An unholy mix of gentrification and trafficking hysteria created the perfect political climate to allow law enforcement to shutter several New Orleans strip clubs, leaving scores of dancers unemployed. The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers rapidly sprung into action; they disrupted the mayor’s press conference and organized the Unemployment March the following night, which drew national attention. I talked to them about the situation in NOLA, their strategy, and their future plans.
So, to start, what is BARE? How long has BARE existed and what kind of activism does BARE do?
Lindsey: BARE is the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers. We are an organization run by strippers, for strippers. I started coming to meetings a few months ago, but some of our members have been at this since the Trick or Treat raids of 2015. What we do first and foremost is provide a voice that’s been previously underexposed during the city’s assault on strip clubs: the voice of actual strippers. We’re attempting to work with city officials to influence policies and decisions that affect us. Outside of that, we really just want to foster community among dancers and show the people who don’t understand us that we are valuable members of the New Orleans community. During our first ever charity tip drive, participating dancers donated all of their tips from a Friday night’s work to a women’s shelter. Strippers literally paid that shelter’s rent for six months!
Lyn Archer: I arrived in New Orleans after being laid off from two seasonal jobs in a row, one in secretarial work and one in hospitality. I was on unemployment and got a job cocktail-waitressing at a Larry Flynt drag club. One night, a few weeks before Christmas, the club closed without notice and let everyone go. That’s when I saw how quickly fortunes could reverse on Bourbon Street and how little protection there is for workers. My first week on Bourbon, I was the likely the only stripper that didn’t realize that Operation Trick or Treat had just happened. I entered a work environment where strippers were scared, mgmt was over-vigilant, and customers were scarce. Everyone seemed confused about “the rules.” I later learned that’s because what’s written into the city code about “lewd and lascivious conduct” is different than state law and different than federal law. But these supposed “anti-trafficking” efforts are a collaboration of badges. Undercover agents from many offices move through the clubs. I began researching and writing on this for my column in Antigravity, called “Light Work.” I began to see how a feedback loop between press, law enforcement, self-styled “anti-trafficking” groups and civic policymakers can cause so much destruction for people they haven’t even considered. The club I started at was the first to close. The club was inside a building that was the house Confederate president Jefferson Davis lived in. The house I live in was the home of a Confederate general. We are working against, while inside-of, unfolding histories that are deeply, deeply violent. The more I learn about the history of sex worker resistance in New Orleans, the more I know this fight is lifetimes old and will replicate itself if we do not end it entirely.
Can you explain the situation in New Orleans for our readers that might be unaware?
Lindsey: Our situation is bleak. There’s a complicated circle of influencers who all have major interests in shutting as many of our clubs down as possible. I can actually rant about this for hours, but basically, it seems like our current mayor wants his legacy to be “cleaning up Bourbon Street.” No one wants Bourbon Street to be clean, dude. New Orleans is currently courting Disney cruise line to build a cruise ship terminal here, so they are literally trying to Disney-fy the French Quarter.
Lyn Archer: The “Disneyfication” rhetoric has been circulating for decades; there was serious talk of building Disney World here; it ended up in Orlando. Walt Disney loved Bourbon Street so much he replicated it in most of his parks It’s ironic to watch the real street, on it’s 300th birthday, be pressured into becoming the simulacra of itself.
We already have a cruise ship dock in the CBD, and there has been a great deal of talk around placing one at the end of Poland Avenue in the Bywater and turning the entire stretch into a pedestrian riverwalk. This aligns with the 2030 Master Plan for the city and the tourist drift off Bourbon Street into the Marigny and Bywater. All last year, the first blocks of Bourbon were a massive gaping hole surrounded by construction fencing and piled up with equipment and wet sand. I could have filled that hole with the money I lost last year. Compared to now, I miss the chasm.
When a job gets pulled out from under a stripper…I really can’t think of any other option to get cash in hand that quickly than another kind of sex work.
When a job gets pulled out from under a stripper…I really can’t think of any other option to get cash in hand that quickly than another kind of sex work.
