On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, a dozen or so employees of the Lusty Lady peep show are gathered at a house in the Central District for a barbecue. Upstairs, a few dancers and support staff (who call themselves "the jizz moppers") pour mimosas and slice up vegetables for the grill. "You know one thing I'm not going to miss about that place is getting those songs stuck in my head," one of the jizz moppers says. "Every time I start thinking of one of those songs, I'm gonna call up Debra" (one of the managers). He starts to croon: "Let me smell your dick." Another dancer walks out of the kitchen, singing, "Put it in your mouth," and heads downstairs, where the rest of the employees are out in the yard, lounging in the grass, reminiscing about the Lusty as though it has already closed.
Phoenix, the hostess of the barbecue and a dancer at the Lusty, is one of the two women responsible for the peep-show playlist: 150 songs, changed up every few weeks. "It's hard to please 50 women," she says later. "We have a formula. Every few songs have to be hiphop or R&B, because those are the booty-dropping songs. Then we pepper it with disco, pop, classic rock. I like soul music. It's expanded my knowledge of music incredibly," she says. "If I'm in a restaurant or seeing a preview for a movie or whatever, I'm always listening for something new."
Phoenix moved to Seattle when she was 17, intending to go to art school, but never quite made it through the door. She worked at the Sunglass Hut ("Business at a Sunglass Hut in Seattle is never great"), Cow Chip Cookies in Pioneer Square, and a few restaurant jobs, where she hated how management treated its employees. She picked up a few shifts as a hostess at the Déjà Vu strip club—cleaning ashtrays, wiping down the stripper pole—but hated that, too. She says the clubs have a bad atmosphere: Customers have to pay $20 just to get in the door, and they're irritable because there isn't any booze, per state law. The dancers are irritable because they have to be licensed as independent contractors and pay a stage fee just to perform: They're competing with each other for lap dances and tips. The whole place reeks of desperation and hustle.
Then Phoenix learned about the Lusty Lady. It pays an hourly wage, so there's no competition, no hustle. There's glass between the dancers and the customers, and a friendly, nurturing atmosphere. She went for an audition and has been a Lusty Lady ever since.
Outside on the lawn, the peep-show workers are passing around a book of haiku that were originally posted on a dressing-room mirror then collected into this self-published chapbook. One of them begins to read aloud:
Tie over shoulder
Glancing at watch, must come now
Time to go to work.
"Nadia wrote that," laughs one of the jizz moppers. "Wait, wait, here's another one."
Oh! I have to poop!
How much longer 'til my break?
Damn! Now I can't go!
"Was that me?" one of the dancers asks. "That's me!"
"I'm right there with you, sister," another dancer says.
They start talking about what has kept them at the Lady all these years: flexible hours, which they can arrange around class schedules, travel plans, or volunteer work. A dancer named Hexe—a tall, dark, tattooed beauty in scuffed black military boots—uses her time off for wilderness EMT training and volunteers as a street medic during large-scale protests, treating people who've been gassed or beaten by police. She served at the Republican National Convention in New York and the G8 summit in Scotland, and did some disaster relief in Haiti after the earthquake. Another has been studying yoga therapy and doing dominatrix training, a career she wants to pursue once the Lady closes. Another is finishing up her second master's degree, in cultural studies, and wants to get her PhD at Indiana University's gender studies program and work with the Kinsey Institute.
They tell war stories of legendarily bad customers who harass the dancers, piss in the booths, and smoke crack in the corners. "The hardest thing is negotiating drunk dudes out of the toilet at 4:00 a.m.," one of the jizz moppers says. "They're always 300 pounds and just got out of jail with a bunch of fresh facial tattoos. You try to be nice and say, 'Sir, you gotta go now,' and then they're all, 'You talk to me like a little bitch!' Then you gotta pull out your Maglite."
Other customers they remember fondly. "There was this regular, Lou," says one dancer. "A very drunk and beloved regular who died, and everyone was bummed. We all wanted to go to the funeral, but they'd probably ask how we knew him. What would we say? 'Uhhh... we're his stripper girlfriends?' He would always shout things: 'Woo! Take it off! Woo! Take it off!'"
"He'd shout that even when there was nothing left to take off," adds another dancer. "Like, what more can I show you? You want me to take off my skin?"
