The flouting of strip club convention was evident in the main stage jukebox, as well. Rather than the standard Top Forty metal/classic Nine Inch Nails/R&B ballad-of-the-moment fare, the musical selection was wide-ranging. In one dizzying shift, I recall dancing to “My Uzi Weighs a Ton” by Public Enemy, Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back,” “My Lucretia” by Sisters of Mercy, the eight-minute version of Flipper’s “Sex Bomb,” and Annette Funicello’s “Pineapple Princess.”
Customers weren’t allowed to dictate the show in any way, but that didn’t stop of some them from pantomiming stage direction through the glass. A “whoop de doo” finger spiraling in the air meant “turn around.” Fingers together and flapping out like fish fins meant “spread ‘em.” Poor lambs, to each motioned command, the answer was the same: No.
If this seems an insignificant detail, it is anything but. That the terms of interaction were non-negotiable underscored for many dancers a valuable aspect of sexual self-awareness: This is mine. In private or shown for hire, clothed or bare, it’s mine. After a few weeks at the Lusty, when I walked down the street, I felt less threatened by men talking shit to me. My posture changed. If it wasn’t liberating, it was certainly uplifting. Who would have expected such from a peep show? Not me. Then again, to dismiss the idea that vulgarity and uplift can coexist side-by-side is to deny the degenerate magic of San Francisco.
For all its positive attributes, the Lusty hardly wanted for shortcomings. For starters, it was—and I say this affectionately—a dump. The endlessly cheerful support staff made sure that the stage and Private Pleasures booth were tidy, and the dressing room as neat as could be, but the public areas resembled a dimly lit Dionysian hellscape in which one could almost hear the carpet squish. The business's feminist philosophy didn't do much to protect you when, as a dancer, you reached the inevitable burnout of physical and psychological overexposure that comes from TMI being your day job. And while the hourly wage meant a girl didn’t have to exhaust herself hustling for tips, the pay was quite low by industry standards—typically from the low-teens to low-twenties per hour. Still, for an enterprising artist, social reformer, or student who was willing to dive into the sex industry but didn’t want to feed her soul to it, the Lusty was reliable, companionable choice.
But cities change, people change, tastes change. In 2003, the unionized dancers purchased the business for $400,000 and established a workers’ cooperative. By then, though, Forbes had already acquired virtually all of the North Beach topless joints, turning them into strobe light-and-spandex McStripclubs. The Lusty Lady informally rebranded itself as a holdout, parked somewhere between revolutionary and quaint—a bit of third-wave feminist insurgency dancing as fast as it could to survive in the brutal 21st-century marketplace. But nostalgia is no life raft and business at the Lusty dwindled. After years of suffering declining revenue due to competition from the Internet, as well as several rent hikes, it was announced in late August that the club would shut down. That the closing date falls during Labor Day weekend seems especially poignant for this unique union shop.