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 the entryways of other Bourbon Street venues, you could pick up on little pockets of silence, where the imposing doors at some other gentlemen's clubs — Temptations, Lipstixx — also were closed.
Nearby, strippers hugged as they arrived in front of Mango Mango Daiquiris for a planned protest march. Some wore hot pants and glitter fishnet stockings. Others had adhesive nametags saying "Hello, my name is unemployed."
Over the course of two January nights, law enforcement raids yanked the liquor licenses from eight French Quarter strip clubs. Dancers, as well as security guards, bartenders, barbacks, servers, cashiers, hosts and managers, had gone to work with a job and come home without one. The ensuing protest was staged by club workers and their allies and made international news; they also crashed another media event intended to spotlight progress on the lagging Bourbon Street infrastructure project, drowning out city officials who attempted to speak at a podium in the middle of the tourist-heavy street.
"This is more or less a charge at the clubs, but it comes at the stake of the livelihood of a lot of people," says Lee Laurent, general manager of Rick's Sporting Saloon and one of the march organizers. "That says to me it's just not right. We aren't just going to roll over and take this."
For the community of people who work in French Quarter strip clubs, the dominant emotion in recent weeks has been angst about the future of their jobs — and growing apprehension about managing their bills.
Among them was Reese Piper, who typically travels to New Orleans to dance during Carnival and was worried about making her $1,000 student loan payment. Another dancer, who goes by Marina, stopped working and began to drain her savings as she waited to see if raids would hit her club.
Janelle Robinson (not her real name), a dancer, fretted about the clubs' hourly workers, who don't make entertainers' higher wages and lack their independent contractor status. But her biggest concern was her pregnancy.
In December, she discovered she and her partner are expecting their first child. She had planned to work as much as possible to save for a self-funded maternity leave. Instead, she felt time slipping away as her typical workplace remained closed and an atmosphere of paranoia suffused the few clubs that were open.
"The anxiety and stress and fear of going to work [or] not being able to be there, it's just like a vicious circle," Robinson says. "[But] if you don't go to work, you don't get paid. You can't explain that to your electric bill."
Much has happened since agents from the state office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) officers raided an initial round of four clubs on Jan. 19. A press conference, meant to tout the raids' role in anti-human-trafficking efforts, merely underscored the fact that no human trafficking arrests had been made.
On the last day of January, ATC released the terms of settlements with several clubs, which included reinstatement dates for liquor licenses, fines ranging from $2,500 to $7,500 and yearlong probation periods. But reinstated liquor licenses can't change the raids' unfolding impact on club workers. As dancers and other workers describe it, the raids — which followed 2015's similar "Operation Trick or Treat" busts — create an environment of precarity and fear, in which workers don't know when their jobs could be endangered by law enforcement operations.
"The raids have very effectively made me feel afraid to do work that I otherwise felt extremely safe doing," Marina says. "It's extremely disorienting."
"A lot of people are just feeling like, well, when is the next raid going to happen?" Robinson says. "And when [are the clubs] going to be closed for good?"
Recent raids dovetail with the city's sweeping 'public safety' plans.
In ATC suspension notices released to media, investigators detailed violations that jeopardized clubs' licenses and spurred the raids. But as information filtered down to workers, they say the list of violations raises more questions than it answers.
The ATC documents identify a few drug sales, plus a number of charges that fall under "lewd acts" and solicitation statutes. The "lewd acts" charges especially perplex club workers, and might raise a skeptical eyebrow from anyone who has visited a strip club.
Dancers at Rick's Cabaret were faulted for displaying "the nipple of their breast, genitals and/or both" on four occasions; a Rick's Sporting Saloon dancer "did touch her own vagina and exposed breast." Other transgressions include "simulated" sex acts, along with some caressing of undercover agents.
Dancers argue they have a right to touch their own bodies, which they consider both an issue of bodily autonomy and a relevant aspect of performance designed to be expressive and provocative. But they say their more pragmatic concern is that the manner in which they typically work — the costumes they wear and what they do when they dance — somehow runs afoul of arcane statutes, putting both clubs and workers in continuing legal peril.
