The impact of raids on adult entertainment clubs on Bourbon Street that happened just four months ago can be seen most deeply in the case of a couple clubs that closed permanently. They are also still felt by the dancers and workers who have managed to remain. Dancers took to the streets with signs sporting slogans such as, “Bourbon Street, not Sesame Street,” and “you can’t Disney-fy Bourbon Street.” While it is true that Walt Disney himself wanted to build an amusement park in New Orleans, the city didn’t want to cooperate then, and Bourbon Street remained a major attraction.
The effect of the January and February raids did more than cause lost wages for two weeks prior to Mardi Gras, one of the highest income-earning seasons on Bourbon Street. Clubs operate differently now, dancers fear for the future of their work and customers are upset over the lost quality of experience that has drawn countless crowds to the city in years past.
“Everyone is on edge,” says entertainer Polly, who we has changed her name out of fear of repercussion, not only from law enforcement, but clubs as well. “The club is operating a lot differently. Not even in a good way.”
Clubs are now required to enforce laws governing adult entertainment clubs that were originally written in the 1930’s and haven’t been updated since the 1970’s. Laws, such as those that forbid an entertainer to touch her own breasts while on stage. A far cry from the reveling denizens just steps away outside the club doors whom can legally walk down Bourbon Street in nothing but panties fondling their own breasts for plastic beads with a flask of liquor in the other; all in public view.
“The industry has been much, much worse,” says Polly, a New Orleans resident who was present for two raids on clubs and had to travel out of state during the shutdown just to make ends meet. “I have had to over-work myself especially on stage because we do not have the capacity of entertainers as we once did. Everyone is worried about being stung again, and no one can efficiently come to work without worrying about if they’ll have a job.I have managers who are depressed, friends who had to find other jobs and travel to make ends meet. It’s very different, and it’s not a difference I welcome.”
The “New Bourbon Street,” a nickname City Hall failed to coin during a press conference earlier this year which was subsequently shut down by protesting entertainers and workers, is noticed by longtime tourists and customers.
“Customers are angry, we lose a lot of business when people come in and realize that things are a lot more strict than they used to be,” Polly states. “The intimacy of what we do as entertainers is lost because we only have contact with shoulders and knees, and once a group of guys comes in and just one gets a hover dance, they leave.”
The road since has been just as bumpy as many streets throughout New Orleans. If it wasn’t the raids, it was the fight against Councilmember Stacy Head’s proposal to cap the number of clubs on Bourbon Street, and erase them through attrition. Dancers, workers and supporters flooded a City Planning Commission meeting that addressed a study which found no direct link between the number of clubs and the crime on Bourbon Street.
Councilmember Head remained critical of the adult entertainment industry as her measure was addressed by the City Council, which failed in a 4-to-3 vote City Hall as Council President John Williams declared the raids “a waste of time.”Head’s criticism went so far as to criticize dancers and workers of receiving financial incentives in the form of free house fees or paid attendance at public hearings. An act Head referred to as, “selling out,” yet an incentive which hardly compensated for the lost wages and income that can be earned during the industries busiest season.
City officials stated the raids were part of a larger fight against human trafficking. But out of the thirty supposed instances of prostitution in the clubs, not a single arrest was made. Nor were any arrests made in relation to the purported sale of illicit drugs. But if it’s human trafficking and prostitution that Law Enforcement, police need not look in clubs, but right out on Bourbon Street according to Polly.
“There were full service sex workers on the streets before the raids and now there are more,” according to Polly who has been dancing in Bourbon Street clubs for the past year and a half. “I would be lying if I said I didn’t consider walking the streets because the clubs have changed so drastically.”
The raid, a move that was to prevent human trafficking and prostitution,has caused entertainers to consider leaving clubs that have been so negatively affected by the raids and enter into more dangerous alternatives to try and make the earnings they once did. Clubs are often places that dancers consider their safe haven.
“Rent was due and I knew that if I didn’t figure something out, I’d have to go back to my immigrant family and fight abuse and alcoholism consuming the people I tried to run from,” says dancer Selena, a New Orleans resident who asked to be identified by her stage name only.
“Dancing for me has been liberating on my soul, has been a spiritual journey into discovering who I am because it has been teaching me self-discipline, love for others and patience,” Selena adds.
The fight continues beyond Bourbon Street and City Hall, as laws are being enforced at the state and national level as well. House Bill 830 is currently being debated by the Louisiana State Senate. The bill would require adult businesses to complete age and work status verification for all applicants, to include a questionnaire to screen workers for indications of human trafficking.
But entertainers of Bourbon are opposed to such a measure. According to a post by the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers, or BARE, the group shares Instagram feed @barenola that HB830 would: “create more hoops for workers to jump through in order to get a job,” and “places the burden of reporting human trafficking on those who are being trafficked, who may choose not to come forward due to safety concerns.”The organization BARE is composed of dancers and club employeeswho advocate for safety, civil and labor rights of all individuals in the adult entertainment industry.
And on the national level, President Trump signed FOSTA/SESTA into law, an effort to fight online sex trafficking, which has local entertainers concerned as well.
“There is high tension, no one seems to know for sure the do’s and don’ts,” claims Polly. “It’s a scary feeling to be unsure if you’ll have a job.” Polly also claims the bill has nothing to do with anti-trafficking and encourages others to sign a petition to repeal the law.
The future of adult entertainment clubs on Bourbon Street has yet to be set in stone. In a city rich in history of pirates and hookers, debauchery and decadence, the dedicated dancers of Bourbon Street remain determined to fight and dance.
“I’ve danced since I was a little girl,” says Polly. “Lyrical, tap, jazz, hip-hop and ballet. I love dancing and entertaining people. It is my passion and while I will find success in the business I plan to run, I hope to be a stripper until I’m at least 51!”
Now, Walt Disney has passed along with the chance to turn New Orleans into a magical kingdom. That ship has sailed. Yet, the music plays on, the drinks pour and the entertainers dance, and continue to fight for their rights.
For more information on the laws effecting local clubs, visit: www.redlightarchive.com
And for fuck’s sake, TIP!