It's an argument she believes a jury of her peers will agree with come July, when Bolton's trial against her former employer, PT's Showclub in southwest Denver, is set to begin. Bolton, who worked as a topless dancer at the club from early 1992 until February 1998, is suing PT's for sexual harassment and violating her privacy.
According to Bolton's lawsuit, filed in Denver U.S. District Court in August 1998, male employees--and sometimes customers--walked freely into and throughout the club's backstage dressing room. Moreover, before a four-foot partition was installed near the toilet, males in the backstage area could easily view the club's female workers au naturel when they were using the latrine. Even with the barrier, Bolton says, male employees could look into the stall with little effort.
Bolton wants those outside the business to understand that for strippers, there is a difference between being on stage and being backstage. While on stage, Bolton was an entertainer who accepted the ogling eyes of her paying customers. While backstage, she expected her employer to respect her privacy. When that didn't happen, she says, she felt violated. "When I was in the dressing room," Bolton says, "I was getting dressed up and ready to perform. I was not performing in the dressing room."
Though few clubs in Denver have a written policy regarding backstage access, the accepted rule of thumb is a loud knock and an "Everybody decent?" shout, says Bolton, who has been dancing in Denver clubs since 1989. She says male managers and disc jockeys at PT's would enter the backstage area, without hesitating, after a cursory knock.
PT's, one of Denver's oldest erotic-dancing nightclubs, is not taking the charges lying down. The club's attorney, Michael Krieger, says employees do follow a procedure of general courtesy when entering the area. Though Krieger says he doesn't know exactly what that procedure is, he insists that the presence of male employees--and their free access to the backstage area--is necessary for safety concerns.
"Just two weeks ago there was a fight between two dancers," Krieger says. "A male manager had to break it up. This is one of those unfortunate circumstances where you need a male manager to go in there."
Managers at clubs in Denver and throughout the country have long argued that they have a right to monitor their premises. At Saturdays on East Colfax, where "our dancers leave only their shoes on," an employee who declined to give his name to Westword said he didn't knock when entering the strippers' dressing room because, "if I did, they usually put their drugs away that they're doing. So, no, I don't knock."
Owners of the Lusty Lady Theater in San Francisco also pleaded owners' rights when performers complained about, among other things, being subjected to the prying eyes of backstage males. Ultimately, the dancers formed the Erotic Dancers Alliance--the first union of its kind in the country. In its contract, the alliance includes an anti-harassment provision aimed specifically at bouncers and other nightclub employees: "The Employer maintains a strict policy prohibiting harassment of employees or applicants for employment which disrupts or interferes with another's work performance or which creates an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment...The Employer will make available to employees its Sexual Harassment Policy within the employee's new hire orientation material."
But erotic dancers in Denver, who number up to 1,000 by one manager's estimate, have not organized over the issue of poor working conditions. And Bolton hardly considers herself a crusader in the labor-rights movement. "If what I'm doing makes it better for another girl, then fine," she says. "But I knew this was a violation of everybody's civil rights. I spoke up because I'm not the type of person to keep my mouth shut when I see a wrong. Never have, never will."
Bolton says she complained repeatedly about the intrusions but was laughed off each time. The dispute came to a head on February 4, 1998, when Bolton says a bouncer named Aaron entered the dressing room after knocking on the door. Bolton says that when she asked him to leave, Aaron began a conversation with another female dancer. He refused to leave and then unleashed a tirade of lewd and insulting remarks, comments that were "threatening, demeaning, and sexual in nature," her suit alleges.
Bolton claims the bouncer eyed her body and quipped, "It ain't nothin' I haven't seen before."
Minutes after Aaron left the dressing room, Bolton says, manager Bob Wagner entered the room without knocking--presumably to make a point. When she complained again, she says, Wagner told her that any male manager had the right to enter without knocking--and that if she didn't like it, she could leave.
Bolton's attorney, Karen Larson, illustrates the problem by asking, "How would you like it if your employer watched you undress in the locker room and then told you he had a right to do it?" When Bolton first sued, she offered to settle for $10,000. She says PT's responded with a "harsh" refusal. PT's attorney Krieger says he can't recall such a settlement offer but maintains that his client isn't about to cave in. "It's about principle," he says.
And as the trial nears, the grudge is heating up. Last week, Troy Lowrey, who was manager of PT's during Bolton's employment, told Westword that Bolton's suit had been dropped because the dancer sued the wrong company and has since allowed the statute of limitations to expire. In March 1998, one month after Bolton stopped working for PT's, a group called Denver Restaurant Concepts, LP, purchased assets and took control of the club. Lowrey moved up from management and became a controlling interest in the new company. Four months later Bolton's lawsuit was filed, listing the defunct former owner Palace, Inc., as the defendant. When asked if the alleged incidents took place while on his watch, Lowrey replied, "I'm not going to comment on something that's going to go away."
But Lowrey's assumption that the suit had been dropped came as news to Krieger, who confirmed that it is still going forward--and adds that the company name Bolton listed will be "a major component" in the club's defense.
Bolton's attorney Larson says the combo is practicing "name dancing," attempting to skirt the suit by confusing the courts. She says that when the jury hears the facts of the case, the truth will be revealed.
"Sexual harassment does not have to be an overt comment," Larson says. "There's a lot of ways you can sexually harass someone." She argues that just because an erotic dancer may choose to take off her clothes for an audience doesn't give men the right to look at her when she's nude.
"When I walk off that stage," Bolton says, "I'm not an entertainer."
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