"If you love being assaulted on stage for a dollar or less, this is the club for you," reads one stripper's 2011 review of Casa Diablo in Portland, Oregon.
She's not the only one who has beef with the world's first vegan strip club, the official slogan of which is: "Vixens on veal, sizzle not steak, we put the meat on the pole, not on the plate." Casa Diablo and its proprietors are now being sued by two strippers for $208,276 in back wages, return of unlawful fees, and damages for battery.
When Casa Diablo opened in 2008, it made headlines for its novel combination of veganism and naked women. The manager, Johnny Zukle—a.k.a. Johnny Diablo—seemed like an interesting character with a great business model. Within months, however, warnings about him started to spread among strippers online. A 2010 forum post on stripperweb.com that labeled the "owner"—presumably Zukle, who has previously been described as the owner in local press accounts, along with co-defendant Carol Lee—a "slimeball and an idiot." The forum member said that he had imposed "bullshit 'late fees'" and tried to convince the younger, more naïve dancers to pay their fines to him in sexual favors.
Most of the dancers I spoke with for this article expressed concern that if they were quoted, Zukle might retaliate. Needless to say, the portrait they paint isn't a flattering one.
Jessica, a Portland dancer who has heard seven years of dressing room gossip about Casa Diablo, says, "It is well known that Casa Diablo has a really unique auditioning process compared to [other clubs]—you have to give full two-way contact lap dances to... Johnny, which is really unusual in this industry."
Matilda Bickers, one of the dancers suing the club, likewise said new dancers have to audition by giving Zukle a full-friction lap dance. During the dance, Bickers said, "[Zukle] would grab your nipples and be like, 'They can't touch you here, or on your crotch,' and then he'd pat your crotch." (Apparently touching these areas is now allowed during lap dances at Casa Diablo, but wasn't three years ago when Bickers first auditioned.) Bickers added that bouncers regularly touched, groped, and untied dancers' outfits, even after the dancers complained. If dancers touched the bouncers, they could be fined $100.
Several [dancers] mentioned the large self-portrait Zukle painted of himself as the devil that hung in the club, and one shared a heartbreaking story of Zukle ridiculing a young woman for having an abortion.
"There seems to be this disconnect where people are really invested now in organic, free-range, and fair-trade stuff—except when it comes to their sex workers," Bickers tells me. "You can consume a service and still care about it. I can give you a really great lap dance and rub on your dick, and you can still care that I'm being treated fairly. [Customers] can come in and get their lap dances, but they should also be like, 'Hey, you should treat your workers better.' It wouldn't take much if the club thought this was a priority—if they cared half as much for the women working for them as they did about animals."
Dancers I spoke with complained of unreasonably long hours, scheduling insanity, and a pattern of dehumanizing behavior by management that ranged from throwing away a dancer's non-vegan food to non-consensual groping and spanking. Most recalled some form of sexual harassment and Zukle making fun of emotionally vulnerable dancers. Several mentioned the large self-portrait Zukle painted of himself as the devil that hung in the club, and one shared a heartbreaking story of Zukle ridiculing a young woman for having an abortion.
Bickers believes that dancers' status as stigmatized workers in the legal grey area between regular employment and working as independent contractors paves the way for unsafe and abusive workplaces to flourish. She adds that the conditions at Casa Diablo aren't materially different from other clubs, just worse.
"I want people to know, and I especially want strippers to know," Bickers says, "that [these conditions] are illegal. We deserve better and we can get better."
One of the last straws for Bickers was when a dancer who was regularly teased and harassed by the staff died. "She accidentally killed herself and it looked like her boyfriend did it at first," Bickers says, "and the manager started telling me that she deserved it... She was like, 'No, she asked for it, she got exactly what she deserved.' I left and I sat in my car and I was like, 'I can't, I have to do something, I can't be complicit with this anymore, it feels fucked up.' There's a line, I guess, that got crossed."
Zukle, who has previously had run-ins with the federal government over using money smeared with fake blood, did not return calls seeking comment for this story. In a statement to the Willamette Week, Zukle said that harassment in the club is nonexistent and called the lawsuit "frivolous and ridiculous."
Allegations about Zukle's character aside, all but $20,000 of the lawsuit is for back wages, fees, fines, and related damages. Bickers and Pitts allege that the club failed to pay them minimum (or any) wage, and that Bickers paid the club $64,094 (and Pitts $53,545) in unlawful fees and fines.
Like many strip clubs, Casa Diablo takes a portion of what dancers earn from selling dances, in this case 30 percent. Unlike other clubs, it also takes 30 percent of tips and forces dancers stand in line with customers who want to tip them so that the tips can be given to a bouncer. The club also restricts the amount of tips dancers are allowed to receive from customers. A dancer I spoke with suggested that despite the lawsuit, none of these things have changed at Casa Diablo.
"The money is really good, and I think that's why [the club's current dancers] are afraid to say anything—they don't want walk away from it."
