With the rise of OnlyFans and everyone and their mom watching J-Lo in Hustlers, sex work has become popularized (at least to some degree) in more mainstream circles. However, despite the commercialization of some avenues of sex work like stripping, the industry still remains heavily stigmatized, especially if you’re transgender.
Everyone has a complex relationship to work, whether you have a 9-to-5 desk job working in sales or a 9-to-2 a.m. job dancing in clubs. The reality is sex work is often the most viable source of income for marginalized people who face barriers to gainful employment in other sectors, not to mention the harassment and discrimination that occurs once you do get hired.
If you listen to sex workers globally, you’ll quickly learn that the best way to support their bodily autonomy, agency, and empowerment is complete and total decriminalization of sex work. However, in the meantime, how do we create safe(r) working conditions for trans sex workers? Enter Jolene, a monthly Los Angeles-based strip night that centers women of transgender experience. We sat down with the founder herself, a woman of many mysteries, to talk about the importance of creating spaces for trans sex workers and what allies can do to stand in solidarity with their labor movement.
Mud: For those of us who don't know, tell us a little about Jolene and about yourself.
@ethicaldrvgs: Well, I'm a woman of many names. Everyone knows me as @ethicaldrvgs, but a majority of people know me as [redacted]. I originally started Jolene because, quite frankly, there was a promoter that was running the event at Cheetahs who got 86’d, so there was going to be no place for the girls to dance anymore.
For us, dancing that night was access to a safer form of sex work. As stressful as it has been, starting this strip night has really brought me closer to finding people and connecting with the girls. For me, it’s like, if all I have to do is go dance for one night and that means one less guy I have to be in a hotel room with, then [that’s] even better.
Mud: When did you start Jolene?
@ethicaldrvgs: It's been three years. I started it in 2019, a year before the pandemic hit. My former business partner, Jordan Kinsley, suggested booking some of the dancers from the venue too. That way, we could create allyship between the trans women coming in and the [cis] dancers that were already there.
It started as a space primarily for trans women to dance. You hear a lot about girls, like Trace Lysette, who used to dance in clubs, dancing stealth or whatever, but dancing stealth can be scary because the moment you start getting clocked, that’s when you start to fear for your life.
That was especially true for me when I was dancing in Texas. It wasn't until I came back, and my friend reminded me that they have the gay panic defense and trans panic defense out there. So like if someone wanted to [kill me], they could literally say like, “Oh well, that was her fault. She was tricking me.”
I created this space specifically for trans women to have accessibility to this line of work. And for the girls to know that the bar backs, security, the managers, and the venue all have your back. This is not true of a lot of strip clubs.
Mud: Right, and while sex work is still so criminalized, globally—but specifically within the US—and also stigmatized, how do you create safer spaces for trans workers? Was that one of your goals in starting Jolene?
@ethicaldrvgs: Yeah, that was definitely the goal. I'm not going to be able to prevent someone from groping one of the girls or someone acting out of hand, but I can at least provide a space where a girl can feel empowered to say, “Hey, you're allowed to do that.”
I can provide somewhere to strengthen the girls’ idea of bodily autonomy, a place where they can say, “I'm calling security and getting you kicked out.” Until [our work] is decriminalized and de-stigmatized, in the meantime, all we can do is create safer spaces.
Mud: When we talk about sex work, a lot of the conversation is still so cis-centric and focused on the needs and bodies of cis-women—whereas when you are a trans woman doing sex work, the dangers are often multiplied.
@ethicaldrvgs: I had a friend who was working at a pretty well-known club up in the Bay. Then, the managers found out [she was trans] and they let her go, because they said that if a client were to ever react to finding out that she was trans, that would be a liability for them.
Mud: Are all the dancers at Jolene's trans?
@ethicaldrvgs: I always try to book a majority lineup of trans women. I also will still book a few of the local [cis] dancers, because the knowledge that they're able to pass on from their experience about navigating these spaces is valuable.
There is a nurturing of sorts that happens. When you have dancers who have been around in the clubs and worked consistently, they are able to give advice—insider information about how to work tips from guys from every angle, or what pickup lines work for how to get dances. For a lot of the [trans] girls, dancing in club spaces is still kind of new. Unless you’ve gone undercover and worked at clubs, you don’t really know how to navigate these spaces.
Mud: It sounds like a lot of community building and solidarity happens at Jolene, with cis and trans girls building across these lines of difference.
