THE BODY POLITIC February 1986, No. 123. Chris Bearchell

p. 26

No Apologies: strippers as the upfront line in a battle to communicate

As the legal and political assault on them escalates, feminist sex workers are defining their own issues, for a change

Some time around the turn of the century, someone in the Timothy Eaton department-store empire devised a glorious plan. Toronto's lovely new Eaton's store, at Queen and Yonge, would be joined by another several blocks north at Yonge and College. Next, they would develop all the land between the two into one big Eaton's store. The stock market crashed after they built the second store and the plan was shelved.

Today Yonge Street is thronging with shoppers, tourists and white-collar workers by day. After Business hours, the sidewalk entertainers and merchants, pan-handlers, streetwalkers and thrill-seekers kept the street active — though not as lively as it once was.

In the late sixties, Yonge Street welcomed the overflow from the hippie haven of Yorkville. Among them came young working-class women who considered themselves lucky to make fairly decent money as go-go dancers. A couple of sleazy bars on the strip began to cater to gay men and spawned some of the first local gay liberationists. And a couple of unabashed sex shops opened for business.

By the mid-seventies, street life with its splash and glitter thrived on the strip. The city fathers even considered capitalizing on, and controlling, the street by creating a traffic-free Yonge Street mall. Go-go dancers were now called "exotic" dancers. On Track One, as the cops called it (the side streets east of Yonge), where straight prostitution occurs, and Track Two (west of Yonge), its gay equivalent, the sex trade flourished. Eventually body-rub parlours opened on, or just off, Yonge Street. A little further away new gay bars and a few baths opened. From a handful of agitators, the gay movement had grown into more than a dozen organizations.

All of this was not what the city fathers and mothers — or the Eatons — had in mind. A grand plan from an earlier era was being dusted off and reformulated for modern conditions. The mall would have to make way for a mega-plaza: after all, the street was getting pretty seedy.

In the summer of 1978, on the roof above a body-rub parlour, police found the murdered body of one of the kids who'd tried to eke out a living shining shoes on Yonge Street. I was all they needed. The cops set up the apparatus they would need to take care of the sex trade and later the gay community. When they closed all of the body-rub parlous and most of the strip clubs they started on the gay baths; in late 1978, the Yonge Street clean-up squad raided the Barracks. And homos and hookers have been near the top of Metro's finest hit list ever since, even though the cops have been more subtle of late. For gay men, they've refined their washroom entrapment techniques; they play politics with prostitution.

* * *

Gwendolyn has been a stripper and a feminist for ten years. I first met her when she appeared in the audience of a panel discussion on the Fraser Committee at York University. Looking for all the world like a diligent little librarian, she impressed and entertained us by dropping apparently substantiated accusations, like well-placed bombs, into the discussion. She had recently approached the YWCA for help starting a strippers' support group.

Little did I know that she would soon join me and fellow-support-group member Maxine — just graduated from University and about to marry — in a lesbian porn experiment. I found we shared a lot of political common ground in addition to the conviction that it's not enough just to talk about alternative sexual imagery, and that they had a lot to teach me.

They had less willing students in the members of the Fraser Committee who were approached by the Y to arrange a private hearing with Maxine and Gwendolyn. While they listened sympathetically enough, and even included a few liberal recommendations (like getting rid of the bawdy house laws) in their report, the committee's repressive recommendations, to crack down on the street soliciting and beef up obscenity laws, have of course captured the government's imagination. With the recent passage of Bill C49, a round-up of street hookers is only as far in the future as the next warm spell.

The feminist movement has played a peculiar role in these developments. Many veteran sex-trade workers and feminists have common roots in the youth revolts of the sixties. While they no doubt came, on balance, from different classes, they often shared a commitment to sexual freedom.

By the mid-seventies, the legal and political battle for women's sexual freedom, which had centred on reproductive choice, had suffered setbacks in Canada. By the late seventies, many feminists were less concerned with sexual freedom for pleasure and experimentation; they developed the analysis that freedom from danger was a prerequisite to pleasure. The political conservatism inevitably bred by the despair of hard times took an early toll on the feminist movement as many of its apparently radical elements marched into a determined alliance with a re-charged radical right-wing in a bid to stamp out pornography. Thus some feminists are deliberately fuelling anti-sex hysteria at a time when other feminists are involved in renewed attempts to secure women's reproductive freedom, or expanding the visibility and general understanding of lesbianism, or facilitating the self-organization of the women and men who work in the sex industry.

