Obscene Overreach: An adversarial response to local and national anti-sex-worker initiatives


In March of 2018, New Orleans’ tricentennial year, a group of strippers and our allies were able to overturn by a single vote a zoning ordinance meant to thin and cap the number of “Adult Live Performance Venues” (strip clubs) in the seven-block pedestrian area of Bourbon Street. This was one day after the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA/SESTA) was passed by the Senate. Every narrow local victory is inevitably chased by the kind of overly broad threats whose consequences take years to comprehend.

In 2015, the Department of Justice awarded a $900,000 grant to the Greater New Orleans Anti-Trafficking Task Force, the primary beneficiaries of which are the New Orleans chapter of the catholic youth shelter Covenant House, and a multi-badge vice squad led by the Louisiana ATC. The two organizations first collaborative move was to lead a series of strip club raids called “Operation Trick or Treat” against Bourbon Street strip clubs.

In 2016, Mayor Mitch Landrieu contracted attorney Scott Bergthold, of adultbusinesslaw.com, a law firm backed by anti-LGBTQI+ groups. The firm’s sole purpose is to shut down strip clubs and adult bookstores around the country by playing up what it claims are the “secondary negative effects” of strip clubs: crime, drugs, prostitution and trafficking. Bergthold was paid $15,000 to ghostwrite the New Orleans City Planning Commission’s 94-page study on “Adult Live Performance Venues.” Simultaneously, he litigated in defense of the Attorney General against three Jane Doe plaintiffs who lost their jobs when the recent 18-20 year old “stripper age ban” came into effect, overturning a federal injunction that declared the ban unconstitutional. The age ban includes a revival of regulations on what women must wear while performing as strippers, as well as prohibiting topless dancing, touching one’s own body, and other forms of “lewd conduct” and “obscenity” not unlike the online measures against adult content such as “female presenting nipples” that have led to the closure of sex workers’ online accounts and websites.

In the fall of 2017, the Times-Picayune ran a 10,000 word, three-part, disgustingly sensationalist series about the purported sex trafficking crisis in New Orleans, which notably included no input whatsoever by sex workers. The piece opened with the bogus line: “pimps and traffickers have a name for the place where sex for sale goes on display: The Track.” We braced collectively for another series of raids – the predictable results of the feedback loop between the local media, city officials and law enforcement. The ATC and NOPD raided eight clubs in two weeks, shuttering half of them and suspending the liquor licenses of the remaining. Since then, we have endured the constant presence of undercover agents and plainclothes “mystery shoppers.”

This December, the city council members from District C and E (The Vieux Carre and New Orleans East, where the majority of strip clubs are zoned) introduced another ordinance, making it easier to shut down Alcohol Beverage Outlets (bars, clubs, venues, liquor stores) by ceding automatic power to the state to revoke their licenses, based on provisions on “lewd conduct” and “moral turpitude.” The ordinance allows a group of only five neighbors to petition to close a club by declaring it a “nuisance,” but requires 60 -75% of neighbors to petition to keep it afloat. It includes mandatory surveillance cameras, indoors and out, and prohibits “consorting with prostitutes,” or placing benches outside adult venues.

At the same time we were struggling against the ordinances and associated “anti-trafficking” raids here in New Orleans, an entire swath of us had our online resources taken away as a result of FOSTA/SESTA – a digital siege that led advertising platforms, bad date lists, and sex worker led forums to close one after another, just like the strip clubs. The same downward, separating pressure put on these websites is also placed on us by the local ABO regulations and state-level “anti-trafficking” laws, to separate workers within a workplace, as well as to dismember brick-and-mortar clubs all along Bourbon Street. By pressuring owners and management to hire plainclothes “mystery shoppers,” wire into an opaque, “cloud-based” city surveillance system, collude with multi-badge vice squads, paper the dressing room and pad our contracts with anti-trafficking propaganda (1-800-DHS-2-ICE, mandatory powerpoint training from “Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking”) – owners, managers and coworkers are deputized by the city, forced to choose between surveilling and criminalizing their workers or facing the same punishment themselves.

We take an adversarial stance as a response to this set of coordinated threats against us through the misuse of anti-trafficking funds and rhetoric. We believe firmly that the only way to end human trafficking is to decriminalize sex work, abolish the prison system, open all national borders, and put an end to wealth-hoarding.

Rather than arguing the merits versus dangers of sex work, or getting lost in a debate as to whether or when the work “should” be a “crime” or not, we argue that any laws that cause more violence to enforce than the original “crime” must be obliterated. The codified maltreatment of sex workers becomes a pretext to harm anyone whose gender, sexuality, or body is considered suspect by the state and by society. Rights and respect for sex workers lead to the same for anyone.

 


 

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