By: Crawford Peyton
Around 8:30 pm most nights, Mar* fondly remembers how she would be backstage with her coworkers preparing herself for the nightshift as a dancer at one of Bourbon Street’s more popular strip clubs; that was before her place of employment announced its indefinite closure, leaving her and her friends with few options. These days, Mar works an entirely different nightshift from home, trying to raise awareness and share petitions to combat the mistreatment of her and her fellow dancers by the city for which they had once worked so tirelessly. With all of the shops, clubs, and bars lining Bourbon Street and its parallels shuttered due to the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the sidewalks occupied only by mice and bugs, it is becoming increasingly difficult to envision a time at which the citizens of New Orleans can return to work, and when life will be breathed back into the French Quarter.
For workers like Mar in the once-thriving adult entertainment industry, however, this lockdown became a reality long before the stay-at-home order of March 22nd was enacted, and they have been fighting for their livelihood ever since. Since the Fall of 2015, repeated raids and an increased stringency in prominent strip clubs by the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) and the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) have resulted in the suspension of nearly a dozen liquor licenses, the permanent closures of several clubs, and the ultimate unemployment of hundreds of dancers. “We are fighting for our lives against those who claim to [be doing so],” Mar says.
The city and the state of Louisiana have been making a significant push to investigate the adult entertainment scene centered around Bourbon Street in an effort to eliminate human trafficking, a cause against which no worker would fight; however, there has been little, if any, evidence uncovered to suggest that these clubs are havens for the illegal trade, and Mar contends that—with no arrests made over the course of several years—the policing tactics make her and her coworkers feel like the criminals, and in turn, more unsafe than they ever had before. Mar and her coworkers would “genuinely appreciate a good-faith effort” to make strip clubs a safer place, but she has little doubt in her mind that the targeted and aggressive policing of the clubs has naught to do with human trafficking: “If they really wanted us to feel safe, they should patrol the dark streets we have to walk down to get home, not the well-lit, crowded clubs with giant security guards everywhere.”
Although making it clear she does not speak as a representative of B.A.R.E., the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, Mar says she has been in attendance at several of their meetings and rallies, and supports the work the organization is doing. BARE is a coalition comprised of unemployed or otherwise oppressed dancers whose purpose is not only the financial freedom to not have their livelihoods impeded upon, but perhaps more importantly, the mental wellbeing of which many feel they have been stripped. “We want to work with them; we’re not against changing things that need changing, but they’re being combative,” Mar says, referring to the NOPD and ATC. “Again,” she reiterates, “I’m not against evolving with the times—there are things that should be changed—but putting professional dancers out of work for their own safety is preposterous […] many of them have to turn to way more dangerous sex work for income when this avenue is shut down.” She acknowledges that there are, in fact, “sketchy things that go on,” but “we’re way more likely to notice a girl in trouble than any cop is,” referring to herself and her coworkers. Indeed, the combative tactics have so far included the well-publicized raids, which have subsided since they were met with strong resistance from BARE and other local groups, but also—less noted yet perhaps more influential—the continued presence of undercover “mystery shoppers” in the clubs that have not yet been shut down, agreed upon by some owners, but not by their employees.
These “mystery shoppers” are to be from a “third-party company,” hired by the clubs themselves, yet report “the results [of their findings] to ATC every month,” according to the State’s consent terms for the reopening of several clubs. And, while they are supposed to be undercover, Mar says she has heard from still-employed dancers that “they are pretty damn easy to spot.” Their presence appears to be often highlighted by aggressive attempts to coerce the dancers into breaking the strict regulations, on which there is now a zero tolerance policy, according to Mar: “just to have something to report.” Some have behaved so poorly that if it were not a well-known secret that they were reporting to the ATC, they would have been kicked out, or at least warned, by the clubs’ “more-than-capable” security teams. Cited reasons for prior liquor license suspensions and other punitive measures, and actions that these “mystery shoppers” are allegedly trying to elicit, are the performance “of acts which simulate the touching, caressing, or fondling of the breast,” and “the displaying of the nipple of the female breast,” according to the notices of suspension. It would seem that the legality of a strip club and the prohibition of these acts are mutually exclusive, but the city does not see it that way. These guidelines have been documented in the city’s bylaws for decades now, but this is the first time any of the dancers can remember them being enforced so stringently, and at a huge cost to all involved parties. Aside from the immediate financial difficulties of finding oneself suddenly unemployed, the mental and emotional turmoil that come with having one’s privacy violated in their place of work, and being regarded as a criminal for earning an honest living are undoubtedly devastating. Detractors of BARE and other sex-positive organizations have argued that upon entering that line of work, one surrenders a reasonable right to privacy, but any performer will tell you that there is a vast difference between a stage performance and an intrusion behind closed curtains, be it legally conducted by the police or not.
