. He pulled his penis out in the room. She left the room. Her manager told her, “You have to go back in there and finish your time.” She said, “I think he’s going to rape me or touch me,” and the manager said, “I don’t care. Get back in there or you’re fired.” She walked off and hasn’t stripped since. She felt unsafe, but she was not given the option to refuse service. I think when you inform a workforce that they do indeed matter, I think that improves overall self-esteem and it improves confidence. I think that ties into removing stigma, because I know that if I speak out in support of what I do, I‘m going to be met with disrespect. However, I know that my peers, who hear me being able to speak out about it -- it empowers them and then they’re able to do the same. I think the formal ways of enforcing structural integrity are just another way of reminding the worker: You are human and you do matter. And I think that could have an effect that could be really positive.

That pre-empts my next question about why your coalition decided that it would be most effective to lobby the legislature directly. Do you think your ability to do that so successfully has anything to do with Oregon’s free speech protections?

The way I see it is I don’t want to go on a lawsuit rampage. I don’t believe that punitive measures are usually the best course of action. The operators provide the space and the workers provide the labor, so instead of trying to push against each other I think we all needed to have a sit down and try to discuss how we can keep making money but do it in the most ethical way.

I don’t know if you’ll have an answer for this, but it’s a question that was posed by Claude DeCorsi in that Associated Press piece and it ends with him saying: “How did it get to this point where entertainers got fed up to the point where they felt we need to enact a law or do some legislation about this?” Do you have an answer to that?

I think that Claude also is a model of excellence in regard to operators in Oregon. I think he’s very professional. I think that because he works in such a professional atmosphere in his chain of clubs, I think he doesn’t see how bad it can be. I think that he hasn’t witnessed the horrors of the darkest side of this industry in the way that many workers who want change have. So I think Claude was limited by his good experiences, but he is certainly a very valuable member of the team; I have communicated with him on this and we have a mutual level of respect.

That raises questions for me about something that you brought up earlier. It’s mostly female strippers and male managers. Do you think there’s a gendered element, or at least a difference in jobs, where these club operators just don’t get what it’s like to be in a vulnerable position, such as that awful story you told earlier about not being able to refuse service?

Certainly. I think that as a woman, you and me could both agree -- and this is the example that I use all the time -- if I walk a mile to the grocery store, I’ll probably be shouted at several times. To feel unsafe, that’s not unusual. If I was a man and I walk a mile to the grocery store, I don’t think our experiences would be the same, man and woman, even they’re wearing the same clothes from the same time of day. I know that a lot of these male managers and male operators want to help and they want their workers to feel safe, but they don’t really know what “safe” means because they’re not the ones who typically made to feel endangered.

This is the part where I have to tell you I have no more questions, but if there is anything that you’d like to touch on, I’m listening.

I’d like to mention that I think the advocacy line we're trying to institute is very important because a lot of entertainers fear going to police if they’re either robbed or assaulted. I’ve heard horror stories and I’ve heard happy stories of how it goes when strippers talk to the police. However, I’ve witnessed with so many dancers before where that was just not even on the options list for them to do, to seek out any kind of help that way. I also think it’s sad and funny when people try to be dismissive of sex workers as if we only occupy a bubble, but what they don’t understand is that a lot of us do this job in secret because of the stigma. Sex workers exist in all capacities and a lot of us do have other jobs and other skills. Even if that’s not the case, we’re still human beings. But the thing that I see the most, is people saying "get a real job." And I want to say, "Honey, I’ve had conventional jobs. This is as real as it gets."

Jenny Kutner

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