And they love the camaraderie at the Lusty Lady. Several of the dancers say they considered themselves tomboys and didn't get along so well with women before working at the Lady, but the tight quarters and intimacy of the work forged an unlikely family of different ethnic, class, cultural, and educational backgrounds. Their manager Debra and her sister Candy-Girl are the family matriarchs, steely women who, the dancers say, ran away from foster homes in their teens and grew up tough on the streets of Seattle before finding a home at the Lusty Lady. "They knew some of the victims of the Green River Killer," somebody says. "They know everyone, from transients on the street to judges."
"I don't want to talk about Debra anymore," says another. "I'll get a little emotional. She's like a mom to us."
She wipes away a few tears.
The Lusty Lady is one of the last scraps of evidence that downtown Seattle used to be a tough waterfront lined with cheap bars and pawnshops—instead of four-star hotels and condominiums—and that First Avenue used to be called "Flesh Avenue." Longtime Seattle Art Museum director Mimi Gates (stepmother of Bill) has described the Lusty's marquee as "a Seattle landmark," and most of the local and national reports on the Lusty's decision to close this June after a decades-long run have focused on that marquee, which carries a rotating series of jokes and puns—"Where Every Miss Is a Hit," "The Skirt Locker," "Veni Vidi Veni." Sometimes the joke is directed at something happening that week, or something in the news, or something at Seattle Art Museum across the street. In response to a Chuck Close exhibit a few years ago, the Lusty's marquee proclaimed "Chuck Clothes!" When Gates left the museum, the Lusty bid her adieu: "Bare Well Mimi."
The employees on the lawn are irritated by everyone's focus on the building's exterior. "Yeah yeah yeah, the marquee, the marquee," grumbles one of the jizz moppers. "It's a little insulting," says a dancer. "What about the people who work there?"
During the Lusty's high-water mark, dancers made $27 an hour plus benefits. Even support staff got medical and dental insurance, plus free gym memberships—though they've suffered pay cuts as the failing economy and free internet porn have cut into business. The Lady is just a few steps from where WaMu was headquartered; when the bank crashed, it took a big chunk of lunchtime regulars with it. The big spenders don't come in so much anymore. On several recent afternoon visits to the peep show, I didn't see suits so much as Latino day laborers, coming in to break the 50- and 100-dollar bills they'd just been paid with.
"You want to know the down and dirty of how the Lusty Lady really got started?" asks Tamara the Trapeze Lady, a local burlesque and aerial performer who worked at the Lusty in the 1980s, leaning across the table during an interview like she's about to reveal a criminal conspiracy. "It started as a church."
Back in the early 1980s on First Avenue, just a few doors down from the Showbox, on the other side of the street from where the Lusty is now, was a place called the Temple of Venus (it's now known as the Venusian Church and still holds meetings in Redmond).
"You'd come and sit, and there was a small riser—an altar, as it were. The service would start, and the scrim in back would open to this black, starry-night curtain. This woman would come out in fancy lingerie and tell a story about a sexual experience she'd had, and it would culminate with her masturbating. This was the precursor to the Private Pleasures booth at the Lusty Lady."
Between the Temple and the Showbox was a video-game arcade called the Amusement Center with a sign in big pink cursive. Once government officials began to catch on to the Temple, Tamara says, it lost its church license and a peep show moved into the Amusement Center (the exact financial relationship between the Temple and the peep show is murky; manager and co-owner Darrell Davis declined to name the other investors), keeping the name and the sign. "They had a room similar to the Temple of Venus called the 'Intimate something-or-other,'" Tamara says. "It was the '80s, and cocaine was very popular, so parts of my memory are vivid and parts of it are pretty fuzzy."
Tamara moved to Seattle in 1981 from a small, conservative town in Eastern Washington. She had years of experience in print shops but couldn't find work in the city. "I was horribly discriminated against," she says. "People would tell me, 'We don't hire women here.' So I wandered the streets of Seattle, basically despondent, and started hanging out at the Pike Place Market selling art—this fantasy-rainbow-fairy-unicorn crap. I was very naive at the time. I was afraid of the Amusement Center. I would rather have crossed the street than walk by it, that's how corny I was. I thought they'd all drag me in and rape me or something."
