Behind the fantasy at Minneapolis strip clubs

Photo by Emily Utne. Special thanks to Chloe Kayne at Dollhouse Pole Dance Studio for modeling.

Photo by Emily Utne. Special thanks to Chloe Kayne at Dollhouse Pole Dance Studio for modeling.

A furtive call to 311 chronicled blood splatter, vomit, and undeterminable stains on nearly every surface of a downtown strip club. The dance poles were filthy with bodily fluids, as were the beds in the secluded VIP rooms upstairs. The women there had caught warts, scabies, and microbugs.

A manager dismissed the complaint as the fiction of a disgruntled worker.

Yet Minneapolis inspectors uncovered soiled pillows and comforters, a decommissioned hot tub holding six inches of standing water, and troves of trash. A used condom rolled up in a clump of hair and chewed gum, the manager attempted to explain, may have been dropped by a customer who wore extra protection under his clothes in case he became over-stimulated.

The findings led inspectors to make a sweep of every glittering adult business in town. Bearing blacklights, they harvested samples of semen stains from 11 out of 17 businesses.

But rather than crack down, they sought to understand what was happening with the city’s flesh merchants. That wouldn’t be easy.

“I think there’s always a concern, if we look at these businesses, that we’re just trying to regulate them because we’re prudish or because we’re the moral police,” says Dan Huff, Minneapolis’ director of environmental health. “That’s not it at all. As a public health agency, we’re about people’s health. We’re focusing on workplace harassment and economic well-being.”

This wasn’t always the case. In years past, unannounced inspections had taken close stock of dancers’ behavior, what they could and could not do. Even in the world of topless performance, women could cross a line into “indecent conduct” if they touched a guest with their bare breasts. Anyone found “mimicking copulation” in the course of a lap dance got slapped with a citation.

That left strippers and government regulators with a history. Huff didn’t think dancers would open their hearts and minds to city staff, so he asked researchers from the University of Minnesota to assist. Free from the impression of government surveillance, and unconcerned with the moral preoccupation of those who dislike strip clubs on principle, these social workers could be the city’s ambassadors to the clubs.

They hoped to understand not only why there was so much potentially infectious fluid in businesses that aren’t supposed to provide anything more than a tease, but the working lives of the women who serve them. What they found was a job where sexual harassment is the norm, most of a dancer’s earnings are tithed away, and job security is reliant on an ability to shut up and tolerate both.

Behind the fantasy

Tawnya Konobeck, a.k.a. Sweetpea, strikes an unusual figure at City Hall on a frigid March afternoon. Statuesque in a form-fitting oxblood sheath, with long Vampira hair, she peers down the row of council members seated at the dais before her. When she speaks, her voice is a disciplined husk.

Sweetpea is the only dancer in Minneapolis who agreed to lend her face to the university’s findings. That’s because, in addition to stripping, she’s a burlesque star with a cult following of her own, a headliner at cabarets around the country, where she’s billed as the “Seismic Shake from the Land of 10,000 Lakes.”

Her standing allows her to utter the open secrets that could get other women blacklisted.

Many entertainers enjoy their jobs, she says matter-of-factly. Customers can be sweet and flattering and generous. Many just want to croon their compliments and decorate women with money like strands of tinsel.

The dancer’s sensuality, the club’s commodity and conducting rod, is hers to wield over men. With time, the stage can teach anyone to feel beautiful, and bring thousands of dollars flowing through her hands. 

But blurred boundaries can trap women in perilous encounters without backup, the university found through anonymous interviews with dancers. 

Most clubs, in addition to their main stages and honeycombs of cocktail tables, offer private VIP playgrounds. These remote, near-dark rooms are tucked behind gauzy curtains and furnished with couches and beds, where deep-pocketed guests are invited to spend alone time with dancers for as much as $400 an hour.

It’s a rate that competes with commercial sex. Add rivers of champagne and cash, nebulous suspension of the universal no-touch rule—plus the readiness of some clubs to permit prostitution—and guests assume orgasm is part of the deal.

The same way customers believe a $20 lap dance can buy a feel, the extended menus of VIP rooms lead them to think they can purchase to their imagination’s limits.

