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An interview with a leader of the Portland Stripper Strike on the growing movement for equal treatment and better labor protections for dancers.
By April M. Short
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted around the world following the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, protesters in Portland, Oregon, carried signs with messages like “No Justice, No Booty,” and “We Won’t Perform Without Reform.” The Stripper Strike is centered on exposing racially biased labor practices and calling for the equitable treatment of Black and other non-white dancers within sex-forward Portland’s many strip clubs. The localized strike has since grown into a nationwide labor movement for racial justice, as well as better treatment overall of dancers in strip clubs around the country. Black dancers are leading the charge, mobilizing the nascent labor movement—and dismantling stereotypes and taboos along the way.
The problematic strip club environments that Black and other non-white dancers of color have put up with for years, according to the movement, include a range of loosely cloaked racial biases like disallowing hip-hop music or claiming a venue is a so-called “rock and roll club” going for a certain aesthetic that in effect alienates Black or other non-white dancers. Then there are more overt policies, like clubs that primarily hire white dancers, pay them more and give them the best time slots. These and other trends have been widespread throughout the strip club industry and until recent months received little pushback, largely for fear of retaliation among dancers. The Stripper Strike in Portland, however, drew widespread media attention to the issue.
The Stripper Strike and the ongoing movement it has inspired expose and seek to tackle the uncomfortable realities that, until recently, were only discussed among dancers in the dressing room or on closed social media threads, says Cat Hollis. Hollis is a Portland-based Black dancer and founder of the Haymarket Pole Collective, which is the central organizing force behind the Stripper Strike. The collective, which is made up of local dancers, advocates for “proactive policy and equitable treatment for Black and Indigenous workers by facilitating restorative justice in the adult entertainment industry.” Haymarket Pole Collective seeks to protect the labor rights of dancers who belong to marginalized groups, including dancers who are people of color, queer, and/or differently-abled.
Hollis says fighting vocally to protect those who are most at risk of harm gives the whole industry of dancers a leg up. As reported in detail by Iman Sultan at ZORA, the Stripper Strike’s demands include safer working conditions, fair wages, and protection from sexual assault. Sultan writes:
“Even though strippers are the main entertainers at strip clubs, most of them are independent contractors, who pay stage fees to perform. As a result, they are not guaranteed safety, fixed wages, health care, or recourse for the sexual harassment, stalking, and rape they experience on the job. And for Black women, the risks of sex work are magnified by racism.”
In the U.S., Portland has the most strip clubs per capita, and it carries a sex-positive, sexually liberated reputation. However, as the Stripper Strike and efforts of the Haymarket Pole Collective have revealed in recent months, many of Portland’s clubs have had injurious racial biases, racially discriminatory policies and a lack of racial and cultural sensitivity training.
The Haymarket Pole Collective has been gradually implementing cultural sensitivity training, led by dancers of color, throughout local clubs willing to comply with the strike’s demands. Hollis says she has been in regular online meetings with organizing dancers and collectives that have emerged around the country in solidarity and with similar intentions for their local industries. The groups are collectively working to streamline the cultural sensitivity training processes.
Independent Media Institute (IMI)’s April M. Short spoke with Hollis about the Stripper Strike, its impacts on the strip club industry and the long-term goals and plans of the larger movement for dancers’ rights.
The following interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
April M. Short: Thanks for speaking with me—I know you’ve been busy taking interviews and getting the word out about all that you are doing. I’m hoping to hear from you about your future plans and long-term visions. Also, what has already come out of the Stripper Strike, what hasn’t come out of it; what has changed?
Cat Hollis: I like to say stripper strike is a verb, right? And the noun behind stripper strike is Haymarket Pole Collective, at least for this particular strike [in Portland]. What has been really cool, as we’ve grown and continued to incite action, is we are finding these other autonomous collectives of dancers across the country and we’re collaborating with them on a larger action.
A big part of me [wondered], “Are there other people doing this work? Are we overlapping with people who have been working hard for years?” What I realized is that, although there are a lot of autonomous dancer collectives, there are very few Black-led or Black-trans-Indigenous-centered collectives.
