Waves of exotic dancers took to the streets Thursday after strip clubs were shuttered in crackdowns rocking Bourbon Street in New Orleans just 11 days before Mardi Gras.
Undercover stings revealed prostitution at eight strip clubs on or near the booze-soaked magnet for tourists, police said. Police Chief Michael S. Harrison said in a news conference Monday that drug activity was alleged at four of those clubs following the suspension of liquor licenses.
The flurry of police activity is part of a broad, ongoing effort to curtail human trafficking in the city, Harrison said, although officials appeared to be divided on whether human trafficking, as legally defined in the state, was taking place at the clubs at all.
Louisiana Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard told reporters at the news conference that “prostitution in and of itself is sex trafficking.”
But Louisiana law says that “fraud, force or coercion” must be evident to meet the legal definition of human trafficking. Harrison later conceded the distinction between prostitution and human trafficking, saying that “we do not consider it to be one and the same.”
Beau Tidwell, a New Orleans Police Department spokesman, said Friday that no human-trafficking charges have been filed, and he would not say if he expects any to materialize. Investigators are building cases, and trafficking charges are difficult to substantiate, he said.
Only one or two arrests on unrelated charges were made on site. Pimps have been arrested in tandem but not on the sites of the notices, which were served Jan. 19 and 25, Tidwell said.
Voluntary closures of affected clubs have triggered protests involving hundreds of strippers, Bourbon Street workers and other supporters, who say the crackdowns are thinly veiled attempts to remake the image of the French Quarter into a family-friendly destination.
“We are protesting because they are trying to shut down most of the clubs on Bourbon Street to make it some kind of Disneyland-cruise-ship port,” exotic dancer Emily Hernandez told Agence France-Presse.
Photos from the protests show dancers holding signs with slogans such as “It’s Bourbon St., not Sesame St.” and “We are not victims” to push back against law enforcement activity they say has harmed business.
One sign was candid: “B–bs R Awesome.”
The closures and protests came after a year-long investigation by the Times-Picayune on NOLA.com that was published in October, following more than a dozen visits to 10 strip clubs where lewd acts similar to ATC reports published in 2015.
The paper interviewed trafficking victims and dancers, trafficking experts, law enforcement and club officials and reviewed hundreds of records. They reported that Bourbon Street and its notorious party atmosphere feeds an ecosystem of pimps funneling prostitutes to nearby hotels, using strip clubs as recruiting grounds for women and hubs for johns on the lookout for sex.
“While there has been no evidence that clubs knowingly employed dancers who were victims of human trafficking, victim advocates and law enforcement officers say the trafficking opportunity arises from a constant presence of pimps promoting prostitution on Bourbon Street, and in some cases demanding that women under their control use private rooms in clubs for sex,” the paper wrote.
Advocates who follow the sex industry have pushed back against the report. Melissa Gira Grant, author of “Playing the Whore” and who has written about sex work as a freelance journalist, has said that the report and law enforcement both have blurred the distinction between forced prostitution, voluntary sex work and exotic dancing, challenging the assertion sex and human trafficking are a facet of strip clubs.
The paper vetted 17 victims who said they performed sex in strip clubs.
The conduct of law enforcement officials, Grant wrote, was an affront to the idea that women were being saved from their work.
“To have grown men watch me dress and undress without my consent,” an unnamed dancer told her, “to photograph me half-naked on their personal cellphones, to laugh in our faces as we wept, and to corral us, like cattle, in areas with no cameras present is completely dehumanizing.”
Tidwell claimed no New Orleans police officers were involved in that alleged behavior. Marine-Lombard also said no ATC agents were involved.
Continued crackdowns and protests have the potential to roil upcoming Mardi Gras festivities, which pumps millions of dollars into the New Orleans economy. Mark Romig, chief executive of the New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation, said he was confident that the ongoing protests and activity would not impact tourism. But he acknowledged that protesters interrupted a news conference about construction on Bourbon Street.
Exotic dancers have said the public has misunderstood their profession as desperately lurid, in contrast with a feminist counterargument that dancing can be an empowering way to earn money.
Dancer Reese Piper said the closures, explained by authorities as a way to blunt illegal sex work, may have the unintentional consequence of forcing strippers into the trade after losing out on revenue.
“The outside will see that we’re more than fishnets and lace, but people from all walks of life who work in the industry out of love or need,” Piper wrote under a pen name for the Advocate, the largest daily newspaper in Louisiana. “Regardless of how or why, stripping is our job — and it’s our right to work without fear just like everyone else.”