“I Don’t Want to Like Her”: Dabo Girls, Playboy Bunnies, and the Importance of Sex Work

Dabo girl leaning over the Dabo table in "The Abandoned"

The Star Trek universe boasts technological triumphs such as hyposprays, transporters, and replicators, allowing humanoids on Federation planets to cure diseases, prevent homelessness, feed the hungry, and much more. However, interpersonal work remains predominantly undervalued in Gene Roddenberry’s futuristic fantasies. In Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care, sociologists Eileen Boris and Rhacel Salazar Parreñas emphasize the importance of interpersonal work through the prism of intimate labor, defining it as labor “both paid and unpaid that sustains the day-to-day work that individuals and societies require to survive—and flourish” (p.2). Sex work is an extensive type of intimate labor, ranging from prostitution to the purchase of “the girlfriend experience.” Within this definition, the fictional station Deep Space Nine plays host to sex industry workers: the beautiful Dabo girls, who titillate (predominantly male) players at the Dabo tables.

Mardah

Mardah (Jill Sayre)

In spite of their importance to the station’s tourism, Dabo girls exist mostly between the lines: ever-present but rarely acknowledged as valuable workers on-screen. In the third season of Deep Space Nine, Captain Benjamin Sisko learns that his son, Jake, is dating Mardah, a woman who works on the station (“The Abandoned”). Although their age difference is certainly a cause for concern—Jake is 16 and Mardah is 20—Sisko’s main issue appears to be with Mardah’s work as a Dabo girl. When another character points out that Sisko might learn to like Mardah, he responds: “She’s a Dabo girl and she’s dating my son. I don’t want to like her.” At a Sisko family dinner, Mardah reveals more about her life:

MARDAH: There isn’t much to tell. It’s a pretty familiar story. Parents killed during the occupation, raised by my neighbors until I was thirteen, then I moved out on my own. I have a sister and a brother on Bajor, but we haven’t talked in years.

BENJAMIN SISKO: Why not?

MARDAH: Sarjeno and Koran were not exactly thrilled when I told them I had a job as a Dabo girl. Then I told them what I thought of their lives and we stopped speaking.

SISKO: I see.

MARDAH: It’s amazing how some people will judge you based on nothing more than your job.

Leeta, a recurring character on DS9, also faces numerous challenges related to her work as a Dabo girl. In the fifth season, Leeta meets Doctor Louis Zimmerman, Director of Holographic Imaging and Programming at the Jupiter Research Station (“Doctor Bashir, I Presume?”). During his short time on the station, Zimmerman becomes infatuated with Leeta and lavishes praise on her in one of their private conversations:

ZIMMERMAN: You’re a fascinating woman, Leeta.

LEETA: For a Dabo girl.

ZIMMERMAN: Not at all. You’re charming, intelligent, witty, and extraordinarily beautiful.

Leeta’s qualifier, “for a Dabo girl,” signals how others—as well as Leeta herself—look upon the role of Dabo girls. Despite their constant presence at Quark’s Bar, Dabo girls are not given much recognition on the station; they also remain mostly underdeveloped within the show’s canon. Leeta’s backstory, for example, is relegated to novels published after DS9’s conclusion. After her dinner with the Siskos, Mardah is spoken about but never seen again, eventually leaving the station to attend the Science Academy on Regulus III (“Fascination”).

Leeta (Chase Masterson)

Dabo girls also serve as notable sources of profit for Quark’s Bar and other entertainment establishments in the Alpha Quadrant. The exchange of money—or, in Quark’s case, gold-pressed latinum—is essential to the relations between Dabo girls and patrons. Quark also engages in sexual relations with Dabo girls, as seen in his coercion of Aluura, a Dabo girl who agrees to pleasure Quark through oo-mox, or the act of massaging Ferengi’s highly-sensitive lobes. As a result, Quark promises to give Aluura a raise of three slips of gold-pressed latinum per week (“Profit and Lace”). While the monetary conditions of Dabo girls are rarely explicitly stated—e.g., how much the women are regularly compensated, either by Quark or other sources—the Dabo girl occupation, nonetheless, remains integral to Quark’s business. This is highlighted in the season four episode “Bar Association,” when Leeta and other Dabo girls participate in a strike against Quark and the Ferengi Commerce Association. The strike begins when Quark announces his intention to cut everyone’s pay by a third, leading Leeta and other workers to unionize. By the end of the episode, Quark bows to their demands, agreeing to provide sick leave, shorter hours, and increased pay.

The actions of Leeta and other Dabo girls in “Bar Association” mirrors the experiences of non-fictional women working in sexual service industries. In Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to SlutWalk, historian Melinda Chateauvert discusses how Playboy Bunnies in the early 1960s secured a national union contract covering all of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy clubs. Labor activist Myra Wolfgang exposed what went on at Playboy clubs with the help of her 17-year-old daughter Martha, who worked undercover as a Bunny in Detroit, Michigan. Wolfgang condemned the Playboy organization for its contemptible treatment of the Bunnies, who were expected to live off tips, had no control over the length of their uniforms, and entertained customers without behavioral policies in place. The women workers could also be fired for a “loss of bunny image,” which included “crinkling eyelids, sagging breasts, crepe-y necks, and droopy derrieres” (p.125). After forcing Hefner to the bargaining table in 1964, Wolfgang and her team negotiated terms and conditions for Bunny uniforms and patron behavior. When a group of so-called “defective Bunnies” were fired in 1968, HERE (formerly the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union) filed a grievance with the National Labor Relations Board, who ended up siding with the striking women.

The experiences of both the Dabo girls and Playboy Bunnies emphasize an unfortunate facet of intimate labor, particularly in sexual industries: it is rarely valued by outsiders. It is only when women “bite back”—in the words of Wolfgang—that significant change happens. Wolfgang’s leadership in Michigan, for example, led to the inaugural signing of a union labor contract for sex workers. Likewise, the Dabo girls participated in a strike that led to an agreement for better conditions in their own workplace. Ultimately, fictional places such as station Deep Space Nine can serve to illuminate other areas—including worlds outside the Alpha Quadrant—where sex work can be properly recognized as crucial services that can no longer afford to be left behind.

 

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