I was having a meeting with a bunch of different dancers from all over the country, and even though many of the dancers were people of color, it was Haymarket Pole’s mission that brought up the need to highlight the struggles of Indigenous, trans and Black folks. It was really cool just to meet with this group… and they were asking whether we were ready to do a collaborative effort. I was like, I am, and you need to put it in writing that you’re trying to protect these vulnerable communities within our communities. And they said, “Of course, of course.”
But I feel like that “of course” is what has left these communities behind. We assume that these rights are inalienable. And if power wasn’t real [then inclusion would be a matter] “of course,” but power is real. It was great to lend a voice and lend weight to the voices of people who are in this community and are marginalized, on top of being sex workers. So that felt really good.
AMS: I think that’s kind of a landmark of the era that we’re in. People are realizing that in order for anything to shift, we have to say the thing rather than just assume it’s implied.
CH: Yeah. And some of what I’ve learned through this process is that a lack of active language preventing discrimination is inherently discriminatory. And that’s on a federal level.
There are so many rights that were fought for already, in the past, that aren’t being fulfilled in the present. One of my favorite discoveries was that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that if there is not active language preventing future discrimination—so not responsive, but proactive language protecting those most vulnerable people—that is inherently discriminatory. It’s just so important, as a bottom line, that we start off by including in our language.
… I’ve been talking a lot about fostering consent culture, and I think that a way that [people], especially white women, can more easily understand why these things are important is if you think about consent culture. Consent is FRIES. It’s freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. A sex worker can still be raped if her consent was not fully informed or enthusiastic or specific, right? And that’s if you’re about to have a sexual encounter. The same thing goes if you want to touch a pregnant person’s belly or a Black woman’s hair.
In a similar way, I think it’s important that we as allies get consent from the communities that we are assisting. We should look for enthusiastic and specific and informed and reversible consent. Do they want our help? What do they need? I think that the people who are in those communities have the best vision for what their ideal outcomes are. It’s important to be putting them in leadership positions and in a place where they can advocate for their own, where they’re the ones leading the charge, and they’re the ones determining the opportunities.
One thing that I keep on thinking about is how people are like, “Oh, I can’t believe that dancers are doing this.” And I’m like, “Okay, but if you really see us as the lowest of the low, how are we able to do this work and vocalize for our rights, and yet you’re still struggling with the idea?”
I’ve been saying that we’re done teaching people how to jump over hurdles that have been there for years. People have been telling communities, “Hey, you’re just not jumping high enough. We get that the hurdles are there, but let’s teach you how to jump higher.” And it’s like, no, man—let’s move these hurdles out of the way. As we go along, we’re finding these systemic problems and hitting the glass ceiling, so to speak. And we have decided that every time that we find a glass ceiling, we break it so that it’s not there for other people.
I think that it’s so important to have people define where they want those hurdles lifted from. Because I think that it goes back as far as [white European colonists] giving blankets to the Native Americans [that gave them smallpox], for example. Intent and outcome are often completely different, and a lot of our intents are unknowingly harmful to these communities. The blankets are bad examples of that, because it was often fully cognizant [that the blankets could spread smallpox], but, you know.
AMS: I saw this meme or Instagram post that I think maybe you shared, about a similar idea: being given a “seat at the table.” It said something like, “We don’t want to sit at your table; we’d prefer a different table.”
CH: Yeah, and we’ve always had a table and the idea that you’re like, “Hey, let’s build a little table next to ours.” We’re like, “Oh no, we have a table.” And you [say], “No, no, no, no, no—our food is really good.” And we’re like, “I’m telling you that you’ve been hitting the fork out of my hand for 500 years.” And then people are still [saying]: “I don’t understand, is our table no good?” And we’re like, “Well, you poisoned me at that table like six times before. Why would I want to sit there?”
There is a banquet of opportunities available that people of color have been trying to build for years. And it’s been torn down over and over again in a variety of ways. I think that it’s really important to think about that when we help these communities—we’re not determining their outcomes; we’re expanding their opportunity to choose their own outcomes.
Not all people are the same, and they don’t all want the same opportunities.
AMS: Going off of that a bit, I wanted to hear about the cultural sensitivity trainings you’ve been putting together, led by dancers.
