Interview

with

Johanna Breyer

 

Debra:

I understand you’re not a dancer now.
Johanna: Right. I think that I stopped working in August of 95, so its actually been a little while.
  1. How long did you work as a dancer?
  1. About 5_ years, part-time. I was primarily a student while I was working, so I usually worked an average of maybe two to three times per week.
  1. Where have been the different places that you’ve worked?
  1. Primarily just in San Francisco. The Market Street Cinema, the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre, and I worked at a couple of other places but just for like a couple of days here and there and that was Century and Crazy Horse.
  1. How did you find that work when you were doing it–how did you feel about it?
  1. I usually tell people that the work itself, as far as being a dancer, as far as being a sex industry worker–I had no problems with it. It was the way the workers were treated that bothered me. And not so much by society–I think that definitely contributes to it–but more so the direct treatment of the managers of the workers–that was pretty upsetting. I found that to be very degrading, more so than people usually think the work is.
  1. Can you tell me more about that? How was the management?
  1. Well, it was interesting because there’s a lot of favoritism that goes on, and a lot of mistreatment–sort of the two ends of the spectrum. For the most part, when I first started working, things were ok, but then I started to experience sexual harassment on a regular basis, and the other thing was the labor violations as far as not being afforded wage-an-hour, when we were clearly employees. So I did file a formal complaint with first the Labor Commission and the other enforcement agencies around labor violations and around sexual harassment/discrimination.
  1. What were the results of your filing those?
  1. They’re actually still pending.
  1. Oh my God. When was that when you filed?
  1. I filed in July of 93. It’s been almost five years. Yeah, I haven’t received any restitution whatsoever, and most of the women who also filed have not. The owners at the particular club that I was working for filed for bankruptcy even though it is suspect that they are actually bankrupt (laughs a little), so that’s why it’s been taking so long as it’s just been truly a manipulation of the judicial system, and they’ve been able to find some loophole and prolong things as long as possible. So that’s basically where it stands right now is they’re in bankruptcy court and the Mitchell Brothers class action suit was filed I believe in 1994 and that is just going to trial this summer, I believe, so it’s been a very long haul.
  1. Yeah. Are you part of that class action suit?
  1. I’m a class member, I’m not a plaintiff, but I am a class member because I worked there during that specific time that is under the class.
  1. OK. What is the theater that you’re filing charges against?
  1. The Market Street Cinema. They own a monopoly of theaters in San Francisco. They own also the Century Theatre, they own the Regal Theatre which just recently unionized and was shut down, they own the Campus Theatre, the male theater, and a few other adult businesses. It’s sort of a larger corporation that has a monopoly over some of the clubs.
  1. So the sexual harassment , what forms did that take? Was it mainly from the management? Were there customers also doing that and the management not stopping it?
  1. A combination of both. My complaint was centered more so around the management treatment and it claims physical and emotional harassment, verbal harassment, being fondled, being talked to inappropriately. There was also some degree of customer harassment and I did find that when we went to complain that the customer generally was always right. So, but I didn’t actually list that in my complaint, but several women have come forward and filed police reports and have alluded to customer harassment, so at least that’s being put out there, because I believe that the management is responsible for their patrons and making sure that the patrons are informed of what’s appropriate and what’s not. And so usually they’d rather see the customer come back again and get their money then to reprimand them and say "You were inappropriate–don’t touch our dancers that way." It’s a difficult situation.
  1. Yeah, that makes the work harder too, when you’re not being treated right.
  1. Yeah, I think that is where a lot of the sex worker burn-out comes from. I think (performance artist) Annie Sprinkle has alluded to that and tries to help women with preventing burnout, but I think there is a high degree of that, because you do have to put up with a lot, physically and emotionally.
  1. Did you find that there was any difficulty working with the other women who were dancers?
  1. I think that the nature of this business is perpetuating competition among the women. You’re always competing for your wages because, especially in the sense where you’re not reimbursed as an employee, even though you may be classified as an employee, if the manager is going to classify you as an independent contractor, you’re competing for whatever you make on that particular day. So I think what’s been the most disheartening as far as all of this —the organizing and working in the industry, has been the level of competition among the women and sometimes the lengths that women will go to protect their own position and salaries. I mean, I understand that people have to do that because that’s their livelihood, but when it comes down to defending management versus your co-worker, I do find that very unhealthy and I think its very damaging, it doesn’t relate to solidarity and I don’t think anyone comes up a winner in that situation.
  1. Are you still a student, or what are you doing?
