USA sex workers resist closures of strip clubs

North America & Caribbean Regional Correspondent
Source (institute/publication)

Efforts to resist the closing of strip clubs in the US are ongoing. Recent police raids have prompted a spotlight on New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) in recent months, as NOLA-based sex workers speak out against “tough on crime” politics affecting their right to work safely.

Recently, the police and alcohol-tobacco commission (ATC Commissioner) was responsible for closing a number of clubs which “put hundreds of strippers and nightlife workers out of work". Citing ‘prostitution, lewd acts, and drug sales’ as grounds for closure, these closure orders conflate sex trafficking with sex work while gentrifying an area where there is already an immense lack of worker protections. By using raid and rescue techniques, attempts to restrict strip clubs in the French Quarter have moved forward in the name of fighting sex trafficking and 'cleaning up' certain parts of town.

Following the closure of eight clubs in ten days (19th-25th January), sex workers joined in protest on 31st January, drowning out their mayor’s press conference outside Rick’s Cabaret. Soon after (on 1st February) hundreds of sex workers and fellow nightlife workers, along with many allied community members, took part in an ‘Unemployment March’ down Bourbon Street.

Strippers and nightlife workers claim the attacks are not only limiting the venues available for work but are also restricting workers’ abilities to report exploitation. This was further expressed by sex workers on 6th February at the New Orleans City Planning Commission hearing, where they spoke out against Motion #17-552 (M-17-552) – a part of a larger project (the ALPV study or Adult Live Performance Venues Study), this zoning motion stems from efforts to create a cap on the number of clubs allowed on Bourbon Street, something that workers have been fighting for the past two years. The outcome of the hearing was a decision to recommend a ‘soft cap’ of 14 clubs allowed, although City Council does not necessarily have to follow this (the original proposal was to thin out the number of clubs until there are only 7, a measure which is being voted on Thursday 22nd March).

The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE) provides a platform for strippers’ voices along with community and work-related resources. A sex worker-led organisation by strippers for strippers, part of BARE’s work includes fighting for meaningful involvement of sex workers in policy making decisions, including the struggle against M-17-552 and the wider ALPV study. Stated on their social media pages, “restrictions and bad policy create the problems they pretend to solve.” Sex worker leaders at BARE want to make clear that these restrictive zoning efforts will negatively affect sex workers, both at work and in their everyday lives:

  • City officials claim these new zoning laws will make the community safer, but there is zero evidence.
  • Stricter zoning limits the number of spaces certain workers can find employment, consequently putting thousands of nightlife workers out of work and unable to provide for themselves and their families safely.
  • These policies disproportionately affect women of color who will experience more severe effects.
  • While M-17-552 is meant to better protect workers in New Orleans, it targets strip clubs specifically and conflates sex work with sex trafficking further perpetuating harm against the sex worker community.

In an interview with Titsandsass, BARE activists spoke about the movement:

Lindsey: “Conveniently, the mayor’s sister is on the board of a Catholic-run shelter for at-risk teens that receives massive government grants to combat human trafficking. Turns out, they’re actually bad at combating it, so they’ve started pointing fingers at the strip clubs.”

Lyn Archer: “Touching one’s own body or a customer’s body, negotiating about hypothetical future sexual acts, or even saying “yes” without speaking (nodding or gesturing) have all been counted as prostitution in the charging documents.”

Sable: [on the march] “Nothing like opening Bourbon Street when they’re shutting down clubs and putting hundreds if not thousands out of work. Everyone who showed up contributed to make it happen. Some brought massive red umbrella signs, extra sign making supplies, some called friends in the media, some brought their social circles, some brought their cameras, some brought just their voices. A particular genius brought a green van with a PA system and water bottles we sold (donations) as Stripper Tears with BARE’s contact info. To see girls who I’ve worked with within the last year, and also girls who I haven’t worked with in years show up and stand for their rights was moving, the sense of camaraderie was electrifying.”

The activism in New Orleans echoes concerns about worker conditions and economic empowerment made by strippers in New York: the NYC Stripper Strike [#NYCStripperStrike, #LetUsDance]. “A movement known as NYC Stripper Strike sprung up late last month out of social media conversations among women dancing at clubs in the city. They discovered they shared many major concerns, and decided to band together.” “The two issues that most of the dancers rallied around were the way the clubs give favored treatment to bartenders over dancers and a related problem, discrimination based on skin color.” Efforts have come from several workers in the community, including Gizelle Marie who has worked extensively to mobilise the #NYCStripperStrike movement.

The platforming of these issues also comes at a time when New Orleans’ strippers are fighting harmful age bans, such as Act 395. Passed in 2016, Act 395 aims to restrict anyone under the age of 21 from seeking or gaining employment in Louisiana strip clubs. It is now being challenged in federal court after three dancers sued on the basis that it is discriminatory and violates labour rights: “Dancers in New Orleans reject the claim that their workplaces contribute to trafficking. But dancers also made clear in their suit against the ban and later, in their January protests, that the ban will harm them and their families.”

In February, the NOLA City Planning Commission rejected plans to prevent new venues from opening on the same blockface as an existing club, and to cap the number of strip clubs in the area at 14 (instead opting for a ‘soft cap’ of 14). The next New Orleans City Council Hearing is scheduled for Thursday 22nd March and will include a further vote on the proposed zoning measure, and address the ALPV study at large. Public hearings are expected to continue through 2018.

NSWP member Desiree Alliance has released a statement of support for the movement:

“Throwing non-factual data against the wall to see if it sticks is creating a hostile police state that does not protect the workers in legitimate or alternative labor forces. If sex trafficking is the driving force behind raids and arrests, you cannot target one industry without targeting every industry in the Quarter. This is selective and creates hysteria that is not accurate. Crime is a creation of the state and when you create falsehoods, local economies and tourism suffers greatly. We demand accountability from the NOPD and its government for the harassment, targeting, and arrests of its tax paying citizens that contribute to the economic structure of New Orleans.”