CH: Yes, so we’re providing the trainings for clubs to do cultural sensitivity training with staff. And we’ve recently facilitated sex workers in learning to impart those trainings.
I, for example, have a really hard time—I upset white people a lot because I’ll say things like “white people suck.” And then someone’s like, “What about me?” I’m like, “Oh, I mean, yeah, you’re fine.”
AMS: Right, some people take it personally rather than looking at the meaning or context.
CH: And the people who don’t take it personally are already on their path to anti-racist action. So, how do we approach the people who do not understand and come from a place of confusion? And confusion leads to anger…
I’m having to learn to say things like: “Yeah, Greg, all lives do matter, but what we were trying to do was this and this…” You know? These are skills that I feel I’m learning. We have the wisdom to impart the path to justice in our communities; we just need to make sure that people have the skills to listen and to hear [when they lead these trainings]. Because these are our rights—it’s not a game and it’s not an option.
AMS: Can you tell me more about where you are in the process of cultural sensitivity trainings for club staff, and how it’s been going?
CH: We have been actively training. We are fiscally sponsored through the YWCA of Greater Portland, which means we are a 501(c)(3) [nonprofit]. They have been doing the trainings for clubs. We have three clubs that are scheduled and in the process of doing these trainings on interrupting racism, how to approach a situation that is racially charged.
Originally the clubs were saying, “We don’t need it because we’re not racist.” Well, when Dominique Dunn, a Black man, was shot outside of a strip club in Portland [in July] by a white dude, I think that brought to light the idea that it doesn’t matter that your bartender or hiring manager or staff are racist; in this current political climate we are all, whether we like it or not, going to be dealing with escalating tensions surrounding race. No matter what your view on the progressive nature of Black liberation is, we can all see the benefit of reducing conflict in our communities. Learning how to approach the problems is really important.
AMS: Returning to something you touched on before—has there been significant pushback or difficulty getting through to people during trainings, and/or is there anything new or unexpected coming back to you from the larger community?
CH: Well, a part of what slowed down the street action was that COVID-19 cases were going up, but really what it helped us do is sit back and ask ourselves: are we able to provide the things that we are asking of these clubs? And we’ve been learning how to do that. For instance, we’re asking these clubs to do these trainings, so we’re taking the trainings. We’re asking clubs to have nondiscrimination policies. Well, we’re now forming our own 501(c)(3), so how does a model policy look? We’re working with a committee of dancers who are at one of the clubs to help develop a model policy for folks.
One of the surprising things for me is that I feel like a lot of dancers are very hesitant to participate in asking for compliance with state law because of their lack of agency in their places of work. And, how do we expedite justice for those groups of people? I think the big change that we’ve seen is an educational standard of independent contractors asking to understand what their contract means and what their rights are.
Some of the pushback I feel is from a lack of communication, which is inherently the problem. At our first rally, for example, the venues said they did not get our demands. And it’s like, “How?”
I think that the real issue that has come up in this is that these strip club owners and managers are trying to say that they did not know. And the question is, how was one dancer at 2 a.m. ever supposed to receive aid for issues surrounding the workplace, surrounding discrimination, clients, and things like that if it took 9,000 of us to get through to clubs? If it doesn’t matter that we have 300 people standing outside of clubs with signs, we delivered the demands, we’ve emailed the demands, we’ve mailed the demands, and yet somehow [club management] still doesn’t know? So the real question is: if you really don’t know, isn’t that an issue?
AMS: Right, at this point how could they possibly not know?
CH: Yeah. And if you don’t hear us now, how did you ever expect things to be going so perfectly before this? If you really didn’t hear us, maybe there’s a lot more you didn’t hear.
What I’ve been surprised by is the openness of some of the managers to improve their places of business. I’ve actually been really surprised by the support, and it has been lovely to see the support. That was something I was not expecting.
The other thing I was not expecting is that, even with pro bono legal services, even with extensive opportunities for training, there’s still a level of fear in our community of retaliation. I think that that is something we need to remove because if someone is afraid to say no, how is their yes enthusiastic?
