My wild night seeing “Hustlers” and hitting the strip club with a group of brutally honest strippers.
Published 09.15.19 4:55AM ET
It’s 10:30 pm on a Thursday and I’m watching Jacq the Stripper place dollar bill after dollar bill into the lime-green thong of a stripper at the Show Palace club in Long Island City. The stripper-comedian-activist was at this club a few months ago, when it was the film set for Hustlers, a movie based on the New York magazine article about a band of strippers who drugged their Wall Street clients to steal their money. Jacq, whose Instagram and website sells T-shirts and artwork that say things like “tip her” and “I want you to overcome your whoreophobia,” was hired as a consultant for the movie and has a brief cameo where J.Lo grabs her boobs. “I participated in this project because I wanted to be fondled by J.Lo,” she says about that experience.
Fifteen feet above Jacq’s head, another stripper has her red glitter pumps firmly planted on the ceiling as she twerks upside-down Spider-Man style before sliding headfirst down the pole at rocket speed. If the dancer miscalculates, she could easily fall and crack open her skull. It’s a feeling of precariousness that Jacq can relate to. This week is the premiere of Hustlers and the stakes are high for Jacq. She is anxious about what her peers in the sex worker community will think and also about the message the film will portray to “civilians,” the label strippers sometimes use for non-strippers.
For weeks, strip club locker rooms have been abuzz with debates about the movie. Was it exploitative or was it bringing the stripper narrative into the mainstream? Many sex workers wanted to know why Hollywood gets to portray sex workers’ stories while actual sex workers are censored on social media all the time. Strippers like Jacq have been affected by the controversial bill package FOSTA-SESTA—ostensibly meant to prevent sex trafficking online—which has shut down many sex worker’s social media profiles, forcing them offline and into overcrowded clubs. It’s exacerbating the problems of discrimination, racism, and abuse that sex workers have faced at the hands of both managers and their clients since time immemorial.
Just a few hours earlier, Jacq stood in front of the Cinepolis cinema in Chelsea, waiting for a girl squad of five sex workers to go see Hustlers for the first time. The squad tonight is a premier selection of New York’s sex-worker-activist elite. There is Gizelle Marie, an activist for the black stripper community and one of the leading voices of last year’s stripper strike; Valley Latini, a singer-songwriter-stripper whose hit is “Pay My Rent”; SX Noir, a self-described “thot leader” and advocate for sex workers; and ButterflyMush, a stripper turned artist who’s wearing a bag she painted herself that says “girls just want to have funds.” As they walk with buckets of popcorn and chocolate mint candies wearing bondage-themed belts, lucite heels, and cheetah print, they look the sex-worker edition of the Spice Girls.
As the previews play, Gizelle Marie casually counts a wad of cash as she tells me that she didn’t even want to see the movie because she’s traumatized by how the media represents sex workers and was doubtful Hustlers would be any different. The story of the stripper, she tells me, “is either glamorized or goes into this, What trauma happened to you? What did your daddy do to you?-type narrative.” she says, “It’s a lot more complicated than that.”
When the movie begins, Gizelle shrieks: “Oh my God is that the manager of Show Palace?” She would know—Gizelle began stripping at 18 at Sin City in the Bronx and has worked in pretty much every club in New York since. Over the years, she’s become so outspoken against the pervasive racism and body-shaming in clubs that many have banned her from working.
Gizelle’s eyes widen as she watches the movie, and she keeps gripping my hand and telling me, “That’s accurate!!” There's a montage of scenes she relates to: a stripper talks about not even wanting to have sex with her boyfriend by the time she gets home from work; a client can’t stop asking about a stripper’s daddy issues; another stripper gets chewed out by a jealous boyfriend; a manager takes a larger cut of a stripper’s salary than he promised; and Constance Wu’s character barely takes home any money after she splits it with the DJ, security, the bartender, and the house mom.
