Support Independent Journalism. Donate today!

Trafficking In Vagaries: How A Times Picayune Series That Found Only “trafficking opportunity” In Strip Clubs Paved The Way For A Bourbon Street Crackdown

A proposal to curb strip clubs on Bourbon Street was introduced last Thursday by a New Orleans city council member, “citing recent reports from | The Times-Picayune on unfettered sex trafficking at the adult venues.” Just a few days after the paper’s first story appeared, Mayor Mitch Landrieu had already hired an attorney to investigate the clubs. It’s not surprising that a […]

“Bourbon Street wakes up at dusk,” CC BY-SA 2.0Lars Plougmann via Wikimedia Commons

A proposal to curb strip clubs on Bourbon Street was introduced last Thursday by a New Orleans city council member, “citing recent reports from | The Times-Picayune on unfettered sex trafficking at the adult venues.” Just a few days after the paper’s first story appeared, Mayor Mitch Landrieu had already hired an attorney to investigate the clubs.

It’s not surprising that a city council member, Stacy Head, wants to limit and eliminate strip clubs through attrition, nor that Mayor Landrieu has directed Scott Bergthold, an attorney who once led a Christian law firm working to oppose LGBT rights, and with a history of working to shut down adult businesses (fighting “the tangible effects of the moral decay which local governments are quick to recognize,” as he told Christianity Today in 1999) to review city policy and criminal law pertaining to strip clubs, under the banner of fighting trafficking — not after the three-part series that ran in their city’s paper, the Times-PicayuneMedia reports of trafficking play a significant role shaping public policy and criminal law; this Times-Picayune series is already no exception. However, the evidence of “unfettered” trafficking in the clubs offered by the paper is thin, and the solutions offered so far could compromise the jobs and safety of the women working on Bourbon Street.

“The French Quarter’s most famous street is a hub for sex trafficking in the city, | The Times-Picayune found in a year-long investigation,” the paper’s editorial board wrote the Sunday after the city council announced a hearing on the strip clubs, in an op-ed titled “New Orleans must stop looking the other way while sex trafficking flourishes.” But the paper’s series referred interchangeably to stripping, selling sex, and trafficking, and concluded, vaguely and without data to support it, that victim advocates and law enforcement told them that French Quarter strip clubs were a “trafficking opportunity.”

This phrase — “trafficking opportunity” — has no meaning. Any business in which labor exploitation is possible (which is a lot of businesses) could likewise be described as a “trafficking opportunity.” The shakiness of this phrase might also explain why the Times-Picayune called the series, “The Track: How sex trafficking has taken hold of Bourbon Street” — even if the series lead reporter, Kevin Litten, conceded, “there has been no evidence that clubs knowingly employed dancers who were victims of human trafficking.” Instead, after a year-long investigation that involved Times-Picayune reporters conducting “14 visits to 10 strip clubs during the past 12 months,” reporters observed not trafficking but what they allege are violations of regulations barring contact between dancers and customers.

“On a visit to Hustler Club in July,” reporter Kevin Litten writes, “a young woman visiting the club was invited onto the main stage with a dancer and the dancer pulled the woman’s top down, exposing her breasts.” But without further reporting, there is no basis by which to claim this act is trafficking, or even a “trafficking opportunity.” This is likely not news to law enforcement; two Louisiana Alcohol & Tobacco Control investigators filed a report in October 2015 saying they observed a uniformed New Orleans Police Department sergeant “flirting and touching” a dancer at a Bourbon Street club. The Times-Picayune cites this incident, but as evidence of what ATC knew about the clubs, not what an NOPD sergeant — who, according to the ATC investigators, club staff said comes to the club “every time he is on shift” — allegedly does in the clubs, in apparent violation of the law.

A crash course for readers and reporters alike: trafficking, as defined by both Federal and Louisiana state law, entails the use of “force, fraud, or coercion” to compel an individual to engage in labor, including sexual labor. The exception to this is when an individual is under the age of 18, in which case there is no burden to prove force, fraud, or coercion. In the state of Louisiana, since August 1, 2016, that age was increased to 21. Anyone in the state who engages in “commercial sexual activity” under the age of 21 is regarded as a victim of trafficking.

In one year of reporting, the Times-Picayune reporters did not themselves document trafficking inside the Bourbon Street clubs. What they did was interview one woman they describe as trafficked, and cite two past cases: a Federal trafficking case involving women forced to sell sex on Bourbon Street, but not in the clubs; and a high-profile murder case that ended with second-degree murder charges, and in which there were allegations that the victim had been trafficked, after working in Bourbon Street clubs.

