Editor’s note: “Hustlers” has proven to be a richly divisive topic among the sex work community—and for good reason. Here at PULP we’re honoring those complexities and publishing two conflicting companion pieces side by side to give a better bird’s eye view. Read the counter-point here.
nce upon a time, long ago in San Francisco, I was drugged on a paid date by my strip club regular. He knew I was sober and in recovery. We’d talked about it in a turquoise blue and gold Egyptian-themed VIP room while I lap-danced naked for him and he pounded Kettle One rocks.
“I want to make you do things,” Joe said. I asked him what kind of things he had in mind. I maintained my flirty eye contact. Then I took his business card, stuffed it in my stripper purse, and kept dancing. I always threw business cards in the trash after my shft, but that time, I didn’t.
This was 2001, in the middle of the dot com bubble bust, when, according Time Magazine, “In less than a month, nearly a trillion dollars worth of stock value had completely evaporated.” It was before I had a cell phone or a laptop.
As the economy tanked, strip clubs emptied. Like the women in Hustlers, I was suddenly in a state of financial terror. My techie millionaire customers shuttered their sites and skipped town, so I agreed to meet Joe outside of the strip club — something I never do — instead of going to work and sitting around offering half-priced handies.
The plan was a hotel restaurant for dinner, then we’d head upstairs and have sex for double the usual cash he’d spent on me in VIP.
The night of our date, I sipped water from a glass that was waiting for me at our table. Then things got fuzzy. I had to pee. I thought the restaurant paintings were shifting like a cartoon. I dismissed it at first — the fact that I’d been drugged — but my gut knew the truth. I was confused and angry. I confronted him. He denied it and blamed the waiter.
I’d felt so floaty and puzzled that I simply ate all the breadsticks and scarfed a big dinner. Then I took his cash, did the deed, and managed to get home safe.
That night I got lucky. Joe had slipped me GHB, a colorless, odorless “date rape drug” which was something I’d never heard of or experienced at all until that night.
Six months ago, three strippers I work with at my home club in the desert were roofied by customers inside the club. Two of the strippers had kids at home under the age of twelve. The third dancer was too scared to draw attention to herself like make a stink or call the cops because of her immigration status. And although the doped-up dancers and their customers were recorded on the strip club security cameras, the owners did nothing to protect the dancers who all went to the ER that night and missed work because they’d been drugged by strangers.
This story comprises much of the locker room talk I’ve heard in the strip clubs I’ve worked in for the past 25 years.
As a veteran stripper, it was impossible for me to watch the film Hustlers — a light drama based on the excellent investigative article by Jessica Pressler — without the fear of knowing what it’s like to be drugged in the strip club environment.
It was also impossible to watch it without placing it within the context of a workforce in which I am actively embedded. One that can be dangerous and chilling — where big spenders can choke, rape, or drug a dancer and get away with it — a workplace whose business model in VIP rooms across the nation is racketeering, wage theft, extortion, coercion, assault and tax evasion.
And while we strippers are fighting exploitation and stigma by being banned from social media platforms like Instagram, Hustlers is being promoted and celebrated, pulling in millions at the box office.
I know what it means to hustle. To be broke, alone, scared and hungry.
I know what it takes to pole dance while the sanctioned cultural messages are: Strippers are bad. Strippers are damaged. Strippers are druggies. Strippers will rip you off.
Hustlers is a story that instead of challenging these tropes, amplifies them. After all, this film is based on a true story about strippers who drugged and robbed clients blind — which is ugly, dangerous, and scary even if J.Lo makes it look glamorous and dope in a Chinchilla coat and fuckable car.
For instance, consider the whole bit with J.Lo insisting, these people have hurt people their whole lives, fuck ’em, an eye-for-an-eye type of revenge on Wall Street guys — which is supposed to feel empowering — but instead becomes a repetitively horrifying spin cycle of drugging and robbing.
Hustlers assumes we’ll root for this brand of poetic justice and its “hurt people hurt people” lazy logic, when in fact there is no settling of the score without addressing the systemic global market and the corruption within it
Strippers are a femme heavy workforce currently fighting to unionize while simultaneously being erased from the larger conversation about labor. Strippers are workers in need of friends and allies—difficult to achieve in a culture where strippers are seen as ruthless robbers.
I realize that this will be an unpopular point of view.
I am supposed to love this film.
Friends of mine were involved in this film and did an admirable job; they got paid and worked hard. I’m supposed to be pleased that Hustlers was written and directed by a woman, Lorene Scafaria, and that it is centered on sex workers of color.
I am supposed to be delighted the same way that trans folks are expected to be grateful when Hollywood stories portray them as eye candy or serial killers and then cast cis straight actors to depict their lives and their community. They are supposed to applaud instead of feeling angry, sick, or misrepresented. I am supposed to be charmed by fun scenes of strippers shopping and bonding.
And I was, in certain shining moments. I loved and related to the locker room scenes where dancers talked shit and commiserated with each other. Especially delicious were Cardi B and the fabulous Lizzo, whose presence glowed supreme — even if they were ephemeral blips in an otherwise bleak landscape.
Hustlers cleverly cajoles the audience into siding with a clan of strippers led by the impossibly fierce and hot “Ramona” (J. Lo), a veteran dancer who is crème brule in human form and the heart of the film. Ramona’s money-horny glare off and on the strip club floor is the engine of the operation. And deservedly so: Ramona is powerful and loyal with a toxic, maternal side and yet her character flaw is other weak people. She needs them to perform her hustle and easily procures baby stripper “Destiny” (Constance Wu) who is vulnerable due to her poverty and emotional immaturity.
The film continues to stumble, overly focusing on Destiny and her confession to a journalist who pushes her buttons (the flawless Julia Stiles) and these interviews unravel Destiny’s ugly underbelly: a catty, disloyal self-interested person who sells her mentor Ramona down the river the moment she’s confronted. We are forced to follow Destiny and her lack of moral clarity as she declares things like, “I want to be alone and never depend on anyone,” while she does the very opposite.
It is never clear why Ramona decides to follow through with her devious scheme in the first place and never clear why Destiny crosses her own moral lines over and over. If it is only for the money, cuter apartments and lavish Christmas presents — then these strippers are exactly like the Wall Street conmen who will stop at nothing to close the deal. Hustlers never addresses these basic — and fraught — socio-cultural plot lines in any satisfying or nuanced way.
As beguiling as certain authentic moments were to watch, Hustlers’ failure to interrogate its own logic was distracting. To drug and rob strip club clients (and assorted strangers) in order to even a score is supposed to be funny, but it’s acutely sad. And although Ramona leaves us in an awkward achy moment— her showing the journalist a picture of young Destiny while clutching a tiny purse in a generic back office of a square job—her speech that the world’s a strip club left me cold.
Because while that may be true in a certain sense — that the strip club is a reflection of the world and we’re all hustling our hustle — it’s also true that sex workers and strippers are in a moment of crisis in the workplace. As a labor force, we are fighting for our basic human rights while being cast aside in discussions about labor and union efforts even though we are building and we are winning. Strip club owners and customers are the ones robbing us with no remorse — not strippers or sex workers.
Civil rights activist Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote, “Wonderful things can happen in a crisis.” But Hustlers is not one of them. Unless, it opens the door in Hollywood for other sex work narratives depicting actual strength and coalition building between women that is more nuanced, beautiful and real, but until then? I’ll cue the music and hold out hope.