At one point J.Lo’s character says, “This whole country is a strip club. You got people tossing the money and people doing the dance.” “Now that is the real truth,” says Gizelle. In the next scene, it’s a cold night on the strip-club roof and J.Lo wraps Constance Wu’s character in her fur coat. “Alright, that’s not true! Strippers are not that nice to each other!” says Gizelle. “I mean, I am! But not everybody is and we should be if we want to move ahead.”
I look over and see that Valley Latini is sobbing. On screen, J.Lo is cutting the string of a tampon for the young and vulnerable character of Lili Reinhart as Reinhart cries on the floor, telling J.Lo that her family stopped talking to her when they found out she’s a stripper. “It’s just so real and relatable,” Latini tells me afterwards. “I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. It’s just so amazing to see our struggles being told up on the big screen like that.”
Afterwards, we pile into ButterflyMush’s car and head to the strip club—but first, she removes her son’s car seat so we can all climb in the backseat. ButterflyMush knew the girls who the movie is based on and danced with one of them in Vegas. The movie doesn’t follow their plot line exactly, but there are some parts ButterflyMush recognizes as true: “That part in the movie where girls try to copy them? I saw that happen, that’s true.”
I didn’t expect it to be so emotional. It’s just so amazing to see our struggles being told up on the big screen like that.
Hustlers shows how much harder the industry became for strippers after the 2008 stock market crash and the lengths some were willing to go to survive. As we cross the Queensboro Bridge, SX Noir leans in and sums it up: “Hustlers is really about the redistribution of wealth. Sure it is empowering, but really this movie is about surviving under capitalism post-2008 financial crash.” SX Noir says that much of the time, clients are stingy in compensating sex workers for the emotional labor they provide, in addition to the physical. “I hope that people who watch this see that it takes work to be a stripper. It takes talent, skill and business smarts. It is work, these women are out here working.”
When we get to the club, a girl in a blue wig comes over and throws her arms around Jacq. “I go on your page all the time when I need inspiration,” she says before bursting into tears. “It’s just so fucking hard. I worked 6 hours in the VIP room last week and barely made any money.” This is true especially when you’re a black stripper. “These clubs will say they’re not racist but you go for auditions and they never call you back,” she says. “I gotta stop crying it’s fucking up my eyelashes.”
“You see what I’m talking about?” says Gizelle Marie. “The struggle is real. We need more spaces that are inclusive of all colors and body types.” Later in the night, a girl comes over to Gizelle Marie: “I had to meet you in person, you’re the reason I got into stripping.” For the girls in this club, Jacq and Gizelle, who have risked their careers to speak up on stripper’s issues, are heroes.
Jacq is holding a glass of champagne in one hand and a clear purse that shows off the $1,800 in cash inside of it. She wants to spend all of it tonight to redistribute the money the strippers lost out on during the week the club was closed for Hustlers’ filming. Sitting in a leather chair holding a fat stack of bills is Lorene Scafaria, the director and writer of Hustlers. “We had auditions and hired some of them,” she tells me. “I wish we could have hired all the girls.” I ask her how she is feeling about the community’s reactions to the movie. “I was really nervous for the girl’s reactions. It’s so sensitive telling a story about a community and I wanted to do it right, ” she muses as she places a few bills in the mesh bodysuit of a stripper’s ass vibrating at eye-level. “It makes me nostalgic to be here. I just want to go to back to the locker room, that’s where I feel most at home.”
But she needn’t have worried, at least for this group of strippers. “I think every stripper needs to see this movie,” Gizelle tells me. In one of the opening scenes of Hustlers, J.Lo does a split on stage, and her lack of flexibility causes Gizelle to laugh. “Damn, J.Lo can’t do a split!” she exclaims. Four hours later, on stage in front of us, a dancer melts into a split like butter on a hot frying plan. “Now that,” Gizelle says with a nod, “is how it’s really done.”
writteen by @GABALEXa
It all started when…
On Febuary 28th, a full room of women and non-binary folks gathered to unpack sex work stigma at The Wing (SoHo). It brought a legendary energy to the space, which has primarily centered white, cisgender women.