One day, Tamara met a woman on the bus and became "completely infatuated with her—this is before I came out—because she was beautiful, dressed nice, always had her hair in a perfect bun, made her own clothes." Tamara was friends with her for months before discovering she worked at the Amusement Center. "I freaked out. But then my logical side kicked in, and I thought, 'If someone like that can work at a place like this, I must have a screwed-up idea of what it's like.'"
Tamara went into the Amusement Center a few times, thought it wasn't so bad, needed some money, and soon found herself onstage. "It was a really raunchy and really fun time in my life," she says. "There was this manager when I first worked there named Bill. He was really big, really jolly and fun, really generous, and really perverted. He had this big mobile home with lots of beds, a TV, everything. Bill died because he hired a hooker who was giving him a blowjob while he drove through downtown Seattle and he had a heart attack. The car crashed, the hooker fled the scene, and Bill was dead. That's when everything went to shit."
Tamara, like many of the dancers, could go on for hours: about how the post-Bill management was less fun and more uptight, about the parties (one time they rolled around on a tarp covered in chopped-up fruit), about the customers (there was that guy who started waving a gun at the dancers), about their parade across First Avenue when they moved from the old Amusement Center to the Lady's current home ("We dressed up in our sexiest lingerie, flashed our breasts, and stopped traffic for a long while"), about her clashes with the management (over her attempts to organize the dancers and her allergy to perfume—she won a settlement with the National Labor Relations Board but agreed never to set foot on the premises again), and about how the peep show changed her life.
"The Lusty Lady is the reason I'm a performer and producer now. It all started with the Fallen Women Follies, where sex workers could come and play violin, put on a fashion show, read poetry—anything they liked. Lots of Seattle performers, including Miss Indigo Blue, got their start at the Fallen Women Follies. I don't know what would've happened to me if it weren't for the Lusty Lady."
The Lusty Lady has three main attractions. Turn right past the front counter, and you find 12 private booths with windows—some one-way so the dancers can't see you, some two-way—onto the live show. A quarter will raise the window for a little under 30 seconds, and one of the dancers will wander over and undulate or kneel and wave her behind. There may be wadded-up Kleenex or little squirts of semen on the floor, the walls, or sometimes the glass. Some customers, dubbed "glass-lickers," like to lick up the leavings of other men, despite dancers' admonishments that it might not be the best for their health.
All kinds of women dance on the stage: black and white and Asian, blonde and brunette, shorn and hirsute, slim and curvy. Several have tattoos, though ink is discouraged by the old-timers managing the place. Debra has a monthly lottery for which dancer can get a new tattoo and has to approve the design. (The management never toppled to the sexual tastes of the SuicideGirls generation, which may be partially responsible for the Lusty's demise. Its web presence is almost nonexistent—no schedules for when your favorite dancers might be onstage, no options to video chat with the stripper of your choice, no nothing.)
Turn left past the front desk and you see a row of booths for watching video porn. Repetitive cries of "Oooh, baby!" and "Right there!" and slaps and squishes permeate the air. This is also where some of the clandestine, nonsexual business takes place. "Sometimes you'll pull a guy out of the booth, and it's billowing with smoke," says Scott, one of the former jizz moppers. "And you'll ask, 'Were you smoking crack in there?' and he'll be all, 'No, no, man! I wasn't smoking no crack in there!'" The first time I visited the Lusty, a ladyfriend and I walked past the back video booth, and a shriveled old black man in a poofy parka popped out. "Y'all want to have some real fun?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "I mean some real fun?"
Across the aisle from the video booths is a big fish-tank window with a woman reclining inside (if she's available) or a red curtain pulled across it (if she's not). This is the Private Pleasures booth, a highly charged place in the Lusty Lady universe. It's the closest the Lady gets to prostitution, though most of the dancers would reject that comparison—the dancer and the patron are separated by glass. But it's where one woman and one man talk, react to each other, masturbate, and trade fantasies. Some dancers only put on a masturbation show, sometimes with sex toys, sometimes not. It depends on the dancer and how much money you're willing to pay. "I have a friend who does a pretty elaborate show," says Hexe. "She uses leather straps and suction-cup dildos she sticks to the glass."
