On the drive from the New Orleans airport to Bourbon Street, two billboards loomed large: one of an unborn fetus and another of three tanned women beckoning visitors to Hustler’s Barely Legal.
I stopped to pick up Star (a pseudonym), a stripper at Penthouse. She’s the type of woman who plays chicken with her stare. When she doesn’t like someone, she’ll bore them down with her eyes. Tonight, her brown hair is neatly pinned, and she has a black fanny pack strapped to her waist, stuffed with ones.
Bourbon Street has an unforgettable smell of piss and beer broken up by an occasional whiff of sweet jasmine. Carnival season was about to begin—one of the busiest times of the year for Bourbon Street strip clubs. But despite the fact that the strip clubs are a sizable gear in New Orleans’s tourism machine, a series of highly publicized 2018 police raids threatened the continued existence of these clubs. The raids were indicative of a broader change in New Orleans, part of an effort to sanitize the French Quarter and make it palatable for white tourists, purposefully altering a location that has historically been accomodating to strippers like Star. The changes in New Orleans are often the dry stuff of city ordinances and local zoning laws, done in sparsely attended meetings of locally elected officials, but they have national implications, effectively providing a blueprint for other municipalities to target strip clubs and their employees.
The Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, the state agency that oversees liquor licenses, carried out a series of operations to pull liquor licenses from eight clubs. The 2018 raids were a climactic showdown in what had been three years of aggressive targeting by law enforcement mean to curb what they called “endemic human trafficking.” Though the ATC found zero instances of trafficking, they still served notice to the clubs who, a spokesperson for the agency said, were in violation of allowing “in many cases narcotics, but in every case, prostitution,” on their premises. Rick’s Sporting Saloon was the first to be served. Then Lipstixx, Temptations, and Dixie Divas, some of the few non-corporate clubs left on Bourbon Street. Between 2015 and today, more than half of all strip clubs in New Orleans have closed.
Strip club workers and allies say the raids were a thinly veiled attempt to kick clubs out of the French Quarter. They point to a Disney cruise line that was set to open in the district this year until covid-19 hit, to city code amendments that threaten to limit live entertainment, and short-term rentals now scattered throughout the French Quarter and the surrounding, mostly Black, working-class neighborhoods. But a closed group of city officials, law enforcement agencies, and faith-based nonprofits, however, claims that public safety and the protection of women are paramount to the city and motivate the closures. They insist that a legion of silent, young, and vulnerable victims are hidden in the city’s strip clubs.
Strip club workers don’t believe it for a minute.
When Lyn Archer works, “flying” as she calls it, she wears a Joan of Arc pendant around her neck. It’s fitting that a woman called to save her home, a woman charged with witchcraft and heresy, would be her patron saint. Along with other strippers, Archer has taken on the fight to keep the clubs open against tremendous odds.
“The vigilance that’s required is so exhausting that it makes it hard to do the thing that you’re trying to defend it in the first place,” Archer says.
Weeks before the 2018 raids, Archer and a few other strippers were taking every meeting they could get with city officials. She helped form the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE) and was concerned about a motion that had wound its way from the City Planning Commission to the city council. The motion proposed would cap the number of clubs allowed in the Vieux Carré entertainment district (VCE), a seven-block stretch of Bourbon Street that is one of the very few places strip clubs are allowed to operate in New Orleans. Archer argued that the motion would put many people out of work, forcing some strippers into more dangerous and more precarious work in order to survive.
Members of the city council had been pushing for the cap on strip clubs since 2016. Kristin Palmer, a council member who represents District C, which includes the VCE, was one of the loudest advocates. (Palmer served from 2010 to 2014 and, after a break, was re-elected in 2017.)
“A small group of us met with Palmer,” Archer tells me, but nothing came from the meeting.
In 2016, between her terms on the city council, Palmer advocated for an interim zoning measure to freeze any new strip clubs from opening in the French Quarter and for an “Adult Live Performance Venues Study” (the ALPV), compiled by City Planning staff, to determine how New Orleans should zone and regulate strip clubs. The ALPV Study offered two suggestions to regulate this new “Vice District”: first, changing the zoning regulations to prevent new clubs from opening and, second, the more aggressive measure, to cap the number of strip clubs on Bourbon Street to seven venues—one per “block face”—after the clubs closed through attrition. The first option, though not ideal, did not close every club. The second drastically reduced the number of clubs.
Archer says that her group “tried to explain” to Palmer that New Orleans “was causing the problems they were trying to solve.” That, she adds, was before “understood the fact that these people are fully aware that they’re creating the problems they’re trying to solve.”
