When I talk to customers at the club, they tell me I come from the “good” part of Queens, and seem perplexed as to how I ever found myself dancing for dollars in a dive bar today. This always lands strangely for me: Sure, my childhood was a relatively safe and secure one, but the reaction that strip club patrons have to my hometown is one of assuming I come from relative wealth; I do not.
My family has lived in New York long enough that my father still remembers when Bushwick was the “bad” part of Brooklyn, and seems flabbergasted when I tell him that Bushwick, Bedstuy, and various other parts of Brooklyn that he wouldn’t dare go to when he was my age are now places where I occasionally go for things like acupuncture, yoga, or drinks with friends. Sometimes I try to have conversations with him about the problematic ways in which he frames “good” vs. “bad” neighborhoods, and the process by which these neighborhoods become known as “good” or “bad” – how these delineations are just coded, not-so-subtle racism – the effectiveness of which varies. The longer I prove myself to be “safe” in the places he would never go, the easier these conversations become, it seems, over time.
My father’s emphasis on safety with regard to neighborhood, though, is intriguing to me when I consider the way my life is structured now. Leaving a strip club at four in the morning can be dangerous if you live in a feminine-presenting body, no matter what neighborhood you live in. My club is somewhat subtle, as far as strip clubs can ever be called subtle: Sometimes, when drivers drop me off, they can’t tell from the outside that it’s a strip club. They ask me suggestively, “What kind of bar is this?” as if they half know the answer and want me to confirm it for them, in order to confirm one way or the other how they should then proceed to interact with me. I usually tell them it’s just a bar.
The narrative around gentrification for those who are part of the privileged classes is often one of increased neighborhood safety, new and lucrative business opportunities, aesthetic improvements, and respectability, so it’s no wonder that sex workers, like many other folks of marginalized identities, don’t experience the positives of gentrification, and are often actively harmed by it. While my father’s side of the family had been in Brooklyn for generations, my mother’s side was no stranger to hopping from neighborhood to neighborhood, borough to borough, every year or couple of years, trying to stay ahead of rising rent prices while also trying to maintain a sense of community as immigrants who had mostly all moved to New York City well into their adulthood. And while my experience of New York City’s shifting landscape has been less dramatic than many folks I know, my emerging adulthood, too, has been shaped by moving from place to place every couple of years, living with one roommate, then two, then three, in smaller and smaller apartments, hoping against hope that I get my career together in time to continue living in my hometown while racing against the ever increasing cost of living of the city in which I was raised.
Gentrification, Sex Work Stigma, and the Sex Industry
Gentrification has long played a role in shaping the landscape and demographics of New York City, though relatively few narratives cover the ways in which it has impacted the sex industry – or the unique way sex work stigma operates alongside gentrification – with any sort of compassion for the workers within the industry itself. In fact, sex work stigma is often the selling point of gentrification; “cleaning up” the city in order to make it more alluring for tourists, where alluring seems to mean wholesome (though perhaps a better word might be “bland”) and – there’s that word again – safe.
For example, in the late 1990’s former mayor Giuliani crusaded to “get rid” of most of the sex shops and strip clubs in Times Square with a vengeance plainly rooted in sex negativity and whorephobia (also known as the discrimination and hatred of sex work and sex workers). Citing “quality of life” concerns (for surrounding residents and businesses, only, and taking into no account how losing their jobs might impact the quality of life of sex workers themselves), he advocated for the passage of a zoning law that would “ban…sex-oriented theaters, massage parlors, bars, bookstores, video stores and cabaret clubs from operating within 500 feet of homes, schools, churches, or each other.” The zoning law passed in 1995, and businesses had a year to comply. Though many of the businesses implicated in this new zoning law fought it based on arguments that it violated their First Amendment rights, they lost time and time again in both state and Federal courts. While many clubs looked for loopholes – former topless bars shifting practices so that dancers would appear in bikinis or T-shirts, for example – it wasn’t purely the nudity or erotic content that kept these so-called “corrosive businesses” on the hook. Other charges included “implying sexual entertainment in advertising, admitting underage patrons, or serving as a meeting place for people who then go elsewhere to engage in illegal activity,” the then-mayor said. “There are lots of factors that can be looked to,” Giuliani continued, “and you can be sure that we’ll be looking to all of them.”
