There’s a strange juxtaposition on the website for Sugar and Spice Photography, a boudoir studio in northeast Minneapolis.
The front page is covered with Victoria’s Secret-esque images of women in sexy lingerie, and there’s even a tasteful nude. There’s also a reference to “The Creator” and a Bible verse from “The Song of Solomon.”
A Christian boudoir studio? Apparently that’s a thing.
“We believe women need to put as much or more energy into their marriages as they do their jobs, children, and other aspects of their life,” the business states on its website. “We want to help women embrace all that God wants for their marriage, so they can be happily married women.”
This holiday season, sex workers and LGBTQ burlesque performers have put the company on blast on social media for several of its policies, including reserving the right to refuse service to lesbians.
“Unfortunately we cannot photograph all males, lesbians or sessions with more than one person in our boudoir and intimate pinup-style sessions due to the sexual nature and potential to create a hostile working environment for our staff and photographers.”
The warning, now removed from the website, has been screen-grabbed and shared via Facebook by people working in the Minnesota burlesque community.
The studio also has a policy regarding sex workers.
“We WILL NOT photograph escorts, courtesans or anyone involved in pornography, prostitution or similar industries -- under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE -- regardless of the intended use. Whether you are forthcoming or not, whether it is discovered before, during or after your session; you will forfeit your deposit and any monies paid. We continually monitor these industries and websites and WILL prosecute to the full extent of the law -- even in cases where the photographs have not yet been discovered, posted or used.”
Local burlesque artist Queenie Von Curves is one of people calling out Sugar and Spice on social media.
“I was absolutely shocked at how explicit they were in their homophobia and discrimination against sex workers and their misogyny,” Von Curves says. “I’ve worked with a lot of different photographers. I've never even been asked my sexual identity because it has nothing to do with the photos.”
One woman working in the sex industry (because of the stigma around the profession, she asked that her name not be used in this article) booked Sugar and Spice because she saw they had good reviews on Yelp and Facebook.
“I just wanted some cute pictures for myself, a little confidence boost,” she says. She made a $100 down payment, and scheduled an appointment for mid-November.
When she showed up at the studio, the staff there were really nice. The person doing her makeup asked what she did for work, and she responded that she works for a cannabis company in California and strips at a club when she comes back to Minneapolis once a month.
Later, she says, right before she was going to go look at outfits, she was pulled into the bathroom by another staff member.
“She said, ‘You know, I didn’t want to say this in front of everyone, but I heard that you were a stripper, and if you read our terms and conditions, we don’t shoot adult workers.’”
She explained that she wanted the photos for personal use, not professional, but it was no use.
“She didn’t totally deny me the shoot, but she said that she could only shoot me if I was not in any lingerie. If she was going to shoot me, I had to be totally covered up: pretty much essentially everyday clothes, which any photographer in Minneapolis can do.”
The shoot never happened. “I asked her, ‘Can I at least get my deposit back, since you guys are the ones that won’t work with me?’ She said, ‘No, because it’s in our terms and our conditions.’ She said they have a whole team of lawyers to deal with stuff like this.”
She shared her experience in a private Facebook group for Twin Cities strippers, where it was seen by Nadi A’marena, a retired stripper and current burlesque performer. A’marena sent a private message to Sugar and Spice, asking them to respond to the allegations of discrimination, but never got a response. Next, she posted a request to the Facebook community to share if they had also had negative experiences with the business.
“We are trying to gather enough people to see if we can do some sort of civil suit for discrimination,” A’marena says. “We are trying to gather enough information in order to fill out paperwork, because they are not taking any accountability. There was no apology. There was no, ‘Hey, we recognize this hurt people.’”
This all comes on the heels of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), a piece of federal legislation that passed in April. The new law makes it illegal for an individual or business to support/enable sex workers, and its passage caused a mass deletion of online sites where sex workers could advertise their services (such as Craigslist and Backpage).
“It’s been really hard on the community,” A’marena says of the law. “People’s livelihoods are at stake.”
In response to a request for comment, Sugar and Spice sent the following statement:
“... everyone is welcome to a come in for a "glam style" photo shoot. For the more intimate "boudoir style” shoots, we limit our service to ensure our amazing, talented all-women team of photographers and production staff can work in an environment that does not place them in uncomfortable sexual situations. That means we limit our boudoir sessions to women only.”
When asked about how the business determines whether a person would use the photographs for personal or professional purposes, and whether the business had a policy about not providing services for people who identify as lesbian or LGBTQ, Sugar and Spice responded:
“We assume that people are booking shoots for their personal use only, and that they will abide by the terms of the licensing agreement. As a general proposition, we don’t ask people what they do for a living; it mostly comes up in the context of us finding one of our photos being used outside of the agreement or learning someone’s profession in passing.
As for our policies, we only shoot women in a boudoir setting; we do not inquire as to sexual orientation when a customer comes to us.”