sex work

How NZ’s Strippers Collectivised Against Allegations of Bullying And Harassment At Work

“In this industry, it pays to be friends with management”.
picture alliance / Contributor via getty

“In this industry, it pays to be friends with management”.

That was the first piece of advice I received when I became a stripper four years ago. At the time, it seemed like normal, logical advice. But there was subtext to this guidance; it was a covert warning.

My failure to sufficiently lick the boots of management was made manifest in a Facebook post on January 31, 2023, which listed the names of nineteen strippers at Calendar Girls Wellington – including my own – instructing us to clear our lockers and settle our accounts with the club. 


Although it was never stated explicitly, the conclusion that drew was that we had been fired for our involvement in a letter, signed by thirty-five dancers and submitted to management, that had asked to negotiate the conditions of our new contract. We had two requests: to reinstate the former distribution of our earnings to 60% paid to the dancer, rather than the newly established range of 40-50%, and to receive correct documentation of our earnings to help us keep track of our income and provide proof of it when it comes to paying taxes.

Instead of any kind of conversation, or even a hard “no”, we were fired by way of a post in the club’s staff Facebook group. There was no explanation given, only the instruction to collect our belongings and settle our accounts at a specific time. In a way that is hard to put into words, we were shocked, but not surprised.

In penning the letter, we assumed the club could never fire us all. Surely they wouldn’t leave themselves with massively decreased staff and a PR nightmare on their hands? The fact they did demonstrated just how disposable we are to them, how easily we are replaced by new, naive meat – girls (usually) younger than us who neither know better treatment nor to advocate for it.

In response, Calendar Girls management stated “the club only has a limited amount of lockers and needs them for contractors [to] do weekly shifts… All contractors were told they can reapply online anytime” and that any contractors unhappy with their payment were “welcome to discuss it”.


Fuelled by anger and adrenaline, we collectivised, founding Fired Up Stilettos. What began with a renegade pole dance party-cum-demonstration in a park across the road from our former workplace became a significant workers’ rights movement. We staged an additional demonstration in the park, held a meeting with MPs and other activists at Parliament, were the subject of a documentary segment on TVNZ’s Sunday, protested outside Parliament twice (with pole in tow) – our story was covered by major commentators from across the political spectrum.

And as we gained media traction and attention on Twitter and Instagram, strippers from across Aotearoa approached us with stories of their own experiences. Incensed by these testimonies, we began investigating working conditions and management practices in the adult entertainment industry nationwide. We found that functional management-staff relationships are the exception, not the rule. The norm is a culture of intimidation, coercive control, and abuse.

In Sunday’s segment about Fired Up Stilettos, two dancers from The White House, a strip club in Auckland, told stories of being yelled at and hit, as well as chased and zapped with an electric fly swat by their manager, Elena*, as a disciplinary measure.

One former dancer, Josie*, cited her old manager Trish’s* ill treatment as the reason for her departure from the industry. Josie told Fired Up Stilettos of the repeated body-shaming she and other dancers received from Trish, and suggested these were intentional efforts to “degrade the workers’ self-esteem, making them more malleable to employment abuses, more vulnerable to exploitation.”


Once, when returning to work after time off for a concussion, Trish called Josie a “conceited little cunt”, insisted she call herself the same in front of her, and grovel for her job back – despite not having been fired to begin with. As she recalled, “Trish told me all my friendships at work were in jeopardy and that I had been talked about in my absence, and hadn’t been missed”. After reconvening with the other dancers, Josie found that proved not to be the case.

Josie was far from alone in experiencing verbal abuse. Dancer Rosa* tells a story where, after saying she felt the manager didn’t like her, they yelled, “No I don’t fucking like you. I hate most of you girls.”

According to her former staff, there were also instances of Trish being kind and understanding, but the girls say they thought that these random, fleeting moments of kindness gave her power to mistreat them again, and then  when they retaliated, turn around and ask “how could you do this to me?”. It caused the workers to question the mistreatment they received, constantly being forced to wonder whether they were the problem. The girls say it allowed Trish to gain trust, then turn and use any visible weakness against them. Finally, it allowed her to divide and conquer.