Archer and a co-worker also met with now-former council member Stacy Head. Archer remembered that conversation as circular. Head was committed to closing down “bad operators,” but those operators tended to be owners of smaller clubs who had higher overhead and were skirting certain taxes and fees as a result. Those were the clubs that were raided, and where liquor licenses were pulled for allegations of soliciting prostitution and drugs.
If clubs could open outside of the VCE more easily, Archer says, then they could choose places with lower overhead and still be following the laws. Workers might be able to open their own collectively owned clubs and, in turn, keep each other safer. Archer says that Head saw that as an impossible proposition, even though cities like Portland, Oregon have collectively-owned clubs. According to Archer, Head was committed to regulating and limiting the clubs even though sex workers were being harmed in the process.
“I kind of miss Stacy Head,” Archer says, “because that was an enemy that was a little easier to understand. It’s public disgust; to conflate [the bad operators] with sex work is to push the disgust button.” She’s speaking to the ways in which the assault on strip club workers has become more diffuse, with proposed amendments to the city code that require hypervigilance and a keen eye to recognize. It’s hard for Archer and her community to fight these amendments to the city code because there are so many dots to connect.
“[City officials] feel they have a responsibility to address the stigma associated with Bourbon Street,” Archer says. “They think it would be a good look for them to try to make it ‘cleaner and safer.’”
At 2:30 in the morning Larry Flynt’s flagship club, Hustler, is dying down for the night.
The only patrons left in the club seem to want a free show. Fifteen feet above their heads, a dancer is holding herself up with crossed legs. It’s as if she’s seated in an invisible chair. Her dimples are highlighted by the blue light as she heckles a table, a group of 20-somethings in floral print button-downs, rolled up at the sleeves. “I’m not doing this for free!” she yells.
“Dance!” one of the men yells back. He twirls his fingers gracelessly; thighs deliberately spread wide, an elbow slung across the back of the seat, Adam’s apple jutting out his posture indicates that he’s trying to seize back big man status in front of his friends. She rolls her eyes and does a graceful coin flip maneuver on the pole to dismount.
“Ooohhh, big men, aren’t you?” she shoots back.
The floral boys move to leave, swinging their arms wide and trying not to look like they are wilting.
Standing in the back is a woman with perfectly arched eyebrows, watching the scene. She’s a veteran stripper and sort of legendary, Star tells me. “I love her; she sort of took me in when I first started working here,” Star says. The Veteran Stripper has moved past stage work; she only does lap dances now and she’s a pro.
She walks up to us and catches up with Star while scanning the room looking for her next customer. “Maybe him,” she says and walks off in the direction of a nervous, scrawny young man.
The day after Archer met with Head, she sat down with Jim Kelly, the director of Covenant House, a non-profit that provides temporary housing, meals, and crisis support for runaway and homeless youth.
Kelly was a vocal opponent of strip clubs at public comment meetings and, in private email correspondence with city council and city planning officials, he argued that strip clubs and human trafficking go hand in hand. According to email correspondence obtained through city council public comment records, Kelly invited Chattanooga-based Scott Bergthold, a Christian lawyer with a long history of anti-gay and anti-sex work activism, to consult on efforts to further regulate strip clubs. In 2017, the Mayor’s office retained Bergthold’s legal counsel.
Bergthold cut his teeth regulating adult bookstores out of business and has practically written a legal playbook of sorts, one that he’s used to close strip clubs and massage parlors across America, usually at the behest of city officials. (Bergthold was hired by the city of Atlanta to close down a gay club. He was later fired by the city when officials were made aware of his long history of anti-LGBTQ activism). Now, New Orleans appears to be following Bergthold’s playbook to regulate strip clubs out of existence, first by examining existing zoning laws and then city code chapters specific to the regulation of adult entertainment. The city council is proceeding with city code amendments that Archer and other advocates argue would force the closure of more clubs.
“Bergthold meets somebody in the city and gets linked in,” Chase Kelly, a stripper who has been following Bergthold’s career tells me. “He uses vice or ATC to do the raids and seed propaganda, like ‘we are stopping trafficking, we’re going to go into this club, use a fine-tooth comb and see what we can find.’”
Chase Kelly has worked at clubs across the country and says she has very rarely come across a worker she believes has been trafficked. But that doesn’t matter to a number of faith-based organizations who take a hardline on strip clubs, and neither does the economic security of women working in the field.
