gina gold is a writer and filmmaker who spent five years in San Francisco's sex industry, starting out as a phone sex operator, then becoming an exotic dancer at the Lusty Lady, the Market Street Cinema, and the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theater. Her first film, Do You Want Me to Stay?, grew out of an autobiographical one-woman show that she wrote, directed, and performed at the Luna Sea theater last spring. She is currently working on The Island of Misfit Toys, a memoir. Since leaving the sex industry she has remained active in the Bay Area sex workers' community, sitting on the advisory committee of the Exotic Dancers Alliance, a labor-rights advocacy organization, and working to set up a peer-counseling program at the St. James Infirmary, a clinic for sex workers. She has a lot to say about the complexities and contradictions of getting naked for cash.
How did you get started in the sex industry?
I was studying acting at Boston University, and I got a really bad case of mono, so I was always sick. I became tired of not feeling well, and I hated walking. It was an effort for me to do anything. So, one day I just packed six outfits in a suitcase and came out west to California to visit a friend who had graduated the year before. I'd said to myself that I was only going to stay in California for two weeks, but I ended up living here.
I started working at this telemarketing company, selling appliances. One day the manager said to us that we weren't selling enough appliances, and that maybe to get the customers to buy products from us we should flirt with them. I thought to myself, there's no way I'm going to flirt with customers on the phone to get them to buy some appliances. One of my coworkers said to me that if she was going to do that, she might as well be a phone sex operator. Something in my head clicked when she said that. I quit that job and ended up doing phone sex. It had everything to do with just being out in a new place, and feeling like I could do anything because I had left everything behind.
What did you think of doing phone sex work?
It was interesting, because sex had always been a problem for me. When I was in middle school I had an unwanted sexual experience with someone and got the rep for being a whore at school and in my neighborhood, even though I didn't do anything to deserve that label. I was blamed for this incident happening to me. That was the first sexual experience I'd ever had, so it had a profound effect on me.
Doing phone sex gave me the opportunity to act on a lot of power issues I had. I felt at the time that since I was called a whore and I didn't do anything, this time I was going to play that role. I felt that I was somehow taking control over my life.
At this company, you were not allowed to say explicit sexual terms—you had to use metaphors. So you had girls saying, "Put your buns in the oven," or, "Park your car in the garage." I was surprised at how easy it was to turn these men on. When I heard the first man respond, I felt so powerful that my voice was able to get this reaction from him. Power was something that was very important to me, because I felt so powerless at the time.
How long did you keep the phone sex job?
A few months. At this company they start you out doing soft porn, meaning there is no bestiality or mention of sex organs. But then you move up to hard porn, where you can say profanity and have fantasies involving animals, violence, children. I had a real difficult time dealing with the hard-porn calls, because at this company you had to take those calls, even if you were uncomfortable with them. You were not supposed to reject calls from customers. So, in a couple of weeks I had moved up to hard porn.
I guess phone sex came naturally to me, and at first it was fine; then I started getting calls involving children. I remember on the hard-porn line some guy called up with a fantasy that he was the manager of a toy store and I was this little kid in the store, and I was like, oh, no! The customer then went on to say that I came in the store with my parents and had somehow gotten away from them. The guy caught me stealing something and takes me in the back of the store. He then told me to lift up my dress, take an ear of corn…. When I heard that part I bumped the customer off the line. On the hard-porn line you couldn't do that, but I did it anyway. I just couldn't bear hearing fantasies like that. The supervisor reprimanded me, saying that I wasn't taking the job seriously, that it was a very important job, and I was supposed to be turning these men on. She then threatened to kick me off hard porn. She told this to everyone, because no one wanted to take those calls. That's what I really liked about the women [I worked with]—they didn't take much shit from anyone.
What kind of women worked there?
It was really funny, because the company advertised the women to be these California babes with big tits and blond hair, and the number was 777-wett. But most of the women who worked there were young black girls from the ghetto. It would be different types of models modeling for the ads, but the women were all us. The strange thing was that the customers did not even notice that the women weren't white. The customers would ask the girls to describe themselves, and in their ghetto twang they would say that they had blond hair and blue eyes. The men fell for it, and I think that's when I became really scared of men— because they just don't give a damn. They are so different, the way they relate to visual images or verbal stimulation. I cannot imagine myself getting turned on in that way. I remember I was taking a call and I was moaning and I gave the phone to someone else, and the customer didn't notice. It got to a point where I had no respect for the customers and I would stop talking in the middle of a call and tell a coworker to get me some fish and chips from the store—while the customer was still on the line. I would still hear the customer on the other end going, "Ooooohhhh."
When did you start stripping?