Lindsey: Conveniently, the mayor’s sister is on the board of a Catholic-run shelter for at-risk teens that receives massive government grants to combat human trafficking. Turns out, they’re actually bad at combating it, so they’ve started pointing fingers at the strip clubs. They say strip clubs are THE hubs for human trafficking in New Orleans. That is absolutely false, but it sure sounds good when a local journalist picks it up and writes a 12,000 word, three-part “expose” about it which reads like a pulp paperback and includes no actual investigative work. Suddenly, everyone in town is reading terrible things about our strip clubs, then it seems perfectly reasonable for the police and alcohol-tobacco commission to do undercover operations for months to look for human trafficking. (I really want to know how many lap dances these men bought with my tax dollars). During months of investigations they uncover zero counts of human trafficking, but what they do find is enough to suspend almost every club’s liquor license. They started raiding the clubs two weeks ago, citing them for 30 counts of prostitution, 38 lewd acts, and two drug sales. That sounds pretty bad to any civilian that doesn’t know that what constitutes prostitution in a strip club. Our city code on the matter hasn’t been updated or enforced in decades.
Lyn Archer: Touching one’s own body or a customer’s body, negotiating about hypothetical future sexual acts, or even saying “yes” without speaking (nodding or gesturing) have all been counted at prostitution in the charging documents.
Lindsey: Civilians get away with more on the street outside the clubs flashing for beads. So now, almost all our clubs are either shut down or operating without a liquor license during Mardi Gras, our most lucrative tourist season. I estimate maybe 1,000 strippers, club staff, cleaning crews, and more have been displaced by these raids. On February 6th the City Planning Commission is holding a public hearing for a zoning proposal that would make it so when one strip club closes down, the only way for another to open is if it is the only one on the block. How convenient.
Sable: The city also needs about $11 billion for literally DECAYING infrastructure. Canal Street (one of the most high-traffic streets in the city) caved in last year, an event known in New Orleans as Sinkhole De Mayo. City resources could be better spent on fixing crime and infrastructure instead of attacking working women who are great tourist draws to the city. They are also talking about closing at 2 AM, creating noise ordinances and taking away go-cups. This city’s booming tourism industry depends on people feeling free to have fun and let loose. New Orlean’s tricentennial is this year. We are a pirate town and we are older than the United States of America. We need to honor our tradition of swimming against the current to provide a fun environment where people can be themselves, or whoever they choose to be. If they Disney the Industry, NONE of that money goes to anyone other than the politicians and Disney- an entity with a long history of labor abuses. I think we sell a much better fantasy.
Did you get any pushback from calling your January 31 event in which you hijacked the mayor’s speech in front of Rick’s Cabaret RICK’S ACAB?
Lyn Archer: My manager wrote to me at 10 PM to let me know about the mayor’s event. I wrote that post the next morning mostly in the hopes of making my friends spit their morning coffee out. It wasn’t until that protest, and the march the following night, that I’d laughed about anything other than irony in months. When it comes to city officials, amount of irony, hypocrisy, and cliche we’re dealing with is just “beyond the beyonds.” The willfully ignorant journalists, the blundering cops, club mgmt’s small-change feud with bureaucrats, the absentee slumlords, the polemical city council members, the deep-seated misogyny of those who position themselves as rescuers. I tell people that if someone ever made a film about these events that it would have to be half live-action, half cartoon, like Roger Rabbit. I’ve felt that my life has become a cartoon.
Lindsey: I would say the outcome of that protest was actually an outpouring of support from New Orleanians. And suddenly local and national media started portraying us in a more sympathetic light. As for pushback from the city, I’m sure it’s coming. We plan to push back harder. The mayor was supposed to be at that press conference, but he didn’t show up because he’s scared of a bunch of strippers.
Sable: Nothing like opening Bourbon Street when they’re shutting down clubs and putting hundreds if not thousands out of work. Everyone who showed up contributed to make it happen. Some brought massive red umbrella signs, extra sign making supplies, some called friends in the media, some brought their social circles, some brought their cameras, some brought just their voices. A particular genius brought a green van with a PA system and water bottles we sold (donations) as Stripper Tears with BARE’s contact info. To see girls who I’ve worked with within the last year, and also girls who I haven’t worked with in years show up and stand for their rights was moving, the sense of camaraderie was electrifying.
Civilians get away with more on the street outside the clubs flashing for beads.
