"I was there..."
Interview with Dawn Passar by Siobhan Brooks
Exotic Dancers' Union organizers at beginning of End of the World's Fair march, May 1984.
Photo: Chris Carlsson
|First person account by an exotic dancer who was present in the strip club scene of the 1980s. Along with a light background of the industry in San Francisco, Siobhan Brooks interviews Dawn Passer as she explains how her experience fighting alongside other dancers for their rights as workers led to her being blacklisted from the city’s strip clubs and her transition into activism. Her experiences gives her a unique insight into the mindset of exotic dancers and the health problems and risks they face, working in the industry.
Dawn Passar is one of the co-founders of EDA (Exotic Dancer's Alliance) along with Johanna Breyer. She was born in Thailand and has worked in the sex industry in the United States for ten years. She works at the Asian AIDS Project in San Francisco where she does outreach to clients. In this interview Dawn gives an account of her experiences in the sex industry and her political activism.
Siobhan Brooks: Why did you start doing work in the sex industry?
Dawn Passar: When I first came to San Francisco, it was in 1982. I was living in Rhode Island for nearly eight years with my ex-husband, I came alone and that's when I starting stripping. I used do also dance in Thailand.
SB: What was the first club you danced at?
DP: I danced at the Penthouse on Broadway, the Roaring 20's, the peep-shows. After that I went to the Mitchell Brothers'. In 1982 the Mitchell Brothers' was the only lap dancing stage show theater in town. The rest of the clubs were topless and the customers would buy the girls drinks. On Broadway the girls would make minimum wage an hour and tips. We would split more than 50% of our tips with the bartender, the waitress, and the doorman. When I went to the Mitchell Brothers' they hired me right away, I worked there for five and a half years. I was making minimum wage an hour. I worked there until 1987 until I was laid off. I asked the management why I was laid off and they told me it was a matter of turning over new faces.
Around this time the Market Street Cinema was another live nude theater with lap dancing. The difference between Market Street Cinema and the Mitchell Brothers' was that the Cinema didn't have wages, and didn't pay the dancers, but you got to keep all your tips from lap dancing. After I was laid off at Mitchell Brothers' the theater stopped paying dancers wages, and the dancers had to pay to go to work. The paying of stage fees started at the Mitchell Brothers' and the trend trickled down to other theaters. Soon after that the Market Street Cinema adopted the system of not paying dancers wages and charging dancers to work. This system is snowballed nationwide and in most clubs in San Francisco.
SB: What were some of the problems that you noticed at the Market Street Cinema that lead you and Johanna to organize EDA?
DP: I remember when the Cinema implemented a ten dollar stage fee. We would all complain because according to the law we didn't have to pay at all, and now we have to. But then we were all like, "Okay, fine ten dollars, no big deal." Three to four months later the stage fee was fifteen dollars, then twenty. In less than a year the stage fee went up to twenty-five dollars. We began to organize because we felt that the stage fee would continue to go up if we didn't do something. We gathered a bunch of women and had our first meeting at a nearby restaurant. We also invited the manager to come--which wasn't easy. At the second meeting is when certain women were singled out as being "trouble-makers".
One of my co-workers felt she had a good clique with the management, and by herself she told the management what she felt was wrong with the theater . Shortly after she was fired. Most women wanted to organize, but only a few were at the forefront. For many women that was the only job they had, and they didn't want to lose it. But many women took a risk by providing support for the women who were at the forefront. Johanna and I along with a few other women were at the forefront of the organizing.
We had a series of organized meetings, we wrote a letter to the management, and we got recommendations from other dancers. We sent the letter to the owner of the club asking him to reduce the stage fee to fifteen dollars. At that time no one was making enough money to come up with twenty-five dollars. We calculated the expenses of the women with kids, and the cost for baby-sitters. We also asked the management to improve their scheduling. A single mother with kids will pay a baby-sitter and come to work, only to get turned down. The manager might tell her that there are too many girls working, or that she came to the club too late, or that they didn't like the way she styled her hair that day--I'm going to send you home. That woman lost money because she already paid a baby-sitter to watch her child. Those were the kind of situations we asked management to take into consideration. The management never responded to our letter, they said that they would not reduce the stage fee. The son of the owner attended one of our meetings. I spoke to him after the meetings and he told me that his father would never reduce the stage fee. We had tried all the necessary steps: speaking to the management, holding meetings, writing letters. The outcome was not favorable to us, so we took the matter outside of the club and filed a complaint to the Labor Board.
