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"Disneyfying"

New Orleans: Sex Workers Rally

Against Plan to Shutter French Quarter Strip

Clubs

Tuesday, 12 July 2016 00:00

By Mike Ludwig (/author/itemlist/user/44659), Truthout (http://truthout.

org) | News Analysis

Neon signs hover above Bourbon Street outside of bars and strip clubs in New Orleans. Law enforcement crackdowns and a proposal to zone out seven of the 14 strip clubs in the French Quarter's main entertainment district has adult performers up in arms and activists worried about gentrification. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)

Neon signs hover above Bourbon Street outside of bars and strip clubs in New Orleans. Law

enforcement crackdowns and a proposal to zone out 7 of the 14 strip clubs in the French Quarter's

main entertainment district has adult performers up in arms and activists worried about

gentrification. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)


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 (http://www.truthout.

org/news/item/23132postkatrinawillneworleansstillbeneworleans).


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 (http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/magazine/whorunsthestreetsofneworleans.

html?_r=0) 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 or sex workers and queer youth of color, who say they've been increasingly targeted and harassed by

(http://www.youthbreakout.org/2016/06/19/astatementonneworleansprideparade/)

the state and private police patrols that have flooded the Quarter at the request of rich and powerful residents.


A bartender takes a break from serving to-go drinks to pose for a picture at a strip club on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter neighborhood of New Orleans. Dancers and other strip club employees are organizing to oppose a city planning proposal that would slowly zone out more than half of the strip clubs in the Crescent City, where the sex trade has a long and rich history. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)A bartender takes a break from serving to-go drinks to pose for a picture at a strip club on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter neighborhood of New Orleans. Dancers and other strip club employees are organizing to oppose a city planning proposal that would slowly zone out more than half of the strip clubs in the Crescent City, where the sex trade has a long and rich history. (Photo: Mike Ludwig)


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 (https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/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 Orleansbased

feminist and harm reduction group Women With a Vision, called the youth trafficking study "one sided." 

 As Truthout has reported, antitrafficking

advocates are known for skewing data (http://www.truthout.

org/news/item/28763specialreportmoneyandliesinantihumantraffickingngos)

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 (http://www.truthout.

org/news/item/33414insidethesensationalbusinessofrescuingsexworkers).


"[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

(http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2016/05/strippers_louisiana_legislatur.html) 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 "Disneyfying" 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 megawealthy

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."

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission (mailto:[email protected]).


MIKE LUDWIG (/AUTHOR/ITEMLIST/USER/44659)

Mike Ludwig is an investigative reporter at Truthout and a contributor to the Truthout anthology, Who Do You

Serve, Who Do You Protect? (http://www.truth-out.org/whodoyouserve) Follow him on Twitter: @ludwig_mike

(https://twitter.com/ludwig_mike).


"I would no more be a Master than a slave. It does not conform to my idea of Democracy." Abraham Lincoln 1856.