  1. Yeah, I’m actually finishing my Master’s degree at UC Berkeley in social welfare. This is my last semester. I had also worked at the AIDS Foundation for over two years while I was dancing. I always had either school or some type of job on the side, and I think that’s why I’ve been fortunate is because I wasn’t totally immersed in that industry and can get a perspective as far as the way that other industries operate. I mean, there are definitely some similarities as far as the way that women are treated–that’s just across the board. You know women are not treated as equals, but it’s especially blatant in the sex industry as far as the discrimination, everything, it seems like that’s like a model case for how women should not be treated, but I am in school and finishing up–this has been a two year program, so I’ve pretty much been immersed in school for the last couple of years. The degree I’m getting is my MSW.
  1. What would you say was the positives about the job and some of the negatives? If you were to point out what the good things about the job were and what the more negative things were, what would you say?
  1. I think the positives are that women are able to initially earn a decent living and can afford to live in the City which is very expensive, and there are few other avenues as far as career opportunities, whether it’s school or training programs or whatnot. I think that that flexibility , and for a lot of single mothers, too, you know, it was more realistic for them to do this type of work than to try to hold down a 40 hour per week job. But at the same time, while that’s a positive, I think that it’s also a negative, that we don’t have other opportunities where women can earn this type of money in any other industry. I am definitely pro-choice, you know, around a lot of issues, but I do feel like a lot of times women don’t’ necessarily have a choice in entering this type of work because there are not a lot of other opportunities for them to make this type of money. So, I think that’s really the most positive aspect is that if you can get past the way that the system operates, then you can go in, and try to make as much money as you can and get out. And I think for some, too, it allows them some type of artistic freedom and expression–I always see that as a positive. For me, I met a lot of really wonderful people who felt very strongly about the rights of women and the rights of workers in general–I always see that as a positive. I feel blessed in meeting the people that I have, I feel very fortunate, I was able to meet those people even though some of the things are sometimes negative. I came out with a great group of colleagues and a great group of friends that I feel like I could rely on for a long time.
  1. About how much pay could someone earn per day or per week?
  1. It really varies. A lot of people ask me that question. It depends upon the club, it depends upon the day of the week–if Monday night football is happening you’re probably not going to earn as much money (laughs) as some other night. Before a lot of these commissions and quotas and really high stage fees were introduced, you could generally anticipate that you could go in and make at least one or two hundred dollars a shift–and sometimes could make more, obviously. But it really depended, that was the thing, you couldn’t necessarily plan a really accurate budget around what you would be making each day cause it varied from day to day. And I think that’s what makes it hard for a lot of people to save money while they’re in that industry is because it becomes easy to just spend the money you have, thinking, "Oh, I’ll just go back the next day and make more." So it really varies.
  1. How long is a shift?
  1. Generally, when I was working a shift was up to eight hours per day. Sometimes people would do double shifts and end up working a day shift and a night shift. But generally they were about seven to eight hours. And also that depends on which club.
  1. I wanted to talk to you about your work with EDA, the Exotic Dancers Alliance. I understand that you were one of the co-founders of it.
  1. Right.
  1. So could you talk a little bit about how you started it, why you started it?
  1. Sure. We’re actually embarking upon our fifth year, so we started in May of 93 and basically at that time myself and Dawn Passar who is the other co-founder were both working at the Market Street Cinema and the stage fee had initially been 10 dollars. When I first started working there was no stage fee. So about a year into my work period there, they introduced a 10 dollar per shift stage fee which at this point doesn’t seem like that much money, but what they were then able to do is increase it as much as they wanted. So they increased it and doubled it to 20 dollars and a lot of women were upset because you know although people are going to say, "What’s 20 dollars when you’re making hundreds per shift," but that’s not always the case. And the other thing was that there wasn’t any justification for it, which led us to believe that they could raise it again and we would have no say. So we held a meeting–
  1. Was this a meeting at the Market Street Cinema?
  1. Yeah. There were approximately 30 to 35 dancers that showed up and we held it off site at a restaurant like two doors down. And what’s interesting is that the managers did come to that meeting cause they saw the flyers that we had posted and stuff. So they came and just kind of sat back and said, "Well, we’re here to learn," and gave us some story about how they should be present at that meeting. And a lot of people brought up various concerns that they had, ranging from having to tip the DJs in order to be sure that you would be put on the schedule again, safety issues came up–
  1. What kind of safety issues?