SB: How did that process go?
DP: At first it wasn't easy because when we were looking for a consultant we called up the Labor Commissar to find out our rights, and when we told the people that we were strippers, they hung up on us. They asked us if we were in a union or part of some type of organization, and if we were employed. But that's why we called because we weren't sure if we were employed. This was one of the main reasons EDA was started, so that when we were asked by people at the Labor Commissar if we are part of an organization, we could say that we're part of the Exotic Dancer's Alliance organization. That way these people will listen to us and not hang up on us. You only need two people to have an organization, so the two people were me and Johanna.
We then went to CAL-OSHA which is a occupational safety organization in California that oversees health, safety, and cleanness in the work place. We went there and told them and told them about the two bathrooms without doors at the Cinema. We felt that the man who works there would use the bathroom in the dressing room, which we felt was only for the women. Even though we performed naked on stage, the dressing room was our privacy. The people from CAL-OSHA came and gave the owner a citation ordering him to put doors on the bathroom. That was the first victory for us; having someone order the owner to do something for us. It was a small victory, but still a victory.
SB: Can you talk about the process you went through of getting out of the sex industry?
DP: Well, I was blacklisted from dancing at any club in San Francisco, so I had to get out. I can never dance anywhere in this city again. I can't go to a club and say the name Dawn Passar. All the clubs in San Francisco are pretty well connected with one another. I worked from 1982 to 1992 in the sex industry. After I was blacklisted I became an activist because I didn't have any other type of job. I had prepared myself to lose my job when I began organizing. When I left the Mitchell Brothers' after working there for five and a half years, I realized that this is not the kind of job you can do forever. I was also a single parent at the time. During the time of the organizing at Market Street Cinema I had begun going to school. I got grants and scholarships to pay for school, that really helped me since I was a immigrant who couldn't read or write English that well and had no other vocational skills. That's why I was in the sex industry. That was the turning point in my life, and I was still dancing because I couldn't just stop totally. Once you start dancing it's something that you're used to in your daily life.
I went to school and completed my Master's Degree, and graduated in 1992. As I was becoming educated, I realized that my working conditions were different from those of other people. It was the first time I stepped out of my daily life of being at home taking care of the kids and my work activities. I realized that people get different treatment at other jobs and that's what inspired me to get an education and find out more about my rights. After I graduated I was doing organizing work that lead up to me getting the job I have now.
SB: You said you danced in Thailand, what was your experience doing that?
DP: Well, this was in the early '70s and the Vietnam War was still going on, but coming to an end. The sex industry was probably a repercussion of the Vietnam War. During that time there were several different American GI bases in Thailand. In different cities in Thailand American GIs roamed the country. They were looking for women, so bars and nightclubs were springing up, and I was one of those women. Well, girl I would say since I was fourteen. At that time Thailand had go-go clubs, but without the nudity it has now. Women than just wore thigh high boots and a bikini. When the war ended sometime in 1975 I believe it left women used to the easy money bar life, and the Rent-A-Wife life. In Thailand they don't call it prostitution, but Rent-A-Wife. Rent-A-Wife is when a woman stays with a GI for however long he's there, and he pays you for your time. Everyday she cooks and cleans but without obligation to marriage.
Prostitution was always illegal in Thailand, but you can go to the red light district and everything is pretty much in the open. It's different now because life is harder. Women have to do a lot more for less money. There's more nudity now in the clubs, which is against the law, but the law isn't enforced. All this is due to corruption, hierarchy, and classism.
SB: Do you know what's going on in terms of activism around sex worker issues?
DP: There is an organization called EMPOWER. They do HIV prevention training and education. They're doing a pretty good job, the organization has existed for about ten years. But the sex industry is still a big problem in Thailand. There you have the very rich or very poor. In America you have racism, in Thailand you have classism since most people have the same color of skin.
SB: Did you feel poor growing up in Thailand?