Well, one of my coworkers also worked at the Lusty Lady, and she always suggested that if I wanted more money I should come work there. I always felt that I could never, ever strip. I felt that my body wasn't good enough and that I was too shy. My coworker kept stressing that it was a feminist theater with women managers, and at that time I had never heard of strip clubs and feminism mixing with each other. So I told her that there was no such thing as a feminist theater, and I kept telling myself that because I didn't want to hear that there could be. I thought it was a complete contradiction. I went home and thought about it, and I started to ask her questions about the work environment. She told me to come down for an audition. I went down a few days later and auditioned and was hired. I asked the show director how she could define herself as a feminist and still dance. She told me that there was nothing wrong with being a sex worker, and that it was possible for sex workers to actually be feminist. I had just never combined the two before.
The more you engaged yourself in dancing, what did you notice changed in yourself?
I always felt that I was separate from myself; everything seemed hazy, like a dream—very surreal, like it wasn't happening. I would work at night and the mirrors, the lights, the whole stage didn't feel real. It was really weird for me. I felt like I was in a neon fish tank with these nude women who I didn't know dancing next to me while windows were constantly going up and down. I hated the way the mirrors often distorted my body, which I think had to do with the fact that I didn't have high self-esteem about my body. I had to get used to women studying nude in the dressing room. I didn't have the stereotype that strippers were stupid or that they didn't go to school, but there was still something strange about seeing women coming from class, undressing, and getting ready for work. After a while women walking around nude with books became natural for me. During my first few weeks there I was very disconnected from myself and other dancers, and I had extreme body-control issues. To stand in front of a mirror onstage and look at my whole body was a huge deal for me. I had never really spread my legs apart and looked inside my vagina, and looked at it from different angles. I felt strange having men jacking off to it and ejaculating on the [peep-show] window.
Did you feel separated from your vagina while men were doing this?
Yes, I felt very separated from it, but at the same time I think that's why I chose to be an exotic dancer— because I felt so separate from that area of my body. So I felt that by doing this I had control over how I was going to use it. I felt that doing sex work was the only way I had control over my body; I was presenting this image of myself as a real sexual being, when in reality I was not. I always felt like a fraud, like I had this big secret I couldn't tell anyone. I felt that the other women around me didn't have that problem, at least not in the same sense I did. However, the good thing about the industry was that I gained a lot of power. I used to have a problem with men following me on the street, and I wouldn't really do anything about it. If men spoke to me on the street and I wanted them to go away, I didn't feel that I could tell them to go away. I would be nice to them when I knew I wanted them to leave me alone. One night, after a shift at the Lusty Lady, I was walking home and this man followed me. I knew he was following me, but I wanted to be in denial that he actually was, so I kept walking. The man started gaining on me, and when I was almost at the bus stop this carload of black guys pulled up, and the man ran away. The guys asked me if I knew that the man had been following me for the past few blocks. I was really lucky that those men drove up. I told the show director what happened, and she asked me what I did. I looked at her as if she was crazy and asked her what I could have done. The man was following me. I didn't understand why she asked me that question. The show director was like, "You could have told that man to stop following you." She kept insisting that I should say that next time, and that if someone was following me I had every right to tell them to stop. That was one of the best things that ever happened to me working there; I slowly realized that I had the power to tell someone to get away from me.
Did a situation like that happen to you again?
The next time I caught a guy following me on the street, I turned around and told him that I wanted to walk in peace. He apologized and crossed the street. I could also tell he was embarrassed. I was so surprised that the technique of telling men not to follow you worked, because I had expected that men would want to converse with you more because you spoke to them. I learned that I didn't have to give men a reason for not wanting to talk to them when they asked why, whereas before I felt that I did. That was a great breakthrough for me.
What else did you find empowering?
I found talking to the customers to be empowering, especially reprimanding them for not following rules. When I first started, I would tell the customers to please not knock on the glass to get a dancer's attention, but I didn't have any confidence when I said it. My voice always sounded meek, and customers wouldn't take me seriously. Another dancer would come from behind me and say, "Did you hear what she said? Stop banging on the window," in a firm voice, and the customer would stop. Soon, telling customers not to behave in certain ways wasn't a problem, and I was starting to be assertive in my everyday life.
It's true that women lose a sense of power even before they come into the sex industry, just because our society is sexist—but women can also gain something powerful from being in the sex industry. Many strippers feel they are in control of their work environment because they can dance for customers part-time and get paid. When you lap dance you're hustling, telling customers, "You need to do this. You need to give me this amount of money." That's a skill most women aren't taught to have. But look at who owns the club. You also wouldn't be standing in five-inch heels, false eyelashes, and a teddy for five hours just for the hell of it. You do it because you're a woman and you know that's what men expect, so there's a loss of power.
What were your relationships with other dancers like?
