A Stripper’s Case for the Full Decriminalization of Sex Work
How the policing of sex work affects strippers and what we gain from decriminalization
In July 2019 I clocked into work at the strip club to find copies of a local news article plastered all over the dressing room walls. A collage of women’s mugshots accompanied the headline “Fort Worth Police Arrest 6 Dancers, Accused Of Public Lewdness.” The flyers included a note from management alerting staff that police were conducting prostitution raids on strip clubs in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. A feeble response to the threat of a life ruining, club shuttering vice raid, I thought.
According to local reports, two of the 6 women in Fort Worth were charged with public lewdness for allegedly drinking alcohol while sitting on the undercover officers’ laps. One woman faced an additional charge of prostitution, a criminal record which, if convicted, would bar her from working in Texas strip clubs in the future. Greeted by the mugshots of these 6 women every time I clocked in, I worked throughout 2019 in fear of being arrested during an undercover police raid.
Full decriminalization of sex work means repealing all criminal statutes regarding selling sex, buying sex, loitering to sell or solicit sex and brothel keeping. Why should strippers concern themselves with the law when strip clubs are already legal? The criminalization of sex work threatens the freedom and livelihoods of strippers everywhere. Prostitution raids in strip clubs make obvious what many sex workers already know: the primary function of police in sex workers’ lives is to entrap us in a web of criminalization with all the attendant stigma, fear and violence.
Our collective position to the police is one of subjugation. They are always looking for a reason to arrest us. All sex workers are in an antagonistic relationship with institutions carrying out the state’s interest in controlling our sexual and erotic labor. The terror and stigma of being swept up in a vice raid is key to maintaining this control. Decriminalizing sex work removes police as the arbiters of state-sanctioned violence against people selling sex, perceived to be selling sex, or simply too close in proximity to people who sell sex.
The policing of sex work extends beyond arresting people for exchanging sex for money and vice versa. In fact, policing necessarily collapses the distinctions between legal and illegal sex work. Stripping itself is legal entertainment but the enduring stigma of strip clubs as hubs of criminal activity and a threat to property values means strippers are codified as targets of law enforcement.
In 2002 the owner of topless cabaret Baby Dolls Saloon sued the city of Dallas, Texas to dispute the constitutionality of local ordinances regulating sexually oriented businesses (SOBs). The United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld certain zoning restrictions, ruling that “establishments featuring performers in attire more revealing than bikini tops pose the same types of problems associated with other SOBs, [such as] increased crime rates and lowered property values.” The legal doctrine of strip club regulations serves as part of the pretext for policing the club.
Policing is not just about cops and the law. Policing is also an ideology that requires many supporting institutions to reproduce carceral logic throughout society. In the eyes of institutions serving the interests of the state, legal and illegal sex industries, as well as the differences between willing and trafficked sex workers, are indistinguishable.
Children at Risk, a Texas-based nonprofit organization, held so-called “Human Trafficking Learning Excursions” in 2015 where bus tours travelled throughout Dallas to businesses the organization alleged were hubs of sex trafficking. The tour included two massage parlors which had recently been raided by the Dallas Police Department and two strip clubs. Bus tour leader Dixie Hairston (yes, Dixie Hairston) shared a copy of a Backpage ad with tourists, alleging certain details in the ad - “'new to the city,' 'real petite', 'not long in town'” - proved the woman was selling sex against her will. Policing as an ideology recontextualizes sex workers as both victims and criminals: strippers are the same as prostitutes, who are the same as massage parlor workers, who are victims of sex trafficking, who are targets of surveillance and arrest.
Sex workers often engage in several industries simultaneously. I have never met a stripper who only worked in the clubs; everyone has/had a sugar daddy, an online porn career, a submissive, or a trick. Some strippers sell sexual services to club customers. The club operates as a controlled environment to screen customers, negotiate prices and set boundaries without the burden of online advertising or incriminating text or email records.
Discretion is common among sex workers who engage in both legal and illegal industries. Strippers do not want to be publicly associated with prostitution. Across Texas local ordinances ban people convicted of sexually related crimes from working in strip clubs for at least 5 years. This law effectively stigmatizes an already precarious group of women and forces strippers out of the club and into more isolated forms of sex work by pushing “vanilla” (non sex industry) employment further out of reach.