“People don’t think that we care about that kind of stuff,” said one dancer. “Some people don’t really recognize that strippers are people. Like at all. Like at the fuck all. Like, ‘What can I buy off you?’”

Some customers will use force to get what they think they’ve paid for. One stripper spoke of the heated arguments that arise when the clock runs out on guests who have yet to come. Another recalled prying a panicked co-worker free from the chokehold of a man too drunk to tell she didn’t want want it rough.

These are nights of exhaustive physical struggle. “Playing goalie for all your private parts,” Sweetpea explains.

On the main floor, customers are often unaware of the rules of engagement, presuming they end at the same place as their fantasies. The women are left to push gropers’ hands away, to tell flashers to zip it up.

One recalls her debut night, when a man grabbed her off the stage, gave her $60 for three lap dances, then pinned her down and began masturbating. She couldn’t put her hands up to signal security, and she didn’t want to scream and make a scene.

Bouncers meet true violence with muscle. Yet dancers have watched as wealthy customers are invited back with a brush-off and a get-in-free card. The vigor with which bouncers come to their aid is often directly correlated to how much dancers share their tips with them.

“Who’s gonna watch out for you? ...It’s all based off of what you’re gonna tip,” said a former entertainer.

(City Pages contacted each downtown strip club that employed women. None would provide comment, saying they didn’t know about the city’s work, or referring questions to corporate managers who did not respond.)

As independent contractors, dancers receive no salary, and pay the house for entry. They lease stage time for up to $100 a shift, depending upon the day. They give the club about 20 percent of their lap dance and VIP earnings, then split the remainder with the rest of the staff. They tip the DJ for music, the hosts for assignment to the most lucrative tables, and the managers to keep their jobs.

Failing to pay, they say, entitles DJs to humiliate them on stage with absurd song choices, or bouncers to look away from crises. Dancers can be fined for everything from arriving late to talking back.

When times are slow, imagine the heartbreak of going to work because the bills are mounting, only to leave owing money to the club, said one dancer.

“Yeah, I cried in the bathroom, for sure. It’s like, ‘Fuck my life. I’m going to go home and hang myself.’”

Dancers have no confidence that government will help, Sweetpea tells the City Council. The public views strippers as pilots of their own pain, complicit in every skirmish they face in their chosen line of work.

“Well, you put yourself in this situation, so can you really complain?”

The sizzle and the steak

The nuclear option—and Councilman Cam Gordon’s initial reaction—was to get rid of VIP rooms, the epicenter of the problems, according to the U’s findings.

These are innovations of the past decade, the strip club’s counterstrike to competition from internet porn. Back in the clubs’ heyday, men sojourned to see showgirls in the flesh. Then came endless free entertainment in the privacy of their own homes. Clubs that once served strong floor shows to wall-to-wall crowds folded.

Diminishing audiences steered the birth of an alternative fantasy experience where money, customers believed, opened doors to normally unattainable liberties. Once customers were satisfied with sizzle. The VIP room offered the promise of steak.

Herein lies the quandary. Ask dancers if they want the VIPs closed, and the answer is a resounding no, says Gordon. One hour there is equivalent to a night’s worth of lap dances. He does not want to impede their ability to earn.

Still, he was shocked to read the university’s interviews with strippers, and nauseated by the thought that anyone engaged in a legal trade should face the regular expectation of harassment.

“I didn’t run thinking I would regulate adult entertainment. It was like, ‘Oh my god. Really? That’s how they’re operating?’” Gordon says. “It looked like there was more going on than people might have imagined, who weren’t familiar with it at all.”

The leader of the university’s study, Christina Melander, notes that Minneapolis’ problems aren’t unique. The question is why strippers should tolerate conditions that workers in no other industry are expected to suffer.

“It’s been an industry that policy makers have, in my impression, been tip-toeing around for a long time because regulating anything that’s related to sex comes off as being moralistic, when it doesn’t have to be. It can be about protecting workers. But tip-toeing around it has created a silence, a stigma, and a shadow.”

Nationwide, policy makers have tried and failed to advance helpful regulations. Ordinances are rarely crafted with workers’ best interests in mind.