DP: I think poor has different definitions. I would say I was poor, but never hungry. We always had food. Maybe I was poor in the sense of material things. If you live in America you have a car, a TV. In Thailand I didn't have those things, but we didn't need them. The word "poor" has different connotations for different people. So, perhaps I was never poor.
SB: While you were organizing was there ever a time when you felt your life was threatened by the managers?
DP: Sure because there were rumors that all the owners were part of the Mafia, big in size with lots of money. Those were only rumors which I took with precaution, I also made a point of going to the media. One of the protections anyone who does organizing has is the media, it's good to come straight forward to the media. However, the worries are always there, they never go away. People told me that I could end up in a trunk never to be found again, that they could suit us down and we would never be heard, all those things.
SB: Why don't you talk a bit about your job at the Asian AIDS Project?
DP: When I got blacklisted from the sex industry—the stripping industry—I became an activist and I gave talks to different women's gatherings. I was giving a talk at a gathering with Carol Leigh from C.O.Y.O.T.E and I announced in the audience that I didn't have a job, and I asked people if they knew of a job. One of the men from the Asian AIDS Project told me to apply for a job there. At that time I was like, "Well, that's nice." I never called him back, three months later he called me back asking if I was still interested. I never called him back because I thought it was just an office job and that I didn't even read and write English that well. I could write and read English by the time I graduated school, but the idea of working in an office was too scary. After a year and a half without a job I thought I would give this job a try. I applied and got the job I have now. I've found that I have a lot of support from people who work here, they knew that I could do the job, they helped me with different trainings. Come to think of it, it's not that different from being a sex worker.
My job requires outreach, case management, advocacy, and training. The idea of the HIV prevention education is to bring the service to the community, which is women in massage parlors. People are not going to come out and say that they need to learn more about HIV and AIDS. They won't take time to do that or they feel that their family comes first and they won't think about themselves. They are thinking about work, taking care of the kids and the family. But their health comes last. We are the first ones in the whole nation to do outreach to the massage parlor people. Every big city has a massage parlor or a Chinatown: New York, L.A. Other agencies have tried but we have giving trainings and shared information with them. It takes a different level of togetherness to reach people successfully. When I say successfully I mean people who can get successfully into the massage parlor, and earn the trust of the manager, the owners, and the workers there. We let them know that you are providing health education and HIV testing.
SB: How did you function being a stripper in a society based on filling out forms, doing your taxes, getting credit, or renting an apartment?
DP: Well, I didn't have any credit (Laughs). I had two kids, and I remember I was trying to get on welfare because I needed it. I didn't have any ID or a birth certificate. I was still functioning as if I was in Thailand when it came to doing paper work. I felt that doing paper work was unnecessary. When I signed for my kids to go to school I had to fill out papers stating that I was the parent/guardian of my kids. My occupation on those forms was a cashier.
At the time being a cashier at the dirty movie theater would give me more credit than if I filled out on the form that I was a stripper. The reason why the occupation of a cashier came up was because my kids were used to seeing me come home with cash, and they would go, "Oh, Mom! You're a cashier, ah?" This is when they were young, like three and in half years old. So, I was like, "Okay, I'm a cashier." But when they got a little bit older I told them that I was a stripper. I told them that the money that was feeding you, the money that brought you toys was stripper money. I wouldn't tell the schoolteacher, but I told my kids and I told them to be careful who they told. I told them that the parents of some of their friends may not like this.
SB: What did your kids think about you stripping?
DP: Well, when they were younger they didn't understand what it was. All they cared about was the fact that I could buy them toys, and take care of them. When they got older they understood what my job meant. I remember one of their friend's mother at a PTA meeting was asking another parent that I knew if she knew I was a stripper. The woman was like, "How could she do that? That's so bad!" The other parent said that I wasn't a bad person, and that she didn't even know me.
SB: In my experience being younger than you, and stripping in an era where working in the sex industry is a little more acceptable, I want to know how did you actively encounter those negative views?