It took me a while before I was comfortable with the women, because I didn't want to make the fact that I was stripping real. I felt that I had to keep everyone at a distance because this wasn't my real life, and these women could never be my friends. I kept telling myself that the whole experience of dancing wasn't real, and that I was only going to do it for three months, not five years.
I also had an intimate relationship with a woman outside of the Lusty, which distracted me from interacting with my coworkers. At that point I was comfortable working in the industry, but when the relationship ended it forced me to interact more with my coworkers. One of the things that I really liked about the women I worked with was their knowledge about herbs and different ways to take care of your body. They were consistently taking herbs and vitamins, or doing acupuncture.
Why did you leave the Lusty Lady to work at the Market Street Cinema?
Because I became greedy; I wanted more money. At the Cinema there was an opportunity to make more money than at the Lusty Lady, because you lap danced, whereas at the Lusty customers don't touch you. I figured that since I was already in the industry, I might as well keep going.
When you were at the Cinema, what were the working conditions like?
The conditions have gotten worse, but they were always bad. We would tip out $5 or $10 a shift, and I remember complaining about that. If you didn't tip out you were treated really bad by the djs. You would be ready to perform onstage and your music wouldn't start, or your cds were scratched. You would ask for a night shift, but get a shift at a quarter to two when the club was almost empty.
We had a day-shift guy and a night-shift guy, and the night-shift guy was really mean—only to girls he felt were old or ugly. The day-shift guy was usually pretty nice to me. But I remember during my first shift there, a customer squeezed my breast and I slapped the shit out of him. This other girl saw it and said, "Oh, you better tell the day-shift guy what happened so you won't get in trouble with management." I told the guy what happened, and that I slapped a customer. The guy looked at me and said, "I don't care if a customer takes his fist and shoves it up your pussy as far as it will go, you sit there and you take it. Then you tell me and I'll stick my foot up him." I looked at him and was like, you expect me to sit there and take that shit?! How is that helpful to me?
This was also around the time that girls began to form the Exotic Dancers Alliance and began filing lawsuits about back wages and horrible working conditions.
How did you feel going from a structured club like the Lusty Lady to one like the Cinema? Did the Cinema give you more freedom?
The things I hated about the Cinema were also things I liked about it. I loved the fact that any old fucking thing could occur at the Cinema. It was just funny to be around that kind of environment—you probably could have murdered a customer there and still be on the schedule. I loved the freedom of being in an area of society that didn't have any rules; in that aspect it was my favorite club to work at.
How long did you work there?
Three years, and I usually made $100 to $500 a night. I really didn't do that well, but I had a regular and that's where most of my money came from. He was this white businessman with a ton of money. Without regulars I didn't do well, because I could not stand for customers to touch me. Men would jack off and want me to touch them or they wanted to touch me, and I could not hang with that. It didn't have anything to do with me being prudish or uppity, I just couldn't physically stand someone touching me, even brushing against my breast. I hated customers kissing the back of my neck; the feeling of putting my clothes back on after being touched grossed me out. When customers tried to touch me while I was lap dancing, my whole body would tense up, and I would want to sink through the floor. I think one of the reasons I have back problems is from tensing up from customers trying to touch me. Plus I was wearing heels. Many times when customers did touch me, I didn't want to screen them out because often they were the only lap of the night. I tried nicely to tell them to stop, but I didn't want to tell them nicely, so I was holding in a lot of anger, too. Usually, customers couldn't see my facial expressions while I was lap dancing because my back was to them, so I would try to hold down their arms so they wouldn't touch me. I think that men could feel my body language and that affected my money.
How were you able to retain regulars?
I could be charming if I knew I wasn't going to be touched. If I thought I would be touched then I couldn't talk to the customer, and I wasn't charming. It was really hard for me to lap dance in the beginning because of my restrictions relating to touch. I noticed that my black customers never lasted as long as my white customers, so most of my regulars were white—plus they were attracted to the elegant way I spoke. I also noticed that if the black customers didn't get what they wanted—like touching me—they would move on quicker than my white customers. If it wasn't for my few white businessmen, I would not have lasted there, because I could not compete with dancers letting customers touch them in different places for certain amounts of money. There were actually a lot of dancers who did negotiate things like that with customers, which surprised me. I'm not sure why it did; I guess I thought everyone had body issues like I did. When I found out dancers were letting themselves be touched, I felt really alienated. That's when I realized that I probably should not be lap dancing, but I was anyway. I pimped myself out; I told myself: You're going to go out and do this whether you want to or not. I wanted to prove to myself that I could hang, instead of drawing the line at being touched. I can't say that I regret doing it, or I wouldn't be fighting for these women today. But I think I abused my health—I have back problems, and my nerves are shot.
What were your relationships like with customers?
