Sex Work Panic Is Squashing the Mardi Gras Spirit

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is known as a time of pure indulgence. Chasing down floats for beads, drinking until you puke, dancing your ass off, and flashing your tits are pretty much expected. So why, at a time when the rest of the community is partying in the streets, are there strippers marching through the French Quarter in protest?

Every year, Carnival brings in plenty of business for the tourist industries, with the French Quarter being at the heart of it all. For many businesses in the area, this is their most profitable season of the year. This is true especially for strip clubs which cater to the wild spirit folks have come to expect from Mardi Gras. Drunk tourists flood in from all over the world, throwing money at these hard-working girls who willingly provide them entertainment. This Carnival season, however, many sex workers aren’t celebrating a much-needed boost in income. Rather they are out of work altogether thanks to crackdowns from the state.

To understand why police are raiding strip clubs and shutting them down, we have to look at who is behind it all. In New Orleans, the notoriously racist Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office is part of a joint task force on human trafficking that includes a partnership with the private Catholic group, Covenant House. While they are supposed to be focused exclusively on combating sex trafficking, a combination of misguided religious beliefs has led Covenant House to see all sex workers as victims of coercion, even if they claim that the decision was completely their own choice. Partner this flawed worldview with the fact that the task force’s Department of Justice budget is determined by how many “victims” they help, and thus begins their successful campaign to legally classify all strippers under the age of 20 as victims, claiming strip clubs are a gateway to sex trafficking. This campaign has allowed Covenant House to switch their mission from combating sex trafficking to the much easier and much less useful task of trying to convince strippers to leave their jobs.

Fast forward to this Mardi Gras season and Covenant House is helping to call in raids on strip clubs who break the rules even slightly. Under New Orleans law, performers can only legally perform on stages that are 18 inches above the ground. The purpose of such a law is unclear and has led to some clubs getting in legal trouble for being even an inch or less off. Even more absurdly New Orleans law also states that strippers cannot touch their own breasts or asses. In order to catch violators of this law, police send undercover officers to secretly film and photograph performers without their consent and then use these as evidence for shutting down the club. Many of these raids are supposedly in response to reports of illegal touching by customers, drug use, and/or prostitution, however aside from the fact that many of these are victimless crimes that do not need to be criminalized in the first place, it is unclear what any of that has to do with sex trafficking or how putting women out of a job helps improve their situation. Instead, when no evidence of sex trafficking is found, clubs are cited for other violations and shut down until they pay a fine to reopen. It is purely a money-making scheme.

This conflation of consensual sex work with forced sex trafficking ends up harming both sex workers and trafficking victims. It hurts sex workers by stigmatizing or even criminalizing their jobs, making their industries less safe and making it harder to report harmful activities happening within those environments. And it hurts trafficking victims by taking away much-needed resources and diverting efforts away from actual victims. The biggest factor that leads women into situations where they are more vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking is poverty. Taking away legal workplaces, where women can more safely make money and stay out of poverty, only makes them more vulnerable to the very thing Covenant House is claiming to fight against. Sure drugs and prostitution are staples of the strip club circuit, but having a legal cover and a safer space to operate makes people involved in these industries much less likely to become victims of coercion and harm. If Covenant House truly wishes to help survivors of sex trafficking, they should focus on operating their shelter instead of aiding police sting operations against strip clubs.

At the end of the day, punishing working women does nothing to improve their situations.  It just puts them out of work during the busiest season of the year, thus forcing them to lose out on extremely valuable economic opportunities. March on, sisters! Maybe if you yell hard enough, they’ll throw you more than just beads this Mardi Gras.

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