Get Informed

Subscribe to our newsletters for regular updates, analysis and context straight to your email.

Close Newsletter Signup

Louisiana Strip Club Dancers Fear More Crackdowns as ‘Anti-Trafficking’ Law Goes Into Effect

A ban on dancers under 21 raises questions on the growing role of the state's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control in policing clubs.

Dancers and supporters rally at the Louisiana Statehouse
Lyn Archer

Louisiana Strip Club Dancers Fear More Crackdowns as ‘Anti-Trafficking’ Law Goes Into Effect

A ban on dancers under 21 raises questions on the growing role of the state's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control in policing clubs.


In Louisiana, a hotly contested law went into effect this month: Strip clubs that serve alcohol may no longer employ women ages 18, 19, or 20 as erotic dancers.

The age ban, passed in 2016, was sold as an anti-trafficking effort, but it was immediately challenged as unnecessary and unjust by three women, on the grounds that it violated their constitutional rights. In court filings, the women said the ban would not only cause dancers like them to lose a source of income, but they would also be cut off from legal venues for sex work, ones where they said they felt safer.

Though the age ban is only now going into effect, the crackdown on dancers in New Orleans started much earlier. In response to what the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control (ATC) described as complaints about “possible human trafficking” in the French Quarter, the agency joined the New Orleans Police Department to raid eight strip clubs there in January, and raided another three in New Orleans East in August. The agency has variously described these raids as investigations into drug trafficking, sex trafficking, and prostitution.

While the agency has offered no evidence of human trafficking, the raids have clearly brought harm to dancers: The January raids put hundreds out of work until the clubs could regain their liquor licenses. Two of the raided clubs have shuttered permanently.

“What is happening is almost exactly as I predicted it,” said Lyn Archer, a dancer and organizer in New Orleans. ATC is taking a leading role in policing strip clubs, and Archer sees their enforcement methods as proof the agency wants more clubs to close and more dancers out of work. “They know that we don’t believe our work should be a crime, and they do believe that it should be,” Archer told The Appeal. “They believe punishment is a deterrent.”

ATC and trafficking

The dancer age ban was backed by politically influential anti-human trafficking advocates, who said such a law was needed to protect women. Madeleine Landrieu, dean of the Loyola University law school and sister of former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, was a driving force behind the law, as was the New Orleans branch of Covenant House, a homeless-youth services provider that co-leads a Department of Justice-funded anti-trafficking task force. Landrieu claimed to The Appeal in January that strip clubs are “a gateway or a pathway [to trafficking] for women.”

Yet, ATC has not announced any instances of trafficking it unearthed as a result of the raids, “The investigations are currently ongoing,” said Michelle Burks-Augustine, a spokesperson for the agency.

The sense of paranoia caused by the raids, dancers say, has now become a fear that any customer could be working undercover for law enforcement.

Months after the raids, dancers are now competing for fewer jobs at the remaining clubs. The clubs that managed to reopen after being raided had to agree to contract “secret shoppers” to monitor dancers’ work and report violations to ATC. The sense of paranoia caused by the raids, dancers say, has now become a fear that any customer could be working undercover for law enforcement. “I find myself watching my responses very carefully,” said Devin, a New Orleans-based dancer. “I’m always worried it’s going to cost me my job.”

Devin and other dancers say ATC’s approach to enforcement is punishing them for alleged human trafficking the agency has yet to find. In August, ATC noted that it was suspending one club’s liquor license for alleged violations related to dancers’ performances—as documented by undercover investigators—but also for failing to put up a human trafficking hotline poster. All adult businesses in the state are required to do so by law (along with every hotel, gas station adjacent to a highway, and “outpatient abortion facility”).

To restore their liquor licenses, two clubs were required by ATC to train all staff on identifying human trafficking. “I think by forcing that human trafficking training, it allows the girls to know when they’re being victimized and when they’re not,” ATC Commissioner Juana Marine-Lombard said at the time, adding that the agency would continue to investigate whether the dancers were trafficked.

