Several Bourbon Street strip clubs have agreed to surveillance measures and “mystery shoppers” as part of their agreements with the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, which approved consent agreements with seven clubs in the wake of club raids and other charges.
The judgments mirror ones reached with the state’s office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) following law enforcement raids in January that led to club closures and put a microscope on the remaining clubs on Bourbon Street and the staff and dancers working inside them. They also have put dancers’ and club workers’ livelihoods in limbo, unclear whether the judgments, and a lack of communication from management or the business owners, would interfere with their jobs.
“As a dancer, I think it’s frightening,” Bourbon Street dancer Devin told Gambit. “The rules that are in place for club workers and dancers to begin with are very vague. There is no real clarity. Because of that, the ATC was able to use these outdated rules and the vagueness of them to hurt club businesses. It completely put us in a paranoid state of not knowing when our jobs could be taken from us.”
Devin said the addition of more cameras and mystery shoppers “only increases the paranoia and puts us at risk of losing our jobs over vague and outdated laws.”
“There’s so much stigma surrounding dancing and nightlife that this just seems like another way for our jobs to be attacked rather than a way to protect us which they claim to be wanting,” Devin said.
Some of those charges relied on allegations of prostitution, “lewd” behavior and other code violations that dancers say clearly are outdated, used by law enforcement to scrutinize and criminalize dancing — made all the more frustrating as city officials fail to understand their livelihoods.
It was 9 p.m. on a Thursday, but the door to Rick's Cabaret was shut and the lights were off. Amid the high-octane pop music that spilled from…
Clubs faced the city charges for several months, though city attorneys asked to defer the hearings every month since February, either because club representatives weren’t present or the city needed more time to draft consent agreements that would be pending the approval of the board.
In the time since the charges were levied against the businesses, two of them no longer are strip clubs — Rick’s Sporting Saloon converted to country and western dance club Boot Scootin’ Rodeo, and Bourbon Vibezz switched formats to a dance club.
In that time, dancers also claimed a small but crucial victory with the City Planning Commission’s rejection of a potential plan to dramatically limit the number of clubs on the street through attrition.
The judgments issued Nov. 20 require clubs enlist “mystery shoppers” and install “high quality camera systems” throughout the venues. Scores also received a $13,000 fine and faces a 30-day suspension of its alcohol license. Stilettos, Rick’s Cabaret and Hustler’s Barely Legal each received fines. So did the former Rick’s Sporting Saloon and Bourbon Vibezz, which were exempt from the “mystery shopper” requirement.
The board dismissed the case against Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club following a settlement with the Vieux Carre Commission.
Board member Skip Gallagher questioned whether “high quality” was specific enough for the camera requirements.
Board members often giggled throughout the hearing, asking whether “mystery shoppers” should be required in the non-strip clubs “to make sure they’re dancing and there’s no tangential activities.” One commissioner asked why Rick’s Cabaret didn’t also “get religion and move to country and western dancing.”
Attorney Frank DeSalvo said though the “publicity that took place with the raids affected all these places,” Rick’s Sporting Saloon wasn’t making enough to remain a strip club. “Gentleman’s club entertainment has reached its peak and is going down, with the internet and all that’s available,” DeSalvo said. “It’s a lot cheaper.”
Bernard Herman, an attorney for Stilletos and Bourbon Vibezz, suggested the city consider requiring dancers have a “responsible vendor license.”
“Until we grapple with that issue as as community and statewide, we’re going to continue to impose on owners and tenants the responsibility of this social problem,” he said. “It’s a protection for them. It cleans up the so-called noise about sex trafficking and kidnapping.”
Dancer Lyn Archer says her colleagues work “in a climate of anxiety and ambiguity, not knowing if the person standing in front of us is there ‘just to relax’ or to entrap us.”
“The practice of ‘mystery shopping’ essentially turns civilians into a hired police force, driving a needless wedge between ourselves and management,” she told Gambit. “As the ongoing strip club raids are part of a support ‘anti-trafficking task force,’ we wonder why law enforcement or club management does not hire undercover security to ‘mystery shop’ problematic customers. We are being treated simultaneously as criminals and victims, not the working citizens we are. The tone of contempt in the ABO hearing and every meeting with law enforcement we had shows that these consent judgments are part of a series of wedge tactics.”
In a broad and sweeping public safety plan introduced in January 2017, Mayor Mitch Landrieu and city officials called for a "rebranding of the…
Last year, the city hired attorney Scott Bergthold — who helped author strict regulations for strip clubs and dancers in 20 other states — to review zoning laws and rules governing alcoholic beverage outlets in New Orleans.
When city planners were expected to discuss the New Orleans City Council's requested study on strip club regulations in January, the City Planning Commission put it on hold and said then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu administration "is working to possibly formulate a broader package of regulations" for strip clubs.
A few weeks later, the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the New Orleans Police Department raided eight clubs. State and local law enforcement did not produce any trafficking arrests.
“We would like to be able to report violence against us if we experience or witness it — strippers have no incentive to act extralegally unless our clubs become untenable places to work, leaving us with few viable options,” Archer said.
While dancers would prefer policing remained outside the clubs, the clubs’ relative self enforcement through mystery shoppers and expanded surveillance is a “much-needed alternative to acquiescing to undercover police presence in our places of work,” said Bourbon Street dancer Elle Camino. Many dancers are living with trauma from January raids.
“During the raids last spring, many of us were dehumanized by these officers and their affiliates and have continued to be with the continued raids beyond the Vieux Carre,” Camino said. “Allowing clubs to regulate themselves and ensure the safety of all those contracted just makes sense and personally makes me feel more secure in my places of work versus at the whim of external forces which have little insight into our work environments and even less care for our wellbeing as people.”
More cameras potentially could mean more eyes on customers as well, “an immediate reminder” to customers “that they are in a context where their actions are being scrutinized and this puts less pressure on the performers to constantly feel the burden falls on us alone to be enforcers,” Camino said.
But law enforcement’s seizure of that footage means customers — and undercover law enforcement — are off the hook for their behavior, “leaving performers without a say in the matter,” Camino said.