Emotional manipulation and social isolation is unacceptable in any workplace, but in sex work, it is especially damaging. The nature of our jobs necessitates a thick skin and strong personal boundaries. When we are systematically cut down by management, our defences are compromised, and we become vulnerable. When the occasional ‘bad apple’ customer appears (an unfortunate minority of our clientele can be profoundly disrespectful and insulting) we need confidence and comfort to cope. I felt safest in my workplace when I felt listened to by management, when I knew if anything happened, I would be believed and cared for. 


One of the greatest tools we have in our workplace is each other. When these “bad apples” appear, we lean on other workers for support – an ear, a pep talk, a hug, a shared snack. Any divisive tactics used by management take this tool away from us, and thus, hands over power to the client and the club. What could have been a moderately irritating insult from a disgruntled customer becomes enough to ruin your entire weekend when your confidence and sense of community has been taken from you.

In a similar vein, while bullying and intimidation by management occur in every industry, they are particularly harmful in adult entertainment. Sex workers need to be able to choose when and how we work, but pervasive bullying by management strips us of the autonomy our work necessitates. We need freedom to decline bookings with customers that make us uncomfortable, to skip our turn on stage if someone we know enters the club, or to take time to decompress after a disrespectful client or difficult booking. When we concede to their demands out of fear, we suffer harm as a result.

The stigma and isolation we face, by virtue of the nature of our jobs, are commonly weaponised against us. Few protections outside of the workplace exist for sex workers, and authorities like WorkSafe and the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment hold little power in our industry.


As independent contractors, there are minimal pathways to solve our grievances, as we are not covered by employment law. Prejudice is pervasive, and fosters disinterest among lawmakers. We have seen this be used as a means of control. Before we were collectively fired from Calendar Girls, we told our manager we intended to engage WorkSafe in our complaint. 

We were told not to bother, that they couldn’t help us, and that we were “waving the red flag in front of the bull”.

Club management holds profound power over sex workers’ finances, even without fines. A good relationship with them means getting recommended for bookings, receiving help when upselling clients, and being rostered on lucrative shifts. But just being a “good worker” isn’t enough.

Management’s respect requires near-robotic obedience. As well as missing out on earning opportunities, a bad relationship fuels low morale, making it harder to convincingly play the role of “good-time girl” – a performance crucial to our earning potential, considering much of the appeal of strip clubs is the opportunity for escapism, the chance to step into a fantasy world where women are consistently bubbly and barely-dressed.

Few customers want to book a dancer in a bad mood. The fear of not earning enough is preyed upon by our bosses, who use the fact we “need the money” to manipulate us into working shifts or accepting bookings we are uncomfortable doing. Those deemed financially vulnerable – such as parents, migrants, or those with mental health struggles – are particularly picked upon.


On the more extreme end of the financial coercion spectrum are the stories of Ruby* and Apple*. Ruby spoke to us about a time in 2018 her boss was withholding pay from dancers and providing no certainty when they would be paid. When she queried him about the delay, she was offered a deal: she could get her pay early if she performed oral sex on him. When she told him she’d “rather not get paid”, he appeared shocked, seemingly unable to compute the lack of power he held over her.

In 2014, Apple was flown to a different city to dance as a guest entertainer at another club, where she said the manager “gave her away for free” to his favourite regulars to “get his money’s worth” – an experience she described as “humiliating.”

In reality, being a good strip club manager requires less effort than being a bad one. As independent contractors, we largely want to be left alone by management. We want to be respected as autonomous adults, be provided with a safe, comfortable venue to do our work in, be supported when things go wrong, and in return hand over a reasonable portion of our earnings toward the costs of our needs. Achieving this is profoundly simple, as outlined by the legislation we are currently drafting alongside sex work researchers and members of Aotearoa’s Green Party. 

Our potential for success is hindered only by stigma and greed. With our member’s bill in the works, the vocal support of politicians from multiple parties, a dedicated lawyer, and an ever-growing network of contributors and allies, Fired Up Stilettos are unwavering in our faith we can materially change the lives of strippers and sex workers in Aotearoa for the best.

*Names have been changed for the purpose of privacy.

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