Solidarity under red lights as lap-dancers throw off their chains

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The Independent US

In the city synonymous with sexual freedom, San Francisco's strippers are using labour laws to combat exploitative club owners they claim are driving more and more girls to prostitution.

In the city synonymous with sexual freedom, San Francisco's strippers are using labour laws to combat exploitative club owners they claim are driving more and more girls to prostitution.

Business is booming in the back rooms and private booths of the city's sex trade, but a district attorney's decision this year not to prosecute lap-dancers for soliciting in strip clubs has prompted girls to turn for support to the same city and police officials they have previously hidden from.

About 200 strippers have complained to the California Labour Commission that the fees the clubs charge strippers are exorbitant. Some say these fees, coupled with the growing popularity of private booths, have compelled strippers to turn to prostitution, with encouragement - tacit or direct - from management. They also say the secluded booths provide cover for sexual assaults.

Daisy Anarchy, who has formed a union-backed organisation, Sex Workers Organised for Labour, Human and Civil Rights, says many dancers must prostitute themselves to make the $150 (£70) to $500 in fees they have to pay the club owners each shift.

"The most vulnerable women end up doing the most for the least amount of money in the most dangerous conditions," said Ms Anarchy, a former dancer, whose real name is Tracey Buel.

Not every stripper agrees with her and some are vehemently opposed to any change in the system.

Nancy Banks, a stripper and lap-dancer who says she earns $400,000 a year, has formed a group to counter Ms Anarchy. She believes eliminating private rooms would limit the women's earning potential. "We would not be able to make money just with lap dancing. That's not what customers come for," she said. "They come for a one-on-one experience with a beautiful showgirl."

Ms Banks, who pays a fee of $150 per shift to the New Century Theatre, where she works, likens the charge to a barber shop's fee for the freelance use of a chair. "Anybody who boo-hoos about, 'I only brought home so much' is not exerting themselves," she said.

San Francisco has had a reputation for sexual licence since 1849, when 1,000 prostitutes were shipped in to the city's Barbary Coast to serve the carnal needs of the mostly male population.

The Vietnam-era stripper Carol Doda made her topless debut in San Francisco in 1964.

But by the 1990s, Ms Anarchy and seven other women felt things were getting out of hand. The group made statements about coerced prostitution and assaults when private booths became popular eight years ago. They met the mayor, Willie Brown, and the district attorney, Terence Hallinan.

But nothing happened and Ms Anarchy blames the inaction on the fact that Mr Brown had once served as a lawyer to a strip-club owner (he gleefully declared a Marilyn Chambers Day in the city when the porn star returned for a stage appearance in 1999).

Mr Hallinan, who lost his re-election bid last year, now works for Mitchell Brothers, which owns sex clubs and theatres.

Because San Francisco is proud of its attitude of sexual tolerance, city officials have tended to stay out of the debate - and rarely pursue prostitution charges against dancers arrested in vice raids.

But now, at the urging of the strippers themselves, state labour officials and the city's board of supervisors plan to audit the industry, while the attorney's office and police are looking into the safety of private booths, as well as whether the city can regulate the fees the women are charged.

"We have to make sure that every woman feels safe, no matter what her occupation," said commission president, Andrea Shorter. "There's a whole politic around how we discuss these issues in San Francisco. The history is deep and complex."