HEELS ON THE GROUND: FOUR GENERATIONS OF SEX WORK ORGANIZING AND ACTIVISM


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 300-year history, many blooming briefly and on streets that no longer exist. Yet one district’s name serves as shorthand for all the rest: Storyville. Just across Basin Street from the French Quarter, the district officially opened in 1897, named for a city legislator, Sidney Story, who saw it as a way to segregate sex work from the rest of the city. Storyville wasn’t a paradise: surviving photographs make it clear many of the women there were far from wealthy, and they were working in an era before modern birth control or antibiotics. 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 1917. Less is recorded about an adjacent red light district across Canal Street, sometimes called “Black Storyville” or “Uptown Storyville” serving a majority African-American clientele.

Guidebooks to Storyville, known as “blue books,” featured brothel listings alongside ads for mainstream beverages, from Budweiser to Moët & Chandon, and for professionals like lawyers, jewelers, and pharmacists, as well as listing brothel workers by race. While sex work in Storyville was permitted, it was still stigmatized: a States report described one woman who got a factory job to “escape ‘the life’” but was effectively forced to return to the sex industry and sequestered district after her coworkers learned of her past.

After the country entered World War I, military authorities demanded that red light districts around the country be shuttered to “promote the health” of young recruits. Leaving Storyville open, Secretary of War Newton Baker wrote to Louisiana officials, would subject impressionable sailors and soldiers to a “vicious and demoralizing environment.” If the district weren’t closed, Baker wrote, he’d pull lucrative military operations out of the city entirely.

City officials reluctantly repealed the Storyville ordinance effective November 1917, and madam Gertrude Dix soon brought suit to keep the district open, “probably as the representative of all the other women interested financially,” as the New Orleans Item put it.

“If a city legalizes any line of business by enactment of law, and furnishes police protection for the same, it is certainly not justice that the same city should, overnight, destroy the business it has helped to create and which it tolerates by its own ordinances,” Dix’s lawyer Armand Romain told the Item. “It is not a question of retaining women in a life of vice, but one involving property rights to the extent of hundreds of thousands of dollars. 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?”

Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection, Gift of Mr. John Churchill Chase and Mr. John W. Wilds, 1979.167.21 a

Dix’s suit was thrown out, and Storyville’s venues were soon subjected to a series of police raids, with women arrested dozens at a time. But Dix’s argument anticipated the next hundred years of wrangling over erotic entertainment around the country and especially in New Orleans. For decades, workers who, at one moment, are called a central element of this city’s key tourist trade could, at the next instant, face prosecution for that same work under shifting views of public health, safety, and morality.

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. In her history Striptease, DePaul University Professor Rachel Shteir explains that, in wartime cabarets, erotic dancing was tolerated to entertain military men: “If a woman stood naked posed as the Statue of Liberty, she was doing her duty for the American troops,” she wrote. And beginning in 1920, Prohibition-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. At the time, the term “burlesque,” now usually associated with deliberately retro strip performances, described a type of variety show that usually included explicit sexuality and ribald humor. While chorus line dancers in troupes like Radio City’s Rockettes had their sex appeal, they remained clothed on stage. Women in burlesque shows, however, would often strip to nearly nude.

By the 1930s, striptease had generally become the dominant element in burlesque, overshadowing music and comedy. In 1933, when the Depression-era Roosevelt administration began working to formulate labor regulations for various industries, burlesque “to its surprise and gratification” was among those included, wrote Irving Zeidman in his 1967 book The American Burlesque Show. A union called the Burlesque Artists Association (BAA) was soon formed, with roughly 1,300 members. It quickly won concessions from major theaters, including minimum pay and limited rehearsal hours. The following year, the union defended stripper Margie Hart after a vice raid on New York theater Irving Place. Her performance was ultimately ruled obscene. Despite efforts to devise standards for striptease that would be acceptable to performers, venues, and censors alike, the BAA lost much of its strength as regulators increasingly looked askance at burlesque’s bawdy performances. 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 1930s viewed burlesque as highly risque, to say the least.

“It’s so easy to look back and say it was so much more refined or tame, but it wasn’t for the period: for the period it was the exotic entertainment—people were going to get off,” says Kaitlyn Regehr, a lecturer at the University of Kent who has studied burlesque. “That was the point.”

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. Amid crackdowns on burlesque across the country and in New York in particular—police raids under New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia effectively banned the use of the term “burlesque” in advertising—the BAA renamed itself the Brother Artists Association.