The booth is one of the few points of philosophical friction between dancers. They all feel comfortable with being sex workers who dance naked for money, but the booth is something else. Erika Langley, a photographer who wrote a book about the Lusty Lady, quoted one dancer as saying her mother feared that she'd encounter "negative energy" in the sex industry and meet men "with holes in their souls."
The booth seems like a place where you might meet men with holes in their souls. Sometimes the dancers get freaked out by the customers' fantasies—especially by the pedophiles. One regular, dubbed Incest Man, comes in with elaborate and specific fantasies about his little stepdaughter: watching her undress from behind a door, being alone with her in a rowboat. Lux, who has been dancing at the Lady for 11 years, quit working the booth because of its more violent and disturbing customers. "If a child molester comes in and wants me to pretend I'm 4, I'm not comfortable validating that," she says. "It's not my place to decide whether I'm stoking some kind of fire, and if there's even a chance that I'm encouraging someone who might go out and molest a 4-year-old, I'm not going to participate."
Other dancers are more sanguine about it. "This'll make me sound crazy, but I don't think anyone has come in with a fantasy that's crossed my line," says Hazel, the dancer finishing her second master's degree. "I have really firm beliefs about the line between fantasy and reality. ACLU research shows there's no link between pornography and action. And we should hold people responsible for their actions, not their representations."
Hazel enjoys the booth, enjoys digging into people's secret desires. "I had this client who was fascinating," she said. "He was turned on by stories of cannibalism. He'd come in at 11:30 in the morning to enact scenarios of cannibalism, and I'm like, 'Nothing in my life has prepared me for this conversation.' I tried to remember the movie Alive to see if there was anything I could give him, but then I realized it's a really simple metaphor we use for the body, to think about it as meats, as something you can consume." She eventually worked through the weirdness.
Wildflower, the dancer studying yoga therapy and BDSM, considers the booth a kind of psychosexual social work, helping people explore their more problematic fantasies in "a safe, nurturing way." That sounded touchy-feely and euphemistic until I interviewed regular customers like Phillip (not his real name), who estimates that during the second half of the 1990s, he dropped over $27,000 at the Lusty Lady. He was a public figure and a player in local politics, but had a deeply ambivalent relationship with women. A former fat kid raised by an abusive stepmother, he felt intimidated by women and didn't lose his virginity until his 20s. He would visit the Lusty Lady a few times each week and spend around $35 each time. That bought him around 45 minutes of relaxation, release, and a slow climb toward sexual self-confidence.
"One time I went to the Private Pleasures booth, and there was this woman," he says. "Somebody had taken an X-Acto knife to her breasts, probably in her teens. Somebody left 20 to 30 inch-long scars on her breasts. She was so sweet and so reaching through and so human in a way people with all their clothes on at a cocktail party never are. She said: 'Let me see your chest. You have a smooth chest—I like that. You're so cute, why are you here? Why don't you have a girlfriend?' That was five years and a lot of therapy before I was able to get into a real relationship with a woman, and it was so extremely healing for me. Unprecedentedly healing."
As for Wildflower, she tends to get businessmen and street thugs who wear lingerie beneath their clothes and old men who just want someone to talk to. "Old men are the loneliest people in America," she says, "lonelier than women." Once, a Chinese immigrant brought in a 50-year-old friend who had never masturbated before so she could show him how. Another guy, a carpenter and world traveler, just liked to watch her do yoga in the nude. She also had a favorite regular, an older man who liked to put on a wig and pretend to be Dahlia, a secret identity he'd nurtured since he was 7 years old. "He's had tears in his eyes, saying he was grateful that we gave him the chance to show somebody who he is inside," Wildflower says. And there's the developmentally disabled guy who, Wildflower guesses, has no other sexual outlet and thinks of the dancers as his girlfriends. "He works at the supermarket and saves his money to come to the Lady and tells us he's going to take us all to Disneyland. Every time he takes his stuff out, he always asks, 'Are you okay? Are you okay?' He's such a love."
Wildflower's voice breaks, and she begins crying. "It's so hard to talk about them," she says between sniffles. "Because I really love these guys. I really do love them."