My relationships with customers have been pretty amazing; they've actually helped me out a lot. The first time I met a customer outside of the premises of work, I had gone with a friend and she was meeting a customer, so I decided to come with her just for the hell of it. I figured that this was her customer anyway, so I was just along for the ride. This customer and I got along really well—to the point that he bought me a car, taught me how to drive, and got me the insurance. He never wanted sex in return; he really wanted me to be self-sufficient. I had told him that I had credit problems—he helped me fix my credit. He knew that I didn't have a decent computer to do rewrites on my book, so he bought me a laptop. I owe a lot to this customer, and even now I don't know what his motives were—but I'm thankful that he's helped me out so much.
How did you get out of the sex industry, after being in it for five years?
I went on this meditation retreat for two weeks where all I did was meditate. I was alone with myself and not allowed to speak to other people, so I couldn't fool myself any longer about what I wanted from my life. The retreat made me realize I had to be honest with myself by stating that the truth was I didn't like that job, and I didn't want to work there anymore. It's not healthy for anyone to be under that kind of stress. It was hard, because I kept thinking that I needed the money—but the job was becoming boring for me. It was exciting in the beginning, but after five years of going through costumes and wigs, it gets tired.
How is your book coming along? Talk a bit about your process of trying to get published.
The book covers my life growing up in Queens, New York; moving to California; and my thoughts and views on being a stripper. It also includes interviews with different dancers. Grove Press almost picked it up, but they said they had already bought a book on stripping just before they received my manuscript. I was really depressed about that; then my agent suggested that I rewrite it, because it's more than 500 pages, and he felt there was no reason for it to be that long. I think the other reason I'm having a problem getting it published is because white men don't want to hear about themselves shoving yams up their asses. My book exposes a lot of kinky sexual behavior middle-class white men do behind closed doors.
During an interview in the documentary Straight for the Money, you said that while you were giving this white customer a lap, he asked you why black women looked so young, and you replied that it was because we have a lot of melanin in our skin. The customer then said, "Oh, you mean watermelanin." Were racist comments like that common?
Thank god, no. Overt racist comments like that were rare. The only other time I had a racist incident was with this Asian customer in Hawaii. When I approached his table, instead of saying, "Hi, how are you?" he said, "I was just chillin' with my homeboys the other day." I said, "Excuse me?" The customer repeated himself, and I didn't realize at first what he was trying to imply—I really didn't understand why he had said that to me. He then explained that he was trying to talk jive to me. I had to explain to him that I didn't talk like that, and that he was making racist assumptions about black people. That situation was really strange to me: that's like if I were to walk up to an Asian person and instead of saying, "Hi, how are you?" saying, "Pork fried rice and chow mein." I think black dancers overall have to work a lot harder than white ones, but the financial reward is worth it.
How did you get into filmmaking?
I wrote and directed Island of Misfit Toys: Are You There Baby?, which is a one-woman stage show about my life in the sex industry. I was doing the show and I thought that the lap dancing piece would be too hard to do live. I was working with another actor and I didn't want to put him in the position of having to do that live. I mean, he was only 20 years old. He's a genius, but I wanted to make sure I captured that genius. So I was like, ok, I need to get this on film. And then I realized how much I liked film. It came out of me wanting to capture a moment that I was afraid I wasn't going to get onstage.
How was it doing video work?
I knew I wanted to make films, but I didn't realize how important that piece was going to be until I started doing it. It was my favorite part of doing the show. I realized doing a one-woman show that I'd rather work with people. It's really lonely up there. I realized I like directing, too. So I learned a lot doing that—it made me realize that I want to do film work. I love that you can edit and perfect it. You don't have one chance to make it right. I could show the film and not have to worry about stage fright. I was afraid of exposing myself being attracted to customers, showing that kind of vulnerability—but it felt good to be truthful about my experience. I would like to say that I was disgusted by the customers, but that wasn't true. I remember in real life having a customer pull my hair and liking it, and I felt ashamed that I enjoyed it. But life is too complex for it to be one or the other.
What are your future writing and filmmaking plans?
I'm going to set up a public access show. I'm going to be doing little skits and excerpts from my show that will be more fully developed. So it'll be more about stripping and about my relationship with my mom, which was a big part of the show.
What kind of reactions have you received from the audience, especially women of color?
Everyone loved it, but I do remember after the show two black women came up to me and said that they found my show to be degrading to women. That made me feel really horrible—it hurt to have the few black women in the audience say that comment.
How do you deal with the comment that you are perpetuating negative stereotypes of black women by being in the sex industry—that we're already seen as sex objects?
I deal with that by coming out as a sex worker who is intelligent. I'm a writer, an artist, a filmmaker. I feel like my work refutes negative stereotypes of black female sex workers. I'm dispelling myths that sex workers are stupid. I'm not ashamed of having been a sex worker. That's why I produce my shows, to make people aware of our issues.