The series lead reporter, Litten, has since said he interviewed just “six current or former dancers” for this investigation (“I think that number’s right — I may be forgetting someone because I’ve been working on this for a year.”). He also had plans to interview three people who he described as trafficked, he told a Reddit AMA, but only was able to interview one. All three “returned to the life,” as he put it, but he didn’t specify what that meant: were they trading sex for money, or working in the clubs? Were they trafficked again? “I never spoke to victims while they were being trafficked,” he also told the same AMA. “That’s really law enforcement’s job and service providers like Covenant House.” One could argue, in reporting a story allegedly on trafficking, it is also a job for a reporter.

Via email, I asked Litten if he had interviewed the people he thought were again involved in trafficking, and if not, why not. His editor, Carolyn Fox, responded, “Your tone is unprofessional and your questions are leading, which make me question your legitimacy, and if you are trying to write a fair and balance [sic] article.” Litten did not offer a response.

So the Times-Picayune did speak with one person described as trafficked. She is not quoted describing herself as trafficked, but their story says she “said her pimp forced her to dance in clubs, but only made her have sex with customers when she was at home with him.” The woman also told the lead reporter — in his words — “the work at the club felt like an escape from her pimp, who was regularly physically abusive.” As she put it, he writes, “I didn’t feel like it was as bad because I was performing and I had to perform with little to no clothes on but I didn’t have to have sex with people for money.”

But where are the traffickers in the strip clubs, the traffickers that led to the city council crackdown? The Times-Picayune series includes two men described as pimps who were charged with multiple trafficking offenses under Federal law. According to court sentencing documents, Granville Robinson of Memphis pled guilty to one count of “Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud or Coercion” and one count of “Sex Trafficking by Force, Fraud, or Coercion” in February 2016, and was sentenced to 294 months in Federal prison.

For ten years after his release, Robinson is forbidden to “possess or use for any purpose, a computer, or television, or other instruments of communication equipped with on-line, Internet or World Wide Web access, or access computers or other forms of wireless communication via third parties,” and he must also register as a sex offender.

Likewise according to sentencing documents, Christopher Williams, also of Memphis, pled guilty to one count of “Conspiracy to Commit Sex Trafficking,” for which he was sentenced to 180 months in Federal prison, and given the same ten years supervision and same prohibitions as Robinson, but additionally, Williams was forbidden to possess pornography, or enter any adult entertainment venue.

Those two cases related by the Times-Picayune did not involve trafficking in the strip clubs; instead, according to the series, the men demanded the women working for them walk the streets nearby. Some strip club management and service staff also reported to the Times-Picayune that pimps would enter the clubs sometimes, but that workers knew who they were, and they were frequently kicked out. As they write, a bouncer told reporters when asked how he knew certain people were pimps, “It was pretty obvious when they say, ‘I’m a pimp.’”

Buried in a story that continuously alleges there is poor enforcement in the clubs which leaves them open to pimps and traffickers, are three other stories:

  • first, of club workers and management telling reporters they kick men they think are pimps out of the strip clubs,
  • then, a story of two men who, as the Times-Picayune reporting states, are collectively serving 39 1/2 years in prison for trafficking outside the strip clubs, and
  • last, a story of one woman reporters describe as a trafficking victim, who reporters write was both forced to dance in clubs and, as they put it, who felt the clubs were “like an escape from her pimp”

The first two stories are examples of how strip clubs do in practice remove people they believe could exploit the women who work there, and of how police and Federal prosecutors enforce anti-trafficking laws around Bourbon Street. Yet in a nearly 12,000 word series on trafficking, the third story — the only story that is actually about potential trafficking in a strip club — occupies only 244 words.

The Times-Picayune reporting team did find her, the one person who they say was trafficked in Bourbon Street strip clubs.

Her story deserves more attention. She doesn’t get it.

Instead, Litten, the lead reporter on the investigation, concludes partway through the series, despite evidence to the contrary in his own reporting: “[W]hat you have now on Bourbon Street: a bull market for sex traffickers.”

This kind of investigative series, purportedly revealing previously unknown, widespread and systematically ignored incidences of human trafficking, is not unique to New Orleans. Similar sensational exposes have driven demand for crackdowns for more than a century in the United States, going back to the days of legal red light districts and the “white slave” panic.

In the journalism of that time, as today, media accounts of alleged trafficking are how the crime of trafficking is defined. But if city governments and law enforcement begin and end their inquiry into trafficking with such imprecise reporting, ignoring the people who should be at the center of these stories, the law will only reinforce these vagaries.