In the 1940s, burlesque, vaudeville, nightclub, and circus performers were increasingly represented by a new union: the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), formed in 1939. By 1946, with erotic entertainment beginning to boom in postwar New Orleans, the New Orleans States newspaper reported that more than 75% of the city’s entertainers were members of AGVA. That gave the union sufficient clout to threaten the “blacking out of live entertainment” if conditions weren’t improved for female entertainers in the city’s nightclubs. AGVA officials complained both that its members faced unfair competition—women were being recruited “off the streets” to “become strip-teasers at substandard wages”—and that women hired as chorus girls were required to become “B-girls,” referring to women required to woo male customers into buying them pricy, often watered-down drinks. 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.

By 1948, club owners, the union, and police, whose attention had reportedly been drawn by the AGVA complaint, had come to an agreement. Strippers would wear at least “panties, a fringe and a brassiere,” clubs wouldn’t sell drinks to already intoxicated customers and would impose a nominal end to “suggestive dances” and language. Since reports from the time universally focused on reactions from male union leaders, rather than the female entertainers they represented, it’s difficult to know whether that resolution was satisfactory for the strippers themselves, or to what extent strippers were truly “forced,” rather than financially incentivized, to mingle with customers.

“B-drinking” (it’s unclear where the name came from) is illegal in Louisiana, and historically has been seen as associated with prostitution, but exactly how it is defined has always been murky. Yet the practice has for decades often been expected of women working in New Orleans bars and clubs, according to a 2015 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.

“Construction of B-drinkers in the public imagination plays a critical role in controlling sex workers who are otherwise in positions of power in their functions of B-girls on Bourbon Street as a heritage tourism site,” writes Demovic. “Laws against B-drinking counteract the potential for collective action of such women, who as a group can act as powerful stakeholders who might question the poor working conditions and unequal income distribution in the industry.”

Illustration by Happy Burbeck

On New Year’s Day in 1950, a wealthy Nashville tourist was found dead in a French Quarter bar, evidently killed by chloral hydrate “knockout drops” believed to have been slipped into his drink, allegedly by a B-girl. 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. In one case, described by newspapers as “bizarre,” a wealthy man institutionalized by his family after cashing more than $100,000 in checks in French Quarter nightclubs was alleged to have fallen under the sway of a B-girl and become addicted to chloral hydrate.

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. Arrests for B-drinking would frequently appear in police reports throughout the ‘50s.

By 1953, AGVA 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. Mason also warned women members that they would find themselves without representation if they chose to “mix” with customers. 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 accounts of B-drinking. A former dancer at Bourbon Street’s Moulin Rouge also testified that she had been fired from the club after missing work, and the owners refused to pay her back pay for B-drinking. When she complained, the owners claimed the police would take their side and arrest her.

Newspapers from the 1950s seem to show a city divided over erotic performance—accounts of Bourbon Street B-drinking arrests and vice investigations sometimes ran just pages away from ads for the same nightclubs. While civic leaders might have supported restrictions on Bourbon Street, there is not much sign that the papers or their readers took the city’s side. A 1955 editorial in the States expressed sympathy for the Exotic Dancers League, a Los Angeles group threatening to strike over low nightclub pay: “It would seem that the owners of these Los Angeles boîtes are short-sighted as well as unjust… How could these places prosper, or even exist, without the artistes who can hold an audience spellbound with a ‘dance’ gradually approaching in costumery what designers call a bikini model, or less?” In 1957, an Item showbiz column applauded stripper Tina Marie’s selection as a delegate to the national AGVA convention.

[pullquote] Workers who, at one moment, are called a central element of this city’s key tourist trade could, at the next instant, face prosecution for that same work under shifting views of public health, safety, and morality. [/pullquote]

But in 1958, just over 40 years after Storyville’s closure, investigators from the district attorney’s office raided Bourbon Street clubs just before the busy Fourth of July weekend. Arresting dozens on obscenity charges, law enforcement again sent owners and erotic entertainers to court to defend what they had believed were legal establishments. “We had no warning,” one club owner told a States reporter. “I operate a legitimate business and anytime the police want anything changed all they have to do is tell me.” In another raid later that month, investigator John Grosch arrested dancer Lilly “The Cat Girl” Christine, calling her act “the filthiest performance I’ve ever seen in my life.” The press backed Christine, a local celebrity transplant from upstate New York who had also appeared on Broadway and in men’s magazines. A Times-Picayune columnist wrote that “denizens of The Street” considered her arrest itself a crime against decency and taste. And in a legal battle dragging on nearly a year and a half, Christine and her lawyers ultimately persuaded the Louisiana Supreme Court to rule the state obscenity law banning “any act of lewdness or indecency, grossly scandalous and tending to debauch the morals and manners of the people” unconstitutional. The court found the law was too vague for anyone to know what kind of performance was legal.

