Big Changes at the Lusty Lady
Editor’s note: the Lusty Lady is now a co-op!
Sometime this month the legendary Lusty Lady exotic dance emporium and peep show, a fixture of North Beach’s sex life since the 1980s, will undergo major changes. As I write, negotiations are still underway between the performers and support staff and the ownership — at issue is whether the staff can and wants to form a collective or cooperative to run the business, or whether the show will stop.
Real Live Nude Girl A couple of months ago the ownership informed workers, many of whom are unionized, that it intended to close the club, citing lower profits since the recession began. Indeed, there’s no doubt that most San Francisco businesses don’t bring in what they did during the height of the dot-com boom, and the LL is probably making less than it used to. But the timing, following the negotiation of a new contract with the union, seemed suspicious to some of the dancers I’ve contacted, and it almost looked like a union-busting maneuver — until talks began that brought the possibility of the workers taking control for real. Interested dancers and support staff called in co-op members from other businesses like Good Vibrations and Rainbow Grocery that are worker-owned and democratically operated, and staff have been putting in long hours to see what they’d have to do to acquire the business.
I worked at the Lusty Lady, as truly longtime readers will recall, back in 1990. I met the woman who was show director in those days, Attila the Honey, at a lesbian-safe-sex video shoot — except it turned out that none of the women there were actual lesbians. We were all bi girls and frisky sex workers. Well, if truth were told, that’s who performs much of the explicit action for lesbians and their admirers, and anyway, when it’s all-girl action, who cares what peoples’ sexual orientation might be? Attila told me I could come audition for a job at the LL any time, and eventually I took her up on it. It was a time of great change at the Lusty, the historical moment at which the management decided to concentrate on hiring women who were “girl next door” types. I was, more or less — well, sometimes I even shaded into “lusty librarian,” even back then — although I was 10 years older than many of the women who worked there.
Apparently in the late 1980s the place had been wild — even wilder than it was when I showed up. In a decade when strip clubs were decidedly not an acceptable social phenomenon, the women who worked at the LL were a very mixed crowd: more of the dykes and biker chicks who still populated the place when I showed up, plus many of the devil-may-care “fetish” types who decorated their bodies with piercings and tats. There was a greater range of body size, too. Sometime very late in the ’80s the management decided the customers were too weirded out by this sort of diversity, though I heard a number of customers say they missed it.
Horny? San Francisco In fact, though this is the sort of thing you’d expect from a strip club, the LL was still a far more woman-friendly place to work than most. The show directors, our immediate management, were ex-dancers — or, in one case, still filled shifts. The middle manager, who worked out of the LL’s sister business in Seattle, had also been on the floor herself. And the business had originally been opened by a guy with a decidedly politicized sexual freedom lifestyle. In the very earliest days of the LL, men and women were on the floor together! But that idea was way ahead of its time. By the time I arrived the place was homogenizing, but not to the degree that many clubs already hired only girls of a particular type. You’d never know to watch women walk into the club in their street clothes — Doc Martens stomping, hair cropped close or shaved off, safety pins holding together clothes or, sometimes, sported in an earlobe — that soon wigs would go on and the dykes, skate girls and punks would turn into Girls Next Door.
I applied for, and got, a job at the LL when I was well into my PhD program at the Sex Institute. When I arrived and they asked me which stage name I wanted to use, I said I didn’t need one — I was happy to be known as myself, didn’t feel the need to hide my identity behind a nom de porn. But they insisted — stage names were a rule at the Lusty, not an option, and in a way it equalized everyone. I chose Minx Manx (I wanted a cat name, and all the cats with tails were already spoken for). Indeed, Minx, though only a thin gloss over Carol, was her own person, and quickly grew to love the LL: if not for the endless stories and erotic trips the customers were on, for the rowdy co-workers.
Besides, specializing as I did in the Private Pleasures booth, where voyeurism and exhibitionism flowed like water over a dam, I spent most of my time at work masturbating! I ask you, what’s not to like?
Not all the women at the LL really loved the work, but I think we all loved each other. And many of my alumna went on to great things — those of you who keep a close eye on sex workers’ ads in Spectator and elsewhere would recognize several of them, especially the very well-known blonde dominatrix who was an undergrad at San Francisco State when she worked at the LL. Some went off to grad school. One owns a trendy bar. And I am not the only LL veteran who’s a writer: The fabulous Lily Burana, author of Strip City, danced next to me as she plotted world domination through her wonderful ‘zine Taste of Latex.
Together we all gathered backstage and dished about the more interesting customers: that guy who puts a candle in his ass and lights it; the one who gets in a yoga pose so he can suck his own cock; the guy who could put his own dick up his own ass! The ones with amazing or creative stories, and the ones with great cocks or bad manners. We were not required to give a show to a rude or pushy person, and I like to think we helped teach a generation of men some sexual social skills: You know, you can usually get what you want if you ask nicely.
I am still nostalgic about my time at the Lusty Lady — in fact, just this week I was in Madison, doing my solo performance of “Peep Show,” a look behind the scenes of the club in its early-’90s heyday. But my trajectory took me in another direction: into more focus on Good Vibrations, which was becoming a co-op even as I began to cut my LL hours so I could work across town, no doubt selling vibrators to LL customers’ wives.
Bedroom Games Gradually, as I moved into my 40s, it became less fun to go over to the Lusty and “entertain the troops,” as Robert and I always called our action-packed visits to the booths. (You can do a lot in there, you know, if you’re willing to stand up to do it.) It became less fun partly because, as we became a middle-aged couple, ever-younger women were less enthusxiastic about the shows they gave us. We were their moms’ and dads’ age, after all. And the club was forever altered by its bitter fight to become unionized. While I supported that fight — far be it for me to give my support to management and not workers — after the battle was won, it seemed the place was not fun for the workers any more. The stress of an us-them situation never really abated. Becoming unionized was a big and important thing, and it sent an important message to the management, the customers, the entire community — not to mention all the other sex workers who heard about it and saw new possibilities for their own lives. But it ended an era at the Lusty Lady, and now, it seems, that era is also about to end.
As a member of a co-op business myself — I’m one of the three or four original Good Vibrations owners left, 10 years later — I am hopeful for the LL’s staff as they rush to get funding, write bylaws, find the right attorneys, and figure out who’ll do what task. The notion of owning your own labor at an exotic dance club is undeniably appealing, but it’s also a challenge. This is the sort of job that’s built for frisky youth, here today and off traveling the world, going to grad school, or chaining yourself to a redwood tomorrow. If tomorrow is to bring us a newly energized passel of lovely lusty ladies, naked, naughty and nasty, it will be because behind the scenes, these live nude girls are putting their noses to the grindstone of business and their sweet asses on the line for our entertainment. You know how much you’d miss them if they went away, so let’s give them all our support so they can boldly go where no naked women have ever gone. And don’t forget to tip!