During a debate about a bill to regulate strip clubs, a state representative proposed an amendment — in jest, he says — that the strippers should be youthful and thin.
The joke, which is now an official part of the legislative public record, upset several female lawmakers in the House, who called it a new low for inappropriate and sexist comments that regularly pervade the State Capitol.
State Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, officially submitted a written amendment to legislation that would have mandated dancers at strip clubs be no older than 28 and no heavier than 160 pounds. When challenged by other legislators, he quickly withdrew the amendment and later called it a joke about overregulation.
“Looking out over this body, I’ve never been so repulsed to be a part of it,” Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, said on the House floor after the amendment was pulled. Stokes said the amendment was just the latest exercise in commonplace misogyny that women in the Legislature frequently endure. “It has got to stop. That was utterly disrespectful and disgusting.”
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Senate Bill 468, by Sen. Ronnie Johns, would raise the age of dancers at strip clubs from 18 to 21.
Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, who presented the measure on Johns’ behalf, said the legislation is intended to combat human trafficking, as recent stings have found underage homeless youth and foster children who have aged out of the system being targeted to work at clubs where prostitution and drug dealing flourish.
As the bill was being presented, Havard — saying he wanted to “trim the fat” — offered his amendment. He withdrew the amendment after another lawmaker called it offensive.
But Havard didn’t apologize and said he doesn’t regret his joke.
“No, it was meant as a poke that we’re overregulating everything around here,” he said in an interview. “It was a joke, that’s why I pulled it. But it was satire to say, ‘Hey, when are we going to stop overregulating everything?’ ”
Despite his objection to overregulation, Havard voted for the bill, which passed the House 96-0. He said it was unnecessary to apologize but that he respects Stokes.
During debate on SB468, other legislators made light of the situation by throwing single dollar bills on a table next to the podium.
Some female lawmakers said they weren’t amused by the jokes.
“(Havard) was clearly insinuating that women over a certain age and over a certain weight are not attractive,” said state Rep. Nancy Landry, R-Lafayette, calling it one of the more shocking actions she’s seen while in office. “We’re here representing 40,000 people back home, and half of them are women. They’re mothers, daughters, sisters, and we’re here representing the state as the face of Louisiana to some extent. ... I just don’t think it’s appropriate.”
Landry also said she didn’t find his excuse about overregulation to be genuine because he voted for the bill.
She added that she was especially disappointed that so many other male legislators laughed at the amendment.
Stokes said in an interview that the behavior pushed the limit but is not entirely out of the ordinary for many of her colleagues.
“I’ve been told at least three times since this regular session started, by different people in different places, that women should be barefoot and pregnant,” she said. “By male legislators.”
She declined to name them.
She recalled that in 2013, a similar bill about strip club age regulations was heard in committee and a male lawmaker asked if exceptions could be given to “classy strip clubs,” where the women might be more attractive.
“I thought to myself: How can we be this disrespectful and in public, and why do we get away with It?’ ” she said. “Why is it OK?”
Rep. Helena Moreno, D-New Orleans, said she was appalled by the stupidity of the amendment.
“You hear a lot of things behind the scenes with people joking, but for someone to put something like that in a public record and actually go to the front and introduce this as an amendment in this chamber — it was completely uncalled for and it was offensive,” Moreno said. “And this is a serious bill that has to do with human trafficking, and it was treated like a joke.”
Moreno said she agrees that women in the Legislature are treated differently from men, but she added that it’s likely the same in most workplaces.
“Sometimes there will be a comment about, ‘Oh, why don’t you ask another female representative to wear nicer clothes,’ which is of course inappropriate,” she said. “No one would ever say anything about what male legislators wear.”
Freshman state Rep. Paula Davis, R-Baton Rouge, said she has seen male legislators be respectful and chivalrous to women, including one who gave up his closer parking space to a female lawmaker who is pregnant. But she said she was shocked by the amendment and hopes that it was a teachable moment.
“I didn’t think it was funny. I thought it was inappropriate,” she said. “I couldn’t believe he actually brought it before the full chamber.”
In the House, women constitute 16 of the 105 state representatives. Six of the 39 senators are female.
Johns, the bill’s sponsor, said he understands why women would be offended by the joke, but he doesn’t believe Havard meant any harm by it.
“I know him to be a real gentleman with great respect for women,” Johns said. “It’s unfortunate things don’t always come out as intended, and it was ill-timed.”
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.