AMS: I was going to ask you about that potential fear of retaliation because in any line of work standing up to the boss is hard, no matter who you are—and then [there are] the added layers that dancers face, and people of color on top of that.
CH: Right. And, also just to admit that there’s improvement that’s possible. We like to think that we [in Portland] are the best because we have the most clubs and we have a lot of opportunities, but the question is, is that enough?… At the beginning, people were like, “At least you can wear tennis shoes.” Or the attitude was, at least we can do these certain things. And I’m like, it’s not really enough. Do you feel that extending your own privileges is going to remove something from you? Do you feel that by arguing for your indemnity rights somehow you were going to forego the caveats you have?
AMS: Could you talk a bit about the bigger picture of why sex workers’ rights and strippers’ rights are relevant and important in the larger BLM movement, and overall in society?
CH: I think the important thing that people can realize from any sort of a vulnerable community raising an issue is that marginalized communities are part of our communities. They’re just on the fringes. If we have hardships or problems come into our communities, the first people to see them are those people on the edges. And it means that these things are coming for us.
People were really freaking out about [protesters] on the street getting nabbed and thrown into unmarked vehicles. And this is something that immigrant and Native and Black communities have been experiencing for centuries. In resolving harm for our marginalized communities, we can uplift the community as a whole. Black folks are a marginalized community, and within that community we do have even more vulnerable communities. Differently-abled people, trans people, sex workers are all vulnerable; harm is potentially exponential [for them]. We can also determine that if the harm is potentially exponential, the benefit is potentially exponential if we reduce harm for these communities. If we can reduce harm for them, we can see how quickly we can effect change for the larger community. It’s too bad that often people don’t realize until it’s too late, or they’re coming to help after a community is in crisis. What this movement is really bringing to light is the need to proactively address these issues before they cause crisis, before they cause harm.
For instance, we don’t have support services, so when COVID-19 hit, these vulnerable communities were exponentially more likely to experience harm. So, if we can improve our health care system, if we can improve our social services system, if we can uplift communities and get people therapy and social services they need, we can reduce harm so that when a community is in crisis there’s a lot less to deal with.
One of the important terms that I’ve heard within Black Lives Matter is all Black lives matter. We cannot forget our trans family and we cannot forget our differently-abled family and our Indigenous families. Because those are the people who walk the margins. And like we were talking about before, we’ve been trying to get a seat at the table for them, and at a certain point why don’t we just protect them where they are?
AMS: On the Haymarket Pole Collective website there’s a line that says: “Our existence has always been counter-culture, profiting off the male-gaze and relying on mutual aid. In an effort to alleviate the systematic pressures of the status quo, we now join hands, click heels, and dance together as a unified front.” I would love to hear a little bit about that counterculture, and the mutual aid in particular. How and what are the ways in which the community has had to, and continues to, support one another from the inside? And why has that been necessary?
CH: I think that one of the ways that we are extremely proud of our culture is that the human body has been monetized in many ways through labor. I recently had an interaction with [my mother] where she said to me: “I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to deal with you selling your body.”
And I was like, wow, is that counterculture? Because in a capitalist system, we are all selling our bodies at some point, whether we are breaking our backs in an Amazon warehouse or sucking dick on the corner. There’s survival sex work, right, where people are doing labor for survival, but there’s survival [in] so many types of work.
[This movement] is about reclaiming the means of production. We’re seizing the means of production in that our butts run these clubs. And as far as the world’s oldest profession goes, I don’t understand why people think it’s going anywhere. If we can look at how to address the problems that are presented by patriarchal culture and by capitalist culture—because basically, if something doesn’t work within the systems that exist, they throw it out—so if we can look at the systems that they’ve thrown out, we can see how to dismantle that system. We want to be the wrench in the gears of that system. And so, if we’ve been determined to be a wrench, then by all means let’s get ourselves in the gears.
Especially in regard to mutual aid, I think Tennessee Williams said it best: “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Sex workers have been crowdfunding their rent $20 at a time way before GoFundMe. I think that we have a lot of unique skills that can help benefit our communities, and because we have been left out of discussions, we have not been able to help solve problems that affect everyone, including us. So we’re using that rub, using that friction, to create heat and spark some change for all labor. We’re done with trickle down and we decided to trickle up.
