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New Orleans has had a continually shifting relationship to sex workers and the spaces in which they are able to exist. The city has had many red light districts in its year history, many blooming briefly and on streets that no longer exist.
Just across Basin Street from the French Quarter, the district officially opened innamed for a city legislator, Sidney Story, who saw it as a way to segregate sex work from the rest of the city. Nor were they free from civic harassment—a group of Black women were forced to fight in court for the right to live in the district alongside whites, winning their appeal under the 14th Amendment in Why should anyone be permitted by law to engage in any business, and receive the guarantee of the city authorities to conduct such business, if the city can at any time utterly destroy the business which it has, in effect, agreed to foster?
After the end of World War I, prostitution remained illegal, but attitudes around much of urban America became more permissive toward erotic performance on stage. And beginning inProhibition-era speakeasies, already breaking the law by serving alcohol, were often tolerant of nude stage dancing. Theaters, needing to keep audiences entertained and pay the bills without serving booze, likewise became more permissive toward nudity in variety shows. Women in burlesque shows, however, would often strip to nearly nude.
By the s, striptease had generally become the dominant element in burlesque, overshadowing music and comedy. It quickly won concessions from major theaters, including minimum pay and limited rehearsal hours. Her performance was ultimately ruled obscene. Decades later, burlesque would come to be thought of as an old-fashioned form of erotic performance, lending it a sense of legitimacy-via-nostalgia.
However, popular opinion of the s viewed burlesque as highly risque, to say the least.Couple Having A Great Time in New Orleans on New Years Eve
The federal government largely abandoned its support of the union through the New Deal system of industry labor standards, leading theater owners to demand more hours from performers and add more striptease to every show. In the s, burlesque, vaudeville, nightclub, and circus performers were increasingly represented by a new union: the American Guild of Variety Artists AGVAformed in The complaint, coming from a union in such a permissive field, was, a States editorial lamented, an embarrassment to the city:.
Its members are not ordinarily squeamish about risque and daring capers in entertainment, whether in movies, nightclubs, theaters or on the air… and if things in New Orleans have become too disreputable, sinful and dissolute for AGVA to stomach without protest, then indeed they must be beyond the pale. Byclub owners, the union, and police, whose attention had reportedly been drawn by the AGVA complaint, had come to an agreement.
Yet the practice has for decades often been expected of women working in New Orleans bars and clubs, according to a study by anthropologist Angela Demovic. That has sometimes given police a ready excuse to shut venues and arrest women strippers or bartenders for getting too friendly with customers. The woman was later found not guilty of his murder. The incident, naturally seen as a threat to city tourism, led to increased scrutiny of B-drinking practices. Newspapers that year highlighted other instances of alleged drugging by B-girls, though many claims seemed outlandish.
Bourbon nightlife as a whole, in its perceived excess, began to draw the ire of civic leaders like Mary Morrison, active in French Quarter preservation groups and sister-in-law of Mayor deLesseps Story Morrison, a distant relative of Storyville namesake Sidney Story.
ByAGVA announced plans to picket nonunion Bourbon Street clubs: union rep Lee Mason lamented that some of those venues employed waitresses who doubled as strippers, earning less than union wage. A year later, New Orleans newspapers would run titillating testimony from an undercover investigator sent to observe vice in the French Quarter. His observations included nightclubs selling porn and sex toys, widespread gambling, police demanding drinks and nude stage dances, and numerous s of B-drinking.
When she complained, the owners claimed the police would take their side and arrest her.
Newspapers from the s seem to show a city divided over erotic performance—s of Bourbon Street B-drinking arrests and vice investigations sometimes ran just s away from for the same nightclubs. Arresting dozens on obscenity charges, law enforcement again sent owners and erotic entertainers to court to defend what they had believed were legal establishments.
The court found the law was too vague for anyone to know what kind of performance was legal. InAGVA also had some legal success on behalf of its members when it succeeded in overturning an ordinance requiring workers in bars coming under legal challenge to be fingerprinted. But the union itself would come under increased scrutiny in the s, both in New Orleans and around the country. The protests drew coverage from around the country, with reporters again captivated by the idea of strippers picketing, but AGVA would soon find itself receiving nationwide attention for another reason.
In Senate hearings instrippers from Chicago, Baltimore, and elsewhere testified that they were required to serve as B-girls, and sometimes prostitutes, by club owners, while union leaders turned a blind eye. She organized prominent bowling leagues and softball teams, capitalizing on the perennial public curiosity about strippers living ordinary lives outside their clubs.
In one instance, she organized a stripper protest in decidedly unsexy garb. AGVA, perhaps stymied by its national image problem, also largely failed to halt an early s New Orleans vice crackdown, led by crusading District Attorney Jim Garrison, later known for his outlandish investigation into John F. But while Garrison sometimes told newspapers he simply sought to enforce the law, his aim appeared to be remaking Bourbon Street without any strip clubs.
Even clubs that attempted to operate lawfully faced crackdowns. Altogether, the raids shut down about two dozen clubs between andCampanella writes. By Junethe States-Item the papers had merged in and would be absorbed into the Times-Picayune come reported that of 17 strip clubs existing a year prior, only two retained that format.
Others had dropped entertainment entirely, focusing on cheap drinks, and six had agreed to limit themselves to a single stripper. The less restrictive state law on the subject was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court in And bywith Garrison out of office, strippers were again openly mingling with customers despite the state law still on the books, according to a lengthy Times-Picayune article on the Bourbon strip club scene.
And as in many other fields, union representation has essentially disappeared, though notably, a San Francisco peep show called the Lusty Lady unionized in as a response to adverse working conditions. It was later acquired by its strippers, though it ultimately closed in after losing its long-term lease. Strippers are generally now classified as independent contractors, similar to Uber drivers or freelance writers and photographers, meaning a degree of flexibility in hours but not the benefits and safeguards of formal employment.
Recently in New Orleans, strippers have mobilized to fight restrictions on their industry. Ina lengthy City Planning Commission report recommended curbing the of strip clubs in the entertainment district centered on Bourbon Street, potentially cutting the from 14 to as few as seven. The move came after urging by activists, including Covenant House executive director James Kelly, who expressed concern about sex trafficking, prostitution, and drugs in the venues.
The City Council at first imposed a temporary moratorium on opening new strip clubs while considering the recommendations and ultimately proposed a zoning ordinance that would cap the of clubs at Strippers and others working in the venues campaigned strenuously against the proposal as well as other ultimately rejected plans to limit the of clubs per block.
Then, in January, with the proposed limits still under consideration, eight clubs were raided by police and state Alcohol and Tobacco Control officials and shuttered on charges related to drugs, prostitution, and lewd acts, following a controversial Times-Picayune series linking the venues to prostitution and sex trafficking. Strippers, sex workers, service industry workers, and various allies organized in part through the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers BAREtook to the streets, circulated an online petition and headed to City Council meetings to protest the raids and proposed limits, garnering national attention and media sympathy.
Many, though not all, of the closed clubs have ultimately reopened under agreements with authorities, and the strip club cap was defeated by a vote in the City Council. Though with a new mayor and City Council soon to take office, the future is uncertain. Those in the industry say despite the names, the laws have as much of an impact on voluntary sex workers as sex traffickers. And, they say, the struggle is not over. Lyn Archer contributed to this piece.
By Steven Melendez MaySex in side New Orleans
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