"I don't know that what this law intends is to regulate how women are dancing and what they're wearing to the stage," says attorney Michelle Rutherford, who works with advocacy group Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE). "(Under an) ill-defined or poorly worded statute, I think people are at risk criminally and civilly, on perhaps shaky constitutional grounds."
The ATC notices also include numerous charges related to "solicit[ing] patrons for prostitution." No actual sex acts have to take place for a solicitation charge, and some club workers doubt the validity of those allegations, which they say potentially misunderstand sales-floor interactions. In clubs, patrons often test boundaries, but over time, dancers learn to demur, equivocate or redirect rather than offer a hard "no."
"Entertainers are salespeople," says a dancer who uses the name Daisy. "They sell fantasy. It happens quite often that patrons ... will ask an entertainer to meet outside the club. A less experienced dancer would just agree ... with zero intent to meet him after work.
"It's the equivalent of giving someone your phone number, yet having no intention of answering their call."
What comes into view when speaking to workers is their unease that the raids were triggered by a broad spectrum of behavior, most of which didn't look out of the ordinary or even appear to cause harm. There's a fear that law enforcement will use everyday, unremarkable occurrences to selectively police their workplaces, continually putting their jobs at risk. And their anxieties are heightened by the coming probation period, which BARE Development Director Lyn Archer says "signals an intent to raid again."
The apparent precariousness of the clubs' position feeds whispers about a surreptitious campaign meant to pressure the adult entertainment industry in the French Quarter out of existence. With two clubs surrendering their liquor licenses in the weeks after the raids and another closing due to an unrelated tenancy issue, workers feel they are competing for an ever-limited number of jobs and suspect an effort to make the district more PG-rated, as happened in the famous Times Square "cleanup" of the 1980s under New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
"It all seems really politically motivated right now," says Laurent, Rick's Sporting Saloon manager. "It's like they want to make [Bourbon Street] look prettier."
Dancers say there's a reason these jobs matter. For them, dancing is not coercion but freedom: freedom to set one's own schedule, stay home with a sick kid on short notice, work while managing health issues and earn $100 or more an hour. In a city with a lackluster job market and chronically depressed wages, particularly in the tourism service industry, strip clubs — particularly the high-end "gentlemen's clubs" — offer women the twinned power of time and money.
"[Working in this industry is] a very intentional choice, and often the most lucrative choice we can make," Marina says. "[It's] not a last resort, or a side hustle, or a stepping stone for most of us."
Human trafficking was and is the ostensible reason for these raids, according to law enforcement officials. NOPD Superintendent Michael Harrison has pledged NOPD's commitment to fighting trafficking and says investigations are ongoing. But of the 10 current and former club workers who spoke to Gambit over the course of reporting this story, most vehemently rejected the idea that trafficking occurs in their workplaces.
Women With a Vision Director of Policy and Advocacy Nia Weeks, whose group addresses women's social justice issues, says the sex workers encountered by her nonprofit don't come from the clubs. What's more, the raids may have hindered anti-trafficking efforts by fraying the relationship between law enforcement and club workers. "They're not creating a situation where if we did see something, we would want to say something," Robinson says.
If law enforcement is invested in identifying and addressing trafficking wherever it might occur, Rutherford says one of the things they could do is develop a dialogue with club workers, perhaps via a sex trafficking liaison between the clubs and NOPD or ATC.
"Nobody wants [trafficking] to happen," she says. "We can all get behind this banner of like, how can we make sure that — if there is a woman who is being trafficked in the city of New Orleans — that she has the resources to come out?"
Weeks also suggests anti-trafficking efforts first address systemic issues (such as poverty, low wages and high housing costs) that might drive women to illegal sex work. When investigators suspect trafficking, the women involved should be met with resources such as social workers and counselors rather than police raids that "treat them as if they were criminals."
Recently, Harrison told a reporter with Nola.com | The Times-Picayune that some suspected pimps had been arrested, but no arrests have been made public. As investigations continue — and clubs hold their breath during a long probation period — workers say they will keep advocating for themselves and speaking up when they feel they've been targeted.
At BARE, Archer hopes organizing activities will help the New Orleans City Council, the City Planning Commission and Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell recognize club workers, like homeowners or musicians, as just another New Orleans constituency to be valued and protected.
"Strippers are people," she says. "We want to move out of a territory where we're just constantly defending our right to exist."