“Christine’s success struck a blow in favor of exotic dancers and stripteasers,” then-University of New Orleans grad student Lauren Milner writes in her 2012 master’s thesis. “Where previously on the legal front these women were largely portrayed, especially in the media, as faceless vessels of entertainment, Christine now had proven that they had a level of agency in the male-dominated world of nightclubs.”

In 1959, AGVA 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 1960s, both in New Orleans and around the country. AGVA members, including strippers, picketed outside Bourbon Street’s Blue Angel club in 1961, demanding the club unionize. Seven of Bourbon Street’s 18 clubs were unionized. But some of the club’s strippers joined a counter protest, claiming they already made better than union scale and even got paid when their venue had been closed for renovations.

Illustration by Happy Burbeck

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 in 1962, strippers 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. With vaudeville and traveling variety shows essentially extinct, strippers made up the majority of the union’s members, said Dustin Wax, executive director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, a Las Vegas museum that developed from Exotic Dancers League (EDL) cofounder Jennie Lee’s collections.

“They’re representing comics and some other people, but they’re getting the vast majority of their revenue from exotic dancers, but they’re providing no protection,” said Wax. The union’s national leadership was often ambivalent toward erotic performers. In 1951, celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee was a union official, but two years later, “there was a move to throw out the strippers, as they were believed to be giving the entire profession a bad name,” Leslie Zemeckis writes in her burlesque history Behind the Burly Q.

In Los Angeles, the Exotic Dancers League had greater success raising wages, initially lower for strippers there than in much of the rest of the country, and boosting working conditions, Wax noted, thanks to Lee’s media savvy. 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.

“They all wore raincoats, and they said this is all you’re going to see if we don’t see improvement in our wages and working conditions,” Wax said. Lee also put in frequent appearances in court when strippers faced obscenity charges, getting to know journalists from Southern California papers: “She had this great way with reporters and there would always be some lowly schnook from the paper who had to cover the courthouse beat, and would have an opportunity to interview this hot blonde, and she gave great interviews… They got a lot of great attention and I think that gave them the leverage to say we’re going to go to the paper with these problems, we’re already at the paper with these problems, and if we need to strike we’re not going to get negative coverage.”

The group ultimately morphed into something more akin to a social club, and while Lee was appointed to AGVA’s West Coast executive council after the union lost credibility following the Congressional hearings—“because they have a lot of egg on their face,” Wax said—the EDL never became a true national union.

AGVA, perhaps stymied by its national image problem, also largely failed to halt an early 1960s New Orleans vice crackdown, led by crusading District Attorney Jim Garrison, later known for his outlandish investigation into John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Garrison’s raids focused heavily on laws against B-drinking, at a time when reports were circulating that described B-girls sticking bar visitors with large, unexpected tabs, or even drugging them so they could be robbed. 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. In 1962, he told a French Quarter property owners’ group that the venues couldn’t survive financially without B-drinking.

“The only choice is for the establishments to close their doors or to change the character of their operations by putting on jazz programs or other types of night club acts,” he stated, according to the Times-Picayune.

Even clubs that attempted to operate lawfully faced crackdowns. According to Tulane geographer Richard Campanella’s Bourbon Street: A History, even Madame Francine’s, a Bourbon Street bar that required customers fill out forms to invite entertainers for drinks, still saw its workers arrested for B-drinking. Altogether, the raids shut down about two dozen clubs between 1962 and 1964, Campanella writes. Opposition from AGVA, club owners, and the musicians’ union failed to stop a new 1963 ordinance requiring nightclub workers be fingerprinted, which also strengthened the ban on workers mingling with customers. By June 1964, the States-Item (the papers had merged in 1958 and would be absorbed into the Times-Picayune come 1980) 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 district attorney felt that the limit of one stripper would require the clubs to supplement the remainder of the show with musicians, singers or other entertainers,” according to the paper.

Just a few years later, clubs appeared to have taken the opposite tack: In 1971, a stripper told the Times-Picayune that all but three of the Bourbon Street strip clubs had eliminated live music entirely, switching to recorded “accompaniment for the bumps and grinds of the strippers they feature.” The next year, strippers won a temporary restraining order in federal court, blocking enforcement of the strict city B-drinking law, which stated no female employee in a strip club could “mingle” with a customer “for any purpose.” The States-Item, in another example of media impressed with the notion of strippers protesting, referred to strippers making an “unusual daylight public appearance” to protest the law. Amid the city crackdowns, one stripper had reportedly even been arrested for “mingling” with her own husband when he visited her at work. The less restrictive state law on the subject was upheld by the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1977.

