In a striking victory for the adult entertainment industry, a divided New Orleans City Council shot down a proposal Thursday to cap the number of Bourbon Street strip clubs, putting an end for now to a long-running debate over how to best regulate the venues.
The council voted 4-3 against the limit after hearing from numerous dancers who called a recent crackdown on the clubs — including police raids — a threat to their livelihoods and their freedom of expression.
The measure, sponsored by Councilwoman Stacy Head, would have limited the number of strip clubs allowed to operate along a seven-block stretch of Bourbon to the present 12. A new club could have opened if one of the 12 closed.
There would have been no cap on the number of clubs allowed in any single block, something officials had considered.
Head argued that the limit was no more than a routine move to rein in some of the excesses associated with crowded, high-traffic businesses, rather than an attack on adult entertainment as a whole. At one point she likened the clubs to a slew of fast-food restaurants.
She won the support of Councilwomen Susan Guidry and LaToya Cantrell, the city's mayor-elect. But Jared Brossett, James Gray, Nadine Ramsey and Jason Williams voted against it.
Williams said he couldn't support the move because of what he felt was an overly aggressive approach to the clubs recently by law enforcement, and because it would do nothing to address other businesses, such as massage parlors, where human trafficking also has been alleged to occur.
"If we are looking at human trafficking, (massage parlors) should be a part of the discussion and the study," Williams said.
Absent any further action by the council, Thursday's vote means strip clubs will be allowed to operate unencumbered once a temporary ban on new ones lifts in May.
That moratorium has been in place since 2016, when the council raised the age requirement for new dancers and asked the City Planning Commission to study further regulation, an ordinance sponsored by Williams.
The latest bout of scrutiny on the Bourbon Street clubs flared after the body of 19-year-old dancer Jasilas Wright was found on Interstate 10 in 2015, an incident that was followed by a crackdown by the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the State Police.
At least two dozen dancers and their supporters showed up at the council Thursday to speak against the latest proposal, saying it would put dancers out of work and force them into less safe environments.
Lynn Archer, who has danced for 12 years, said the cap was just one more piece of a "decades-old blueprint to eradicate our livelihood."
"A competitive and thriving nightlife district would elevate our work, and allow us the option to open our own clubs," she added.
Other members of a group formed to oppose the strip club restrictions, the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, said stripping helped them pay off college debt and affords them flexible work hours. They said the council and the police shouldn't be in the business of policing women's bodies.
That argument led Gray, who previously supported the idea of a cap, to vote against it. "What convinces me is the statement that a grown person has the right to do what they want to do, with themselves, and their bodies and their lives," Gray said.
Head tried, at several points in the debate, to remind the dancers that the plan she proposed would not close any current clubs, would affect only a seven-block stretch of Bourbon, and would not require a new club to go through an onerous review before being allowed to open, as long as the total number of clubs was under the cap.
Dancers were not convinced. Several talked over Head as she spoke.
"The money is on Bourbon!" one cried.
Members of the stripper alliance accused police of investigating strippers but not patrons and of taking photographs of scantily clad dancers, among other things.
"That’s horrible, and that’s offensive," Williams said, adding that police should instead have been investigating "real" crimes.
The council is not the only arena where the debate over Bourbon Street is playing out. Several dancers are still pursuing a lawsuit against the state's age requirement, which is more stringent than the city's.
The New Orleans law requires all new dancers to be at least 21, but it said those age 18 to 20 who were already employed before the cap went into effect could continue working. The state law includes no such clause.
Last year, a U.S. judge in New Orleans halted enforcement of the statewide age ban while the case plays out.