House-passed human trafficking bill is ominous for strip club workers_lowres

Strip club workers protested club raids in the French Quarter earlier this year.

With a unanimous vote Thursday, the Louisiana House of Representatives passed a bill that would create new restrictions on hiring at "sexually oriented businesses," including strip clubs.

But if enacted, House Bill 830 - which would create new ID requirements for employees and independent contractors and require prospective workers to fill out a questionnaire about human trafficking - may provoke unease among some New Orleans strip club workers. In the aftermath of January strip club raids that shuttered several French Quarter strip clubs but failed to ferret out human trafficking, a new bill called the "Human Trafficking Prevention Act" looks a great deal like a continuation of what strip club workers have said is an unjustified attack on their workplaces.

"Forming a link in the written law between 'sexually oriented businesses' and 'human trafficking' pave[s] the way to establish false causality between the two," Lyn Archer, an organizer with strip club worker advocacy group Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers (BARE), writes in an email. "Human trafficking is not happening in our clubs."

[jump] Earlier this year, New Orleans dancers and other strip club workers took to the streets to protest the closure of their clubs. At demonstrations, a march and several City Planning Commission hearings, workers argued that they hadn't witnessed human trafficking in French Quarter clubs, and that the January raids were based on flimsy pretexts. Eventually most clubs reopened, but a few permanently closed, and raided clubs were fined and received restrictive settlement agreements that will monitor their conduct in the months to come.

But this piece of legislation could undermine strip club workers' recent arguments, by solidifying the parallel between 'sexually oriented businesses' and human trafficking hotspots. Under the proposed law, every newly hired strip club worker would have to fill out a human trafficking questionnaire, which includes questions about freedom of movement, immigration, access to personal documents and debts to other employers. It's a battery of questions Archer calls "irrelevant" and "intrusive," but the more pressing issue is the seeming push to codify strip clubs as places where human trafficking is bound to occur.

"Strip clubs should be treated the same way as any other establishment. ... No one asks musicians, dancers, athletes or actors if they have been trafficked or coerced into working, though what we wear and do isn't all that different," she says.

The bill's effort to create more stringent ID requirements, Archer says, also misunderstands regulations and guidelines that already exist in most strip clubs, where Social Security cards and identification already are required to sign employment contracts. Ultimately the law could strengthen the connection between human trafficking and strip clubs in the eyes of both law enforcement and the public - setting the stage for future raids - while creating new restrictions and hurdles for workers.

"These measures are about adding more layers or inconvenience to our work," Archer says.

In a committee hearing earlier this month, the bill's author Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, framed the law as a safeguard against strip clubs (and other businesses such as adult bookstores and movie houses) employing underage workers, as well as a way to curtail human trafficking.

“Even if this type of world has not touched our lives directly, we have daughters. … We hate to think our daughter would find herself wayward and end up in one of these places," she said. “If we can provide one more outlet when they can cry out and get out of this, that’s what I’m after." 

Curiously, committee members and Stokes went out of their way to cite their lack of personal familiarity with these industries - Rep. Reid Falconer, R-Mandeville, called strip clubs and other sexually oriented establishments "a disgusting area of business." The committee also listened to  supporting testimony that cited a

roundly criticized

Times-Picayune series that had investigated human trafficking in Bourbon Street strip clubs without significant input from dancers and other workers.

The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration. It follows other bills pertaining to strip clubs that have made their way through the legislature in recent years, including a 2016 ban on dancers under the age of 21 that drew a legal challenge from a group of dancers and is still making its way through the courts.

This most recent legislative effort, Archer says, misunderstands the realities of strip club work and does little to protect women or combat human trafficking.

"Nothing about that questionnaire would encourage an actual trafficking victim to tell the truth," she writes. "With this bill, lawmakers have shown their hand [and revealed] their ignorance, including to actual traffickers, who are now more easily poised to evade them across the many - usually much less scintillating and [less] well-paid - labor contexts where trafficking actually exists."