[pullquote]“They all wore raincoats, and they said this is all you’re going to see if we don’t see improvement in our wages and working conditions.” [/pullquote]

That same year, Mayor Moon Landrieu led the City Council to establish today’s Vieux Carre Entertainment district around upper Bourbon Street, modeled after adult entertainment districts around the country, like Boston’s strip club-heavy Combat Zone. And by 1980, with 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. The story drew ire from the Bourbon Merchants Association, upset the article didn’t dwell on non-erotic Bourbon Street offerings, and from the paper’s own editors. At the last minute, they pulled it from the Sunday magazine, due to photos “below the standards of taste associated with this newspaper.” (It ran, with different photos, in the news section.) The reporter distinguished between clubs where AGVA members danced on stage, earning union wages and health insurance, and “go-go” clubs, where strippers mingled with customers for tips, often earning more than their union counterparts. “We don’t get sick,” one quipped about the lack of benefits.

“It’s very unclear what actually happened to AGVA in the end,” Regehr noted, but says many strippers she’s spoken to felt they ultimately weren’t receiving much in exchange for their dues. The 1990s saw a burst of growth by strip clubs, especially corporate chains like Rick’s (part of publicly traded RCI Hospitality Holdings) and Hustler (owned by the multi-brand parent company Deja Vu) clubs. Workers within those venues dance for tips, rather than wages, usually paying the venue a portion of their earnings in exchange for ”renting” the stage. And as in many other fields, union representation has essentially disappeared, though notably, a San Francisco peep show called the Lusty Lady unionized in 1997 as a response to adverse working conditions. It was later acquired by its strippers, though it ultimately closed in 2013 after losing its long-term lease.

“It’s like any other business, where if somebody starts talking union, usually they’re out on their ass,” says Jessica Berson, a Yale lecturer and the author of The Naked Result: How Exotic Dance Became Big Business. Current leaders of AGVA, which still represents non-erotic performers in acts like Cirque du Soleil and Radio City’s Rockettes, declined to comment.

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. In cases where strippers have challenged that status in court, they’ve generally won, according to a study published last year by University of Illinois law professor Michael H. LeRoy.

But in many cases, reclassification has had little practical effect on strippers’ work environments, and many are wary of disturbing the status quo out of concern it will reduce their earnings. Joining class action suits can be one of the few ways for strippers to seek compensation for wrongs done by clubs, so strippers may join even if they’d prefer to remain independent contractors for the financial benefits.

“Sometimes things actually get a little worse in terms of pay,” Berson says. “If you’re being paid a wage, you’re often not going to be making as much money as you might have before.” As in previous generations, a rigid legal framework today can make collective action a seeming necessity for strippers looking simply to keep their jobs legal, but means formal efforts to improve working conditions risk forfeiting both autonomy and pay.

Recently in New Orleans, strippers have mobilized to fight restrictions on their industry. In 2016, a lengthy City Planning Commission report recommended curbing the number of strip clubs in the entertainment district centered on Bourbon Street, potentially cutting the number 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 number of clubs at 12. Strippers and others working in the venues campaigned strenuously against the proposal as well as other ultimately rejected plans to limit the number 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 (BARE), took 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.

“When the clubs began being shut down and raided without basis we had to find common lines from which to fight,” says Star, a 25-year-old sex worker. “For me this is against the police, against gentrification and sanitization of our cities, against a City Council that both dehumanizes and disregards our right to body autonomy, and against the attempts by the state, the Covenant House, and journalists to turn strippers and other Bourbon Street workers against street-based sex workers.”

Many, though not all, of the closed clubs have ultimately reopened under agreements with authorities, and the strip club cap was defeated by a 4-3 vote in the City Council. Though with a new mayor and City Council soon to take office, the future is uncertain. And nationwide, new restrictions on digitally advertising sexual activity from a recently passed federal law, created from House and Senate bills respectively named Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), drastically limits the ability of sex workers to organize and to screen clients. 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.

“For me, the future is largely a question of how we decide to frame the struggle,” Star says. “I don’t want to make the same mistakes as some feminists before us who fought for legitimacy or equality within capitalism which has left us in a place of defending an already precarious position within a hostile environment. How are we to cut through stigma, risk, invisibility, isolation—not in order to ‘fight for our jobs’ but rather fight for our liberation in all aspects of our lives?

Lyn Archer contributed to this piece. Her column, Light Work, ran in ANTIGRAVITY from August 2016 to April 2018, in 13 installments, starting with coverage on the Adult Live Performance Venues Study, a still-ongoing struggle between the city of New Orleans and its strippers and nightlife workers. For more information on BARE (The Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers), go to facebook.com/barenola or Twitter: @bare_nola


Top Photo:  Strip club workers and allies march against police raids of Bourbon Street clubs (photo: Beau Patrick Coulon).

 

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