BARE has a had a busy month. What have been up to and what’s next for you? Tell me about the Unemployment March.
Lyn Archer: Stripping is a skilled trade, like any other. It’s also special because it exists in the center of a cardinal cross of four labor sectors: service/hospitality, entertainment/performance, sex work, and creative freelance. That allows us to ally with workers in all these areas and help bring them together. When a city tries to pave us over, we stand in the road together. All of this harm is coming from an official who can’t define “prostitution” adequately, and use it interchangeably with “trafficking.” The ATC commissioner said at their press conference that the two are the same. When I first started working in New Orleans I was told that a stripper can be arrested for prostitution just for standing outside her club in her work attire, if she steps off the curb into the street. Not everyone at the march had an understanding of what sex work is. But everyone there was in the street together. Everyone who showed up is one “degree of separation” from a sex worker, or is one themselves.
Lindsey: The Unemployment March was organized by a combination of strip club staff and strippers who were displaced during those first raids, then grew exponentially after the second round of raids a week later. We marched last night [Febuary 1] up and down Bourbon Street in full view of tourists, but more importantly in front of the NOPD, ATC, and State Police who raided us. Unemployed workers dressed in red and marched beside their dependents dressed in white. Allies from all over the city shouted: “Let Them Dance.” I’m crying now just remembering it. The next step is storming the castle at the CPC hearing on Tuesday and hope they listen to us. Right now everyone is angry about the raids, and so are we, but we plan to keep working for strippers long after the dust settles on this nasty mess. We want health care access for entertainers, we want city officials to work with us instead of against us, and to work towards New Orleans being a place where sex work is decriminalized. We want to support and connect with organizations that focus on harm reduction and community healing. We want to see a club on Bourbon Street run by strippers!
Lyn Archer: The only points I’ve gotten any support on, when meeting with council members and civilian leaders is that everyone seems to like the idea of us owning and operating our own club. They keep suggesting that we form a “strippers union” and start our own cabaret, even as they try to enact policy that would make that as hard as possible for us. The zoning measures are so crucial because not only do they concern 1000s of workers now, but they hold the promise of a future where worker-owned clubs and an organized workforce are possible.
Speaking of, have any of the authorities offered resources to the strippers who have lost their jobs?
Lindsey: Of course not. There is something I keep repeating about job displacement. I have to put it very politely when talking to the civilian press and city officials, but here I’ll just say exactly what I mean: When a job gets pulled out from under a stripper a week before rent is due, and if they don’t have it covered, I really can’t think of any other option to get cash in hand that quickly than another kind of sex work. Which for some strippers, might be perfectly comfortable and they’ll do that happily. For some, they are being forced into more dangerous working conditions against their will. Not by a pimp, by the city and state. With all this cheap talk about sex trafficking and coercion and “vulnerable young girls,” THEY are the ones putting us in vulnerable situations.
Lyn Archer: The operating definition of “trafficking” is that vague “force-fraud-coercion” paradigm. Under that definition then the city and state and structure of our economy all “traffic” us.
All of this harm is coming from an official who can’t define ‘prostitution’ adequately, and uses it interchangeably with ‘trafficking.’
The police said they were looking for sex trafficking, correct? And they didn’t find any, correct? Has trafficking ever been a concern for dancers in the NOLA clubs? Do you think the average NOLA resident is worried about trafficking?
Lindsey: We are absolutely concerned for any stripper who might be forced or coerced to do sex work. The truth is we just don’t see a lot of cases like this in the clubs. We see it more on the streets of the French Quarter. We are absolutely not saying that it never happens, but we want to work WITH the city to help these people when we see them. An undercover officer is never going to be able to tell if a girl has a pimp, but a stripper who’s paying attention can.
An article actually came out today, and I think its made me the most angry out of anything that’s happening. Back in September 2017, a club manager sent a full, official report to the ATC (Alcohol and Tobacco Control) saying that he fired a security guard at his club because he believed him to be a pimp to some of the dancers in that club, and to dancers at other clubs on Bourbon. The report included the alleged pimp’s full name and address. The ATC never sent that report to the NOPD. Nothing was done. They never even responded to the report. Which means those girls might still be working for him. A couple months later, the ATC starts going undercover into clubs under the facade of looking for sex trafficking victims without ever doing anything about the ones they were already alerted to.