When examining the ways in which mainstream culture interacts with marginalized subcultures, it’s important to note that way that language is used. “Cleaning up” Times Square implies that the sex industry is inherently “dirty,” a key component of sex work stigma. Indeed, according to researchers Blithe and Wolfe in 2016, sex work, alongside other forms of work, has historically been positioned as “dirty” work (that is, “work that is considered dirty or degrading”) to illustrate the various ways power and exclusion operate in order to create and perpetuate social hierarchy. Included under the umbrella of “dirty work” are oilrig workers (stigmatized perhaps due to the dangerous nature of the work, and also due to the manual labor aspect of it) and morgue workers (stigmatized due to their proximity to the taboo of death). Sex workers are stigmatized on both counts: “dirty” in that most of our labor is sexualized physical labor, and stigmatized in that we break taboo by engaging with sex and sexuality outside the bounds of cisgender heteronormative monogamy and marriage and for money. Our work is stigmatized, and, because under capitalism the work you do is so closely correlated to who you are, so are our very identities, and broader cultural sex negativity, in addition to more specific sex work stigma, is why. In fact, Herald Price Fahringer, the lawyer who represented many of the businesses threatened by Giuliani’s ban, put it incredibly succinctly when he described his fear of the “breadth of enforcement” of the former Mayor’s laws: ”It’s not enough for them to comply with the law,” Mr. Fahringer said. ”He wants to stamp them out. Maybe we should all just be real good people and not even think about sex.”
Sex Negativity, Respectability Politics, and Freedom of Speech in Online Spaces
Fahringer made his statement about being “real good people” who don’t think about sex back in 1998, but it’s a sentiment that’s still going strong now, often in subtler and simultaneously more pervasive ways. What Fahringer was alluding to when he described “not even [thinking] about sex” as the natural conclusion of Giuliani’s “cleaning up” sex shops and strip clubs from Times Square, was how respectability politics operate within a sex negative culture. The primary definition of gentrification, when Googled, is “the process of renovating or improving a house or district so that it conforms to middle-class taste” – where “middle class,” always largely an illusory social status, and more so now than ever, is a stand in for respectable and supposedly aspirational. If another definition of gentrification is “the process of making a person or activity more refined or polite,” then the changes that have been occurring in online spaces – for years, but perhaps more zealously with the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in 2018 – are not too far of a cry from digital gentrification on platforms such as Instagram and Tumblr.
In an article for Culture Digitally, Jessa Lingel identifies three key components of gentrification that translate from meatspace to the Internet: isolation, increasing costs, and uneven commercialization. All three also clearly map onto the ways in which sex workers are treated online, especially on platforms such as Instagram. Consider, for example, the way in which banning of hashtags and individual accounts isolates sex workers, as when hashtags such as #yesastripper, #stripperlife, and #ilovetoseestripperswin were all banned, while hateful and sex-worker-negative hashtags such as #notastripper; or even hashtags such as #malestripper, were left curiously alone, in a grimly ironic example both of whorephobia and misogyny. Shadowbanning, which The Economist describes as a method of “quietly silencing” users who post in bad faith, is in some ways an even more nefarious way of isolating sex workers on social whose very existence is one of non-compliance; the “quiet silencing” aspect of a shadowban has an emotional impact akin to gaslighting. Having been recently shadowbanned myself, I found myself wondering, “Have I been shadowbanned, or do I just suck?” This sentiment, in addition to the constant daily navigation of sex work stigma both online and IRL, can be particularly poignant especially when coupled with isolation from one’s community.
Lingel also describes increasing costs as a facet of gentrification; offline, this has to do with increasing real estate prices and their impact on longstanding local businesses. Lingel writes, “Communities on the margins struggle to make mainstream technologies meet their needs,” which for sex workers online can look like the amount of time and energy spent building up a platform that correlates directly to your livelihood, only to have it deleted with no warning. Just like that, your access to your consumer base is totally gone. Those who are most egregiously impacted by banning and shadowbanning, of course, are Black and brown, queer and trans, and poor and disabled sex workers. These sex workers, simultaneously forced to navigate white supremacist expectations and standards in strip club hiring practices or as individual escorts and then often further erased and invisibilized even within the sex work community itself, are on the receiving end of the greatest harm that sex negative and whorephobic terms of service bring. Reports abound on sex worker IG of thin and conventionally attractive, able-bodied cisgender white women sex workers having their accounts deleted and restored within days or weeks, while BIPOC sex workers often have to start from the ground up and keep multiple back up accounts in case of banning. (One most recent example is that of Mistress Marley, aka The Chocolate Domme, who voiced her sneaking suspicion that she was deleted from the Instagram as often as she was “because I was helping black women make money.” At the time of this writing, The Chocolate Domme seems to have once again been deleted from Instagram.)