"It's just weird micromanaging stuff that I felt was just made to remind us that we aren't in control. It gets to you," Bickers says. According to a photo Bickers sent me, the stage fee was only two bucks, plus 30 percent of other income, but fines included $100 for touching a staff member inappropriately, $100 for wearing lotion, $10 for not being early to stage, $20 for missing stage, $10 for not removing panties on the first song even if no one is tipping, and up to $1,000 for doing or "moving" drugs.
"The money is really good, and I think that's why [the club's current dancers] are afraid to say anything—they don't want walk away from it," Jessica, the Portland dancer, explains. "They have a really good clientele out there and that's why the girls put up with it." Jessica says fines like Casa Diablo's are the "industry standard" at Portland clubs, although most only take 20 percent. At her own club, fees top out at $35 per shift.
The main issue the lawsuit hinges on, however, isn't whether the fees and fines were excessive, but whether strippers are employees or independent contractors. Employees must be paid a minimum wage and cannot be charged fines. Independent contractors cannot be made to follow a schedule set by the club or told what to wear, and their services cannot be an integral part of the business.
Of course, not all dancers want to be employees. Some prefer the freedoms that come with independent contractor status. Bickers has been criticized for threatening what some dancers see as their freedom and for suing over work conditions that people say she agreed to. Bickers herself says that she prefers the employee designation, but concedes there are benefits to being classified as a contractor. She hopes the lawsuit will force clubs to "pick one or the other, which I think is great, because right now is this in-between middle ground where we just get shafted on both." (In October, Mary Emily O'Hara reported that Portland sex workers are working with lobbyists and state legislators to regulate the industry and clarify sex workers' legal status in next month's legislative session.)
If she wins, Bickers, who volunteers at a crisis line, plans to use the money to start a shelter for the animals of people fleeing domestic violence. Currently there is no such resource in Portland, and some people stay in dangerous situations because they won't abandon their pets.
"I know that it's up to the federal court, so the precedents are going to be like Rick's and Sapphire [clubs in Seattle and Las Vegas, respectively, where dancers won back wages after the court ruled them employees], and they won, so I feel like I should win," Bickers says. Her lawsuit was filed January 11 at 3 AM. Similar lawsuits have dragged out for months or years.
In one 2014 lawsuit, three jointly-owned New York City clubs were ordered to pay dancers $4.3 million in wages and unlawful fines. These lawsuits aren't a new thing, either—in 1998, author Lily Burana won a class action suit in which the O'Farrel Theater was ordered to pay nearly $3 million to dancers.
But the income from stage fees and fines apparently can outweigh the cost of the occasional court battle. The Alaska Supreme Court ruled in 1987 that strippers were employees, yet dancers there are often reluctant to put their names on public lawsuits and out themselves, meaning clubs' chances of being sued for compliance are relatively slim.
Kristina Dolgin, the founder of Red Light Legal, believes that social bias, stigma, and marginalization have led to a lack of regulation that leaves dancers vulnerable to exploitation. But she says that's finally changing.
"Unsupported by society at large, dancers across the US have been successfully advocating for change in the workplace and for greater control over their employment relationship with strip club managers," Dolgin tells me. "Litigating against the illegal designation of 'independent contractor' is one such way... In the vast majority of cases, dancers have been able to prove that, regardless of what their contract says, as an economic reality they are employees, not independent contractors."
If women don't think they have any rights because they're 'independent,' they may not even ask, they may not even push for them.
There is less precedent for the battery charge that makes up the other part of Bickers's and Pitt's lawsuit. Last year in New Zealand, a sex worker working in a legal brothel sued for sexual harassment and won.
"I just hope that dancers begin to think about whether they might actually be employees, and if they are, how much they're giving away by allowing that to continue, and not getting a minimum wage," Lake Perriguey, Bickers's attorney, tells me. "What I think is really important in this particular case: My clients are only suing for back wages, but so many other attendant rights are associated with this misclassification. The guy who's in the back making vegan tempeh tacos is an employee, and if he cuts his finger off, he gets immediately taken to the hospital and he's going to get it paid for through the club's insurance policy. If women don't think they have any rights because they're 'independent,' they may not even ask, they may not even push for them. So we're hoping to get some clarity here about that."
Perriguey says Zukle has 20 days to respond to the lawsuit. The response will determine whether they go to trial and how long the case might take to settle.
Most recent reports about Portland strip clubs have focused on sex trafficking. But advocates say that angle distracts from more common, everyday abuses—and the struggle for workers' rights in the sex industry.
"Actually there are a lot of abuses that can happen short of being trafficked," Bickers says. "As marginalized workers, it's easy to forget that the things that happen to us and the way we're treated would never fly at an on-the-books or white-collar job, or even at an independent contractor job like a hair stylist. It's easy to forget because a lot of us have nothing else to compare it to. People keep telling us how easy our jobs are and how lucky we are and so we normalize our treatment, but that doesn't make the way we're treated OK—or legal."
Tara Burns is the author of Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks as an Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting. Follow her on Twitter.