  1. Just concerns around customers and also managers too. And people felt like that if we were going to be paying 10 dollars more per shift, and (the management was) getting that from every dancer, then we should have improvements. Safety also ranges to just your physical safety and the way the dressing rooms were structured and cleaned and stuff like that, so we asked for jest a couple of minor things, and actually signed a petition as well, and had everyone put their stage names on there and forwarded it to the manager and said this is what we came up with. We finally actually asked that the stage fee be reduced by 5 dollars, so we were willing to pay, all the workers were willing to pay, 15 dollars per shift if they would make some improvements and if they would lower the stage fee. So it didn’t seem like too big of a request. And now, looking back on it, it seems like if they just would have appeased us in that way initially, probably EDA wouldn’t be around right now. But we basically got no response from the managers. We sent a letter by certified mail, we knew that they received it. And this sort of showed us that the work needed to continue, so we began holding regular meetings for women to come and express their concerns about their working conditions and then started to take formal actions. So myself and Dawn filed complaints with as many agencies as we could, and also made a lot of presentations. We did a lot of public speaking forums to places like the Commission on the Status of Women and other city government agencies to try to get some support. So we just continued with the work and also started to put out the newsletters during that first year. (We) set up a mailing list and distributed information to as many dancers as possible and that’s really been the most challenging thing is trying to get women accurate information, because it’s easier to actually do street outreach and impact either homeless or street prostitutes that are out there and you can physically see them, and you can tangibly give them information, but it’s harder to get past the bouncers and the managers and they made it hard for us to get consistent information to everybody. So we’re still very challenged by that, and have actually been working with local merchants and different community organizations to help us put information out there. So it really snowballed from that initial meeting–(I’ve) been doing this work ever since.
  1. Wow. You’re still active in EDA then.
  1. Right, yeah. We have a more formalized organizational structure now so I’m actually the president of the board and we have the executive officers and we have the full board that consists of service providers that work with sex industry workers and current and former workers. And then we also have a general membership, and we have a dancer mailing list as well. And we recently were funded by the San Francisco Foundation, so we’re able to put on workshops for current and former sex industry workers.
  1. What kind of workshops do you do?
  1. So far we’ve held a computer training, we’ve had a couple of work processing and Internet classes, we are having a film and video workshop at APA this coming week. We’ve done some labor workshops and we also initiated a monthly support group for dancers which is facilitated by one of our executive officers as well as Magna Rubenstein who is with the Institute for the Advanced Studies of Human Sexuality so she got to be a therapist. So we have a balance. All of our workshops are either facilitated by board members or other dancers as well as others from the community. So we like to have that balance that really encourages peer development. We have a few other workshops to do this coming year, so we try to do a couple per month.
  1. Can you tell me more about how the union at Lusty Lady got started and what happened there?
  1. We actually received a couple of voicemail messages on our phone lines at EDA from women who were working at the Lusty, and I remember that they also came to a meeting of COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics–a prostitutes rights organization) at that time as well, but were expressing concerns around the customers’ abilities to be able to videotape them behind the one way mirrors. They had some fears about pictures being released without their consent and management had not taken a very pro-active role in discouraging customers from bringing in cameras. For example, I don’t think they were requiring the customers to check in their bags at the front, and I don’t think they were searching to see if they did have a camera, so the only way the women would know they were being filmed is if they happened to see a little red light from behind the glass, because you can’t see the customer, they can only see you. And this sort of prompted them to draft up a petition and at the time they had, I think at least 75% of the workers in agreement around this issue. And they came to us for assistance to see what would be their options, and we presented them with a few options at that time. We had actually been working with SEIU (Service Employees International Union),the Local 790 and various employees prior to that time, and when they happened to call us, we were embarking on a formalized agreement with SEIU. They were helping us with various organizing activities. They allowed us to use their meeting spaces and copiers and stuff like that, so we were holding most of our meeting there. So it just so happened that these women were ready to go before we had actually formalized this arrangement, so we said, you can basically go out and file complaints at the administrative level like with the Labor Commission and places like that, or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing around discrimination issues, or you could go out and get a private attorney, file a class-action lawsuit, or what we sort of stressed may be their best option, really, was to unionize, organize because they were already there, they already did the footwork and pretty much came together and established consensus around this issue. And we explained to them what we had gone through personally, a couple of our members, in filing either administrative or class action lawsuits that we couldn’t exactly see tangible improvements at this time and didn’t know that we ever would. So the best way to be able to actually be able to negotiate fairer working conditions was to