A proposal by city planners that would eventually shut down more than half of the strip clubs in the historic French Quarter of New Orleans has dancers and sex workers up in arms. The debate here in the Crescent City goes beyond the survival of the topless bars lining Bourbon Street and the jobs they provide: It's also about the future of a famous and culturally rich neighborhood in a rapidly gentrifying city.
Proponents of the proposal claim it would force strip club owners to provide better working conditions and crack down on drug dealers and sex traffickers, who they say are going to clubs to prey on young performers and drug addicts. Opponents say the proposal is deeply misguided because adult performers were not consulted by the city's planning commission, which recently issued the proposal as part of a major study on strip club regulation.
Critics doubt the proposal is only intended to protect women and residents from the pimps and drug dealers allegedly lurking around strip clubs. Local activists say the proposal is backed by certain business owners and increasingly wealthy class of residents who have been actively pushing for new rules and heavy policing to "clean up" the French Quarter, even if that means squeezing out sex workers and other marginalized populations that have been part of the Quarter's colorful culture since 19th century.
The proposal's main opponents, who include club employees and owners along with sex worker rights and harm reduction activists, argue that shutting down strip clubs would rob dancers and club staff of their jobs, putting more pressure on the local job market and forcing some workers to accept riskier work in the illicit sex trade in order to support themselves.
Lyn Archer, a dancer who works at a club in the French Quarter, told Truthout that the impact of shuttering strip clubs would be seen spilling "literally out into the streets," where sex is sold illegally. Archer emphasized that the proposal speaks for workers' supposed interests without incorporating input from workers themselves.
"You can't help people if you don't listen to them," Archer said. "[Otherwise] you're attacking women, you're destroying their livelihood and then saying, 'We saved you.'"
In their public statements and op-eds in support of the strip club restrictions, business owners discuss the French Quarter's "brand appeal" as a tourist destination and accuse the high concentration of strip clubs on and around the famous Bourbon Street of attracting unwanted and drunken "prostitutes," "pimps," "drug dealers" and "scam artists." Local activists interpret this as code for sex workers and queer youth of color, who say they've been increasingly targeted and harassed by the state and private police patrols that have flooded the Quarter at the request of rich and powerful residents.
The Sex Trafficking Bogeyman
The controversy began last summer, when a 19-year-old dancer was found dead after leaving a Bourbon Street club with a man who authorities now accuse of pimping and murdering her, although the man's attorney claims he is innocent and the two were a couple. Then, in October, a round of police stings led to drug and prostitution arrests at nine of the 14 strip clubs in the French Quarter's main adult entertainment zone.
It's many of these same clubs, which are independent from chains such as Larry Flint's Hustler brand and tend to be perceived as seedier than their corporate brethren, which would be slowly phased out due to noncompliance under the planning commission's proposal.
The proposal would use zoning requirements to force "through natural attrition" most of the city's 23 strip clubs to close, eventually leaving a maximum of seven clubs within a clearly defined entertainment district in the French Quarter, according to a study prepared for the New Orleans Planning Commission for the city council, which is expected to take up the issue in the coming months.
Archer points out that illegal activity occurs at all sorts of establishments in the French Quarter, where "laissez les bons temps rouler" is as much a motto as it is a way of life. It's difficult, however, for sex workers to report the abuse or sex trafficking that does occur because they fear being arrested by the police, especially in the wake of last year's stings.
"We don't have safe working conditions, and we're not safe on the street either as long as our work is criminalized," Archer said.
After the stings, Kristin Palmer, a former member of the New Orleans City Council, began circulating a petition to raise the legal age for working as a dancer and reduce the number of strip clubs in the city by 65 percent. Political action came relatively swiftly, with the city council placing a temporary moratorium on new strip clubs in January and the state legislature passing a controversial law that increased the legal age for dancers from 18 to 21 in May.
"If you are consistently breaking the law, you should be shut down," Palmer told Truthout, adding that she is looking out for performers' safety. "You won't be able to get safe employment if you don't have safe clubs, and at the end of the day we want safe clubs, and I think that everyone can agree with that."
Palmer points to a recent study of residents at a local youth homeless shelter affiliated with Catholic Charities where 25 percent of the 185 participants had worked in the sex trade. Seven of those participants were legally considered victims of sex trafficking because they sold sex or were coerced into selling sex as minors. Another 10 had worked in strip clubs, including two who worked under the legal age.
