Ethics of Lust: On the Legality of Stripping and Burlesque

Since last week’s Ethics of Lust focused on scantily clad – and fully clothed – people walking around in public, I thought this week’s post could focus on scantily clad people inside, or more specifically in strip clubs and burlesque halls.


It’s hard to talk about modern day strip clubs without at least a minor throwback to the days of yore, when Salome did the Dance of the Seven Veils for Kind Herod, Mata Hari did her infamous provocative dance at the Moulin Rouge that took her down to only a jeweled bra and headdress and Gypsy Rose Lee made her way past vaudeville and into stardom with her quick and quirky routines that often bared very little of her skin.

In 1930’s London, the Windmill Theatre circumvented the law that nude women could not move by providing tableaux vivants, or “live pictures,” in which the naked women would pose theatrically and not move during the duration of the act. Other places, including the Moulin Rouge and Folies Begère in Paris, adopted similar tactics to avoid the authorities, setting an early tradition of stretching the law in nude performance halls.


The “stripper” that is prevalent in today’s culture is often attributed to Carol Doda, the first known topless go-go dancer, and the lap dances that are now standard in strip clubs are attributed to Doda’s San Francisco neighbors the infamous Mitchell Brothers and their O’Farrell Street Theatre. The popular pole dance was created in the late 20th Century in Canada and spread through the international Spearmint Rhino clubs until it became not only a staple in most clubs but also an art form practiced in circuses, performance halls and even gyms worldwide.


In 2005, the size of the global strip club industry was estimated at $75 billion and strip clubs accounted for 19% of the adult industry’s profits. With that much money at stake, it’s no surprise that legislation banning strip clubs, erotic halls and burlesque bars is often met with intense protest. Still, many laws exist limiting what can and can’t happen in a strip club and places like Iceland have outlawed stripping all together.


To help protect the performers, most governments regulate alcohol intake and the distances between the clientele and the dancers, especially when they’re nude, and all (that I’ve found at least) outlaw drugs in nude establishments, even more liberal places like Amsterdam. Many countries, including Iceland, Canada and Japan, have recently started limiting special visas they give to “entertainers” having – not so shockingly – found a connection between these special visas and human trafficking. Yet despite government attempts to mitigate harm perpetrated against performers, crime, especially organized crime, still runs rampant through clubs and places like Iceland, Amsterdam and South Africa are in the process of shutting down multiple establishments in the hopes of cutting down on crime.


However, a 2008 report by Australia’s NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showed that more crime happens in “places of worship” than in places for “adult entertainment.” Some speculate that this is only because crimes in adult entertainment establishments are less likely to be reported, but I’d argue that – at least in regards to sexual assault – a nude performer is just as likely to report harassment by a client, coworker or boss as say an alter boy is to report harassment by a priest. That said, the fact still remains that, especially in less regulated areas, sexual assault or coercion happens quite frequently in nude and partially nude establishments – including more soft-core places like Hooters and male establishments as well.


The U.S. Supreme Court case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre, Inc. gave jurisdictions the right to outlaw full or partial nudity, and Erie v. Pap’s A.M. confirmed this ruling stating that while limiting stripping is limiting free speech, outlawing stripping is allowed to help mitigate secondary crime. Many jurisdictions, including Houston and Detroit, outlaw showing women’s nipples (although male nipples are fine) and places like California only allow full nudity if alcohol isn’t being consumed. Even in a place like Portland, OR, where the famously lax strip club regulations have led to the most strip clubs per capita than any other town, performers outside of specified establishments must still wear pasties on top and cover their genitalia on bottom when dancing. Luckily for all of us burlesque performers in Portland, there are plenty of places to purchase pasties and merkins nearby and online.

Via Dirty Martini and the New York Burlesque Festival

While it may be legal to ban and limit nude performances, many stripper and sex worker’s rights advocates believe lawmakers should focus less on their issues with nudity and more on labor issues such as legitimate wages, sexual harassment in the workplace and health benefits. Places like the Lust Lady, a famous unionized nude bar in San Francisco and one of my favorite nude establishments, have lobbied for strippers rights and have made a name for themselves by thinking outside the normal strip-club box, including featuring dancers that aren’t traditionally seen in strip clubs like plus-size women, women of color and butch women.

Via Lusty Lady SF

The Neo-burlesque movement has also done a lot to encourage open-mindedness about nudity and the strip-tease. Conventions like BurlyCon and Tease-O-Rama encourage people of all shapes, sizes, colors, sexual orientations and gender identities to get up on stage and feel sexy, often incorporating humor into their routines. The Burlesque Hall of Fame, located in Las Vegas, immortalizes these routines and recognizes the intricate art of the strip-tease while respecting and protecting the rights of the performers.

Via Harlem Shake Burlesque's Myspace Page

Possibly because of the stripper’s rights and neo-burlesque movements, laws in the United States and elsewhere regarding stripping and the strip tease are becoming more liberal, allowing for a broader standard of morality and decency than was seen before. However, self-regulation is far from being achieved and, if only for the protection of performers, it will be a long time until we see laws controlling activities of nude performers abolished.