Seattle and Washington, D.C. have rules prohibiting dancers from touching customers, but are silent on customers’ responsibility. San Francisco once tried to ban private booths, bringing the wrath of 50 strippers with megaphones stomping down to City Hall. Clark County, Nevada outlawed lap dances, only to fuel protests by the Las Vegas Dancers Alliance. 

Others sued, challenging the independent-contractor status that clubs pressed upon strippers, a tactic used by all manner of industries to avoid paying wages and benefits. The courts tended to side with the dancers, since they essentially were the business.

But a one-size solution has proven elusive for a diverse body of workers. Some dancers need but a couple shifts a week to pay tuition, while others fear employee status would replace their lucrative tips with a minimum wage. Most dancers enjoy the flexibility of working only as they please.

Workers have also attempted to change clubs from the inside out, organizing—with little help from established unions—to mixed results.

Dancers with the San Diego strip club Pacers unionized in 1993 over being forced to pay a $5 stage fee every hour, and purchase unwanted Pacers merchandise like cheap garters, fragile stockings, and overpriced costumes.

The club retaliated by firing union leaders, hiking stage fees, and stonewalling contract negotiations. High turnover allowed management to replenish its roster with scabs until, eventually, the dancers voted to decertify the union.

Organizing was more successful at the Lusty Lady in San Francisco, a bawdy peepshow famous for its punny marquees. Fed up with random firings, pay cuts, and one-way windows where customers recorded them without consent, the women formed the Exotic Dancers Union. Wages reached $27 an hour. Later, when the owner moved to fold in the face of internet porn’s rising popularity, dancers bought the club as a cooperative. Eventually, a landlord who was invested in a competitor evicted the Lusty Lady for good.

University researchers believe it’s not their place to recommend changes in Minneapolis. Nor does Councilman Gordon think the city should impose regulations of its own design. Instead, they’re looking to dancers to advance the best ideas.

The breadwinner

A dancer who’s been working in downtown clubs for 15 years narrows her eyes and curls her lip when asked if she likes the job. 

“There’s got to be some elements I do like,” she says searchingly, nursing a cup of coffee in a Northeast cafe. The money, without a doubt. 

She’s tussled with enough managers that few clubs still welcome her work. She asked not to be named.

Trouble began at her last job when a host helped himself to dancers’ earnings, she says. When customers purchased lap dances with credit cards, he’d withhold a twenty here or there. Afraid an argument would lead to instant firing, entertainers said nothing to management, though word traveled.

One night near closing, the host ushered her into a VIP room with a peevish customer. The guest refused to tip the host. The dancer could see why—all he’d done was walk up the stairs with them. Afterward, the dancer noticed her payout came up short.

“Of course that reflected on me, because why wouldn’t it?” she says with a sigh and a smirk. “[The host] was hoping that I’d had so much champagne that I couldn’t fucking add, and just let him take all of my money because he didn’t get tipped properly by the customer.”

She went to the general manager to demand her money. Their relationship never recovered.

On another occasion, a patron spanked the dancer and called her a bitch. She slapped him. His friend reared up in her face as if to fight. The host pulled her aside and warned that the whole club could get sued if she ever raised a hand to a guest again, she says. That made strike two.

The following weekend, the club unveiled a new dance area—basically a roped-off couch—that cost customers $125 for three songs. Entertainers got to keep $80. The dancer questioned the idea. Customers would balk at the cost of a not very private experience, she argued. And why did the club deserve 40 percent?

Managers dumped her locker into two garbage bags and kicked her out, she says.

“I was so dumbfounded. I was like, ‘I’m just trying to have a conversation with you. I worked here for eight years. You’re just firing me?’”

Still, the dancer rejects the notion that stripping exploits women. As independent contractors, dancers spend big on makeup, costumes, nail art, hair extensions, breast implants, lip injections, gym memberships, and everything else it takes to look desirable. But she questions whether she should also be funding the lights, music, and basic security. An entertainer with her experience doesn’t need much to hustle. She can separate a well-paying customer from a dud with a glance at his gait, his spirits, and his company.

“I go to therapy,” she concedes with a wry laugh.