DP: Yes, it was viewed as a negative job. When I first came here I had a job as a dishwasher in a Thai restaurant. I had enough to pay the rent, but then I got really sick and I was in the hospital. When I got out I lost my job and I couldn't pay my rent right away. I was dating someone who was a manager of a strip club who said, "Oh, come and dance. You'll make money right away." And sure enough I made cash that night. I thought to myself that this was really a bad job compared to "normal" jobs, I'll just do it for two weeks and get enough money in the bank and leave this job. When I got into it I didn't think it was bad, money was good at the time, cash flow was every night. It was good money because with a different kind of job you had to wait two weeks to get your paycheck. I got to know the women in the industry, and I realized that life is what you make of it. If you make it bad then it will be bad, I believed that I could make my life good. I refused to go back to dishwashing.
SB: Do you think there is a cultural stigma to sex workers?
DP: Well, white men have stereotypes of Asian women being quiet and cooking and cleaning for them. I get that, and I was one of those women who for years never talked back and cooked and cleaned for my husband. I think that knowledge is power and people get older and change their lives. In relation to my own community I haven't experienced a stigma. I'm pretty open in my community about what I do. I think in my culture the attitude is be the best at what you do.
SB: What is your definition of a feminist?
DP: I think it comes back to the choices one makes in life. I think the choices that women make need to be supported by everyone. Being a sex worker, some feminist would say, "How could you do that? You're being exploited." I think the problem is that I would need them to support me, not condemn me. We should be looking at how to make the sex industry safer to work in. But by telling me to stop doing what I chose to do for a living is not empowering. I find it disempowering to be around people who are quick to judge me; people like that are neo-Nazi feminist. We need to support one another.
SB: Where did you go to school?
DP: I went to San Francisco Art Institute, and I got my Master's from the California College of Arts and Crafts. I was always a visual person and I come from an artist background; my uncle is an artist. When I thought about going to school I was thinking in terms of traditional education—writing and reading, all the things school requires. But I realized I could take pictures, so I was majoring in photography and film making which didn't requiring reading and writing.
The Merit Fellowship and the Fourth Foundation liked my work and gave me scholarships which helped my self-esteem and made me believe that I was good at something. When I reached my senior year I realized that I had to write a thesis, three to five-thousand words. I was a student at the Adult Literacy Program at the Berkeley Read Program. My skills in writing and reading English improved. Thanks to Miss Audrea Folley, my tutor.
SB: What are some of the main mental health problems with women in the sex industry?
DP: The suicide rates, substance abuse, and sexual harassment exist at the work place. In professional work settings companies usually offer health care or counseling to their employees. That doesn't exist in the sex industry. The sex industry should offer this kind of health care coverage for their workers. When women do get sick, they have to relay on the City and County and taxpayers' money to pay for their medical expenses. This should be the responsibility of the employer. In terms of psychological problems that I have seen: suicide, drug overdose, and domestic violence are the leading cause of death among sex workers. Currently, there are not any health outreach workers providing safe-sex information and health education in strip clubs. More young women are seeking this kind of work because it seems glamorous, and a way to make easy money. I mean all of that is there, but other shit comes with the job. Emotional abuse is very high within the job.
I remember there was this student who came from U.C. Davis. She never drank, smoke, or did any drugs. She was going to school and she just wanted to make extra money, and she did. The first three months she was fine, she was new, everyone liked her and she made a lot of money. I saw her a year later and she was on the street on every type of drug she could get—she was unemployed and homeless. If she was an "employee" rather than an "independent contractor" at the strip club she was working in, she would be entitled to health benefits. These kinds of situations are not uncommon to women in the sex industry.
SB: How do you think the situation for exotic dancers can be improved?
DP: The dancers need to be well-informed about their labor rights, in relation to employee status, and work together at having an organized work force. The dancers can get together and have a co-op strip club—that way working conditions can be improved.
photo and design by Chris Carlsson
Don't Swear. Don't Slouch. When in Doubt, Smile
—from Queens of The Tenderloin
That's what one of the signs at Centerfolds says. Yes, I'm a showgirl at San Francisco's newest club owned by, surprise Sam Conti. It seems Sam owns the Cinema, New Century and Regal even though his name isn't listed as proprietor of Happy or Popular Properties, the private owned corporations operating these adult theaters. Women who make the ill-fated decision to audition at Centerfolds can't happily grind away at these clubs unless they agree to work at Centerfolds. List of women's names appear at the Cinema and New Century the week that Centerfolds opened- these women will be denied shifts until they talk to Isabella. It seemed strange to me that I was essentially being forced to be a showgirl when I was content to remain a sleazy lap dancing queen. When I auditioned, I thought it would be a nice change- none of us, I'm sure will mourn the day we stop lap dancing. Then I attended two mandatory meetings and a dress rehearsal the night before the club opened. During those meetings and dress rehearsal, I got to know Sam Conti a bit no, I didn't speak with him one on one--I listened to him ramble for hours and occasionally insult a dancer if she asked a question. No thanks, I thought. I thought that, because I am an "independent contractor, I could choose where I work in this town" ha ha ha ha heh he ha ha.