formerly organize, so we introduced them to some of the union organizers. And it was their decision. I mean, we provided them with advocacy, information and referrals, and support, too, we had received a lot of community support prior to this, so we had agencies and elected officials and people like that who knew who we were, and were willing to put their names on endorsement letters and stuff like that, so we definitely helped them in that sense, but I’d credit the women because they were incredibly organized initially and really willing to have the perseverance to carry this through. And right now they’re entering negotiations for their second year contract. So I think they have a great situation, because I don’t know of any other clubs where women have the opportunity to sit down with the managers and say, "Look, this is what we want and let’s work on this," and all these other clubs, either the workers have to be passive and go along with management and totally live in denial, or take the stand that we did and risk losing their jobs. So I think (the workers at the Lusty Lady are) still pretty intent on meeting a lot of their demands and hopefully they’ll be successful.
  1. Have you had any success with working on unions with other workers, is that something you want to do, or–
  1. I think a lot of people, there are a couple of things going on. Most of the workers have not received the employment status–
  1. Oh, because they’re still independent contractors?
  1. They’re technically employees, but they’re still classified as independent contractors, so that’s one barrier right there. So first, you have to fight for your wage-an-hour, and that’s a big fight. The second thing is I think a lot of the conditions have worsened, to the point where women are in this place of feeling completely helpless, they don’t necessarily think that they can change their working conditions. And management basically gets away with whatever they want to get away with at this point. So it’s a real fear dynamic in that way, and it’s a hard thing to do, I mean, you’re basically risking your livelihood if no one else is behind you. So I think the difference with the Lusty Lady is they were always employees, so they weren’t competing for wages in that sense. Something that they did ratify is that they had sort of indicators for raises and different standards for how much you would get. It’s a range between, I think, 10 dollars or more up to like 20-something dollars you can receive if you’re working there. So they weren’t competing with each other in that way. And we have actually worked with a lot of workers outside of San Francisco, and what we’ve done is, one of the women at the Lusty Lady has put together a brochure for all dancers, it’s actually more an informational packet, it tells you how to organize your workplace if you’re a stripper. And we’re going to be distributing this information to people, so it will be nationwide, actually. So you know, all that we can do at this point is to provide guidance, information and support for people. It’s really up to them how much they want to endure. If they want to continue to work in these situations that to me seem pretty intolerable, I can’t make that decision for them. We are always there to help people if they want the assistance, but if they don’t want to organize, that’s up to them.
  1. What would you say right now are the current issues, the prominent issues, for women who are dancers?
  1. I think the main things are the labor violations and the civil and human rights violations. There’s a high degree of coerced prostitution right now which goes hand-in-hand with the fact that there are high stage fees and quotas or commissions that women are having to pay in order to work. The health and safety standards are pretty low just in terms of the cleanliness of the clubs, the fact that a lot of these women, most of these women, have no benefits whatsoever. And, I think, just a feeling of low moral, that you’re powerless in your workplace, I think that’s definitely going on. And no immediate sense of remedying this at all. I think for a lot of people, it’s disheartening: you go and make as much money as you can make and you leave and you try not to think about it. And I think the other thing too is for a lot of women who don’t want to put up with this but have to because they don’t have really any other skills or don’t know how to do about any other type of work, and then the opportunities to get some type of employment where they could make as much as they could at some of these clubs even though they may be forced into prostitution, they’re willing to do that because they just don’t feel like they have any other options. And to some degree, that’s true. So it’s fairly complex in that sense that if someone want to leave the situation it’s not like just getting up and walking away.
  1. Do you have any other things that you want to bring up as far as your work in the past or what you’re doing now?
  1. Well, I think as far as the Exotic Dancers Alliance is concerned, that ultimately one of our goals would be that there wouldn’t be a need for us to do the advocacy and the political activities that we do, but we’d really want to make sure that these workers have equal access and equal protection as much as any other worker in any other field, so we really try to make sure that these workers are seen as contributors to society and they’re just as important as any other type of workers in any other field. So in that sense, we still have a lot of work to do as far as educating the general public and trying to affect their positions and opinions on how they treat sex industry workers. And we really want to make sure that these clubs are working within the law and that the workers are protected and that they have opportunities to go on or stay in the business and not be discriminated against
interview by Debra L.Howell
The Exotic Dancers Alliance has aWebpage:
www.bayswan.org

 

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