Because it's a dark warren of nooks and crannies populated by a stream of short-term, anonymous visitors, the Lusty is an excellent place to lose things—accidentally or intentionally. "Shit, what haven't I found in those booths?" says Scott during the Sunday barbecue. "Bloody scissors, crack pipes, knives, guns, drugs, hair, blood—"
"It's surprising how much blood we've found there," says Bob, another jizz mopper.
Why so much blood?
"I don't know," Scott says. "Never try to get into the mind of the customer. That way lies madness. I found a detachable showerhead once. Fruits and vegetables, all kinds of sex toys, phone cards, gift cards—"
"There was that gift card," says a dancer named Gypsy. "We painted our apartment with that." One time, Scott says, the jizz moppers found what they thought was a human tongue impaled on a pencil in the bathroom.
Customers lose hundreds—maybe thousands—of dollars in change. The coin slots are worn down from years of use, and sometimes your quarter rolls right out and onto the floor. Instinctively, you stoop to pick it up. Then you see a glint of light reflected in a puddle of semen and decide to let it go. "I always clean the change with disinfectant and then use it at the bar," Bob says with a low chuckle. "It only dawned on one of my bartenders recently, and he was like, 'Oh fuck you, man! I just figured out why you always pay in quarters!'"
"The saddest thing is when you find wedding rings," Scott says, and the dancers let out a collective moan.
A few questions that the peep-show dancers say they're tired of getting asked at parties: What's your stage name? Do you have drug problems? Were you molested? Can I have a lap dance? And even the seemingly innocuous: How did you become a dancer?
"It's okay that you're asking me here, in the context of an interview," says Hazel. "But usually people ask in this very lurid tone like, How did you descend?"
Hazel says she started "really, officially working in the sex industry five years ago. But I have an interest in the lines we draw between sex work and what is not sex work."
"In college, I learned—like a lot of women—to go on dates when I was broke and wanted something particularly, like a nice dinner. I was a broke chick. It wasn't like someday I entered the abyss. I had been learning all along to be comfortable with this. Only retrospectively I thought, 'Oh, that's sex work.'"
Other dancers did, in fact, start because they had drug habits to support and no other job skills. A few had tried dancing in strip clubs, but didn't like the working conditions —paying the stage fee, the competition, the state license that can haunt them for years when trying to get jobs like teaching. The cutthroat atmosphere cultivated by state laws—dancer licenses, a ban on liquor sales in clubs, rules that say dancers have to be four feet from patrons—actually encourages prostitution by turning clubs into places whose only function is to hustle for sex. Strip clubs in Washington State aren't places of leisure where people go to hang out and relax while dancers work for an hourly wage: They're a tense bazaar where earning a living wage by following the rules is nearly impossible, so breaking the rules is the only way to stay ahead.
Most men go to the Lusty Lady to feel special for a few minutes—to have an orgasm, to show off the lingerie they're wearing beneath their suits, to stuff their favorite dildos up their butts—but few leave a lasting impression.
"Most customers are just an endless, faceless stream of dudes and penises," says Hexe. "I like some pretty kinky stuff, so there are only a couple of customers I remember really, really strongly. I was surprised by one guy with a tattooed dick—a lot of them were pretty bad, hand-done tattoos with words like 'cock' and 'lick me.' He had fishing line embedded in the head of his penis that looked like hair and pearling balls all down his shaft. When he stroked it, it looked like he was petting a sick caterpillar. He likes to put quarters in his urethra. I thought: 'Wow. It must've taken a lot of time and dedication to work your way up to that point.' He can ejaculate with the quarter in there—it looks like his sick caterpillar threw up."
There are a few other infamous customers. There's Pen Guy, who can shove an entire pen up his urethra and partially insert another and is only able to remove them when his cock starts to go flaccid. There's Diaper Man, who wears an adult diaper, shits in it, and plays with the results. There's Incest Guy. There's Jew Boy, who likes Nazi fantasies and Aryan-looking ladies. There's Fuck-the-Chinaman, an older Asian guy who likes to shout, "Don't you wanna fuck the Chinaman?" and sometimes asks the Asian dancers to order pho in Chinese. There's the big black guy who talks in a low, tough-guy voice to the support staff and in a high, feminine voice to the dancers.
