“People love strippers. We have experienced an overwhelming amount of outreach and support.”
These are the words of BammRose, founder and CEO of Stilettos, a nonprofit activist group run by five Philly-area strippers. The organization held its first event on June 27: a Stripper Strike that took place in West Philly’s Malcolm X Park.
“People have been donating to us: resources, money, food and supplies for events, time, protection and so much more,” she continues, “The support we are receiving is immense. It further confirms that we are doing the right thing.”
According to BammRose, a 24-year-old New Jersey resident, the purpose of the Stripper Strike was to raise awareness of workers’ rights issues in gentlemen’s clubs and offer club owners a chance to make needed changes.
The clubs can get on board with Stilettos’ list of worker demands, she says, or be prepared to be boycotted.
“We would like for clubs to work with us. What we are asking for is not unreasonable,” she says, adding that club employees and owners share a common goal. “By valuing the lives that bring in the money, work morale is increased, the women are happier, which makes the customers happier, which makes the work environment less toxic.”
The mood at the Stripper Strike was positive, even party-like. Radio-safe edits of hip hop emanated from a DJ tent, attendees danced and took turns performing tricks on a freestanding pole, volunteers served up free food and water. A domme showed off their skills cracking a whip… that also happened to be set on fire.
An estimated 200 people gathered, largely mask-wearing and socially distanced, to watch, listen to speeches from the Stilettos board, and cheer on the performances. Many of the assembled crowd wore bikinis, dancewear and fetish gear. Very on brand for a political event organized by strippers.
A passerby could be forgiven for thinking it was a particularly liberated music festival, but the event was one of serious political action.
“My goals are to influence change in policy on every level…. We aim to have legislative policies put into place to protect us (that) these clubs have to follow,” says BammRose, who says she’s been a political activist since high school, leading protests and even serving as president of the History and Political Science Club in college. She says that with this action, she wants to bring awareness to the racism and colorism in gentlemen’s clubs: the hiring, marketing and employment practices that she says most adversely affect Black women.
According to a Stilettos’ press release, “Black and Afrocentric women are often not hired in non-urban establishments regardless of talent. When they are hired, they are held to a different standard than that of white dancers. They often face racism from staff and customers. Darker skinned and Afrocentric women are not promoted on club social media and websites.”
Stilettos is hoping that increasing media attention to racial inequalities in America will help foment support for Black sex workers as well.
“When you say, ‘Black Lives Matter,’ you don’t get to decide which ones matter,” she says, adding, “Dancing is legal, we deserve safety regulation and equal employment opportunity.”
Stilettos is an organization led entirely by Black and brown women and non-binary dancers and sex workers. Many of their demands are inspired by their own experiences as club employees. BammRose says that her jobs in the clubs “often have ended badly.”
“Generally speaking, there is a pimp/hoe dynamic in which clubs feel like they own you, when in fact they don’t, and it causes them to treat your life with no value,” she says, adding that dancers experience not only racism and colorism, but also body shaming, sexual harassment and assault. Of club owners, BammRose says, “To them, you are an expendable, replaceable human. They couldn’t care less about you personally or professionally. Many times in these establishments, when you report being wronged by a customer or staff, you lose. You’re often left unprotected.”
“We would like for clubs to work with us. What we are asking for is not unreasonable. By valuing the lives that bring in the money, work morale is increased, the women are happier, which makes the customers happier, which makes the work environment less toxic.”– BammRose, founder and CEO of Stilettos
“I’ve worked in nine clubs, and they are all different. I enjoy dancing and entertaining,” says Mxstress Lilith, a stripper, dominatrix and Stilettos board member. “However, I did not enjoy being sexually harassed and assaulted regularly while on the job, dealing with stigma outside of work, seeing the colorism, experiencing racism, and having my basic rights regularly stripped from me.”
In addition to urging clubs to address issues of race and sex, Stilettos is also pushing for safer working conditions. According to their press release, clubs need to ensure that “pole apparatuses and emergency medical equipment are properly maintained, and facilities kept clean. Dancers are required to work in heels that are 6+ inches. If they are injured due to establishment error, they are not compensated and are left out of work.”
Philadelphia Weekly has previously covered similar concerns, including the exploitation of dancers’ status as independent contractors, club managers demanding illegal fees, and failure to properly address dancers’ safety concerns when raised. The number of lawsuits initiated by dancers against former employers has dramatically increased in recent years, including suits against several Philly clubs.
Strippers are classified as independent contractors, in theory. This is the rationale for why dancers are required to pay for their stage time: that they are entrepreneurs using the club space. Despite that, club management often maintains tight control over schedules and pricing, and even elements of hair, makeup, heel height, and whether phones are allowed on the club floor. Yet this control does not accompany the benefits of being classified as an employee, like taxes and health benefits.
“Every club I have worked at [has failed to] honor the way that independent contractors’ contracts should work,” says Mxstress Lilith. They said that they have been punished for demanding more equitable treatment. “I have lost jobs over speaking out, but I will continue to. I have met the strongest, most amazing people through it.
“The Philly Stripper Strike was about making ourselves as an organization known, or goals and our mission. Ending racism and colorism in the clubs, demanding safe and just working conditions, and addressing sexual assault in the workplace,” they added.
While they are a new organization, Stilettos appears to have community support, social media traction and some financing. In addition to funds raised at the Stripper Strike, Stilettos has managed to raise a few thousand dollars via GoFundMe. The organizers are also offering fitness and pole dancing classes and producing adult variety shows to support the cause.
“When we are successful in this, clubs will be safer, cleaner, and friendlier environments for the women that work there,” says BammRose, who adds that this is only the beginning for Stilettos. “We also aim to continue educating dancers on their rights as independent contractors and employees working in and outside of clubs. We aim to build a network, a sisterhood of women and resources, so these women don’t have to feel alone or subjected to patriarchal abuse.”
A surprising and ongoing obstacle to revolution in the industry has been convincing dancers to organize and demand change.
“This event was about creating community and education,” says BammRose, “We wanted to wake people up and show them that they deserve more.” Many dancers are convinced they need clubs to make money, she says, enduring substandard conditions and mistreatment out of the belief that it is a financial necessity. “We’re here to show them otherwise, we’re here to teach them true independence,” she says, “We, the dancers, have the power. It’s not a strip club without strippers.”
More information about Stilettos can be found on its Instagram page, @stilettosinc.