* * *

Changing our Images, a recent Toronto conference on porn and prostitutes organized by the Ontario Public Interest Research Group (OPIRG), failed to bring about a genuine discussion between sex-trade workers and feminists. They succeeded in getting some local women from the business to attend the conference but had to be pressured at the last minute to give them time on the agenda of the main conference discussions. Rather than allowing the hitherto silenced group with the most stake in the discussion the opportunity to share their experiences and perspectives in a non-hostile atmosphere, the conference forced sex-trade workers into endless debates with vociferous opponents. Thus most of the concerned and curious people who participated in the conference had no access to the information presented to the Committee whose report, along with the sex-trade workers' critiques of anti-porn feminism, helped spark the conference.

As the feds are no doubt contemplating repressive legal changes around pornography, it seems appropriate to consider the following excerpts from their remarks to the Fraser Committee, Maxine and Gwendolyn's criticism of "feminists" was a response to anti-porn presentations made to the committee.

Maxine: The issue that has most affected us in Toronto is the licensing of strip clubs. For us it has been a huge problem. The strippers' union, which no longer exists, originally supported licensing in the hope it would create a better environment for us, but in fact it has done the reverse because it meant a $3500 fee for each club and a $58 fee for each stripper. This has caused a lot of clubs to be closed, and therefore has created a job shortage for us. You're probably aware of the statistics: women earn 60 per cent of what men earn; jobs are hard to come by. No matter what you think of our line of work, it's a financial option for some women and it's a lot less traumatic than not being able to pay your rent every month.

Gwendolyn: I would like to know: was someone paid off? Or is city hall really that stupid? Could they not have figured out that they were promoting the monopolization of this business? That the rules set out for which clubs would get licensed to hire strippers, and which would not, would mean that mostly the disreputable and exploitive businesses would survive? Most of our clubs have closed since 1980. The $3,500 fee was out of reach of the small business man, the fellow who had a little family restaurant in a plaza and hired one or two girls to work downtown in his bar to boost his business. Strippers are really just in the business of selling beer; we sell beer by selling hard-ons.

Meanwhile, as the strippers and small clubs are put out of business, the sleazy clubs thrive. Over the past couple of years they've been bringing in women from out of the province. I have nothing against the girls from Quebec, but why have hundreds been imported? If you check with the Metro Licensing Commission they will back that up — hundreds of women from Montreal working in our Toronto clubs. Why? Because the Toronto women refused to table-dance. (Maxine: And to have our salaries cut.)

Just to give you an idea, an understanding of what table-dancing is, if you have not seen it: There you are in the club, with hardly anything on; it's a condition of your employment that you go up to tables full of men and solicit — "would you like a table-dance?" The minimum is $5, and of course you can get more money if the guys are a bit drunk, or… (Maxine:) If you're pressing…) Or, if you eye-ball the guy… (Maxine: And persistent…) And simulate fucking, looking him right in the eye while you're on his table… We were once part of a fine tradition — the burlesque tradition — with musicians, comics and dancers all on one stage. First they took away the comics, then they took away the musicians — now they're taking away our stage.

* * *

Maxine objected to the licensing of strippers because it deprived the women of control over their environment and made them more vulnerable to police harassment. "There is an interesting contradiction," she says. "For example, in Toronto there was a show called Let my people come; it had been running for several years and featured total nudity. Every night all kinds of people from the suburbs and the rich areas of Toronto went to listen to hear dirty words. But when strippers perform we have to wear a G-string — we can be arrested for showing three pubic hairs. Not that theatre should be denied freedom of expression (in fact the cops did try to close Let my people come and a defence had to be mounted) but our form of entertainment should have that freedom too; it's unfair discrimination based on class."

"The assumptions behind that law are that a woman's body is bad, that vaginas are bad — this is the kind of prejudice we're up against."

Gwendolyn adds, "Then anti-porn alderman June Rowlands has the nerve to say that strippers went to city hall for laws to have the G-string put back on." She remembers clearly the ill-fated attempt to form the strippers' union. "There was no consensus among the women. Some wanted the G-string off because they did not want the law to label any part of the female body obscene; other women wanted the G-string left on. But the main reason the women went to city hall was because they wanted city hall to make the law clear. Clubs would pressure dancers not to wear them but the cops would bust the dancer, not the club. So we are the ones who are caught on the line, between our jobs and interpretation of the law. Every time there's a bust, it's on our backs.

"We have to deal with the individual cop's interpretation of the law," Gwendolyn explains. "If he personally is offended, especially when the law's not clear, it's up to him to lay a charge. When I was working at the Silver Dollar a couple of years ago, morality cops came in and said, 'You have to get a different G-string. Your G-string is too small.' 'What do you mean my G-string is too small? My genitals are covered?' 'Yes, but there is a pubic hair showing; either get a bigger G-string or shave your pubic hair.' Does he want me to look like a nine-year-old? A woman has pubic hair."

