Since 2015’s Halloween strip club raids, the count of such clubs in the Vieux Carre in New Orleans has gone from 23 to 14. The “Adult Live Performance Venues Study” lays out this process as a form of “natural attrition.” My colleagues and I, Bourbon Street strippers and nightlife workers, are certain it is not natural at all.
Adverse zoning, contact and distance laws, discriminatory legislation by age and gender, undercover surveillance and overt police raiding are part of a feedback loop that entrenches itself in the public imagination, spurred on by the concept of “trafficking.” The definition of “trafficking,” as it stands, can have many contexts in labor and migration, but here, it is used as a euphemism for “prostitution.” “Prostitution,” in the latest series of raids, was extrapolated into any gesture or conversation “lewd” enough to be construed as an "ask." No actual sex acts were documented, no “victims of trafficking” or underage workers were found. The ATC charged the clubs for women touching their own bodies, or touching customers: the kind of "show and tell" that is enjoyed and expected during carnival, across a variety of streets and other social spaces. But Bourbon Street is considered a de facto red light district: both symbolizing vice and transmuting anything within it into vice. The district can then be attacked by anyone who stands to benefit from appearing to fight social ills.
New Orleans has had many such places in its 300 years, each wiped out through the methods of its own time. Today, the process is to contain, then isolate and break apart, small networks of venues, erode the economy and culture of the street, causing all the venues to close one by one. One law firm, adultbusinesslaw.com, specializes in this method: the “secondary negative effects” doctrine. It suggests that strip clubs contaminate a city with a variety of ills, worst of all, “trafficking.” Litigating in more than 20 states, and backed by Christian Right activist organizations, this firm’s sole purpose is to eradicate adult businesses, as if their lead attorney, Scott Bergthold, were an exterminator specializing in a single class of endangered animal.
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The “secondary negative effects” method has been shown, over and over, to be rife with un-empirical data and unethical ways of collecting it, yet it continues to re-emerge. It works through the collusion of organizations and institutions that each share partially overlapping motivations. A politician bent on “cleaning up” a part of town, a nonprofit formed to “help young people,” a police department “tough on crime,” a publication attempting to “uncover vice,” can all appear valuable and virtuous by fighting “secondary negative effects,” without the risks required to actually restructure and heal a violent, unjust world. This is what makes “anti-trafficking” rhetoric so routine: no one would argue that “trafficking” (defined as the use of “force, fraud, or coercion” to make someone work) is wrong. To do so would align oneself with the “worst kind” of people.
Bergthold’s cases, when they reach federal court, are routinely thrown out for violating the First (and often the Fifth and Fourteenth) amendment. Meanwhile, his targets are buckling under the time and money involved in defending against his bottomlessly funded attacks. Bergthold is defending the state (initially the ATC, now, the attorney general) against three Jane Doe plaintiffs who lost their jobs during the 18-20-year-old stripper age ban, while fighting to lift the federal injunction against that same age ban, and while advising on the ALPV Study: three birds, one stone. He is supported by, and supports, the mayor’s office, the local police department and wider “human trafficking task force” collaborations, the Covenant House and the members of its board, who double-dip on the city council and beyond.
The three women are likely to be tied up in court for years to come. Whether they win or lose, they have lost energy, money, time and labor. So have I, taking hours and hours of meetings with people who insist they act independently, innocuously, while revealing the links in their daisy chains. Recently, I sat in a city council member's office, arguing that lifting the ALPV’s zoning cap would allow my colleagues to open our own clubs someday, a shared dream. She compared the strip club I’d worked in to “a restaurant serving rats.” I’d take working in a rat restaurant over working with those who insist they know what’s best for others, without questioning their own motives and methods. Force, fraud, coercion: three birds, one stone.
Lyn Archer is a New Orleans stripper.
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