The father is 400 pounds with an eating addiction, and the mother is 85 pounds with severe anorexia. Their youngest son is a playboy who loves the perks of the family business, which includes expensive cars.
The documentary is directed by the conflicted older son, Shawnee, who maintains a part-time job as the strip club manager despite the effects it is having on his family. Following the screening, he was at the event to do Q&A with the audience.
We watched the film through a slightly different lens than most of the audience. Though most of the documentary focused on his family, a few club scenes were thrown in for titillating shock value. We both diverted our gaze during these parts, sickened by the objectification and entertainment value of women on a stage.
Stories of sex trade survivors we’ve met flooded our minds.
Like Elle from Las Vegas, who was trafficked into strip clubs all over the U.S. – first being forced to do wet T-shirt contests and mud wrestling, followed by stripping and sexual services.
Like Harmony from L.A., who “chose” to become a stripper at a young age because of economic desperation and a manipulative boyfriend.
Like Timea, who was trafficked from Hungary to work in strip clubs and massage parlours in Toronto.
After the film, the audience asked Shawnee several questions about the business and the family. Near the end, Jay raised his hand and asked if he had heard any stories of the girls during the film-making process.
Shawnee replied, “Yes, I’ve heard many stories. Some really dark ones.” He went on to say that one girl who worked at the club had a tattoo on her neck. A little while later, a second girl came in with the same tattoo. A while after that, a third girl came to work with the same markings as the previous two.
Turns out they all had the same pimp, who had branded them and was sending them into the strip club to work. Not only do all the girls who work at the club have to pay a fee each shift to use the space, but these three in particular were then having to give the rest to their trafficker.
As we learned from the head of the Amsterdam VICE anti-trafficking unit in the fall, the trafficking chain is what makes it so easy for victims to fall through the cracks. Though sometimes strip club owners are themselves traffickers, often they merely own the club and don’t ask questions - as long as a woman is willing to get on the stage and pay the house her dues. This allows strip club owners and managers to maintain an “I didn’t know she was trafficked” stance, releasing them of responsibility despite making money off womens’ bodies. I am grateful for Shawnee’s honesty about some of these dark realities.
The implication was that sex work is really a 50/50 draw, with half being exploited in some way due to circumstance or force, while the other half gets rich. In reality the proportions are much more skewed. For the most vulnerable in society, the sex industry is the easiest job to get into and the most difficult to leave. The majority of stories do not end well.
The film left me feeling very sad. I was grieved that a man whose own career frustrations led him to start a business that preys on the vulnerable. My heart was heavy for the mother who is withering away from her illness, which was brought on by living in a toxic environment of comparison. I was frightened by the youngest brother’s greed and insensitivity. And I was profoundly saddened that the director of the film still works in a place that is tearing his family apart.
My hope is that everyone involved with this strip club would begin to live whole, purpose-filled lives that extend way beyond sex and money.