sex work

11 Strippers on Being Criminalized for Doing Their Jobs

On July 11, Stormy Daniels was arrested for allegedly “fondling” and allowing undercover cops to touch her breasts while on stage at a strip club in Columbus, Ohio. Daniels was accused of breaking an Ohio law that prohibits “nude or seminude” adult dancers from touching patrons under any circumstances, and vice versa — unless they are immediate family members.

Daniels’s arrest sparked outrage — and even some speculation that her arrest was politically motivated — but what happened to her is commonplace. It’s something women who work in strip clubs deal with on a regular basis: Many states have laws that strictly regulate dancers’ behavior in ways dancers say criminalize them arbitrarily, violate their right to freedom of expression, and leave them vulnerable to harassment from law enforcement.

The laws vary from state to state, but many require dancers to cover their nipples and stand six feet away from customers, and ban them from working nude in clubs that sell alcohol. To understand how this impacts dancers, we spoke with 11 women with a range of experiences from New Orleans, where it’s illegal for dancers to touch even their own breasts or buttocks; Detroit, where it’s illegal for dancers to give lap dances with any physical contact; and Columbus, where Daniels was arrested. Here’s what they had to say.

On the awful experience of being ticketed

Ashlie (dancer in Columbus): I was cited twice in the last year with the same charges and have been forced to wait tables. All my attorney and court fees are so high right now that I can’t even leave to go dance elsewhere and they have made sure I can’t dance anywhere in Columbus, even when I only did what every dancer does and is still doing — our jobs.

Angel (dancer in Detroit): In 1997, police raided a club I was in and handcuffed us. They didn’t let us put on our street clothes before they took us out in front of the newscasters. We were trying to cover our faces and it was just horrible. Then in June and July of last year, I got eight tickets for things like contact between me and a customer. I recognized one of the vice cops. I was like, “You’re in here all the time on your days off.”

Emily (dancer in Columbus): Two undercover cops came in November and started writing lap-dance tickets, but they weren’t sending them out in the mail for like a month. We only kept camera footage for 30 days so we couldn’t prove whether we actually gave a lap dance or not. The only reason that I pled guilty is that I thought I’d be able to go back to work once my case was closed. But nowhere in Columbus would let me work. I had to live in hotels and travel for work for five months until they let me come back.

On pasties and the arbitrariness of the laws

Emily: First of all, we have to wear pasties, which is stupid. Second, if you serve alcohol, you’re not allowed to make contact. You can’t even sit in their laps and have a conversation.

Allie: The laws are often somewhat vague yet oddly specific regarding the covering or touching of particular body parts. If I wanted to touch my own breasts on the dance floor at a bar, I could do that. But strap on a pair of eight-inch platform heels and do it on a stage for money? Against the law here in Louisiana.

Devin (dancer in New Orleans): If I’m on stage and I touch my own boob, that’s considered lewd conduct. If I touch my own butt, that’s illegal. If I’m wearing a thong and my pubic hair is showing, that’s also illegal. If I take off my shoes on the floor, that’s illegal.

On what it’s like to get raided

Rebecca (dancer in Columbus): It was right before Christmas last year when they hit us hard. We had 14 girls that got tickets. Most of them got fired.

Devin: They came in and shut down clubs while people were there. It didn’t need to be done when they were open, but instead, they made it this public act. They took pictures of dancers in their dancer clothes, they were calling out girls’ real names in front of customers, and they were making non-sex-worker-friendly jokes. It’s created a level of paranoia. The other night I was sure that I was talking to an undercover cop and it ruined my whole night.

Stacey (dancer in Mount Clemens and Detroit, Michigan): Girls were rushing upstairs to change into more conservative outfits because they’ll try to get you for anything, even if your outfit is legal.

Chase Kelly (dancer in New Orleans): These raids have prompted more travel for work, which cuts into my take-home and makes it harder to maintain a stable home life with my partner.

Allie: Even people who weren’t working during the raid or didn’t have a club that got raided feel this anxiety of going to work and being worried that, “If I do something wrong, will they bust my club?”

Angel: I feel like I’m on the verge of a mental breakdown. This weekend, I got dressed, I drove down to the club, and I couldn’t go in because my anxiety was so bad.

Josephine (dancer in New Orleans and the co-editor of Tits and Sass): The way I make money in Detroit is I give lap dances, but lap dances are technically criminalized under these ordinances. So every time I give a lap dance, I’m like “Oh I hope vice doesn’t bust in the door because then I’ll have a misdemeanor and have to go to court.”

On how the laws have hurt their business

Brazil (dancer working in Dayton and Columbus, Ohio): The two clubs that I worked at are shut down indefinitely. I’m on maternity leave right now but once I go back, I’ll have to find an entirely new club to work at.

Emily: Our club is so slow now. No one wants to go in there. Everybody is just uncomfortable because they don’t want to get a ticket or the club to get raided. I look at it as entrapment, basically. When I started two years ago, I was never told that there was this law that said we can’t touch people. None of us really had any idea.

Devin: The first club that was raided in New Orleans closed last week without notice. People went to show up to work and the doors were shut. Business had dropped dramatically because of how strict the rules were being enforced because they were on probation.

Allie (dancer in New Orleans and organizer of the Bourbon Alliance of Responsible Entertainers): Laws that dictate the manner in which entertainers are permitted to dress, dance, and interact with customers violate our First Amendment right to free speech. They are clearly rooted in attempts to control women’s bodies. It’s entertainers and clubs who are penalized under these laws, not the (often male) customers who seek out these experiences.

Chase Kelly: These laws are written with the sole intention of eradicating or polishing our industry without considering the voices of those who are actually in it.

On fighting back

Lyn Archer (dancer in New Orleans): While it’s important to know your rights, it’s also important to know how easily violated those rights routinely are. Look up the laws, rules, and styles of enforcement in your town. Never rely on the local culture (management, co-workers) to decide what’s okay. Understand and accept that components of your work may be extralegal simply because the laws often contradict one another and are deliberately ambiguous and inconsistent. Film and record every police interaction. Speak up and speak out. Don’t let them scare you. Justice means that all people’s human rights are given equal respect and protection — a performer or a president.

11 Strippers on Being Criminalized for Doing Their Jobs