Erotic Resistance: The Struggle for the Soul of San Francisco celebrates the erotic performance cultures that have shaped San Francisco. It preserves the memory of the city’s bohemian past and its essential role in the development of American adult entertainment by highlighting the contributions of women of color, queer women, and trans women who were instrumental in the city’s labor history, as well as its LGBT and sex workers’ rights movements. In the 1960s, topless entertainment became legal in the city for the first time in the US, though cross-dressing continued to be criminalized. In the 1990s, stripper-artist-activists led the first successful class action lawsuits and efforts to unionize. Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa uses visual and performance analysis, historiography, and ethnographic research, including participant observation as both performer and spectator and interviews with legendary burlesquers and strippers, to share this remarkable story.

Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa, PhD, is an artist-scholar who teaches and writes about art and activism, queer of color critique, erotic performance, and the intersections of mindfulness and creative practice. She holds a doctorate in Theater and Performance Studies from Stanford University, where she currently leads the LifeWorks Program for Integrative Learning.

What is the main message you want readers to take from your book?

I want people to remember that San Francisco, which is now primarily associated with Big Tech and AI, was created by resilient communities that celebrated art and eroticism and fought for social justice. I share the stories of a diverse group of women who lived in San Francisco from the 1960s to the turn of the 21st century, and who significantly impacted the worlds of burlesque, strip clubs, performance, visual art, and US labor history.  

Academics and non-academics tend to be confused by scholarship about the sex industry and the people who work in it. Our societal “whorephobia” often contributes to limited views on these topics. While “whorephobia” generally refers to discrimination and negative attitudes directed toward women who work in the sex industry, it negatively affects all women because it exemplifies double standards concerning sex and sexuality. For example, while “whores” are often stigmatized, consumers of their services are not. In a more general sense, women who are just as sexually active as their male counterparts, are still labeled as “whores” and “sluts,” while men are seen as “studs.”

My book paints a more complex and multifaceted picture of strippers and burlesque artists to challenge this double standard and to celebrate their courageous reclamation of female sexuality and desire.

What inspired you to write this book?

Since I began my career as a feminist artist and scholar in the late 90s, I’ve been motivated to shed light on marginalized communities and histories. But I had very different views about strippers and strip clubs then. I assumed that they were perpetuating patriarchy and the objectification of women. While this may be true for some, it is not true for many others, which I learned when I went to a strip club for the first time at the age of 38.  

On a Monday afternoon following SF Pride, I went on an outing with a group of queers—male and female—to a strip club where I witnessed one of the most awe-inspiring performances I had seen, by a highly skilled queer pole dancer. This experience radically shifted my views, influenced by mainstream representations of strippers as helpless and drug-addicted women.

We generally do not see representations of the kinds of women I met while I did my research: women putting themselves through college, law school, or other grad school; women training to become therapists; women making their careers as proud strippers and teachers of erotic and aerial performance in dance studios; women doing their MFA theses about strip clubs; or single moms holding several jobs to support their kids. I also met women who were union organizers, Buddhists, and Jehovah’s witnesses. The “stripper” comes in many different shapes and colors.  

As a performance studies scholar,[1] I look at everything through the lens of performance. There are multiple layers of performance at play in a strip club setting, including stage performance, the performance of identity and persona—particularly among the many queer women who work in the industry—and spectator performances. Anyone who’s been to a strip club knows that the audience is just as much a part of the show as the performers.

Can you say more about your research experience as a participant-observer? 

I was inspired to do research as both an audience member and performer, to gain a deeper understanding of the experiences of queer women and women of color in San Francisco strip clubs. For eight months, I performed as a topless dancer. Though this may be shocking to some, this research method is not new, and was inspired by a lineage of feminist scholars since the 80s who completed PhD dissertations about strip clubs using the same strategy.[2] In the realm of investigative journalism, one of the most iconic feminists of the twentieth century, Gloria Steinem, went undercover at a New York Playboy Club in 1963, to write a story for Show Magazine.[3] Though some participant observers go undercover, I was fully transparent with the dancers I met, some of whom became my research participants. However, like other women who perform in the industry, I adopted a persona —fake name, ethnicity, and age— in my interactions with customers as a protective measure.

To prepare for this role, I spent another eight months modifying my gender by learning how to apply my own makeup and walk in heels. Topless performance in the context of a strip club was a new and somewhat daunting experience. Yet I had over two decades of experience as a feminist performance artist—and occasional go-go dancer—who explicitly used my body on stage as many feminist performance artists have done since the 1960s, to challenge the objectification, demonization, and perversion of the bodies and sexualities of women, LGBT people, and people of color, throughout history (figure 1).[4]

Though my experience heavily informed my interactions with my research participants, the primary focus of the book is on their stories. I based this decision on ethics, to avoid the sensationalism that has often accompanied colonialist, exoticizing approaches to studying marginalized cultures.

Figure 1. Examples of my feminist topless performances. Clockwise from top left: photograph by Heather Jay (detail from work featured in group exhibit Epic: Visualizing Heroes Within, 2009); photograph by Eugenio Castro (Inverted Minstrel, 2001); photograph by Robbie Sweeny (Psychic Gold, 2015); photograph by Gigi Otálvaro-Hormillosa (detail from self-portrait, Alchemy: Performing Myselves, 2016).

Can you explain the significance of the other research methods you used to write this book? 

Since conversations concerning the loss of jobs due to automation began to intensify in the early 2010s, there has been an emphasis on “soft skills.” In my own research, the methods I’ve engaged might be considered “soft methods” because they heavily rely on human and embodied interactions. These include ethnography (the study of people and culture), historiography (the writing of history), and pornography (the writing of or about prostitutes, according to its Greek roots). The definition of the latter has expanded in recent decades, particularly when modified by “feminist.” Whereas “traditional” pornography has often objectified and stereotyped women, people of color, and LGBT folks, feminist pornography challenges dehumanizing representations of women, while promoting sexual empowerment, consent, and pleasure through a feminist perspective. Among porn scholars, pornography has also been described as a body genre.

Therefore, when relaying information about body genres like pornography, human and embodied intelligence is crucial. Redefining methods that have previously been harmful—like sexist pornography, colonialist ethnography, and the master narratives of History—requires careful, ethical, and empathetic approaches to the study of people in all their complexities.

In the age of “AI-graphy,” anti-colonialist ethnography, feminist pornography, and queer historiography are tools that can preserve and produce knowledge by and for humans. Methods like these are best left in the hands, hearts, and minds of humans.

[1] Performance Studies, distinct from Theater Studies, is often described as a field where theater and anthropology meet. A performance studies scholar is like an anthropologist who studies theater and other cultural and performance phenomena ranging from ritual in the African American Church to football games and strip clubs.

[2] One of the first books published in this field is G-Strings and Sympathy: Strip Club Regulars and Male Desire (Duke University Press, 2022), written by Katherine Frank who completed her dissertation in anthropology at Duke University.

[3] See “Undercover Reporting – ‘A Bunny’s Tale’ – Gloria Steinem – Show Magazine,”, accessed January 26, 2024.  

[4] In 1995, I created my first one woman show as an undergrad at Brown, for my Staging Shakespeare class. At the end of the piece, as I was transforming into my nude costume, I translated parts of Shylock’s monologue from the Merchant of Venice, in which he asks, “Hath a Jew not eyes… if you prick us, do we not bleed?” I asked these same questions in Spanish and from my positionality as a queer woman of color who had recently come out.