During a 2016 comment period, during which Palmer also spoke, representatives from the Greater New Orleans Pastor Coalition, the Archdiocese of New Orleans, the New Orleans Baptist Association, Celebration Church, and Covenant House all spoke against the clubs. One representative from an anti-trafficking organization called Eden House that helps women get out of what they call “the life” cited a study called the Loyola Modern Slavery Research Project. In reality, the Loyola study never connects strip clubs to human trafficking.
Still, the narrative took hold. In 2017, Nola.com published an exposé titled, “The Track: How Sex Trafficking Has Taken Hold of Bourbon Street.” The reporter, Kevin Litten, heavily relied on law enforcement to make the case that human trafficking is endemic to Bourbon street strip clubs. Star says, however, that “he never even talked to a sex worker.” “Jim Kelly was quoted a lot,” Archer says about the story. She adds that during her meeting with Kelly, he was insistent that he was protecting young and vulnerable women, not just from harm, but also from judgment. Kelly advocated for laws that would prevent women (not men) from stripping if they were under 21, in addition to the zoning cap.
The Nola.com story is a case study of how persuasive Kelly’s arguments can be. In it, incidents of prostitution and human trafficking were nearly interchangeable. For example, one story said, according to law enforcement records, “a mystery shopper was told he could pay $300 for ‘sexual favors’ and $400 for ‘everything,” which the investigator took to mean intercourse; at Stilettos, a shopper was told a dancer would “perform a hand job in the lap dance room” or would perform “oral sex in a VIP room for $400.” These anecdotes were used to support the idea that sex trafficking is rampant on Bourbon Street. New Orleans’s strip clubs were left to fight the allegation that they were involved in human trafficking.
These narratives dovetail with a national trend. Over the past 40 years, federal law has used sex trafficking to legitimate crackdowns on sex work. SESTA-FOSTA, the laws that criminalize third party internet providers for hosting any discussion related to sex work, was passed ostensibly to “save” victims of sex trafficking. Sting operations, from “Operation Cross Country,” the FBI’s annual intervention to rescue underage victims of prostitution, to “Operation Independence Day,” another FBI national sweep to arrest sex traffickers, claim to liberate sex workers from trafficking while, in effect, further criminalizing them.
According to the International Labor Organization, roughly a quarter of forced laborers are domestic workers, nearly half work in construction, mining, and agriculture. And yet, the public perception is that it’s particularly rampant among sex workers, who are already criminalized, and used as an excuse to shut the whole industry down.
On the part of law enforcement, at least, Leanne McCallum of the Greater New Orleans anti-trafficking task force says that there has been a disproportionate emphasis on sex trafficking, even though trafficking is rampant in other industries as well.
“A misconception with law enforcement agencies and anti-trafficking groups,” she says, “is that it’s easier to investigate and prosecute sex trafficking. Trafficking laws in Louisiana are harsher and have a lower burden of proof.”
Sex trafficking seems to be the low-hanging fruit of law enforcement and city officials alike. On the bathroom wall of each club, there now hangs a sign that reads: “Human Trafficking: It’s NOT ok.” Similar signs are appearing around the city, in addition to training devoted to identifying sex trafficking victims specifically.
But the numbers are notoriously slippery. Nikole Hannah-Jones reported that in Portland, Oregon, a so-called hotbed of sex trafficking, “little data is kept locally on the depth of the problem, and the figures cited nationally crumble under scrutiny.” In Chicago, law enforcement miscategorized hundreds of sex workers as victims of sex trafficking after a sting operation. The charge of rampant human trafficking dogs sporting events like the Super Bowl, even as large anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris have recently debunked this claim.
Still, law enforcement ramps up raids around these events especially, which lands many sex workers in jail, claiming it’s for their protection. A prostitution charge can severely damage someone’s prospects for attaining housing, social services, or other employment in the future.
“They had this weird perception of what was going on in the strip clubs,” says Devin Ladner, a stripper. “They didn’t think it was a consensual environment and the publications released through NOLA.com gave them the idea that these were sad places. They had this sort of white knight mentality.” Archer argues that with fewer options in the workplace, more women will turn to other, potentially less-safe forms of sex work to make ends meet. In fact, closing these clubs potentially makes more women vulnerable.
There is a strange symmetry between paternalistic narratives around sex work—violating women in the name of protection, by taking away their jobs, by demeaning and criminalizing them—and narratives around abuse. The stripper resistance that emerged in New Orleans is a testimony to the fact that sex workers are best equipped to look out for each other, in the break rooms and bathrooms.
But for Archer and her allies, it’s a losing game. “[Star] was basically just like, why are you bothering trying to talk to them anymore,” Archer says, resigned. “In a bureaucracy, you can’t win.”
