North Beach is where most of San Francisco's strip clubs are located. Once darkness has taken over the city, the neon lights for the nudie bars begin to glow brightly. Barkers in the doorways try to lure men with remarks like, "We have the apples! You bring the snakes!"
When I learned about a nonprofit group that visits strip clubs once a week to drop off cupcakes, I had to know why. "The cupcake lady," as many refer to her, is Laura Lasky. Lasky founded Solace SF in 2008. She understands the plight of the sex worker better than most, because she is a former sex worker herself. One of the most difficult things sex workers face is isolation.
"When you do something for a living that is controversial, frowned upon, and in certain situations illegal, seeking help is not easy," says Lasky.
What started as a random act of kindness turned into a nonprofit organization where sex workers can go to for support. Lasky began taking cupcakes to strip clubs in San Francisco after realizing she wanted to help sex workers.
"Most of us have jobs and we all have lunch breaks, hopefully," she says. "Imagine if your job was getting naked on a stage and staying mostly naked throughout the night. Now try going and grabbing a bite, during your 30 minute break, when you're practically naked. You have to get dressed, go grab something to eat, come back, and get undressed again."
Add to that the fact that some strip clubs are not in the nicest parts of town, and you'll understand why Lasky thought to bring the cupcakes. They were a way for Lasky and her team to reach out to the dancers -- and also to learn what these erotic performers needed beyond cupcakes.
Lasky lists on the Solace SF website what the organization offers. Through volunteers and donors, it offers visits with medical professionals, counseling services, adult education assistance, substance-abuse recovery assessment and referrals, and career counseling. The site also aggregates and explains services including Medi-Cal, free or low-cost medical and dental services, a suicide prevention hot line, getting a G.E.D., and getting financial aid for college.
To download a podcast of an interview with Lasky, visit "Strip Clubs & Cupcakes" for Social Justice on the Sexploration with Monika website.
I spent an evening with Lasky on her weekly trip to clubs around the city. We packed up our cupcakes, apple slices, bananas, and carrot sticks, and headed out into the night. Many of the men and women who work in these clubs know Lasky on sight. When she walks in, the men embrace her, the women embrace her, and they crowd around the goodies she brings. The first club had 21 dancers on stage on a Wednesday night in the rain. Not many customers inhabited the club, which meant the ladies working were not going to make much money. The reason so many of them performed was in order to solidify a shift. If they do not show up and compete, they have no idea whether they will be placed on the schedule.
Competition is one of the other problems that exists between these ladies. A man who works in the clubs who didn't want his named used says that on a good night, dancers walk away with about $200 for an eight-hour shift. Only a select number of women really kill it in the clubs, he says, taking in about $1,000 a night. So for most, coming in on a rainy night to solidify a shift is important just to survive.
The next club we visited had more customers, but the performers outnumbered the men by far. A dancer approached and hugged Lasky, remarking on how long it had been since they'd seen each other and taking some apple slices. As we left I heard the doorman yell, "BEST PUSSY IN SAN FRANCISCO!" to those who walked by. He was also friendly with Lasky, and he talked with us for a while.
He explained how they spot the clientele they want -- looking for men who will spend money versus those who will waste the time of the dancers and the club. He said you can tell a lot about a man by the watch and the shoes he wears. It seems like a great hustle, but I had to imagine it would be tiring.
As Lasky and I made our final rounds, she outlined the dynamics of these clubs. She says there are the women who like stripping, who find it an easy way to make money, who find it empowering, and have a lot of other things going on in their lives. Then there are dancers like the one who approached Lasky in the previous club, who hadn't seen her in several months. Lasky told me that dancer has a pimp, and she was not there by choice as an empowered sex worker, but rather because of a number of circumstances that led her to this path. This young lady refers to her pimp as her boyfriend. I imagined part of her earnings would be going directly to said "boyfriend."
The word pimp is not something I hear on a regular basis, or even think of, when I think of sex work. To date, I have discussed in my online writing only the sexually empowered men, women, and transgender people who choose this profession, but, like with everything else, corruption and darkness exists. For the sex workers who I know that are empowered, there are also those who are not. Some do it consensually and safely, while others are coerced.
Corruption, abuse, and coercion are not reserved for sex workers. Yet sex workers fall into a difficult category. They are the outcasts of society, and they do not have a lot of places to go for help. Sometimes a pimp doesn't seem like such a bad idea, when every other door has been shut. When you need money fast and you are trying to navigate in a world like this one.
Solace SF is designed to help at times like this. As I walked around with Lasky, what touched me was the look in the eyes of these people when they saw her walking in the door with cupcakes. The sweets bring with them a promise of someone who has created an organization dedicated to helping people who do not have much help. People are more likely to feel empowered when they know that they are not alone. Lasky offers not only the medical and educational resources but also simply an ear to listen when no one else will. Those cupcakes represent a dedication and a compassion that is lacking in our world.
Vanessa L. Pinto is a journalist based in San Francisco. Her platform is multi-faceted, just like those she writes about. She holds a B.A. in Political Science, with a concentration in pre-law from Cal-Poly in San Luis Obispo and is always game for an adventure...! Visit her at her blog.