"If this job's taught me anything," says Sasha, who got into the peep-show business when she was an 18-year-old meth addict and cleaned up after she became a mother, "it's that everybody is a freak." Most of the dancers worry what will happen to their favorite freaks when the Lady shuts down.
Then there are the fratty dudes who come in on weekends and pick fights. ("Frat guys are way worse than crackheads," Scott says. "Crackheads will put up a front but then back down. Frat guys always have something to prove.") There are the suspiciously heavy tippers: a sweaty, well-dressed Italian who would drop up to $80 at the front desk, and the Cuban who always dropped a few morphine pills. "It was like a don't-fuck-with-me tax," said one of the former jizz moppers. "We don't know what the hell they were doing back there, but we let them be." There was Wheelchair Guy, whose chariot had to be partially disassembled so he could fit into one of the booths. The jizz moppers all regretted having forgotten him in there, sometimes for hours at a time.
But the sad secret Hexe says she's learned working at the Lady is that most guys are pretty boring. They just want to masturbate while someone else masturbates—or pretends to masturbate—on the other side of the glass. "They just like to look at vaginas. They stare at my cunt like their future is somehow magically up in there."
For some of the jizz moppers, the job has the opposite effect. At a beery afternoon get-together at Scott's downtown apartment, the dudes of the Lady begin shouting about "the curse of Mr. Ed."
The curse of Mr. Ed?
"Erectile dysfunction, dude," one of them says.
They attribute the affliction to a variety of causes, from odd working hours to heavy drug use to depression, but they seemed to settle on sexual overload as a root cause. "When you're working late, once the live show is all done, you just hear the sounds from the video booth, and it's all..." he pauses. "Seeing the everyday perversion and the—the detritus?" says another jizz mopper. "And every kind of body fluid imaginable. Soon, everything gets kind of numbing."
They get to talking about what it's like to date—and marry—dancers. They agree that it gets more difficult, not less difficult, over time. "You're dating a woman who works there, you have to sell her on the microphone to other guys and then go in and clean up after them afterward," one of them says. "And you see them acting in a certain way intimately in front of other guys," another says. "That headfuck is hard to navigate."
Most of the old-timers at the Lusty Lady either declined or evaded requests for interviews. Debra, the longtime manager, said she wanted to talk but then disappeared into an unspecified family crisis. Her sister Candy Girl seemed weary of interviews ("Honey, just this week I've talked to the radio, the newspapers, and some kids writing papers for school") and said she was moving and too busy to talk. Darrell Davis, the general manager, gave me a few quotes when the Lusty announced it was closing but then went on a trip that put him incommunicado.
I especially wanted to talk to Midnight Mike, a legend of the old Flesh Avenue days who used to lead the night shift. One of the Lady's jizz moppers described him as "a walking Tom Waits song" with a raspy growl and a web of knife scars across his body, each one of them a story. (One of those stories involved him waking up with a steak knife in his chest after one of his girlfriends stabbed him in his sleep. He reportedly pulled the knife out of his chest, threw it across the room, and called a cab to take him to the hospital.) Supposedly, he could drink anybody under the table and would sit down at his favorite bar and stick his knife in the wood, just to keep it handy. The dancers at the Sunday barbecue trade favorite Midnight Mike quotes, imitating his gravelly rasp: "You gotta see booth 12. Looks like somebody dropped an M-80 in a can of creamed corn." And: "Back in the day, the dancers used to be hookers. Now it's students. I miss the hookers."
But the old-timers came up at a time when the city seemed to wish they didn't exist. (Though when I called the Seattle Police Department to ask whether the landlady had ever been the subject of any criminal investigations, Sergeant Sean Whitcomb said the Lusty Lady "was a model of how a business like that should be run.") Former mayor Paul Schell tried to put the Lusty Lady out of business twice, residential developers accused it of violating everything from common decency to the state Environmental Protection Act, and newspapers sneered at Flesh Avenue. (One derisive quote from a Seattle Weekly article: "It's where they think ambiance is something that takes you from the bar to the hospital.")
As much as I'd like to hear their stories, I can't blame them for dodging. The city never really embraced the Lusty Lady until she said she was going away.
The Lusty Lady's final day of stage shows is Saturday, June 12. The Private Pleasures booth and the video booths will continue for a few more weeks and shut down at the end of June.
This article has been updated since its original publication.