- This Week
Can a woman's touch at the top help change San Francisco's sex industry?
05.18.10 - 8:22 pm | Sarah Phelan |
Meta Jane Mitchell Johnson and brother Justin Mitchell (left) now run the Mitchell Brothers O'Farrell TheaterGUARDIAN PHOTO BY CHARLES RUSSO
It's hard to tell from the outside whether the MBOT dancers are feeling better about their working conditions these days or whether having a woman in charge makes a big difference.
On a recent Saturday night, we were charged $40 to enter the club. The ticket gave us access to the theater's main stage, where a succession of ethnically diverse and athletically built girls pranced, pole danced, and eventually took it all off — in tasteful fashion — as the customers threw tips on stage.
A friendly girl asked if we'd like some company but backed off gracefully when we declined to do more than chat. No one else tried to hustle us for the next hour, and we didn't get the sense that these women were desperate to make more money. The private rooms remained empty during our visit. But there are VIP rooms that we didn't have access to, and it's possible more hardcore stuff was going on elsewhere in the club.
As we left, a tour bus pulled up outside, full of tourists who pressed their noses against the bus windows to eyeball the famed Mitchell Brothers establishment, drawn just to gawk at this titillating and complicated San Francisco institution.
Johnson and Mitchell believe their club gives women a path to financial independence and that having a female in charge makes a difference. "They don't need a man," Johnson says. "In most strip clubs, the pay is all under the table, and the girls keep cash in shoe box under the bed."
"Dodging the IRS," Mitchell adds.
But they recognize that some dancers may be coming from abusive situations. Johnson said she realized one dancer was in trouble when she asked to be booked for every shift. "I looked at the situation and saw 16-hour days in stilettos and an exhausting schedule. It took a woman's insight to work out what was going on."
"It goes back to a woman's touch, " Mitchell says.
Johnson blames this nation's puritanical roots for the abiding disapproval toward the sex industry and those who work in it.
"But it's come a long way," Mitchell interjects." When this place first started, it got raided non-stop. Now it's much more acceptable than 20 years ago. In the next 20 years, I'm optimistic that prostitution will be decriminalized, at least in our city, if not in our state."
So is prostitution happening as much as some dancers say it is? "You can't penalize people for surviving," Johnson says. "What dancers do outside clubs is their business. We don't have control over them. All we can do is worry about them. We don't condone illegal activity inside the club. We don't encourage or support it. That's our official take."
Johnson acknowledges the O'Farrell Theater may have the reputation for being perhaps the most hardcore club in the city. "But everything that happens here, happens elsewhere," she says. "It's the same exact deal except they don't care at all, and we're a family-run business."
Mitchell observes that the O'Farrell Theater is huge part of the city's tourism industry. "When conventions come through, we're one of the prime tourist spots, along with Fisherman's Wharf and the Golden Gate Bridge," he said.
"San Francisco is known for its freewheeling sexuality, like the Folsom Street Fair," Johnson adds. "People say San Francisco is Oakland's slutty sister. And people come here because this club is an institution, a landmark in San Francisco."
So can Johnson make a difference against this convoluted backdrop?