"Because I am WASP, because I am small and because I am polite to police officers, she continues, "I have been fortunate. In my 10 years of stripping, I've never been dragged into court. But there is still a part of me that, if I'm working a club with five women and one of them is black, is a bit relieved. Because I know damned well the cop is going to bust her first. I've seen it happen time and time again."

One committee member asked the women why the city decided to license strippers. Maxine explained that a 12-year-old boy was found murdered above a Yonge Street body-rub parlour in 1978; in response, "the city hired local hot-shot lawyer Morris Manning to find a loop-hole in the law to allow them to close the massage parlours. They found a licensing law that had been on the books from a long time ago. And they decided to put the same type of law in effect for strip clubs."

Gwendolyn adds, "And they had the excuse that they wanted to be sure they could get taxes from strip women, and because we're a transient breed, they needed some way of keeping track of us. The first license they proposed was for 'adult parlour attendants' and required such things as having our names, addresses and photographs posted in the club, and that we have VD check-ups every two weeks. The very idea. Strippers don't have physical contact with customers. And the whole idea of having our names and addresses on display, of having to hand a license over to management … as if they didn't already have enough power over us."

"I think their concern about taxes is ironic," Maxine says. "There's the odd headline stripper who earns a lot of money, but most of us earn a couple of hundred a week, have to pay all of our work expenses, get no benefits, and with most of the clubs closed, it's not exactly steady work. The joke is that in filing my taxes, which I've been doing every year since I was 18, I always get money back, anyway."

"One of the other ways the law controls us," Maxine continues, "is that if you're a stripper, you can't have a criminal record. It doesn't matter what they bust you for, if you're convicted, you lose your license. What does a stripper who can't work anymore do? Your guess is as good as mine."

Gwendolyn adds, "We don't wake up bank tellers the next day, okay? We can't all be Anne Murray and sell the bank; most of us have friends with connections to bawdy houses, not banks. All the laws do is push some of us further underground."

Both women are angry at what they see as the silencing of women in their business by women in the anti-porn movement. Maxine points out that the silencing is partly accomplished by labeling sex-trade workers as victims. "I worked in daycare for a year and got $135 a week for it. Now, if I'm lucky, I work a stag — just a little ritual in our society where, when a couple is getting married, the guys all get together and watch a stripper — and I can make at least $100 a night. I think it's interesting that, in our culture, people say, 'Oh, you're so exploited as a stripper.' I always respond, 'Well, I felt more exploited bringing up other people's children.' When I was working at the Stratford Festival as an actress for two years a friend who's a hooker asked me what roles I was playing. I said, 'a maid and a whore She said, 'Tsk … always strippers or whores. Personally, I'd rather live it."

"Gwendolyn was performing her comedy at the Five Minute Feminist Cabaret a couple of years ago. She told me about it so I called up and asked if I could audition a clown piece about stripping. They said, 'But we've already got a stripper.' 'But you wouldn't say, 'we're already got a black,' I said. 'I'm also an actress — how many actors, musicians and so on do you have?' I think the problem is that quite a few feminists consider us part of the problem of the objectification of women; they think we perpetuate it, so in a sense they see us as pornographic. And this has legitimized prejudice against strippers in many feminist circles."

Gwendolyn's reaction to the victim label: "I'm sorry, but I'm not a bad girl and that's the only apology I'm going to give you. I don't have anything to repent for. I'm doing what I want, with a conscience and a feminist consciousness. The work I have been doing for most of my adult life is honourable work.

"We are in the front lines in a battle to communicate," she explains, "If I come out on stage and some guys says, 'Show me your gash,' I stop my show; I say, 'Wait a second, my cunt is not a gash, okay? I'm not here for abuse. If you want to be abusive like that, you go see a therapist.' But why is the man calling my cunt a gash in the first place? It's because he's afraid, because women bleed. It's very sad when you see men who, the minute the G-string comes off, become hostile, verbally abusive; at the very least they draw their cigarette to their mouths in a defensive gesture. Obviously they're afraid. Why are they afraid? Because knowledge about women's bodies and women's sexuality has been kept from them. I am not the least bit degraded by showing my pussy. If a guy has come from such a repressive atmosphere that he's that afraid, my attitude is, 'There it is, take a look, look all you want.' That's sex education. When I'm on stage I'm a whole person. If all someone sees is the hole, than theylook like the ass.