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Queerie Bradshaw

Lauren Marie Fleming is Queerie Bradshaw. She loves shoes, social justice and sex. Born a farmer's daughter, she believes everyone deserves a good roll in the hay, and feels empowered by her feminine sexuality. She frequently travels both domestically and abroad, exploring women and wine from all regions. A recent law school graduate, she fights for international rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of good porn. When not studying sex and the law, Lauren Marie Fleming is a freelance writer, speaker and consultant, owner of Creativity Squared, LLC, a digital publishing and consulting company and is Editor-in-Chief of, a site for Frisky Feminists and Politiqueers.

Queerie has written 9 articles for us.


    • Well I’m sorry to make your brain work on a Sunday, but I’m very glad to hear you enjoy it.

  1. I am so thrilled that burlesque is making a comeback. As a girl that loves girls, I have been to many strip clubs and around here they are trashy and demoralizing. Women degrading themselves, begging with their bodies to make a dollar. Working for places that have a no stretch mark rule. Until I went to my first burlesque show. The women where real. AND they where having fun. Because they wanted to, not because they where paying the rent. I’ll never forget when some uninformed audience member threw a dollar on stage. The performer ripped it in half and threw it away. I love to see women enjoying feeling sexy. I love the humor. And I also love that girls who are a size zero and girls who are a size 26 get the same respect on stage and support each other offstage. It isn’t about looking like barbie. Bravo pretty ladies.

    • Agreed. I remember seeing Alotta Boutté, the wonderfully sexy woman featured with a white feather fan in the first image of this post, dance in San Francisco and thinking, “that is one of the sexiest women I have ever seen in my whole entire life.” But there’s no way a “regular” strip club would have her, unless they were fetishizing her size or color. She inspired me to try burlesque and when we eventually met, I told her how much she changed my world. I’m honored to call her a close friend now and will never forget what she and burlesque did for my self esteem. I know that my story is not an unusual one either. Many many women see burlesque, which represents and welcomes women of all shapes, sizes, colors and orientations, and are inspired to be love themselves as well.

      • I’ve definitely seen quite a few strippers of color at various establishments here in Portland, and I’ve seen women who while not maybe plus-size by normal standards, were definitely plus-size by typical strip club standards (usually this happens at Mary’s Club). Anyway, good article! Thanks for this series. :)

        • I definitely should have stipulated that this wasn’t always the case, but instead the norm at more “mainstream” style clubs. Here in Portland there are many clubs featuring all kinds of dancers, some of which break those mainstream norms. Mary’s is definitely a good example of that.

      • I’m in Portland working as a stripper,whose skin color is similar to the above dancer ,and I have never felt fetishized at any of the strip clubs I have worked at.

        • I’m really glad to hear that. Many of my friends that work as strippers have felt the opposite and often get billed as “exotic” for their skin tone. That said, they’re not in Portland so it could definitely depend on the location. Also, yay Portlanders representing today!

  2. Siobhan Brooks, a sociologist who worked her way through college at the Lust Lady and fought for unionization, was a visiting professor at my school! Talk about a badass smart woman.

  3. I work at the Lusty Lady and am a regular Autostraddle nerd. This post totally made my day. :) We’re actually a peepshow not a bar though!

    • Thanks for clarifying Elizabeth and I really should know better, as the peepshow aspect is what I love so much about the Lusty Lady.

  4. I used to strip in Ohio when they toughed the laws on strip clubs… I’ve found that there is a very big discrepancy when it comes to what the laws are and what laws are enforced… most clubs I’ve been to ignore or work around the new regulations with no consequences. The passing of the law was a big reason I stopped dancing, because I enjoyed it very much.

  5. In Australia for the most part a lot of sex work is legal, including stripping – though how far down you can go differs by state and often depends on alcohol service. In Queensland performing burlesque in a bar means you can only go down to pasties & a g-string (or else the establishment needs an adult entertainment license); in Sydney you can go starkers or with strap-ons and they don’t care so much. there’s also this gray area about “artistic intent” – where I live I could be classed as a sex worker or an artist depending on where I’m performing my pieces and whether I earn money! People do get grants to do burlesque in Australia, though often they’re more than just stripping – there’s some element of other artforms in there (it has to be competitive with other grantseekers after all).

    Personally I’m somewhat annoyed by people who synonymise burlesque & stripping – one can incorporate the other but they’re not the same. What makes burlesque burlesque, at least from its Brit roots, is the parody and lampooning – the whole corsets/sparkles/feather fans as a priority was really a more recent invention. There’s so much burlesque (esp in POC/queer/activist scenes) that would never get the light of day at anything mainstream because it’s not “pretty” enough; hell I’ve had to go interstate and international to get audiences because the local scene didn’t appreciate me burlesqueing burlesque, apparently that’s verboten or something.

    The Lusty Lady isn’t always very open to minorities:

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