What if your workplace turned into a brothel? Would you adapt to it, fight it, or quit?
License to Pimp tells the story of three women who are grappling with that decision. Lola is a 16 year old who started stripping to support her family—because of her age her story has been animated to protect her identify. Daisy Anarchy has been in the business for over 2 decades and is taking the fight to court, and Miriko Passion wants to be able to keep all of the money she makes without having to do things she’s uncomfortable with. SPARK’s Crystal Ogar sat down with Hima B., the filmmaker and also a former stripper, about labor conditions in clubs, what led her to make this film, and how we can help.
Crystal Ogar: What’s the premise of the film and why is it important to you?
Hima B: It’s basically about the labor changes that have happened over the last two decades in the strip clubs, not only in San Francisco, but across the USA. Very specifically, the strip clubs (if there were any) that were paying workers as employees stopped that practice and started calling these workers independent contractors. What resulted is that the workers were made to think that they have all this independence and freedom, when in fact it’s really kind of a camouflage and not the actual case. There’s way more power in being an employee, which is why they want to strip it away from the dancers. Unfortunately a lot of the women bought into it, in the sense that they want freedom. Especially when you’re doing something like sexual labor, which is different from regular labor, you want to have more control over your body because it’s YOUR body that’s actually doing the work. The reality is that the way the women want their freedom is they want the ability to be able to schedule when they want to come in to work, which is one of the upsides. It could be given to the employees if they employer wanted to, they could run it like a temp agency and dancers could say “I wanna work through the next week or I don’t wanna work tomorrow,” and the clubs could schedule it that way, but they choose not to. What they’ve decided to do is say, “look, if I have to be your employer I’m going to totally screw you over and I’m going to own your lap dances/the tips that you earn.” Stage fees such as those are completely illegal.
My premise in the film is about these illegal policies and practices that effectively create the situation where the club is now operating as an underground brothel. They’re charging these super inflated fees, which are essentially pimp fees. $200-600 a shift for 8 hrs or less and you pool this money even before you walk in the door, so you have to be creative in terms of how to come up with this money, especially if you’re in competition with 30 other dancers. So a lot of these women turn to prostitution. There are private rooms (sometimes called VIP or champagne rooms) that provide a cover for the prostitution to happen.The film is not saying we hate prositutes, it’s saying that strip clubs are not the appropriate place for prostitution to be happening. A lot of strippers come into the industry expecting NOT to have sex. So it becomes a dilemma that a lot of women face and they realize that that’s what they need to do in order to keep their jobs.
CO: Was it difficult for you to film any of the scenes for the movie at all?
HB:Oh yeah, definitely. There were a lot of obstacle courses in my path. Like club owners, it was difficult trying to get interviews with them, but fortunately I was able to manage that with a few peopl—one was with Meta Jane Mitchell who runs the Mitchell Brothers, with her brother. She was awesome actually, really tried to be transparent about why she was running the club the way she was. We went over the new policy they were going to implement, because they lost a multi-million dollar class action lawsuit where they had to reimburse dancers all of these stage fees they charged. It wasn’t by choice, they were mandated and they lost millions of dollars.
I talked to some of the workers on the premises, but you know, it’s like any workers you talk to on the premises of their work site.
CO: Like, are going to say what they have to say in front of work?
HB: Exactly, no one wants to get fired from their jobs for giving an interview and going public about what’s happening,
I interviewed one of the dancers there who said that when Jim Mitchell was running the club, he would demand dancers to have more sex and keep the customers happy, full on pimping the girls. It stops being consensual. Some people might argue that women are making the choice by going back to work, but when you become dependent on a job it doesn’t feel like you have that many options. These women could leave, but the stage fees are happening in every club, you can’t escape that unless you completely exit the industry.
CO: Do you think this film with help with the stigma that’s involved around sex workers and sex work?
I think one of the things is creating more visibility about what the labor conditions are. People are going to stigmatize sex workers and that’s really unfortunate because it really deprives them of their rights. So hopefully what the film will do is show that this body of workers (strippers) are actually employees and they do deserve the same protections. If you are an employee and you are in this country, you’re guaranteed basic rights. Some of those are you get paid minimum wages, you don’t have to pay to work, and that if you’re in a job where there’s tips involved, that those are the employee’s NOT the employer’s. And that’s really important and I want to underscore that part of it. You have way more power as an employee rather than an independent contractor and the club owners have done a very effective job in covering that up and unfortunately a lot of the women go along with it.
HB: What can the people who see this film/are interested do to help?
Supporting the film of course! And hopefully the Kickstarter campaign is creating a lot more awareness. There need to be places in the sex industry where women can work and not have sex. And I think that that concept is really hard for a lot of people, even for sex workers to get. Many think that that’s anti-sex worker, but I think their statement that I HAVE to work in a place where sex is happening is actually anti-sex worker.
The Kickstarter campaign for License to Pimp ends on July 18th, and Hima is $20,000 away from her goal. Please share & support this campaign and help further this incredibly important conversation!