The Lusty Lady — the renowned San Francisco peep show, famed in sex-positive feminist and lefty circles for being the first strip club to unionize, and later the first strip club to become a worker-owned collective — is closing its doors on Monday, September 2.
Chris Hall (co-founder and co-organizer of the Godless Perverts) has an excellent story up about it on Slixa: both about the history of the theater, and the factors that led to its closing. The Lusty was a special place in a lot of ways: it employed women with a far wider range of body types than any other strip club in the city, it welcomed a wider range of body expressions (piercings, tattoos, weird hair) than any other strip club in the city, and it was known as a breeding ground for sex-positive activists, writers, theorists, artists, filmmakers, performers, and more. For years, you couldn’t take ten steps in the San Francisco sex-positive scene without tripping over a current or former Lusty.
It was a mixed bag — I worked there before it was unionized, and the shit-ass management at the time was the reason I left. But it was a hugely formative experience for me, one I have never regretted. It shaped my understanding of sex work, of body image, of my own sexuality, in ways that continue to resonate. It inspired me to edit my first book: Paying For It: A Guide by Sex Workers for Their Clients. I loved the work itself (most of the time): getting an hourly wage to explore and reinforce my sexuality in a small mirrored room full of naked women was, in many ways, a dream job for me. And I loved the other dancers: it was my introduction to a real sexual sisterhood, and that experience stays with me to this day.
Chris interviewed me for his story, asking me what was special about the Lusty and why it had such a cachet, both among customers and among workers. He was only able to quote me briefly… but his question got me thinking, and theorizing, and speculating.
It’s hard to say what made the Lusty Lady special, or why it was such a magnet for freaky sex-positive feminist activists. By the time I was working there, this vibe was already in place, and it may have been largely self-perpetuating: I heard about the place from other sex-positive feminists, and in turn I told other sex-positive feminists about it. Once a reputation and a vibe like that starts, it’s easy to see how it keeps going. I don’t know how that got started, though.
But I can say what I found appealing about it — other than just the cachet.
One of the things that drew me about the Lusty Lady was the fact that it was sex work I could do without physical customer contact. The peep-show setup — that barrier of glass between the customers and the stage — made a big difference to me. It was a way to dip my foot into the sex work waters, and still have a feeling of physical safety and protection. And the fact that it paid an hourly wage made it very appealing. I do not have the personality to hustle for tips. Huge respect for people who do, but I don’t. I have a hard enough time making small talk when I have my clothes on.
So putting these two together… Maybe the setup at the Lusty — the hourly wage, and being behind glass — made it appealing to women with more nerdy, introverted personalities. Other kinds of sex work require more extroversion: more willingness to have lots of direct human contact, more willingness to hustle and put yourself out there. The Lusty didn’t require as much of that. Maybe that made it more of a magnet for theorists, writers, artists, other introverts.
I may be overthinking this, though. That’s just my experience: I have no idea if it resonates with other Lusties. But I know that for all its faults — and there were many — the place was special. I’m sad to see it go.
(Lusty Lady image by AxelBoldt, from Wikimedia Commons.)