Sex worker uses labor law to sue D.C. club, WaPo reports lasciviously

Quansa Thompson, an exotic dancer who was fired by The House in Washington, D.C., is suing the club for unfair wage practices under the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

The House paid her and the other dancers $20 for showing up each day, with the understanding that they could keep their tips after they paid the management a couple of fees — $20 to the DJ, $20 to the bartender. If a dancer was late to the stage, Thompson said, the club charged a $10 penalty. The fine for missing a shift was $80, even if it was because of an illness, which is what Thompson claimed when she didn’t show up for work one night last year.

When Thompson started talking about forming a union and threatened to sue the club’s owner, Darrell Allen, she was banned from dancing there. Thompson got a lawyer, Philip Zipin, who found that The House classified its dancers as “independent contractors,” but…

Zipin said The House’s practices — its schedules, rules and fines — amount to treating dancers as if they were employees but without paying minimum wage. “This is exploitation,” Zipin said. Thompson is seeking $75,000 from The House, an amount that includes the wages and overtime she said she would have collected had she been working full time.

I think this is a pretty great story about a woman in a marginalized and stigmatized profession doing the really hard work of standing up for her rights. Which is why it’s a shame the Washington Post buried it under half a page of drool. The article starts out:

To hear Quansa Thompson talk of her life as an exotic dancer, to listen to her describe how men offer cash as she sashays, gyrates and jiggles the night away, is to evoke a thousand titillating thoughts, not a single one having anything to do with the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938.

Well OK, but this story isn’t about Thompson’s dancing or the writer, Paul Schwartzman, and his editor getting turned on. It’s about unfair labor practices and labor law. So, uh, why are we even talking about jiggling?
The article spends a couple paragraphs graphically describing Thompson’s process of learning to dance well and getting money from men in the club. Which helps me understand the labor dispute how?
WaPo informs us that The House (which is in my neighborhood) is “a den of prurient entertainment.” Funny, I thought it was a club where sex workers perform, but now I know we’ve got our own local den of prurient entertainment. And the article explains the independent contractor pay structure by telling us it’s, “as if they were plumbers, only without the tool belt (not to mention the shirt, pants and underwear).” Yeah, that was some useful clarification there.
None of this has anything to do with the story at hand and everything to do with the objectification of sex workers. To WaPo, Thompson and other exotic dancers can never be much more than eye candy for the production of male arousal.
I’d like to say I’m surprised the paper published an article that’s half masturbation and fails utterly at staying on topic, but I’m not. The paper has a shoddy record when it comes to reporting about marginalized populations, who apparently aren’t worthy of much in the way of journalistic standards, and has published plenty of sexist garbage. And apparently sex workers used to “wiggle” in the Washington Post before they “jiggled.” If it’s marginalized women or anything related to sex prepare for some absurdity.
So good for Thompson for taking on this important labor issue within a poorly understood and constantly disrespected profession. And shame on the Washington Post for publishing an article more about titillation than substance.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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Join the Conversation

  • Heina

    Unfortunately, that kind of treatment seems to be par for the course these days in every industry. I’ve worked two totally different jobs for two different companies where I was 1099ed so they wouldn’t have to pay taxes or give me all the rights and benefits of a full-time employee, but where I was expected to show up to work every day at 8 and not leave until 5:45 at the earliest. If they treat you like an employee, demand the rights of an employee. Good on this woman for standing up.

  • Gidget Commando

    It worked in Massachusetts for these women in a class-action suit last year.

  • Comrade Kevin

    I have long believed that the people who speak out most strongly regarding sexuality in any form are merely voicing their own repressed desires. What a world we would live in if we could be honest with ourselves.

  • GREGORYABUTLER10031

    1099 subcontracting – and outright paying people off the books – is very common in the non union sector of the construction industry as well. And this is common in lots of other industries as well, including adult entertainment. Big ups to Quansa Thompson to standing up to this all too common form of employee abuse.

  • Tenya

    Nearly every exotic dancing establishment I worked in (9 of them total) or heard about skated on a thin legal ice in terms of not paying their entertainers and making as much money off of them as possible. Nearly all defined the dancers as independent contractors, yet all had requirements related to scheduling hours (ie, you could make your own schedule, as long as you worked x/y/z number of hours and certain days) and lots of payment to work structures, mandatory payments to various personages, etc. One did do the employee thing and I got the waitstaff minimum wage and stuff, but only after letting me work for a month, asking for employment paperwork, and “oh I forgot to bring it in” – and even there I had to pay other staff like the bartender and DJ.
    Yes, they’re right that the wage entertainers generally make can run into the hundreds per shift, that doesn’t mean that if you treat someone like an employee you actually have to pay them and otherwise ensure their safety (this is specifically in reference to work-related injuries, that clubs usually get around paying for, only one place I worked in paid workman’s comp). Also discounting the number of entertainers that do end up with negative profits on a bad shift, but which they are required to work and pay for or be fired.

  • EllieB

    This is how most strip clubs in the country function, unfortunately.

  • supremepizza

    As someone who’s waited tables its common practice to tip bartenders & busboys…Typically they only make minimum wage + tips…And actually their minimum wage is usually less than the general standard minimum wage…

  • Dawn.

    WaPo is such a massive fail. I would probably faint if I read an article in their paper that didn’t treat anyone in a marginalized group like trash.
    On the bright side: fuck yeah Thompson! Sex workers are notoriously exploited, whether it’s legal or not. I’m glad Thompson is standing up for her rights and I hope the case works out in her favor.

  • i miss you vladimir lenin

    oh shit this is right here in petworth! that’s terrible. solidarity, quansa, solidarity! here’s to hoping you win the settlement and unionize the shit out of that place.