Clubs promise path from poverty

Clubs promise path from poverty – strip clubs recruit poor women

Rupa Shenoy

Using a strong female voice and beat-driven music, a local radio ad informs mothers of a way out of poverty–by working in gentlemen’s clubs.

“You don’t have to be poor anymore,” the ad says. “Gail us and change your life today. … It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to be financially independent.”

In the ad, three suburban clubs, Heavenly Bodies, the Skybox, and Cowboys, tell women they can earn thousands a week as dancers, models and cocktail servers.

WKSC-FM, 103.5, known as KISS-FM, has run the ad for months, but representatives would not confirm how long. Representatives at WBBM-FM, 96.3, known as B-96, said their station has played the ad for at least four years.

Critics charge that the commercial takes advantage of the lack of options poor women face–especially now, with a lengthening recession on Illinois’ horizon and welfare reform forcing more poor women into the workforce.

But others say the ad does nothing more than inform women of an employment opportunity; and that it is an individual’s choice to pursue the job or not.

The radio ad seems to speak to the problems many women face every day and is exploiting those problems, said Jennifer Koehler, president of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization of Women.

John Gehron, regional vice president and market manager for Clear Channel Radio, which owns KISS-FM, disagrees.

“I don’t think that this commercial is unethical. It’s legal, it’s a legitimate business and they’re looking for people to work,” Gehron said. “I think it’s an individual’s choice to decide whether they want to work in that business or not.”

“Some people may not like that business, but it’s up to them to decide. They don’t have to apply for those jobs,” he said. “I think it could create an opportunity for the right women.”

B-96 representatives declined to comment further.

In fall 2002, B-96 ranked seventh among Chicago’s 43 stations and KISS-FM ranked 15th, according to Arbitron, a media and marketing research firm that measures radio audiences nationwide.

Both stations play contemporary pop music and target women listeners, representatives said. “So clearly the commercial is reaching the right people,” Gehron said.

Professor Judith Kegan Gardiner, interim director of the Center for Research on Women and Gender at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Gehron’s argument would be valid if women had as many choices in employment as men–but they don’t.

“The problem is that we have a society where women’s economic opportunities are so limited that being a stripper or what is often a quasi-prostitute–someone who is providing opportunities for men to masturbate, doing lap-dances or various other forms of sex work–is the solution to the problem ‘Do you have too many bills?'” said Gardiner.

Heavenly Bodies sits just outside of northwest suburban Elk Grove Village in unincorporated Cook County. It is a garish, boxy, castle-like building at the intersection of Elmhurst and Touhy roads.

Staff who answered the phone at Heavenly Bodies gave The Chicago Reporter a fax number where that club’s owners could be reached. But there was no respouse after several tries. And the Reporter made many phone calls to Skybox and Cowboys but was told those bars’ owners and managers did not wish to comment.

The State of Illinois Liquor Control Commission has no license on record for Heavenly Bodies. SBX Corporation has a liquor license for Skybox Steak and Sports Bar, in south suburban Harvey, and Agha Limited has one for Cowboys Sports Bar, in south suburban Markham, according to the commission.

The radio ad for all three promises, “No nudity is allowed.”

But a Heavenly Bodies ad on a Web listing of Chicago area strip clubs and escort services says, “The girls give great dances.” It goes on: “$10 for a private dance, $15 for topless. Both are full friction, and touching is allowed above the waist.”

Odd Jobs

At age 17, Princess was on her own–and between high school, a newborn, and a few odd jobs, she didn’t know how she’d make ends meet.

She worked as a landscaper, teacher’s aide and office assistant to supplement what she said was welfare’s “meager” assistance.

But the money wasn’t enough, Princess said.

At 21, she started working lingerie shows full time. A year later, by the time her second son was born, she was a fulltime strip dancer.

Princess, who asked that her last name not be used, is now 36, and has three sons, ages 18, 13 and 9. Princess said she has danced for thousands of dents.

And even though she never thought that she would become a strip dancer, Princess believes that, for her and her sons, stripping made the difference between starving and success.

“For me, it’s a profession. Sometimes 1 hate it, and, then again–it’s the money,” said Princess, who lives in the South Side Englewood neighborhood. “I’ve stopped several times, and I find myself going back into it.”

Princess auditioned for jobs at Heavenly Bodies and Skybox, but was not hired at either club.

She now arranges her own appointments, typically private parties, and usually works four nights a week, including weekends. Princess said she makes as much as $1,200 a week, but friends who work in gentlemen’s clubs tell her that dancers there might make as much as $2,000 a week.

Chicago attorney J. D. Obenberger said his firm, Obenberger & Associates, has represented strip clubs for 10 years, although he wouldn’t say which clubs. He said the firm has defended as many as 10 female strippers from charges of prostitution.

Women might begin strip dancing for money, but many stay with the job because they receive attention, respect and adulation, he said.

It is true that there are women who speak up on behalf of the work, Gardiner said, but usually “there weren’t better options.”

“I don’t mind having a daytime job,” Princess said. “It’s just that so many workplaces are downsizing and laying off people, I can only resort to my backup plan, which is dancing.”

Other than dancing, Princess said she could only get part-time office assistant positions and was never promoted. Three sons can’t be raised on that income, she said.

Koehler, the Chicago NOW president, said women face rising child-care costs and the “glass ceiling,” and are often relegated to low-paying jobs. And the situation has only worsened for some because of changes in welfare, she said. Policy makers did not think about what lobs mothers coming off of welfare would have to get in order to get by, she said.

If presented with the choice of working at McDonald’s for 40 hours and earning $500 or stripping for eight hours and earning the same amount, women might find the latter option more attractive, Koehler said.

Undocumented immigrants, women with prison or felony records or those with drug habits are often found working at the clubs–some of the few places willing to hire them, said Beth E. Richie, an associate professor of women’s studies and African-American studies at UIC who has studied violence against women for 25 years.

The ad intentionally targets these women, she added.

Gardiner said the fact that the commercial is a mainstream radio ad demonstrates the acceptance of stripping as a woman’s way out of poverty.

Strings Attached

Richie challenges whether clubs like Heavenly Bodies, Cowboys or Skybox are places that can get women out of poverty. Typically, she said, neither childcare nor healthcare are offered, and “women aren’t promoted, they aren’t supervisors, they don’t control investments, and they don’t reap the benefits of the multi-million dollar sex-work industry.”

Obenberger said women can make a lot of money strip dancing, but the ad is not clear about the job’s downsides. He said most of the strippers he knows earn between $200 and $1,000 a week, but still don’t get off the “poverty treadmill” because they spend what they earn, no matter how much they make.

Although they might drive fancier cars and live in fancier apartments, he said, ultimately their well-being and financial security are on just as shaky ground as when they started dancing.

Still, Obenberger said, dancing can be a quick fix for women with money troubles.

“It is a way for a woman with desperate financial need to make quick cash–to do so with relative anonymity, to do so without doing anything too skanky and without doing anything illegal, and then to get out of it,” he said.

But Princess was quick to say she would never recommend strip dancing to women looking for a way out of poverty.

“It is a way to make quick money, but it’s not the best way to make money–the best thing is to stay in school and get a degree,” she said.

In addition, Richie said, based on her research, strip dancing may lead to other ills, like drug use and prostitution.

Princess believes it’s no accident that the gentlemen’s clubs are advertising now.

She said the clubs know many women are out of work and are flashing dollar signs in hopes that women will seek what economic relief exotic dancing offers.

“But there are a lot of strings attached to that dollar sign,” she warned.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Community Renewal Society

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group