‘A game changer’: Virtual strip clubs are here to stay

Strap House, a new online platform by Maggie’s Toronto and Strapped TO, celebrates Black queer sex workers

From the comfort of home on Nov. 27, dozens of people joined a Zoom call to attend the Strap House—a new, virtual strip club.

Co-hosted by Maggie’s Toronto Sex Worker’s Action Project and Strapped TO, a group that organizes monthly events for queer and nonbinary folks in the city, Strap House is a platform for Black queer dancers to entertain.

Everyone who works with Strap House—from the performers to the administrative team and the DJs—is Black and queer.

Marisa Rosa Grant, who runs Strapped and produces events in the city specifically for queer women and non-binary people of colour, had to shift their events online when the pandemic began.

Online, their events have been more successful and have had larger turnouts, too.

“The events were more accessible. People who might have had social anxiety about going out are now able to come to our events, and also people who had different mobility needs or accessibility needs are able to access events because it’s just a website link that they hit,” Grant told The Pigeon in an interview.

“Sometimes we have 600 folks come out to some of our [online] events.”

Grant thinks online events are here to stay because of the accessibility they offer, whether it be physical barriers to accessing events or social anxiety.

“People don’t have to leave their home to watch performers from around the world.”

Both Strapped and Maggie’s run the events without making any profit: all of the money goes to the performers.

“We’re exclusively doing it for these sex workers because we know how hard it is to even get in the door of a strip club,” Grant said.

Ellie Ade Kur, a member of Maggie’s board of directors, echoed the sentiment. “It’s very hard to get work in a strip club as a Black dancer, for a number of reasons,” she told The Pigeon in an interview.

“Either you are pushed to make yourself look more racially ambiguous, [or] you’re asked to wear a wig, change your name, change your accent. I think what we’re doing is really awesome because we’re an unapologetically queer, Black space.”

Maggie’s is one of the country’s oldest sex worker advocacy groups, run by and for sex workers, and was one of the first sex worker organizations in the world to receive government funding. Since 1986, Maggie’s has provided support to and advocated for the rights of sex workers in Toronto.

Now that the Strap House is running, having a Black-run space is a “game-changer,” according to Ade Kur.

“[For Black dancers] who were turned away for being Black, when you have a space like this, [that’s] not a risk,” she said.

Ade Kur had been thinking about how to join Maggie’s and Strapped together to reinforce and celebrate Black sex workers for some time before creating Strap House.

“Creating a space like this seemed like a great way not only to get Black sex workers paid, but also to highlight and celebrate them.”

The Strap House is one of many new virtual events in an increasingly digital world—and, like the recent rise of OnlyFans, could revolutionize sex work.

“When you actually look at the numbers in terms of how we’re doing as a club, we outsell strip clubs. We have more people come to our strip clubs, we give our entertainers this incredible amount of creative control so the performances are exciting and dynamic,” Ade Kur said. “I don’t think that’s something that’s going to die out with the pandemic.”

Strap House fully leans into their identity as Black and queer and is also looking for other forms of Black artistry to expand their network of queer, Black performers, according to Ade Kur.

“Last time [we streamed], we also featured spoken word from a Black artist and combined that with our resident dancers,” she said.

Integral to this celebration of Blackness and of queerness is acknowledging the importance of Black sex workers.

“Having a virtual strip club that specifically highlights and celebrates Black sex workers feels so important because Black sex workers have been so central for so many struggles [towards] social justice and human rights in Toronto.”

Ade Kur is right—Black sex workers have been the pioneers of many social justice movements.

Marsha P. Johnson was one of the first drag queens to attend the Stonewall Inn, a New York City bar in the 1960s that was only for gay men. On June 28, 1969, the Stonewall riots began when police raided the Inn; Johnson was one of the first to stand up to the police and led a series of protests and riots in the days that followed.

These riots were one of the most important events to lead to the “gay liberation movement” in the US. Now, the anniversary of the Stonewall riots is celebrated as Pride.

Johnson isn’t the only Black queer figure responsible for advocating for the rights of many; this past June, Refinery29 published an article on the history of “The Queer Black History of Rioting.

The Stonewall Inn is now a national historical landmark, and the Marsha P. Johnson Institute was founded to defend the rights of Black trans people.

Strap House isn’t the only avenue Maggie’s has created for supporting sex workers in their community. Many sex workers were unsupported by the government’s pandemic response, and Maggie’s has raised over $130,000 in their support.

Apart from CERB, which many sex workers are ineligible for because they don’t file taxes, sex workers additionally faced discrimination from the provincial Ontario government.

This past fall, Ontario closed down strip clubs in Toronto after two outbreaks—one at Club Paradise and one at the Brass Rail—but not regular bars.

In early September, seven cases were linked to Club Paradise—less than a month after up to 550 people were also exposed at the Brass Rail. A Brass Rail employee worked four shifts while positive; it was never disclosed what role the employee held at the club.