Twice a month Kjersti Bohrer, founder of the faith-based outreach group Beautiful and Loved, visits strip clubs with packs of pistachios for the managers and gift bags of body scrubs and lip balm for the dancers. She sits in the dressing room with them and talks—not about the struggles of the job or even God—but about their kids, classes, sports, gardening, anything else that gives the women a sense of peace.

“When you’re in an environment where the money you make depends on how you appear to other people, not just how cute you are but how much you seemingly love your job, you can build a very protective layer over yourself,” Bohrer says. “I’ve been there so I know how lonely it can be.”

It wasn’t much different 15 years ago, when she worked in a strip club. She signed up straight out of high school, fully expecting that when the rules stated customers couldn’t touch her, she’d have some recourse if they did. The first time she was groped, the bouncer laughingly nudged the patron to keep his hands to himself. The manager asked her what she’d done to provoke it.

Over the years, Bohrer’s met managers who do the best, watching customers like hawks, designing couches that force men to sit upright, and recognizing dancers as their co-workers instead of their girls.

“If they held the customer to the rules, if the customers were told, ‘You cannot be in here if you are disrespecting this woman,’ then the entire culture would change,” she says. “But men know that when they walk into that strip club, whatever morals, whatever expectations they may have had at their day job, they go out the window.”

At least one Minneapolis manager has managed to survive through the ages without taking money from entertainers to resist corporate competition.

Jerry Bjurstorm is the owner of BJ’s Liquor Lounge, a no-frills, retro neighborhood bar known as the “Cheers of the North Side.” He’s been running the bar himself for 37 years, leading career bartenders who have been with him for decades, and a league of entertainers who come and go as they please. On a daily basis, nearly all his clients are regular faces.

“We’ve got our own Cliff, Norman, and all the rest of them. They walk through the door, there’s somebody who’s responsible for the business, who’s happy to greet them. These things matter.”

Everything the bar offers is out in the open. There are no closed doors, no VIP rooms, “so they’re not doing sexual favors or anything,” Bjurstorm says.

He pays security. Anyone who raises a hand to a dancer gets 86’d. Dancers keep 100 percent of their tips, and he makes money on liquor sales.

“We don’t want their money,” Bjurstorm says. “We’re a little operation, and over the years we’ve developed so that our sales fulfill our needs.”

His only hope is that when the city crafts new rules, he’s allowed to run BJ’s the same way he always has.

The dream

After the city’s inspections in March captured a snapshot of what was left over from the nightly revelry, dancers answered the U’s call for information with apprehension. They looked over their shoulders as they sat down at coffee shops with researchers, nervous about running into others from work. They seemed to fear that opening up about their jobs would prompt the inevitable finger of morality to come wagging back at them. They would be blamed for the stains, the harassment, the violence.

But the tension would lift when they were asked to imagine how things could be different.

“I felt like that’s where the interview would really lighten, because people do like a lot of aspects of their jobs, and they can envision that if things could be more worker-purposed, how that could create a better workplace,” says researcher Natalie Taber.

There was the suggestion that clubs could charge stage fees by the week or the month, the same as leasing a cab or a chair in a salon. Or they could do away with the automatic 20 percent tip to managers that serves as a second house tax.

Some floated the idea of licensing dancers like masseuses, but that met resistance from those who recoiled at the idea of having their personal information in a public database. Others, seeing no realistic end to the small number of dancers engaged in sex work, wanted biohazard waste disposal. Many believed that VIP rooms are too dark and too remote.

Sweetpea harbors her own lush fantasy of someday opening a club, a feminist paradise she’d run with her wife. It would marry exotic dancing, high-end burlesque, a full stage show, and some adventures into the world of kink. Guests would watch the beautiful showgirls perform, and then the dancers would swim among them and drink champagne like they did back in the 1950s. The VIP room would look more like an elevated lounge.

In the meantime, these dreams are tempered by the seemingly intractable forces of corporate consolidation and customers’ internet porn expectations. She takes solace in knowing that at least someone, somewhere, is thinking about doing something.

“Things have kind of slid, and people haven’t been paying attention to where everything has ended up. It’s very promising to have the conversation that there are problems.”