The future of the industry that BARE represents is in jeopardy, although the organization is continuing its fight. In one noted victory, their protests led to the city council’s decision against a new ordinance that would have capped the allowed number of strip clubs on the most popular seven-block stretch of Bourbon street at the existing twelve; if one of the twelve were to close, another would be allowed to open. Citing their right to work and their freedom of expression, the dancers of BARE were able to influence the council’s vote to a victory in their favor. But they “shouldn’t have to fight to be able to work,” says Mar, and there is no conclusion to the fight in the foreseeable future. While some dancers she knows consider it their career, others are dancing as a side-job to earn money while putting themselves through school, or to supplement their wages from another part-time job. For those dancers who don’t prioritize their job as a sustainable career, the struggle of dealing with raids, mystery shoppers, and shutdowns may become “too much,” and the population of dancers will diminish significantly. While many are hoping to return to work soon, others are reluctantly moving on, having lost their place of work as well as a freedom they believed to be irrevocable.
The financial burden inflicted by the constant presence of the ATC is not suffered only by the laid-off workers or club-owners, but the city as well, which has left many dancers perplexed as to why their livelihoods are being so publicly opposed. Not only do the third-party companies that employ the “mystery shoppers” see the only true benefit from their presence, but according to Stephen Perry, President and CEO of the New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau, “nearly 43% of our city sales taxes is paid by visitors,” the majority of whom come to participate in and witness the revelry of the French Quarter. Driving customers out of strip clubs, which pay significant taxes before sales tax is even accounted for, seems a recipe for a dip in tourism. Even more striking, however, Stephen Perry announced in the same statement that “we are committed to smart, sustainable growth that drives the economy, creates jobs and enhances the quality of life for New Orleanians.” This has left a large population of the entertainment industry left to wonder why—having earned money and paid taxes to the city—if the city’s goal is as the NOCVB states it is, they are met with affronts to their quality of life, fewer opportunities to drive the economy, and the elimination of their jobs.
The assurance of a safer Bourbon St. was a talking point of former Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s campaign, and the initiative has been seamlessly carried over into the new office of Mayor LaToya Cantrell. There are undoubtedly few New Orleanians who would protest against the cleanup of crime, but with no arrests made in strip clubs as a result of the policies of the last two years, it begs the question, is this really about human trafficking? Many, including Mar, have identified the city’s pressure on strip clubs as a deliberate continuation of Bourbon Street’s evolution into a kitschy caricature of its former self. Any native will already tell you that if you want to experience the culture of the city of New Orleans, avoid Bourbon Street at all costs—something you would not have heard thirty or forty years ago, according to Abigail Fortson, a life-long resident since 1962.
The introduction of a new Disney Cruise Line departing from New Orleans supports Mar’s claim that the vendetta against strip clubs and sex-positive workers is the next step on the agenda to make the city a “shiny, plastic” reproduction of itself, and is an affront to the history of the district as the street’s authenticity continues to wane. Ironically, the Disney Cruise’s tagline states that New Orleans is “a unique port city that is hip, contemporary and yet seemingly untouched by time.”
To those affected by the crackdown on their employment, the times have certainly touched their city, a city which they feel is ready and willing to forsake a significant population of its workers for the allure of becoming a “Creole Disneyland,” a term that was first coined by author Kevin Fox Gotham in 2008, and has since been used by locals as a skeptical characterization of the efforts that Mar sees as cleaning up what “is not supposed to be clean!” If the tourism numbers continue to rise, the Visitors Bureau will be satisfied, and if the sales tax numbers don’t dwindle, the city’s government will be as well. A less widely spoken about aspect, however, is that these policies are scarring tax paying citizens by putting them out of work, offering no haven from their intrusion, and few, if any, alternative sources of income. Does the reward outweigh the consequences? For the local government and for corporations like Disney, the answer is apparent; for citizens and dancers like Mar, however, the answer is a resounding “no.”
Mar, among others, draws a comparison to the closure of Storyville in 1917, New Orleans’ once thriving red light district, saying “human trafficking is just another excuse,” referencing the several reasons the Army and the Navy cited in their demand of Storyville’s closure. The public health of the soldiers based near the district was purportedly the driving influence behind the shut-down, although the Secretary of the Navy had been noted as saying that it was just a “bad influence.” The Mayor at the time, Martin Behrman, retorted that “you can make it illegal, but you can’t make it unpopular.” One hundred years later, Mar embodies a similar mindset: “It’s going to happen anyway, [people] love what we do,” she continues, “if they run us out of business, they’re only going to make it more dangerous for us […] because some of us aren’t going to stop.”
*Note: Names have been changed for privacy