@ethicaldrvgs: Yeah. And at the end of the day, trans women want to be seen as women. And we have to do so much to be perceived as the gender that we identify with. This is a way for me to help people find ways to affirm that. And especially in a field of work that is based on survival and trying to make things work without having to make mistakes to learn from, it means a lot that these girls keep each other safe. So, I love that.
Mud: Who is the typical crowd at Jolene’s?
@ethicaldrvgs: I would say it's kind of mixed. There are definitely a lot of trans amorous men. But I'm grateful that a lot of our queer community shows up too.
When it comes to the chasers, they need to bring enough to tip out all the girls, like, they need to bring an appropriate amount of money. However, when it comes to the community showing up, they are often giving what they are able to that is within their means. And that can mean a lot more than someone who has an endless supply. Does that make sense?
From a safety standpoint too, having a majority of queer people coming in helps keep the chasers in check. Like if any of these guys try to act up, I know my girls are safe, you know?
Mud: I think that sometimes people in the queer community want to support sex workers, but they don't have a lot of money, and they get stuck wondering if it’s appropriate for them to come to the strip club? But what you're speaking to is a really important reminder for people to keep turning up, because somebody seeing you there, your physical body in the space, and the energy you're giving the dancers—that means something.
@ethicaldrvgs: Exactly. And again, it just helps curate the atmosphere. The more people show up, the more it helps to prove that trans girls should be in these spaces too.
I feel like the majority of girls are in full-service work or adult film work, which some people gravitate towards. But then there are people who maybe are living a bit more stealth, or whose circumstances don’t allow them to be fully out—people who need more discreet avenues of work, who really need nights like this.
If the girls are having a hard time getting hired for even minimum wage jobs, I might as well create a space where they can make money and not have to deal with the bullshit of working another customer service job. At least the girls feel celebrated, and they don't have to worry about getting someone coffee and getting misgendered the whole time.
Mud: I think that layer is often missing when people talk about sex work. Work is work, but especially when it comes to trans people, what are our actual options? How much are we getting paid? How much do we feel valued?
@ethicaldrvgs: Exactly. I ended up in this sort of work because I literally had a job give me a management position and then said, “Oh, we're only giving you a 50-cent raise.” So I was making less than everyone on the floor, but doing twice the work. I remember feeling so burnt out working not just one full-time job, but also two part-time jobs just to barely survive.
And it’s not just here in LA, but in every major city, it’s getting harder and harder for people to get employed. Everyone forgets that outside of Pride season, a lot of these corporations don't give a fuck how visible you are. If you're too visible, then they're not about it. I know that it's not everyone's story to be empowered by sex work, but for me, personally, being able to dance in a space that is known as being primarily for cis women was really empowering.
People don’t realize that nights like Jolene and Alejandro provide access for people. And for trans masculine people, Portland is one of the few places where they have male strip clubs that hire both cis and trans dancers. Everything down here is high-masc, all Magic-Mike-ified. I haven’t seen a club down here book a single trans man. So again, it comes back to being able to provide that safe space for people who rely on this type of work.
Mud: What's the community response been like to Jolene?
@ethicaldrvgs: The response has been great. A few of the girls have reached out and said how grateful they are for Jolene, even though it’s just one night a month. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. Even if it just means the girls have to just see one less sketchy client or one night they don't have to dance stealth and can be fully celebrated in their transness…it’s worth it.
Some people have accused me of gatekeeping, but it’s like, I created this night to prioritize a specific group of people. I’m not a corporation or a non-profit with funding or anything like that. If you’re in a space that you’re not happy with, start your own space. And be aware of the space you’re taking up. There are a lot of people who come through and say, “I wanna strip for one night. I want to live my stripper fantasy.”
And it’s like, this isn't a fantasy. This is our literal work and livelihood.
Mud: I love that. It's so important. What is one last piece of advice you would give to people who want to support nights like Jolene and trans sex workers in general?
@ethicaldrvgs: Oh, I mean, it can just be as simple as providing gigs and opportunities for trans women. Instead of just telling someone to get another job, give them a job, or tell them where to apply. Without that, people aren’t going to have the safety and security that’s needed to leave this type of work.
When I first got started with activism, my friend gave me the best piece of advice: “You’re not going to achieve world peace. But what you can do is not burn yourself out and see what you can change in your little corner of the world.” And if everyone changes their own little corner of this world, that will hopefully make a difference in the future.