Sex Workers Say “Trafficking” Crackdown Is Backdoor to Gentrifying New Orleans

Casey Quinlan

Revelers walk along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter during Mardi Gras day on February 16, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Patrick Semansky/Getty Images)

Under the guise of pro­tect­ing sex traf­fick­ing vic­tims, the Louisiana leg­is­la­ture passed two bills this month that — if signed into law by the gov­er­nor — will con­tin­ue to unfair­ly link human traf­fick­ing to New Orleans strip clubs and sex work­ers. Some sex work­ers warn the leg­is­la­tion is poised to harm the safe­ty and liveli­hood of sex work­ers and quick­en the pace of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in the city.

HB 830 would require sex­u­al­ly ori­ent­ed busi­ness­es,” which includes strip clubs, to adhere to require­ments that employ­ees fill out ques­tion­naires on human traf­fick­ing or face thou­sands of dol­lars’ worth of fines. Anoth­er bill, SB 335, bumps up fines for those solic­it­ing sex work­ers and pay­ing for sex to lessen the demand” for sex traf­fick­ing — while fail­ing to dis­tin­guish between traf­fick­ing vic­tims and sex work­ers in its enforcement.

Many had already expressed con­cern about an unfair crack­down tar­get­ing sex work­ers. In Feb­ru­ary, strip club employ­ees, com­mu­ni­ty activists and oth­er work­ers in the French Quar­ter took to the streets to protest police raids on strip clubs. Police claimed that they were com­bat­ting human traf­fick­ing by raid­ing the estab­lish­ments, but many strip­pers say the clubs were unfair­ly tar­get­ed and that police took pho­tos of them with­out ask­ing, watched them dress and ridiculed them. 

Strip clubs avoid­ed addi­tion­al city scruti­ny when, in March, the City Coun­cil vot­ed down a pro­pos­al to cap the num­ber of strip clubs on Bour­bon Street, which rep­re­sent­ed a huge vic­to­ry for strip­pers, who are con­cerned about attempts to make the French Quar­ter more fam­i­ly friend­ly.” But state law­mak­ers have con­tin­ued to advance sex traf­fick­ing laws that — accord­ing to some — would enable the gen­tri­fi­ca­tion of New Orleans, make it more dif­fi­cult for strip clubs to stay open and endan­ger sex workers. 

State and city offi­cials and law­mak­ers have tried to make strip clubs syn­ony­mous with sex traf­fick­ing — and police raids over the years have cer­tain­ly helped. 

Accord­ing to Jack, the hard­est-hit clubs include those that employ dancers from more mar­gin­al­ized back­grounds, some of whom are exclud­ed from the for­mal econ­o­my. Many of the clubs that were shut down as a result of ongo­ing city scruti­ny were the ones that tend­ed to have dancers that were not just pret­ty white girls,” he explained. 

There was a club called Dix­ie Divas that was known as place where trans women would go, and a lot more women of col­or, and not nor­ma­tive­ly attrac­tive bod­ies to go dance and make some mon­ey,” he says. 

The club closed in Feb­ru­ary after the Louisiana Office of Alco­hol and Tobac­co Con­trol, Louisiana State Police and New Orleans Police Depart­ment found mul­ti­ple inci­dents of pros­ti­tu­tion, lewd acts, and in some cas­es ille­gal drug activ­i­ty at these strip clubs.” There were no arrests relat­ed to human trafficking. 

Lyn Archer, who is part of the strip club work­er advo­ca­cy group Bour­bon Alliance of Respon­si­ble Enter­tain­ers (BARE), told Best of New Orleans she has con­cerns about the City Plan­ning Commission’s 2016 Adult Live Per­for­mance Venues study, which con­sid­ered the reg­u­la­tion of strip clubs. Archer says that the small­er clubs won’t be able to meet the zon­ing stan­dards for appear­ance or rep­u­ta­tion that they need to stay open. Since these clubs hire more peo­ple who don’t con­form to nar­row weight or age or height expec­ta­tions that larg­er clubs do, those work­ers will like­ly lose their jobs if the clubs close. 

She is also con­cerned about HB 830. The U.S. gov­ern­ment seized Back­page in April. 

Mis­tress Genevieve says that due to the fed­er­al law, sex work­ers in New Orleans are either work­ing out of bars or sim­ply can’t find clients. 

Now that Back­page is gone, I’m not even mak­ing half of what I need to make to pay rent. Rent is get­ting high­er and there is no such thing as print ads for us any­more. We give a lot of peo­ple cred­it for know­ing how to use the inter­net. A lot of peo­ple only knew how to use Back­page,” she explains.

If you’re cast­ing a big­ger net, you can turn down bad clients,” she con­tin­ues. But if you’re real­ly broke and you have to go through screen­ing process­es and you have lim­it­ed num­ber of calls, that means that occa­sion­al­ly peo­ple are going to drop their guard. Rent is due and I need to take this call … Then they’re in trouble.”

Casey Quin­lan is a pol­i­cy reporter at ThinkProgress. She writes about edu­ca­tion, labor, and crim­i­nal jus­tice. She has pub­lished arti­cles in The Atlantic, Bus­tle, Bitch Mag­a­zine, Glam­our and The Guardian.
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