Associating with prostitution puts us in danger of being fired or, perhaps worse, extorted by abusive management who will demand a cut of our earnings in exchange for their silence. In addition to the house fees and tip outs strippers are required to pay every shift (ranging from $50 to well over $150), most sexual services occur in champagne rooms wherein the club makes money on each room sold. Laws against prostitution are unevenly enforced by club managers seeking to turn a profit and exploit the asymmetrical balance of power between workers and managers.
Strippers working in clubs where prostitution is common often attribute such permissiveness to bounties paid by the club to local police. The club owners who financially exploit us and the cops who criminalize us operate in a pay-to-play relationship. Police threaten to shutter clubs with a vice raid unless the owners pay an undisclosed sum.
To people unfamiliar with dressing room lore, this dynamic may sound obscene but sometimes it is facilitated by court settlements over city regulations. Sixteen years worth of litigation culminated in a settlement between the city of Houston and 16 Houston strip clubs in 2014. In exchange for freeing the clubs from abiding by a 1997 law banning topless lap dances and touching between strippers and customers, the clubs agreed to contribute $1 million annually to the Houston Police Department’s unit against human trafficking. Decriminalizing sex work weakens the profit-driven relationship between club owners and police by removing the threat of prostitution raids in the club.
Many marginalized and vulnerable people enter sex work because, unlike most vanilla jobs, it has almost no qualifications or barriers to entry. Strip clubs have a unique set of barriers relative to other sex industries. In Texas all strippers must submit to a background check with our state ID and fingerprints. If there are victims of human trafficking in the club law enforcement has their identifying information but, instead of extending social services to help the most vulnerable among us, the state would prefer to use such information to identify and arrest us.
It is easier for the state to lock up poor people for engaging in a survival trade out of economic need than it is for the state to provide comprehensive solutions for poverty at large. In the United States customers buying or seeking to buy sex make up only 10% of prostitution arrests, as it is more practical and cost effective for police to answer escort ads and solicit suspected sex workers than it is to lure and prosecute customers.
So, why should we advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work? Why not support the legalization of sex work or the “Nordic model”? Models of partial criminalization of sex work serve the state’s interest in controlling our sexual and erotic labor. Legalization creates a two-tiered system where some sex workers operate within regulations and those who do not become subject to new penalties, ranging from fines to jail time to deportation (for noncitizens). Police maintain the status quo violently enforcing penalties against sex workers who violate regulations, fostering opportunities for police corruption, extortion, and pay-to-play relationships with brothel owners and managers. Regulating prostitution allows the state to have their cake and eat it too: they get to punish people working illegally and seize their assets through civil forfeiture while profiting from a legal sex industry via sex tourism and business taxes on licensed brothels.
The “Nordic model,” where selling sex is not a crime but buying sex is, fundamentally misunderstands the role of police in sex workers’ lives by granting law enforcement the responsibility of protecting sex workers and punishing customers. When “Nordic model” advocates say cops must arrest “pimps and johns” they are erasing the history of police violence against sex workers and corrupt vice cops, who routinely act like “pimps and johns” at the expense of sex workers. The reality is that we need protection from the police who extort, sexually abuse and even kill sex workers, often with total impunity.
Police will claim they are conducting a human trafficking sting at a massage parlor and then arrest sex workers for drugs and prostitution, or they will claim to be conducting a prostitution raid at a strip club and then arrest strippers for minute violations of public indecency laws. Even if the law were carefully written to avoid arresting sex workers, the “Nordic model” threatens the survival of poor sex workers through atrophy. Molly Smith, coauthor of the seminal text Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, explains:
“The criminalization of clients intrinsically is seeking to make sex workers poorer as a way to push sex workers out of the sex industry. There is no safe way to make marginalized women poorer.”
Only the full decriminalization of sex work can reorient our collective subjugation under state-sanctioned violence and set us on equal footing with other workers fighting for their rights. Sex workers are workers. The exploitation strippers face every day in the club will not be resolved with more policing but with more worker power. We want a union to leverage our power against abusive management and horrible working conditions. We want an end to the precariousness of poverty that backs us into a corner with limited choices to survive. We want solidarity, not pity or hostility, from people outside of the sex industry bearing witness to our exploitation. When sex workers are free from the threat of criminalization, we are freer to struggle in solidarity with workers everywhere.