Lingel’s third example of how gentrification translates from real life to online spaces involves uneven commercialization. She writes, “Gentrification isn’t just about who lives where, it’s about the kinds of businesses that can be sustained by the surrounding community.” I personally have had one account banned by Instagram without warning or reason, a meme page called @stripperbuffy, where I used Buffy gifs to make fun of customers at the strip club, no nudity or solicitation at all. Other accounts, such as @actualsexworkers, are currently struggling to recover their accounts after multiple instances of banning, and they, too, used the platform not for business but as a community resource. They tweeted, “Not that it should matter if we were just straight up hustling. But the fact that we can have our account deleted when using IG as a platform to connect with community, organise and discuss politics is troubling to say the least.”
As @actualsexworkers and many other workers and allies have noted, however, it seems only small, independent sex workers online the ones who are hit with the ban. Other sexuality-oriented companies, such as Playboy and other porn sites, when reported, miraculously manage to keep their accounts, though they hardly need the access and resources social media provides. Still, as large, lucrative businesses doing capitalism right and largely operating within the bounds of respectability politics as they apply to the sex industry – featuring cisgender, able bodied, and conventionally attractive models, for example, and ultimately making money that directly benefits cis het male owners of companies – they clearly take precedence over individual providers whose very lives and identities are inherently subversive and are as such too threatening to be allowed to exist publicly. It’s a position that sex workers have always found themselves it, very much at odds with the status quo and mainstream middle class respectability values – though for it to be taking place on the Internet, which for so long provided safety and community for us – sends a clear message that sex workers are simply not welcome to exist publicly, or safely, anywhere.
It’s also worth mentioning that while sex workers are those most clearly targeted for discrimination by sex negative and whorephobic terms of service (for example, Facebook reportedly has banned both the eggplant and peach emojis, as they’re too likely to be used in messages involving solicitation of sex), other sexuality professionals – such as sex educators and sex therapists – also fall under the umbrella of the “kinds of businesses” potentially found to be disreputable under newer, stricter terms of service. It’s telling that the very same free speech arguments that lawyers used to attempt to defend sex shops and strip clubs in the late 1990’s are echoes of the same arguments that folks are trying to use to defend against SESTA/FOSTA now. It’s also telling that the fall out is largely the same: erasure of so-called “deviance” for the sake of respectability and supposed “safety.” Many of the folks most immediately impacted by Tumblr’s ban on adult content, other than sex workers, were LGBTQ+ folks, and kinky/polyamorous or consensually non-monogamous people using the website to find community, especially when community is hard to come by IRL. It’s over twenty years since Times Square was tidied up, but the message that social media sites seem to be sending is still the same: perhaps we should just be “real good people and not even think about sex” after all.
“Every dancer I know in NYC is struggling”
New York City is hardly the only city where strip clubs have experienced a crackdown in the name of “cleaning up” an area to make it more of a tourist draw and moneymaker. In 2018, for example, strippers of Bourbon Street organized to march and protest a press conference about the redevelopment project that would result in similar re-zoning changes to Bourbon Street, and essentially Disney-fy the historic strip of topless bars and clubs. A month later, they would organize another march of 700 strippers, bartenders, managers, travel dancers, and friends and family, shedding light on the ways that redevelopment plans focused on gentrifying an area rely heavily on police presence in order to get their job done. It should surprise no one that the cops are no friends to sex workers, and police, emboldened when carrying out the orders of wealthy and powerful elite who also hate and malign the sex industry, at best keep sex workers out of work, and at worst, often use their position to brutalize and assault already vulnerable workers just trying to make a living. The NOLA strippers who were witnesses to the raids corroborated the same dubious gotcha clauses that NYC’s late 1990’s raids also relied on to get clubs and shops shut down by any means possible. One stripper observed that, “under the laws being enforced during these raids, which consider touching one’s own body a lewd act, she has less body autonomy than a corpse.”
But gentrification of neighborhoods sometimes happens more subtly than police stings and protests let on. One stripper I spoke to told me that while she didn’t have much experience with gentrification where she worked, she did notice that in Oklahoma City, many of the clubs that have closed were clubs that “prominently hire dancers of color on the grounds that the clubs are dirty” – illustrating another way in which sex work stigma and the idea of “dirty work” is complicated by additional social forces of inequality like racism and anti-blackness. She continued, “They tear the clubs down when they’re closed because in Oklahoma you can’t actually build a new strip club; the clubs have to have been a strip club before 2006 in order to exist, and they’re only allowed to be in industrial areas.” While zoning laws differ from state to state, their function remains the very much same: get rid of the “undesirable” elements, out of sight, out of mind, regardless of the fact that very real lives are on the line on the other end of these policies.
