In Teresa Dulce's world of sex work, and for the volunteers who run the Danzine organization, there's a whole lot more: There's the element of learning how to agitate for social change, planning and delivering presentations, participating in colloquiums, running health care programs, and getting the word out about health-related resources. There's the hard work of applying for grants, producing a trade publication, keeping a strong volunteer base, and managing a needle exchange site. There's networking and the Scarlet Letter, a local group of sex-working activists who organized to fight City Hall over an ordinance that would have required additional licensing for already legal aspects of the sex industry.
And in Portland, there's also the Sex by Sex Worker Film and Video Festival. Teresa Dulce co-curates the festival along with Marne Lucas. Portland was the first city in the country to hold a festival of films entirely by sex workers, and has been followed only by San Francisco so far. I spoke with Teresa about the film festival and the overall climate of the sex industry in Portland.
What's your main goal in presenting the film festival?
To create a more informed public. A lot of people have opinions about us and have never set foot in a strip club, never seen a porn movie, never even looked through a magazine. But they know they don't like us. Sometimes we feel compelled to just tell all the good stories because we want to defend our right to work and our right to be who we are. The reality check that we've been working on with the publication, danzine, and with the film festival is to air out all our stuff, the good, the bad, and the ugly. We know we have to modify some situations, we know we make mistakes, but we also know we're still entitled to a safe work environment, civil rights, and health care. That's what we're trying to obtain. And a safe work environment also includes responsible management from within.
What do you see as some of the problems with the work environment now?
I danced in a place in Southeast Portland where I swear I was dancing around three different coffee cans catching the raindrops because there were leaks in the roof. Dancing is a physical job. We've got to know that we're OK. Instead, sometimes I think we're right up there with video crack and pool tables. We're just one more reason for customers to come in. But it isn't a strip club like you see in the movies.
Somewhere in the mid-'80s in Oregon, they decided it was unconstitutional to tell us to wear G-strings. Next thing you know there was a boom. Anyone who could be a bar became a strip bar. And then what you get are plenty of establishments that aren't as adequate as strip clubs. They don't have dressing room space. You're sharing the same bathroom as the female patrons. There's hardly a stage. There's holes in the floor.
Also, if dancing is a physical job, then your body is a job site. Like when I worked as a lingerie model and bodily fluids were introduced to the job site--say someone masturbates to ejaculation in front of you--you don't have to touch them. It's not an illegal form of work. Now what sort of precautions are management responsible for? How can the health department incorporate what we know about disease prevention to protect sex workers?
The market is saturated in Portland and dancers are taking a hit. The dime is split in so many directions--we're not laughing all the way to the bank. We're working class performers and I'm not even going to tell you how much we make because it's just so variable--but we are not making all that. At the same time, because there's so much game in town, it's kind of normalized the playing field. Women come in and see us, everyone's got a friend who's a stripper, it's not as huge as Us vs. Them. There's just so many strip clubs it's really hard to catch up with a living wage.
Doesn't the excess of strip clubs allow you to walk away from one, because you've got more options? It seems that would give dancers the leverage to say, "Fix the holes in the roof or I'll go somewhere else."
There is that mentality. But basically, it's not uncommon for a girl to work two or three places. It's not uncommon for a girl to get fired unfairly and go work somewhere else. The problem still exists. You could circulate to every club, sure, but if you look at the global impact and our need to modify our working conditions...club owners need us because we bring up beer sales, but we're not highly regarded. They just wait for the next warm body to cruise through.
Why do you think the sex industry is thriving in Portland? On all levels it's much more present than in other cities.
I've danced in bars all over the US and in Scotland and England. What I've noticed is that there's an independent streak in Oregon. You get it in the arts, but you also get it in the whole mentality. Most places I've worked--Massachusetts, Texas, California--they've got hoops to jump through. They see a difference between a bar and a strip bar. Here you can be nude, you can serve alcohol, and mostly it just comes down to house policy. That's why when we have our performances at Berbati's, we don't need an extra stripping license. Our cabarets and fundraisers [for Danzine] started at the Magic in Old Town. We'd pack the house in this small, baby strip club and it was ridiculous but it was great in its own fucking great way. But then they got too big and we got bumped to Berbati's, right? And that's not a strip club but we performed nude there. This is the leverage we enjoy in the Portland area.
Do you think there should be any imposed legal limitation regarding what a person can do with his or her body?
When we're speaking about our own health and our own reproductive care, we have to be allowed to make our own decisions about how we use our bodies. Whether it's physically dancing, or working in construction, or trading sex for money. Why would the law step in? Maybe to protect our rights? If there is capital gain, it'd be nice to think that the person responsible for the activity is also responsible for their own taxes. Ideally for me, prostitution would be decriminalized. I support the idea of more people working for themselves, because when you see exploitation it normally involves third-person management. When a third person is coercing you into a situation, or forcing you to do something, then we're talking about exploitative labor.
I've heard you've been traveling and lecturing.
I've been doing more and more presentations. I've spoken at a handful of conferences--a human rights conference, a needle exchange conference, a harm¯reduction conference, and now four of us Danzine girls have scholarships to go to Miami the third week in October. We're giving two talks at a harm¯reduction conference--one on practical safe sex, the other on grassroots organizing.
When I'm traveling, when I'm dancing, I'll call up a sociology department or the women's studies department and offer to speak. In the beginning I'd volunteer, but now I have a fee. Absolutely. The pendulum's swung. What I'm getting paid to speak is almost comparable to what I get paid in the industry.
Working the mind is so tolling, sometimes it's easier to sit on a cock, you know? But you don't get arrested for speaking, and I think that the apprehension of going, "Is this criminal activity?" is just as emotionally tolling. Once I was lecturing and one of the students asked me, "Have you ever feared for your life in a situation?" And the answer is yeah, but it had nothing to do with the industry. It was like on a train going through Italy when all these German dudes were excited about a football match. You know what I'm saying? I have felt that fear. But at least when I'm going out on a call, or when I'm in the industry, my antenna's up. I'm sharp. That's why I go in sober. I don't even smoke pot before a call. I need my wits about me.
Who do you expect to come to the film festival?
The girls, the people who love us, some Wobblies, other labor force people, people who are hoping to see a great deal of pornography but find themselves roped into thoughtful discussion...hipsters, art-loving folk, older progressive liberals.
We sent her an invitation.