At Rick’s Sporting Saloon, law enforcement split the room in half, strippers on one side, customers on the other. They ran IDs, calling out the strippers’ legal names. Women were forced to change in front of male police officers. One police officer reportedly told a stripper, “You lost your right to dignity when you decided to become a stripper.”
“I think they had fun with it,” Star says. “They had the opportunity to harass or belittle strippers.”
Since the initial raids in 2015, Star and other strippers had already seen their clubs tighten surveillance, but now managers rifle through bags when they come in for shifts and have cut locks off of lockers. The dancers were even fingerprinted. The allegations of human trafficking had already cast a pall over the clubs; bosses scrambled to show that human trafficking was not happening on their watch, and then, in 2018, the raids closed clubs during the busiest season of the year, leaving many without a job and without the prospect of being hired elsewhere.
In response, strippers and their allies organized a wild, beautiful action.
At the time, the French Quarter was still undergoing massive construction. February 2018 marked a pause—at the same time the strip clubs were being shuttered, the city was planning to unveil progress on the revitalized French Quarter. The strip club workers and their allies showed up to disrupt the press conference, held by the mayor’s office, marking this occasion. Ladner, who had worked at Rick’s Sporting Saloon, was there.
Protesters lined up behind and around the podium and started chanting “Let us dance,” and held up signs that said, “Hands off our jobs!” and “We are not victims!”
“You can only hear us shouting and protesting,” Ladner remembers. “They didn’t see it coming, and it showed that strip clubs are such a foundation of Bourbon Street. The mayor got word and didn’t even show up!”
While the city cites public safety, and the protection of women as reasons for the closure, strip club workers understand these actions not only as an assault on their jobs, but also on their place as bearers of culture in a city that markets its history so aggressively. They see themselves being erased from the city’s landscape. The new Bourbon Street would capitalize on its salty past, all the while clearing away the workers who created that culture in the first place.
In March 2019, the city council held a public comment period for the proposed zoning cap on Bourbon Street strip clubs. Strip club workers were fighting on two fronts—against the law enforcement raids and the city’s zoning regulations. Strippers and allies packed the room, clapping and whooping joyfully for their speakers, even as the moderator told them to quiet down.
Archer took the podium. Her refrain to the powerful: We see you. We see you. We see you.
At Dixie Divas, Star and I stand under its neon sign; the vertical neon lettering is unlit, but the figure of a girl above it—a halo of hair, hands-on cocked hips, beckoning and challenging—is shining bright.
A former Dixie Divas dancer tells me, with love in her voice, that the club used to be bursting full of “older women, trans women and people of a lot of fucking genders, and hustlers of various subsects.”
“I loved this club,” Star says wistfully.
This is hallowed ground; an iconic space. Dixie Divas used to be a gay bar called the UpStairs Lounge. It was burned to the ground in 1973, and 32 people died in the blaze. The deaths were largely ignored in comparison to other tragedies of similar magnitude. Robert Camina, a filmmaker who produced a 2013 documentary about the blaze, told the Advocate, “There’s a small plaque on the sidewalk outside of the former door of the UpStairs, commemorating the victims. If you’re not looking down when you’re walking, you won’t even notice it. Thousands of tourists step on it every day and don’t realize it’s there.”
The current owner, Richard Williams, has decided it’s time to try something that’s “less likely to get in trouble.” The property is zoned commercially and for short-term rentals, so he’ll most likely rent out the property to tourists.
New Orleans issued a “stay-at-home mandate” to address the Covid-19 crisis on March 20. Since then, all the strip clubs have temporarily closed. But “it would be a great time to take them out while their throat is exposed,” says Archer. Some of the larger clubs, like Hustler, the “tentpole” club for the region, might stay open, she speculates, while smaller operators are likely to go out of business. Two of those businesses are already up for sale.
Over the last few months, Archer has shifted focus away from the city’s attempts to shut down clubs. With the closure of all clubs under the shelter-in-place order, she thinks it may be time for a serious reassessment. “We’ve lost in-person venues, so we’re using the internet in new ways,” Archer says. She mentioned various “distance dating” models as options to explore, as well as digital peep shows, and other creative offerings.
“As small communities of people, we are resilient enough that it doesn’t matter what happens to a particular building or street,” Archer says, “because people will always need what we offer—intimacy without responsibility.”
Padmini is a Bay Area-based journalist. She explores the intersections of gender, identity, labor, and space, most recently in a feature for Bitch Magazine about deepfakes and patriarchal narratives, but she’s likely to be absorbed by any story that involves bravery, vulnerability, and a radical re-imagining of the future.