As a stripper with just over three years under my belt, I’m hardly a veteran, but even I have been able to notice changes to the clientele and atmosphere at the club where I work, and dancers who have been there longer than me can speak to it even more readily. I’ve often heard some of my friends who have been dancing at my club even a year longer than I have lament the days of leaving with a minimum of five hundred bucks a night, and close to a thousand, easily, on the weekends — sums that seem mythological to me now, and seem increasing mythological the longer I stay in the industry. Recently, a thread on the stripper section of Twitter has corroborated this, which provided simultaneous relief and also dread – what was to become of the industry, as NYC becomes more and more expensive, and strip clubs more often become viewed as regular bars that regular jerks go to in order to ogle naked girls who – I’ll remind you – don’t make an hourly wage. We make exactly as much as you tip us or pay us for dances and private rooms – and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to inform a patron that if he “just wanted to have a beer and watch the game” there are plenty of bars where he can do “just” that.
One of my coworkers, who still works at the same small club in Brooklyn where I started, reiterated this very thing. “Gentrification had already started back when I started in 2012, but I guess strip clubs weren’t gentrified yet, because we were still seen as kind of seedy places to be. Now it has become more trendy and normalized to be in a strip club, so all the ‘trendy, normal’ people came,” she said. “A lot of my customers were union workers and working class, and would come straight from their jobs for some drinks and were pretty cool guys to get drunk with. I don’t know where a lot of them went, but I feel like half the time I’m surrounded by people who ‘just came to drink’ or think of us as a joke. Or, all of those annoying couples.”
She makes an important point that gentrification occurs across multiple levels. Neighborhoods gentrify, and terms of service on social media apps gentrify the landscape digitally, but in the process of becoming culturally normalized (or at least edging away from “seediness” and into pop culturally acceptable exoticization and objectification) strip clubs and sex workers have also become “gentrified” in the cultural lexicon by things like the emergence and popularity of things like pole fitness (hashtag not a stripper!) and movies like Hustlers. And while representation is certainly important, for some reason, it still doesn’t stop sex work stigma from operating directly in the lives of sex workers themselves. Sure, you may have seen and loved Hustlers – so much so that you want to go to a club and see some real life strippers doing what we do live – but if you’re not showing up to the club and behaving properly and recognizing that sex workers provide a luxury service, not just a perk that comes included with the price of your one warm beer, you’re not actually being an ally; you’re being a voyeur, and your presence is harmful.
The stress of gentrification taking place at clubs like the one I started at in Brooklyn, moreover, is old hat for Black dancers, who have always had to contend with white supremacist hiring practices, and who have long known that they’ve had to be better in every way – from their looks and their style to their dancing and their hustle – than their non-black counterparts, in NYC and elsewhere. In 2017, Gizelle Marie, a veteran NYC stripper, organized the NYC Stripper Strike in response to new club hiring practices that favored Instagram-famous “Startenders,” bartenders who dress and dance like strippers, are often universally light skinned, and who siphon money from the actual dances who are doing all of the hard work and bearing all of the stigma. In a 2018 article for Dazed, Marie was quoted as saying, “In the last year our earnings have halved, in some cases. Dancers have to be happy and making money, otherwise what’s the point?”
Which brings me, finally, to the sentiment I’ve seen echoing around sex worker Twitter more and more often – that the industry is, if not dying, then certainly changing, and that New York City is mostly not the place to be if you’re a stripper expecting the glamorous life that still gets popularized in mainstream media depictions of us. “Every dancer I know in NYC is struggling,” a friend said to me, somewhat reassuringly, when I expressed my own dismay and anxiety about going back to work after my month off is up – by which she meant, you are not alone. And while there’s nothing wrong with sex work being one’s primary source of income – sex work is work after all, and respectable work at all – more and more workers I know spend their off-time looking up side hustles and side-side hustles, or chatting about the pros and cons of living with roommates to save money when you have to factor sex work stigma into your sense of safety in your own home. Gentrification occurs in the club, online, and in the culture, and while we’re more visible now than ever, we’re hardly un-stigmatized, leaving many sex workers – especially the most vulnerable among us – with a pervasive sense of dread unique to knowing that, frankly put, the non-sex working world seems not to want us to exist at all.
* Blithe, S. J., & Wolfe, A. W. (2016). Work–life management in legal prostitution: Stigma and lockdown in Nevada’s brothels. Human Relations,70(6), 725-750. doi:10.1177/0018726716674262