Close your eyes…
There’s ones, fives, twenties and even some hundred dollar bills scattered on the stage around you, and the pile keeps growing.
The group at the bar are pulling wads out of cash out of their pockets and throwing it at you while you dance. They’re throwing to the bartenders too, they’re hardly wearing more than you are and they’re twerking.
You get what’s on your stage, she gets the bar and the cash that drops in it.
But then, pretending to dance, she puts her hands in your territory and swipes your money on to her floor.
She’s gone behind enemy lines.
The War Zone
There’s a battle raging in the heart of New York City’s strip clubs.
On the front line, strippers who have long danced for money in outfits they know will rake in cash are facing off against a new breed, “the startender”: the beautiful Instagram model with thousands of followers and little to no mixology experience.
In the clubs the women have the same goal: to make it rain.
But the blurring of lines, where bartenders now wear clothes similar to the dancers and shake their ass for money, has come at the expense of the strippers. Where strippers used to be able to take home $1000 a night, many say now it’s not even $400.
The industry, like many others, has been disrupted by social media.
How many followers u got?
The shift began five years ago when Instagram models with large followings were hired to bartend in clubs in Brooklyn and Queens. Club promoters stopped caring about bartending experience and started hiring on looks and popularity.
The idea: influencers have loyal followers, loyal followers become customers, customers spend money, money lines pockets. Thus, the startenders have become a powerful commodity.
And the strippers? They’re arguing that not only are they being pushed out of a job and disrespected, they say often the new breed of bartenders are stealing their cash.
Despite the blurred lines one thing remains law: the cash that falls on the stage belongs to the stripper and the cash that falls on the floor behind the bar is the bartender’s. But even that is being broken.
Money moves – from the stage to the floor
In two of New York’s most prominent clubs, Aces and Starlets, the stage is behind a wraparound bar. This means people throw money over the bar to get it to the dancers, who are pretty much inaccessible, and they throw to the bartenders too.
The strippers have to go to ground fast to collect what’s theirs before it falls on the floor, a place they’re not allowed. And as the video shows, if they’re not fast enough some bartenders are swiping the money into their area. To add insult to injury, strippers say bartenders encourage customers not to tip the dancers, and look down on them for stripping.
During a recent radio interview former stripper Cardi B said: “People want to follow the trend. Even if it’s a badass stripper, like the baddest of the baddest, people still want to throw money at the bartender because it’s just, like, the trend.”
Getting down to it
But the battle between the strippers and bartenders goes deeper, at its core this is a labor dispute between the strippers and their employers – club promoters and managers.
Strippers, like a number of independent contractors doing services like nail styling or hairdressing, have always paid a house fee to the club on the nights they dance. That fee can range anywhere between $50-$250 depending on the night and who’s going to be there.
The bartenders, who are also independent contractors, don’t pay a fee but reap the same rewards as the dancers, and it’s been reported management is quick to side with bartenders in disputes.
But perhaps the biggest issue is racism.
White-washing the sex industry
Many of the strippers struggling with the new system are dark-skinned, and the bartenders are often light.
“The dancers used to be the most respected in the club,” stripper Panama Pink told the Washington Post.
“Now it’s like the dancers are at the bottom of the barrel. And the dark-skinned dancers are all the way at the bottom of the barrel.”
Dark skinned strippers have been blocked from VIP nights, being able to dance with famous clients, and from having the opportunity to bartend. Another chapter in the book of sexism in the sex industry written from a mostly white male gaze, former porn actress turned entrepreneur and educator Sinnamon Love told Complex.
Fantasies of what makes Black, Latin or Asian women attractive to these men has been pushed on clients for years and a lack of market research in the industry has let these misperceptions to perpetuate, she said.
“When I read that darker-skinned strippers are not being allowed into VIP rooms or not being allowed on stage when there are celebrities there, you have to come to the core of why that is: For whatever reason, those owners or managers have this idea the men who have all this money would not be interested in those women,” she said.
“So, you have to think about the psychology of sex and why they would possibly think that these black men might not be interested in a dark-skinned black woman. It’s because they personally don’t think that that’s attractive.”
This issue, she said, goes beyond the clubs to the community at large.
Instagram star and long-time dancer Gizelle Marie got the idea to mobilize after hearing all the grievances and seeing how much more money she made stripping outside of New York.
Organized over Instagram, strippers have mobilized, held meetings and walked in marches including the Women’s March.
“Bartenders are doing our work, as well,” Gizelle told the Washington Post.
“They’re behind the bars dancing. Okay, if you wanna do that, that’s fine. But why are they not paying a house fee? They’re doing the same job that we’re paying to do. What’s the whole point of us being there? They might as well just take the poles out of the club.”
What the strippers want are reduced house fees and for bartenders to pay them too, for dark-skinned women to be given the same opportunities as light-skinned women, for bartenders to stop stealing their money, and for management to stop pitting the women against each other.
But most of all what they want is respect.
A fight for rights, for everyone
With no labor laws for independent contractors neither the dancers or the bartenders have any legal cover. With employers having no obligation to respect the rights of their employees, often they don’t.
This lack of rights for independent contractors is not just an issue facing the sex industry, it’s one facing us all as with the changing workforce. The solution needs to be extended rights for independent contractors, because boy, we’re going to need them.
As Sinnamon Love said, women shouldn’t be severely disadvantaged because of a lack of followers. For a number of women stripping and bartending is not their entire career with the stripping for college stereotype still being very real.
“As we all know, once those images of yourself are out there on social media, it makes it very challenging to take that back.”
So where to from here? Gizelle said there’s no plan to walk out on the job just yet, but that doesn’t mean the strippers aren’t willing to keep fighting.
“All we want is respect at the end of the day,” she said.
“If it doesn’t change by us going to the owners, we’ll take matters further legally.”