Many people have critiqued The Wing in the past for failing to be inclusive. For what it’s worth, after making the same critique to their event coordinator, I was invited to work on sex education programming there. And after SX Noir protested the Wing for contributing to harm against sex workers, the ‘Unpacking Sex Work Stigma’ event last night was made possible.
The panel featured Gizelle Marie (one of the organizers behind #NYCSTRIPPERSTRIKE), Claire Fitzsimmons (the founder and editor-in-charge at Salty World), Ceyenne Doroshow (the founder/CEO of G.L.I.T.S — Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society), and Liara Roux (a writer and online political organizer). They also invited members of the audience to share experiences and assist in educating the room.
Liara made important points about Backpage, which the Department of Justice has described as “the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, including ads depicting the prostitution of children.” Since the website’s seizure by United States authorities, consensual sex workers have been increasingly vulnerable to violence. The loss of Backpage has made it difficult for them to work effectively or properly screen clients, but it has also made it more difficult to find (and assist) those who have been trafficked.
“When Backpage was up, they actually received a letter of commendation from the FBI for helping them identify trafficking victims,” Liara said of the classifieds website. “If Backpage noticed someone who seemed really young or something seemed off about the ad, they would send that information over to the FBI. And now that Backpage is gone, police or these organizations can’t even search it to find people who are actually being trafficked.”
A few days after the Backpage seizure, Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) were signed into law. Although ‘trafficking’ is written in both titles, these bills don’t actually target traffickers at all. Instead, both have opened digital platforms to new liability for their users’ activities — if those activities are perceived to “promote or facilitate” consensual sex work. FOSTA/SESTA has even criminalized the collection and distribution of information about violence, abusers, and STI transmission in consensual sex work, making it more difficult for sex workers to work effectively or screen clients.
Ceyenne Doroshow, founder/CEO of G.L.I.T.S and Liara Roux, writer and online political activist
“When you give a sex worker online access to screening their clients, they’re safer,” SX Noir said to everyone at The Wing last night. “They’re able to have a few barriers of entry before someone gets to meet them. When you take down these sites, it does not take away demand, it just means that people are pushed further into the corner, further into risky situations, further into potential violence and harm — disproportionately so people of color, black women, black trans women. These are not things I’m making up in my head, this is reality.”
In the aftermath of SESTA/FOSTA, companies have been forced to edit their policies to protect themselves. Craigslist’s personals section shut down and Reddit closed its threads on escorting/sugar dating/prostitution. Websites that existed so that sex workers and their clients could screen, review, and verify each other were also shut down. Google Drive started deleting files that they perceived as explicit and banning users. And Microsoft changed its Terms-of-Service to ban “offensive language” and “inappropriate content” such as nudity, which affects users of Skype and Xbox.
Other websites that have been affected so far: Reddit/Craigslist (which have closed certain areas of their platforms), Backpage (which the FBI seized), and FetLife/MyFreeCams (which have updated their TOS to ban certain behaviors).
The internet as it currently exists was made possible bc of previous protections that SESTA/FOSTA undermines. If we had SESTA/FOSTA 15 years ago, Facebook, Twitter, and even Wikipedia would never have emerged. The risk of litigation/cost to police users would've been too high.
Social media platforms such as Facebook/Instagram have started banning and shadow banning sex workers, and even those outside of that industry have been affected. Businesses that sell lingerie or adult toys/products have had their content removed and restricted. Even a social media campaign I participated in to raise money for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, Incest National Network), that had been organized by the company Bellesa, was labeled ‘too political’ for Instagram to promote.
And media brands such as Salty World have also experienced intense censorship.
“Salty is basically a platform for other people to tell their stories,” Claire told the crowd at the panel. “I’m not a sex worker but I’m here to amplify the voices of sex workers.”
Salty features dating tips for people with disabilities, safety advice for sex workers, and essays on queer dating, rape culture, and revenge porn. When the publication featured non-binary model Rain Dove on its cover, Instagram deleted its posts. Another cover, with a fully-clothed Zoe Ligon wearing a strap-on, was also deleted — although it didn’t violate any community terms.