Palmer said the goal of limiting strip clubs and raising the legal age to work in them is to protect young and vulnerable women who are being "preyed upon" by drug dealers and pimps, not to take jobs away from older women like Archer who choose to work as adult performers because the job can be lucrative.
"The prostitutes and the pimps are going into and trolling these places," Palmer said.
Archer and other dancers don't buy it. Archer said that she does see people working at the clubs who may be coming from tough situations and would rather be somewhere else, but taking away an option for employment is not the right way to help them.
"I think it's a lot of gas lighting," Archer said. "They think [sex workers] are either crazy or they're criminals."
Nia Weeks, a policy advisor with the New Orleans-based feminist and harm reduction group Women With a Vision, called the youth trafficking study "one sided." As Truthout has reported, anti-trafficking advocates are known for skewing data and even proliferating tall tales about sex trafficking in order to promote crackdowns on the sex industry and generate funds. Sometimes this sensationalism gets out of hand, and efforts to "rescue" people from the sex trade turn them into victims instead.
"[The study] conflates sex work with trafficking to the detriment of women who are choosing sex work for whatever reason they are choosing to do it," Weeks told Truthout. "Anything that could be called trafficking was called trafficking and link to the clubs to push the ordinance."
Earlier this year, Women With a Vision unsuccessfully opposed the statewide legislation that caused every dancer under the age of 21 to lose their jobs. The law does nothing to replace these jobs, and Weeks points out that strippers can make much more money at the clubs than working other service jobs at minimum wage. If lawmakers are really concerned about young women in the sex industry, then why haven't they raised the minimum wage or invested in education and housing? Will these women now be driven into the underground sex trade in order to make ends meet?
"We do a harm reduction model, and we believe that women should actually have the ability to make decisions about how to use their own bodies," Weeks said. "It's masked as a trafficking ordinance, but it really is a regulation on what [women] can do with their bodies."
Weeks said that criminalization and social stigma make it difficult for sex workers, especially women of color, to challenge such policies with facts based in their experiences as workers.
During the brief debate over the legislation, it was immediately clear that Louisiana's lawmakers were out of touch with reality. One lawmaker introduced a crude amendment that would have also required dancers to be under the age of 29 and weigh no more than 160 pounds. He later said the move was just a "joke."
Turning the French Quarter Into Disneyland
Weeks said that new age restrictions and the proposal to restrict strip clubs in the French Quarter would have gone nowhere if policy makers were actually listening to sex workers and their advocates, but these policies are not actually about protecting workers anyway. Limiting strip clubs is actually about "Disney-fying" the French Quarter for wealthy residents who want to "clean up" the streets. Like Times Square in New York or the Mission District in San Francisco, gentrification is changing the French Quarter and shaping the "New" New Orleans.
"If they had involved sex workers in the conversation, [it] would come to the forefront very easily that this is about gentrification," Weeks said. "Women are a very easy scapegoat … when you talk about 'cleaning up' the French Quarter, the clubs are easy targets."
However, sex workers have made themselves part of the conversation. Last month, Archer and dozens of other dancers and club employees packed a city planning commission meeting to speak out against the strip club proposal and demand to be included in the public conversation. When they were done, at least one planning commissioner was ready to go back to the drawing board.
"The study was clearly shaped by people who don't understand the industry," Commissioner Mark Nolan III said after dancers spoke for about two hours. "There does appear to be a creation of victimhood around this industry that tries to take away their voices."
Archer said there are certainly changes that need to be made at the strip clubs, such as requiring club owners to hire performers as employees instead of independent contractors -- an idea that some proponents of the restriction also support. Simply shutting them down, however, will cause many workers to lose their jobs, especially those who are older or don't meet certain physical standards to be hired at the corporate clubs favored by city planners.
Plus, Archer said, capping the number of strip clubs in the French Quarter will ensure that an independent club owned and operated by women and workers would never be established there, because licenses will either be unavailable or only affordable to mega-wealthy investors. She then invoked Storyville, the French Quarter's famous red light district that was once a center of art and jazz music, along with those "houses of ill repute" where businessmen flocked until prostitution was banned in 1917.
"So my dream is dead," Archer said. "They are trying to burn down our Storyville right now."