Backstage and Under the Lights: A Review of Jennifer Worley’s Neon Girls

December 22, 2020 § 2 Comments

By Nancy Jainchill

More than twenty years before Jennifer Worley takes us behind the scenes of the Lusty Lady club, in Neon Girls: A Strippers Education in Protest and Power, I was slinking across the stage of one of the many strip joints in San Francisco’s North Beach. ‘Sex work,’ a term later introduced by prostitute, performer and activist Carol Leigh, highlighted that our activities involved the same economic and labor considerations as any trade or profession. While the term wasn’t in use when I was a struggling dancer, by Worley’s time, it had become part of the vernacular. She and her cohort in 1990s San Francisco would make an imprint on efforts to recognize sex work as real work, through their landmark success at unionizing and eventually owning the Lusty Lady, and their ultimate takeover of the club is the framework for Neon Girls.

Worley’s evolution as a stripper from outsider to insider started while working toward a master’s degree in English literature, needing to increase her income and work fewer hours. A Lusty Lady advertisement promised $22 an hour—twice what her entry-level publishing job paid. (Sex work is still generally more profitable for women than other service sector employment.)

The Lusty Lady wasn’t a typical club with a raised stage and a solo performer—the kind of place where I’d danced. Rather, the Lusties were sealed behind glass—untouchable. Usually, four girls swayed, wiggled, and spun around poles in a 10 x 15 room with mirrored walls and ceiling offering an orgiastic illusion. The stage was designed so the ladies could manipulate what was seen. The group performance encouraged a sense of sisterhood.

All the Lusties picked stage names, but names did more than assure their privacy—they impacted and defined their personae. Worley became “Polly,” and after living for five years with “an unfortunate split-second impulse” that labeled her more schoolgirl than seductress, she re-emerged as Delinqua, reflecting Worley’s transformation through her experience as a Lusty. Most of the women, with their chosen stage names—Sizzlean, Decadence, Cinnamon—and their adopted personas, developed alter egos giving them newfound confidence in their mainstream lives.

After about a year at the club, Worley began tackling the administrative dynamics of the Lusty Lady. Performers were being prioritized for shift assignments by race, hair color, and breast size. An incident involving being filmed (forbidden but difficult to control) heightened Worley’s motivation. “I hated the idea that men I didn’t know or trust now had records of the work I did, that they could carry Polly, naked and unawares, from the safe refuge that birthed and nurtured her, into that other world where I had to live my life.”

Worley’s academic background is evident as she explains the Lusties’ place in the lineage of sex workers. We learn how sex-worker liberation may have started on San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill—known more nowadays for the neighborhood’s feral parrots than for the Chilean women who settled there during the Gold Rush. They took in laundry by day and sold sex at night, probably establishing the city’s first red-lantern district.

A tradition of resistance among sex workers laid the foundation for the Lusties’ unionization campaign, initiated in Spring 1996. Said Worley, “This wasn’t just about some one-way windows…It was about confronting the systems that commodified women’s sexuality for the benefits of everyone else involved.” They picketed in front of the theatre, chanting “Two-four-six eight, don’t go here to masturbate,” with passing cars honking in support. Within a few weeks, their union contract was ratified, affirming their right to organize and advocate for themselves. Over time, the workers transformed the club into a cooperative.

At the Lusty on and off for over ten years, Worley describes how the “Bright passionate women…had drawn me out of my graduate student shell and into the Lusty fray…to get involved and make change. … I felt responsible for continuing the legacy of sex workers…”  But, performing one day, suddenly the tears began falling, and she was enveloped by shame. It was over for her. On her last day, she returns to the club—the “tiny little pit”—where she’d “grown up.”

This kind of introspection highlights what’s missing for me in the narrative. More instances of self-reflection would give the reader a better understanding of Worley’s emotional process. How did she go from Polly to Delinqua to tears in front of a Private Pleasures booth? “It was confusing to feel this depth of shame so suddenly… But this was not the sudden belated eruption of some long-repressed shame…; rather, it was an accounting for the many ways I’d bracketed and sidelined my own aspirations for the sake of the collective.” That bracketing seems to have sidelined her from her feelings, although she acknowledges resentment for how male authority governs the world of commercial sex, their preferences determining who’s hot and who’s not.

Worley has invited the reader into a world unfamiliar to most, Stripping the strippers of their negative stereotypical identities, they’re revealed flesh and blood, thoughtful and intelligent, with the same life goals and challenges as anyone. While our experiences were separated by more than twenty years, Worley confronted as I had the feminist implications of working as a professional sex object. In sex work, the experience of personal power can be simultaneous with feeling exploited.

Worley endured and came into her own working as a Lusty. In contrast, for years I’d kept my own brief stint as a dancer a secret, until one day it became part of my life story. I try to imagine what it would’ve been like if I’d had the moxie and the self-confidence to make the stage my own. Worley gave me an intimate glimpse into that world.

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Nancy Jainchill’s writing has focused on sex positivity, feminism and sexuality. Her work has appeared in Longreads, Entropy, the Albany Times Union, and Brevity among others. She is a psychologist living and working in upstate New York. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @nancyjainchill.

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