Claire Fitzsimmons, founder and editor-in-charge at Salty World
“Instagram is huge, everyone has Instagram,” SX Noir said. “So for me to tell you that you can’t be on Instagram, that’s already an attack. That’s already violence against you, intended or not intended. You tell me because I’m a sex worker, I can’t be on these monopolized social media platforms, that’s detrimental to my health because I can’t connect with my friends that way, I can’t be sold products that way. I can’t interact.”
Unpacking Sex Work Stigma also covered the climate of NYC strip clubs. Gizelle Marie described NYC strip clubs as ‘congested’, making it difficult for strippers to actually make money. She also spoke about discriminatory policies at upscale strip clubs simultaneous to urban strip clubs being shut down.
“I’m happy because I seen something that just passed,” she told the crowd. “They passed a law with the stopping of the discrimination of hair so hopefully that changes a lot, especially for black women, because we do get discriminated against for afros and braids. So hopefully that makes a big difference for us to be able to go to these types of clubs.”
Gizelle Marie speaking truth to power at the panel last night
The panelists strongly advocated for the decriminalization of sex work, not its legalization, which would add federal regulations to the sex industry. But Ceyenne was clear that even after decriminalization, there is still more work to do.
“After you decriminalize, it’s not safe for me,” Ceyenne told us. “I’m sorry, it looks different for some of ya’ll but it’s going to look very different for a brown person, for a Latina.”
Ceyenne also called Melissa Broudo, an attorney with SOAR Institute, to the microphone to explain why Kamala’s push for decriminalization is actually harmful.
“The nordic model is the criminalization of clients of sex workers, of johns,” she told us. “But essentially, if you still are criminalizing half of the equation, you are still criminalizing that entire interaction. And that is the problem.”
Ceyenne Doroshow breaking things down and Liara Roux, looking on with admiration.
SX Noir closed the panel by mentioning that The Wing had not paid her or some of the other panelists. The gospel singer, who opened the panel, had been paid out of her own pocket. SX Noir put in over 80 hours of work and was offered a comped membership, a value of $250, but was told that The Wing does not usually pay moderators or panelists.
Once again, @the_wing is so focused on damage control, they are forgetting the very force they were built on.
I feel weak, used, exploited, and like a token.
— noir (@sxnoir) March 1, 2019
SX Noir cited the fact that The Wing’s mission is to uplift all women and that to accomplish that, they need to be paying people for their contributions to the community space. Audience members were surprised to hear that their monthly membership fees weren’t necessarily going towards programming.
During the Q&A portion of the event, a former sex worker in the audience offered her last ten dollars as compensation, acknowledging how much labor the panel must have required. This immediately prompted other members of the audience to come to the stage with singles, tens, twenties, and even metro cards. The panelists were moved to tears.
SX Noir, the event organizer herself.
The evening closed with a gospel performance and then a meditation led by a high priestess. It was an incredibly moving experience that will hopefully mean greater inclusivity at The Wing. Last night also provided an entire room of sex workers and allies with valuable tools for their activism. I am so beyond proud of SX Noir’s hard work and advocacy.
Aunty Vei, the high priestess who opened and closed the event.
Audience members standing for the gospel performance.
In the aftermath of the event, the Wing reached out to guests via social media, claiming that all speakers were compensated. According to SX Noir, this is completely untrue. They also used SX Noir’s legal first name in addressing the issue, thus outing her to members.
@the_wing is so lost on the safety issues of dealing with sex workers and organizing around Sex workers. 🤦🏾♀️And that’s okay! Just admit that you were wrong in how you handled the situation. Thanks for outing me in an attempt to fix a mess y’all have made 🤷🏾♀️ pic.twitter.com/ZVGRoh3SdX
— noir (@sxnoir) March 1, 2019
This was a radical conversation that really disrupted the space. But it was meant to advocate for those who had been consistently left out of The Wing’s brand of community. Unpacking Sex Work Stigma wasn’t about turning people against the coworking space but rather, about calling its staff in to address member concerns.
Hopefully SX Noir and The Wing can reach a compromise that will equal a better community space for women and non-binary folks in the future.