A Little History
A year ago Sam Conti applied for a license from the San Francisco Police department for his dream club, Centerfolds. Because Centerfolds serves alcohol and food, it is considered a cabaret. Back when Diane Feinstein was mayor, cabarets and adult theaters were both required to obtain licenses from the police department. On Friday, January 25, 1985 at 4 PM "...the Market Street Cinema was raided. Eleven women were arrested and charged with lewd conduct because they would take money to sit in a customer's lap where they would gyrate in mock-intercourse." the police report said. (oh my!) The court order issued against the cinema prohibited any performer from leaving the stage area to contact or mingle with the patrons or customers." On February 1, 1985, five days after the Cinema bust, Marilyn Chambers was charged with soliciting prostitution and engaging in lewd conduct at The Mitchell Brothers. Coincidentally (Ha ha ha) the Board of Supervisors was soon to vote on an ordinance that would end the licensing of adult theaters. Four days after vice cops raided Mitchell Brothers, the Supervisors voted 8-3 to abolish license requirements for adult theaters and instead, require adult theater operators to acquire a permit (which is very different from a license) from the Fire Department. unlike the police codes specific and explicit regulations on "entertainment," the Fire Department's Place of Public Assembly Public Assembly Permit has no specific regulations about what an "entertainer" may do it mostly has regulations about how far apart the seats have to be and how wide the aisles should be, etc.
The police codes regulating the "entertainment" prohibit a number of activities. For example, Section 1060.9 of the police code states "No professional entertainer or employee may dance with any customer on the premises in any place of entertainment." When the Century opened in 1989, the Chronicle did a story on it and of the lap dancing part-owner James Caruba said, "Last time I looked, it was still legal." Where did he look? It seems the regulation of adult theaters hinges upon the owners relationship to vide police officers and the fire department. Fire fighters are given free admittance to Mitchell Brothers and we've all dealt with drooling uniformed policeman checking us out, not to mention undercovers propositioning loudly. I guess all this distresses me because I can get busted if the political climate changes, if I unwittingly say in dollars how much I want for doing a lap dance, if my pimps (the club owners) don't grease the right palms. They create the conditions we work under. They advertise, promote and profit off an activity that's most-likely-illegal, we could get arrested for- and that's fucked up.
from the O'Farrell Theater
Maybe lap dancing is quasi legal, but calling us independent contractors against the law. To determine whether or not a person is an independent contractor or an employee, California uses the "right to control" test. Every woman who is threatened termination if she doesn't work at Centerfolds has a winnable case before the labor commissioner because this coercion proves that she's treated as an employee and denied the bargaining power of an independent contractor. The contract we sign at the Cinema says the performers "markets his or herself as a professional entertainer, available to provide performances and does, in fact, provide performances at other locations without restriction, supervision, or control by the theater. Employers are warned not to destroy the independent contractor status ,"by exercising control over the means of accomplishing the work." "EMPLOYERS SHOULD BE AWARE THAT DAMAGES AND PENALTIES CAN EXTEND TO TAX WITHHOLDING, UNEMPLOYMENT, INSURANCE CONTRIBUTIONS, WORKERS COMPENSATION CONTRIBUTIONS, OVERTIME, MINIMUM WAGE, ETC. " I, myself, could use two plus years of minimum wage and a refund for my stage fees, and a reimbursement for half the taxes I paid on my tips.
But I'm chicken. So I'll anonymously grip for a while longer until I win the lottery and can afford to legally challenge my indentured slavery from all the clubs in town. A new policy is that "showgirls" who are caught allowing men to touch them will be fined ten bucks per infraction. Okay—there is nothing worse than being exploited by somebody stupid—it sounds like a sure fire pimping and pandering bust—we can only hope.