Lyn Archer: Part of the clubs’ suspension terms this time and in 2015 was to sign “consent agreements” with the ATC to report any illegal activity. So the local media is painting this revelation of “finding” this one pimp as a justification for more raids. This information was self-reported, wasn’t discovered or acted upon by law enforcement, and led to no arrests of violent men and no “rescues” of “vulnerable young girls.” Only two “trafficking victims” have been found in the last 18 months at NOPD: one self-reported and one was called in from a suspicious Backpage ad.
How was the stripper community in NOLA able to mobilize so quickly? I know it’s been said that you saw this coming—had you been preparing for a long time?
Sable: Part of the ability to mobilize is that on one block entertainers of all types have the opportunity to work at different venues of their choice. I’ve personally worked at six of the clubs and made friends at all of them. We all go drinking after work. We see each other.
Lindsey: Before the raids happened, we’d been working at a steady pace leading up to the zoning hearing next week. We’ve been meeting with city council members, civil rights attorneys, public health officials, etc. When we heard they were raiding clubs, that pace went from a steady jog in one direction to a frantic sprint in every direction, where sometimes we stop to sleep. We already had resources in place to take action, we just didn’t think we’d need them quite like this.
Lyn Archer: Because so many cities’ strip clubs have suffered at the hands of [Scott] Bergthold, whose firm is licensed to practice in three states but can come into any state “pro hoc,” to consult on behalf of a city or county to litigate against adult businesses. Strippers everywhere have their eyes on us because they’ve been harmed by his practices where they live. New Orleans is also a work-travel destination for many strippers: we are a mobile labor force and we watch out for each other regardless of place. “Trafficking” charges are often leveraged upon sex workers traveling together to work. Haters hate that we are free, hate that we make our own money, hate that we protect each other. They hate it so much they write laws and books that detail tactics to interfere with our independence. So we are “rewriting the book.” Let’s gather so much resilience that nobody can ever again build their career or reputation off of destroying ours. Civilians may not have thought they’d have anything in common with sex workers until the “me too movement” revealed that all service, entertainment, and freelance workers experience discrimination and harassment inside the workplace regardless of how their work is valued outside the workplace. Any stripper can tell you that “calling out shitty men” at work is not enough to protect us. Creating the conditions where truly resilient workplaces can thrive—based on accountability, transparency, responsibility for ourselves and our colleagues—that’s our focus.
How helpful have club owners been on behalf of your organizing?
Lindsey: Club owners level of helpfulness has ranged from some who attend almost all of our meetings and match our charitable donations, to ones who won’t speak to us at all or let us put flyers in their dressing rooms. Many of the owners settled out of court this week. They accepted minor fines and continuation of their liquor license suspensions through Mardi Gras. The total amount of fines collected from the clubs is $28,600. I’m not exaggerating when I say one dancer could have made that amount working in a club with a liquor license during Mardi Gras. We definitely feel thrown under the bus. But at the end of the day, we’re a stripper advocacy group, so we are standing by every dancer in every club with or without help from management.
What advice can you offer to dancers in other cities organizing against state-sanctioned strip club closures?
Lindsey: Its hard to confidently give advice, because who knows if anything we’ve been doing has made a difference. It’s worth a shot, though. Start having meetings, organize a group of strippers, start trying to talk to powerful people. Talk to the ones who are with you, but especially talk to the ones who are against you. Look into your state’s lewd conduct laws and start following them. When they want to bring the hammer down, they’ll use every tactic at their disposal, so start thinking about what you as workers have at your disposal. Beware of a man called Scott Bergthold. He’s swiftly and effectively shut down adult businesses around the country using laws that are already on the books. He’s here in New Orleans now. Our mayor is paying him a $15,000 retainer.
Sable: I like that they use our stripper taxes that we pay to retain attorneys and use police resources to shut us down.
Lyn Archer: Any one of us would have gladly donated that amount of money from our Mardi Gras season’s worth of work to see him gone for good. He’s written a book on how to shut down adult businesses around the country and that’s all his firm does. It’s a blueprint; New Orleans’ “Adult Live Performance Venues Study” compares several cities that have enacted zoning laws likely straight out of that book.