In an interview with CTV news, Ade Kur pointed out that there were fewer outbreaks at Toronto strip clubs than at restaurants in the city.

“Two blocks away from the Brass Rail, El Furniture Warehouse, a restaurant, exposed 1,700 people to COVID-19,” she said in the interview. “That’s a greater exposure rate than every single strip club in the city of Toronto combined.”

Still, strip clubs were forced to close while restaurants, including El Furniture Warehouse, were allowed to operate as normal. Strip clubs still remain closed while the province is in lockdown.

Doug Ford, Ontario’s premier, told reporters that he “feels sorry” for people who have to go home and say they were at the Brass Rail, exemplifying the bias surrounding the government’s decision about sex workers and strip clubs.

Sex workers already face disproportionate amounts of violence and have to contend with stigma from the police.

According to Statistics Canada, one-third of homicides of sex workers remained unsolved as of 2014, compared to 20% of cases that didn’t involve sex workers.

The Pigeon also recently highlighted some of Maggie’s work in helping address how the Toronto Police Service (TPS) has failed to adequately respond to reports of sex workers going missing. In the summer of 2017, when Alloura Wells, a biracial transgender woman, went missing, Maggie’s had to push to have the TPS file a missing person’s report.

When Wells’s body was finally found, the woman who made the discovery contacted Maggie’s because she’d seen them reaching out to the media.

Maggie’s advocacy has been crucial for protecting and supporting Toronto’s sex worker community.

Strap House is also coming at a time when Instagram, the social media giant, has begun targeting stripping content; in December, they’ll be updating their content rules.

Now, “content that requests compensation in exchange for extreme behaviour,” including “disrobing or other sexual behaviour,” can get users banned. Sexually-suggestive activity can also “affect monetization for your content.”

Ade Kur said these platforms are showing prejudice against sex workers.

“What those terms do now is they outline what explicit adult content is when they didn’t previously do that,” she said. “Promoting adult services like strip clubs, [including virtual strip clubs], will allow the platform to block and remove you.”

OnlyFans—a relatively new platform where content creators can post NSFW (not safe for work) content and fans can subscribe—doesn’t have an explore page, forcing individuals to rely on other social media platforms to gain audiences for their accounts.

This also comes at a time when PornHub, an internet porn site, is taking heat after a recent New York Times opinion piece resulted in the credit card companies Visa and Mastercard declaring they’d stop processing payments to the site.

Though good for the survivors the article highlights, the move left sex workers in the lurch, punishing them for Pornhub’s misdoings.

Makayla Walker is a Ryerson student, a dancer, and one of Strap House’s performers. During one of Strap House’s streams, Walker performed from her bedroom, surrounded by sexy red lights and wearing lingerie.

Walker’s final year studying dance at an arts high school in Toronto, Ont., was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, and she found Strap House through a friend of hers in the show.

“I had reached out to see if I could contribute to the show, only because I knew myself. I really love to just be in my element at home—be a little sexy, sultry—and thought that it’d be really fun to give it a try,” Walker said.

She described herself as a big performer.

“I love being able to connect with people, regardless of if it’s digitally or in person,” she said.

“I love being able to make someone’s day, make them smile, make them see something that they’re going to be like, ‘Oh my God, [I just] viewed something magical.’”

Her participation in Strap House last month was Walker’s second online performance, just one week after she did a virtual—and solo—drag show.

“It was really, really fun to be directing and producing, being behind the scenes for music, and then getting a team to help out with the really technical things,” she said.

As far as Strap House itself, Walker emphasized the almost escapist qualities of the show.

“I think there’s something really interesting that many strippers [and] pole dancers […] can bring to the stage that helps bring the audience into a whole new fantasy, that lets them forget about everything else that’s going on.”

When asked what Strap House means to her, Walker highlighted the struggles that trans people, especially trans people of colour like herself, face.

“Strap House, for me, means embodying and exuding the person that is always oppressed by society throughout my daily life,” Walker says.

“For Strap House to be a thing, it really helped me embody the real sexuality […] that I can’t always bring out to the forefront because that isn’t always allowed.”

One of Strap House’s promotional images reads, “Black strippers face a number of barriers at clubs that white and non-Black dancers do not. Anti-Black racism is the norm. At the same time, Black aesthetics, Black music, and culture also heavily influenced strip clubs & pop culture.”

Another continues, “In spite of all of this—Black strippers are leading national campaigns for labour rights, LGBTQ rights, racial justice, and mutual aid efforts supporting other sex workers through COVID-19!”

“Being someone who is part of the LGBTQ+ community and is also Black on top of that is such a weird state [with] layered troubles,” Walker said.

“[That] Strap House can allow so many Black LGBTQ+ members to be freely themselves on such a large platform is so amazing, and I can’t wait to see the Strap House bloom into an even bigger, possibly international, show.”

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