Though ATC has taken a significant role in the state’s anti-trafficking enforcement fight, the agency has shown limited understanding of the issue.

Devin said such efforts were counterproductive. “It doesn’t make any sense, because it’s not helping,” she said. Not only have the raids targeted dancers, she told The Appeal, it’s not clear if or how they have helped people who may have been trafficked. “They have no proof that what they are doing is working.”

Though ATC has taken a significant role in the state’s anti-trafficking enforcement fight, the agency has shown limited understanding of the issue.

“Prostitution in and of itself is sex trafficking,” ATC Commissioner Marine-Lombard said at a press conference on the January strip clubs raids. (At the same press conference, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Michael Harrison quickly added he doesn’t share that belief.)

On the webpage for ATC’s Human Trafficking Task Force, the agency asserts that “nearly 300,000 U.S. children are at risk of being trafficked,” which the Washington Post Fact Checker deemed a “bogus claim.” The page also states that the “average age of entrance into human trafficking is 12-14 years for girls,” a claim the Post has also debunked. The anti-trafficking organization Polaris, which operates the human trafficking hotline that ATC requires strip clubs to advertise, also says that claim has no basis.

Tensions flare

ATC says it works collaboratively with local and state police to fight trafficking. But the agency appears to have little interest in working with dancers, dancers say, or even hearing their concerns. At a meeting that Archer requested after ATC’s August raids, she and other dancers offered ATC Deputy Commissioner Ernest Legier alternatives to raids that would be less harmful to dancers and less disruptive to the club. They asked why ATC raided only at night, for instance, and why it was necessary to read dancers’ identification aloud publicly in the club with customers present during raids. Could the ATC make visits during the day? Could ATC agents instead ask for dancers’ employment records, held in the club offices, to confirm dancers’ identities?

Legier said the agency was duty-bound to enforce the law, according to several people at the meeting. And after a few minutes, he abruptly left.

The spaces to do other forms of sex work safely are being removed from us.Devin, New Orleans-based dancer

In correspondence to Archer provided to The Appeal, Legier later explained his actions. “I ended the meeting because it did not seem to be productive and some of your demands are not reasonable in light of the circumstances,” he wrote. “However, I relayed your concerns to the Commissioner and she would like more information on the ‘HARM REDUCTION APPROACH’ you proposed.”

Archer responded with a detailed list of questions about ATC’s raids, including, “How are officers trained to respond when they encounter a trafficked person?” After two months, when dancers had yet to hear from ATC again, Archer emailed Legier. He responded with a statement he said Commissioner Marine-Lombard asked him to forward, reiterating that ATC would continue to “surveil” the clubs, which owners had agreed to after ATC suspended their licenses. And Marine-Lombard concluded, without answering their questions, “I welcome an open and HONEST dialogue with respect to this issue. Your membership can play a very important role in assisting ATC’s effort to stop sex and drug trafficking.”

Legier told The Appeal that he ended the meeting when “it became clear” that the dancers present “would not admit proven allegations of illegal acts occurring on premises and criticized the agency’s approach to enforcing these violations.” He said he ultimately apologized, and that Marine-Lombard offered them a future meeting.

As to dancers’ concerns that the raids endanger them, he said, “The agency has an obligation to enforce the laws placed on the books by the governing authorities. Any citizen has the right to pursue changes by working with legislative representatives.”

But so long as ATC surveillance and raids continue, dancers say they create a riskier environment for those who had once relied on the clubs for work and now look to other kinds of sex work to survive. After the passage of SESTA/FOSTA in April, federal legislation targeting online sex work ads, “the spaces to do other forms of sex work safely are being removed from us,” Devin said. When there’s a raid on a club and it closes, she added, “it’s just moving people out onto the streets. It’s literally all that it’s doing.”