Fighting for Dancers Rights
As the longest running female columnist for Exotic Magazine and editor of the book Strange Times: Tales from American Strippers, Elle Stanger is no stranger to speaking about her experiences in the stripping world.
This is exactly what she has been doing for the past ten months as an advocate for legislation that will improve the working conditions, safety, and lives of entertainers here in Portland. The result of Elle’s efforts is Bill 3059, which passed through the Oregon Senate and House of Representatives on Monday July 6, 2015. The bill, which had nearly unanimous bipartisan support, will allow for a hotline number and a posted worker’s bill of rights, available in all common areas shared by live entertainers.
During her time dancing in Portland’s Lucky Devil Lounge, Elle has experienced, supportive management and safe working conditions. However, she has seen that this is not always the case in other clubs. “It can be quite depressing how unkempt or unsafe some of these environments are,” she said. It was witnessing these environments that prompted Elle to become involved with Bill 3059.
Can you describe the legislation that you helped develop?
This is the first time in history that entertainers have worked with legislators to enact a law. A lot is owed to the lobbyists at PacWest, who connected the legislators and politicians to the dancers, comedians, and entertainers. From the beginning, we had strong support in the House of Representatives from a number of different reps, including Shemia Fagan, Margaret Doherty, and Jennifer Williamson. Even the most conservative Republicans in Salem who might have personal objections to the work that I do have been able to see how having safe working environments is a human rights issue and I think that’s huge.
Bill 3059’s primary focus is giving live entertainers resources where none currently exists. The bill would provide for a hotline, which would be staffed by advocates. These will be either people with social work or crisis line call center experience. Preferably there will be people who have worked as entertainers themselves, so that they understand the nuances of our problems or concerns.
The hotline will allow people to get answers to basic questions, like how to file taxes when you don’t make an hourly wage. It will also address the darker sides of the industry. For example, if I suspect that someone in a club or venue is a victim of trafficking or that they’re being made to work under coercion, and I don’t want to necessarily get involved with law enforcement, I can call the hotline and an advocate would make those connections for me.
The phone number would be placed in all dressing rooms and common areas for live entertainers around Oregon. This includes musicians, comedians and strippers. It really doesn’t have any imitations, as long as you work independently and you fall into that loophole between independent contractor and employee.
The second thing the bill will provide for is a worker’s bill of rights, which has not been drafted yet. This will be a basic list of rights, also posted in common areas. The simplest one that I can think of is the right to refuse service. This is very important. I have met with entertainers and strippers who felt that they were pressured to work under unsafe conditions. There’s really no protection for workers if the manager on duty doesn’t have any concerns for their personal safety.
What made you want to become involved with this movement?
Working for Exotic magazine over the years, I’ve been privy to seeing what goes on in clubs without having actually danced in all of them. What got me involved was knowing that I have the capability to speak about what I’ve seen without fearing consequences from my employers, because I don’t have any issues with my employers. I have an issue with other people’s employers. It’s definitely put me in a very unique position where I’ve had strangers that I don’t even know recognize me and come up to me on the street and thank me.
I’ve also known about entire forums and conversation threads online where people who don’t understand what I’m doing, or don’t agree with it, speak very ill of me. It’s been pretty stressful. I’m not trying to make myself a martyr for the industry, but some people are very willing to paint me that way. I just had the opportunity to speak up where a lot of my peers don’t. And I don’t blame them for wanting to stay quiet.
While I’m not afraid of voicing our concerns, I am afraid of people misunderstanding them. The vast majority of live entertainers do not want to unionize. Some people speak of a licensing system as if that would somehow prevent trafficking or regulate us as workers to make us safer. And the truth is if you have licenses, it’s going to be on the entertainer to pay for something to identify her as a worker where really it should be on the venue to do that. Things like an hourly wage would just put more restrictions on workers because venue owners are going to have to cover their costs. While a wage argument may sound noble, you’re really just going to compound the problem.
Portland has the greatest number of strip clubs per capita. Do you think this affects the working environment for strippers here?
Absolutely. I’m from San Diego. The population of San Diego County is very similar to that of Oregon state, about 3 and a half million people. In San Diego County there are maybe around 10 strip clubs. In Oregon, there’s probably at least a hundred. We’re dealing with a similar population, but there’s a very different supply and demand ratio. It’s not surprising that so many dancers here don’t make a ton of money. I do well, I am pleased with my earnings. I promote myself and have been very proactive. However, most of us strippers are not just strippers. Many of us have multiple jobs. The woman on the stage might be your dog groomer in the daytime. Many of us are very educated. Regardless, we definitely have strong opinions and have a large impact on the state’s economy, whether or not people want to acknowledge it.
How do you face the stigma associated with stripping?
I think the hardest part of the job is dealing with the stigma. The biggest problem when you have people talking about the industry is that they focus on a lawsuit, or an instance of someone being trafficked. They see strip clubs as hotbeds of crime and violence, despite the fact that more women are raped in their own homes, by their own boyfriends. And when you have thousands, literally thousands, of people working in this industry, it’s not a surprise that there would be a horrible incident once in a while. But overwhelmingly, I think this industry does a really great job of not only policing itself, but a lot of us really take good care of each other.
I think people unfairly place a lot of blame on adult entertainment and sex work. The best way to combat that is just to keep talking about it, and this is what I love to do.
This is what you do in your book, Strange Times: Tales from American Strippers. Can you tell me about this?
It’s a collection of stories written by strippers from around the country. I solicited these women because I had never seen a book like this before. I wanted to showcase the diversity of these people that fall under this umbrella of the term stripper. It makes for an empowering read. All of the women have very different things to say, but they all relate back to a very human essence. It’s the same concerns and fears that all of us have. About being loved, or being successful, having family bonds, and taking care of one’s self. It was really fun to read the submissions.
What’s the best part of your job?
The adrenaline that I feel when I’m flying around on the stage. I like connecting with people. I like feeling the nervousness of a person that’s in my lap and feeling their heart rate slow when I put my hands on their shoulders and I look them in the eye and smile. I like it when people tell me that I’m a very sensual person. I think I like feeling like some kind of a healer, which I’ve been told that I am. I think that’s a really rare gift. A lot of us don’t understand the healing power of touch.