AMS: Could you share the challenges many strippers and sex workers face accessing basic social services like unemployment?
CH: [Dancers] cannot apply for [unemployment] because, for the most part, we’re independent contractors. [Another] part of the problem is a lot of dancers have trouble providing documentation of their work. For instance, if I’m trying to apply for government relief as an independent contractor, I have to have a copy of my contract, and most clubs will not give you a copy of your contract. So then, when I am calling this club to try to confirm my contract with them for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), [since] I’ve been working on the strike, now they’re saying that I never worked there.
It’s an issue that strippers have faced for a long time: we signed this contract, we don’t get a copy. It turns out the contract was only for three months, and then two years later after working breakneck shifts every single day, there’s a raid. They find a condom in your purse. And the club says, actually, she doesn’t have a contract. You’re like, what? I signed a contract. And that was three years ago, and they’re like, yeah, that contract fell out.
Also, for instance, when I was renting a house in Minneapolis, I would say that I was a waitress. Otherwise, they wouldn’t rent to me. It is actually illegal to discriminate in housing because of your job—my job was completely legal, but that’s what I had to say. So, you know, at a certain point there just comes a problem of anonymity.
AMS: And all of this is part of what the Haymarket Collective is working to change, yes?
CH: Yeah, and one of the demands that we’re encouraging other economist collectives to include is that we would like clubs to start doing their due diligence as far as documentation [is concerned]. If you’re going to terminate these contracts, then you should give them a reason in writing. Because for some reason, all of the Black dancers get fired for their attitude… And so the question becomes how do you seek retaliation for discrimination when there’s no documentation?
Regulation is a slippery slope. We figure if it’s coming either way, we would like to be part of defining what those regulations look like, because right now they’re not serving us, they’re serving these club owners who make millions of dollars a year off of our stage fees. And the thing is, these clubs don’t run without us. At a certain point we do need to seize the means of pro-butt-tion, as I like to call it, and to say that without our butts, you make no money. And then there are no drink sales, and there are no stage fees.
Even though we don’t necessarily have the right to retaliate like a lot of employees do, we do have the right to contract where we please. If a club does not have proactive language in their discrimination policy, those issues are going to trickle up to white dancers, to cis dancers. Ending these discriminations is super important to protecting us as a class.
AMS: I wanted to hear just a little more about efforts mobilizing nationally. You said you met with a group of different dancers from around the country. There’s a national Stripper Strike. How do you see this movement growing and building into the future?
CH: I’ve been calling it a biogenesis, which is a scientific term for simultaneous beginnings to life. Currently, in our scientific display, we say there was a one-celled organism and it split into two, and then it developed into a plant, then a fish, and then it crawled up onto the land. And what science has shown is that a lot of times when the conditions for life are right, it will begin in many different places at once. I truly feel that the conditions for change are right. There are so many collectives that either started on their own completely separate and we’re now just finding each other, or there are collectives that are seeing the actions being taken by their co-butt-workers, and seeing their power, and reclaiming their power.
It’s just been absolutely beautiful to see those groups collaborate. We may not have the same laws or the same practices at our clubs, but a lot of the problems are the same. So, we can talk about which techniques are working, which aren’t, and what we’re asking for. We have a list of demands from four or five different states. There is now a Haymarket chapter in Chicago that started from our national meetings that happen on Sundays.
It cheers me up all the time when I look at the rage and empowerment and demand for better that is happening. We’ve been asking for this for so long. Dancers have been asked for a long time to fix their clubs, and the real thing is we don’t have to fix our clubs. We just don’t have to contract at clubs that are shitty. I think the solidarity has been really effective.
AMS: Yes, and like you were saying, it seems to be a moment right now of evolutions happening all over the place spontaneously, together.
CH: Yeah. Because the conditions are right, but it’s not a coincidence or an accident. It is the sound of the wrench in the gears. We’ve all been thrown in, and now we’re saying, well, actually fuck this machine. Let’s rage against it. This isn’t what we want… I think it really is a biogenesis. The conditions are right, and the other thing is they’re not unique. The things happening [here in Portland] are things that have been happening all over the country.
This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.