Big Brother visits the strip club
A proposed sex workers registry has exotic dancers alarmed about their civil liberties.
I schedule a phone call with "Ginger" — her stage name, by request — around the time when her kids will be playing in their suburban backyard, out of earshot; our conversation occasionally pauses when one comes in to ask something. They, like most people, don't know she works as an exotic dancer. "When I was in my early 20s, I didn't mind that people knew, but I have children now, and a family. And a lot of people that work in this industry have the same thing — it's a big secret."
That's why she's alarmed about the progress of HB 262, a bill currently in committee in the state House of Representatives. "They're basically trying to stop sex trafficking by registering us, but, I mean ... I didn't really read much farther than that," she says. The idea of her real name and address in a sex-worker database was enough.
HB 262 would change Pennsylvania law regulating strip clubs and other adult-entertainment businesses, with the intent of cracking down on sex trafficking and abuse. The bill would ban alcohol and private rooms from strip clubs and mandate a 6-foot distance between dancers and customers at all times.
None of the several dancers I spoke with liked any of these ideas, mostly for economic reasons. ("This is going to ruin strip clubs as we know them," says one.)
But they're most concerned about the proposed registry for adult-entertainment workers. In the latest version of the bill, they'd be required to submit their name, stage name, age, birth date, birthplace, height, weight, hair and eye color, home address and phone number, criminal and trafficking-status background, photograph and a copy of their photo ID for a state database accessible to law enforcement.
"I'm against it, a lot of us girls are," says "Lucky," who dances at the Penthouse Club in the Northeast. "It's been all over Facebook, a lot of my girls that I work with have been talking about it as well — it's very well known."
But nobody's been asking their opinion. Media coverage of the bill tended toward jokey headlines like "Pol wants strippers to get their butts registered," and none quoted dancers. And Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga), the bill's sponsor, proudly told the Associated Press that he's never been to a strip club.
"You don't know anything, so why are you talking about it?" asks an exasperated Lucky.
Baker was unavailable for comment due to a death in the family; his staff directed me to Brandon McGinley, director of strategic initiatives at the Pennsylvania Family Institute (PFI), self-described as a "conservative Christian organization."
"We've been working on the bill for quite some time with Rep. Baker," said McGinley, who helped draft the legislation. Rather than the talking-points robot I expected, he comes off as someone who's recently discovered something terrible and is earnestly trying to help.
"We tell ourselves polite fictions about these places, and they allow us not to believe that terrible things are happening," says McGinley, who has also never been to a strip club. He says his research and conversations with sex-trafficking experts and rescue workers left him deeply shaken. He cites some of those statistics, like a 2004 study on violence against sex workers in which nearly half of 53 surveyed dancers had been threatened with rape and 22 percent had been raped while working. He also mentions a 2011 FBI report saying strip clubs are "havens for prostitutes forced into sex trafficking."
"What is often misconstrued as prudishness is, in fact, a clear-eyed look at a very physically and sexually dangerous situation," says McGinley. "We knew we'd get a lot of 'Oh, the Family Institute people just hate strip clubs,' or whatever. And it's been frustrating that the reaction has largely focused on the liberty of men to patronize strip clubs and not the liberty of women to not be trafficked."
The vast majority of dancers in Pennsylvania are not trafficked, however, and they're concerned about the threat to their own liberty that they see in a registry.
"What can stop them from making it public at any time they want?" worries Ginger.
"This makes lives of people doing exotic dance more dangerous — our addresses are going to be in some registry somewhere. And the idea that I'll ever be able to get another job seems very unlikely should someone be able to look that up," says Lindsay Roth, who works at the Penthouse Club. "I also don't know how protected this government database would be — it's a hacker's dream."
Roth is comfortable using her full name; she's open about being a dancer and also works as an advocate with the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and with Project SAFE, which provides direct services for people engaged in street prostitution. She also understands the need for privacy: Several years ago, she says, "I was a high school teacher and would dance on the weekends, and was sort of forced out of my job because some male teachers saw me in a strip club," she says. "I felt so frustrated by the hypocrisy — male teachers could go to a strip club, but I was deemed an unworthy educator for working in one."
Roth finds HB 262 similarly frustrating. "They've consulted this body of strip-club managers who have their own vested interests, but they don't seem to have consulted any actual strippers."
Did anyone involved with crafting the bill consult any strippers? "Not as far as I know," says McGinley. "Frankly, I think a good deal of it is due to not knowing where to go to have that conversation."
A strip club, maybe? He laughs. "I don't intend to patronize a business making money off of putting women in danger," he says. "I fully appreciate that there are many women who do it of their own free will, and who do not feel that they are victimized, though."
Roth says her eight years in "the only industry where women make more money than men" have been a lucrative and generally positive experience, though she's very conscious that that's not true for everyone in the sex industry. "I've seen some pretty horrific things" doing outreach work, she says. "But these bills do not do anything to address the realities of most people."
McGinley asks many questions about the opinions of the dancers I managed to locate — "I'm interested to know their thoughts," he says, encouraging them and others to get in touch directly to give him feedback over the summer. HB 262 is unlikely to move this session, so there's plenty of time to incorporate changes that make sense. For example, the reason the bill went back to committee for edits was to exempt Right To Know requests from the registry.
"The number one thing to make clear is that the information we're asking for will not be publicly available," says McGinley. "The purpose is to give law enforcement the ability to see red flags for trafficking," says McGinley. "If law enforcement does a spot check and finds unlicensed employees, [or] if a license is being moved on a regular basis — those are red flags."
That the registry would only be available to law enforcement isn't the reassurance McGinley intends it to be. "Working with Project SAFE [I've found that], one of the greatest perpetrators of violence against sex workers is law enforcement," says Roth. "Even though stripping is a legalized form of sex work, it still carries a stigma, and law enforcement regularly comes into clubs and targets strippers."
A relevant lawsuit was filed last summer by nearly 30 dancers against the city of San Diego and its police chief. According to the Los Angeles Times, the dancers alleged that vice squad officers frequently conducted "raids" at clubs during which they were detained, harassed and forced to pose nearly nude for photos in the name of enforcement of a similar statute.
"I don't trust any of the agencies to actually help with sex trafficking, let alone be an ally to any people working in this industry. They have a proven track record of not doing that," says Roth. "I don't want them having my home address, honestly."
Especially because, she says, a registry would be a useless, TSA-esque exercise.
"There's a huge discrepancy between what's evidence-based and what conservative, religious organizations imagine would reduce or combat sex trafficking. And this bill is a prime example of that," says Roth.
Realistically, Roth says, "a lot of commercial sexual exploitation I've seen is an extension of intimate partner violence — a partner who makes them work and takes their earnings. And that person will still satisfy all the requirements of this bill. The same goes for the agencies — industry traffickers will still be able to provide all the documentation, because that's what traffickers do."
Ginger's suspected Hollywood-narrative trafficking, a la the movie Taken, at a workplace exactly once. "Like, if someone comes in with eight or nine girls from another country on a bus every night from New York, that's a bit suspicious and managers should question that." But she agrees that coercion via relationships or drugs is a much bigger problem.
If anybody had asked, the dancers would have mentioned that switching clubs every few months isn't a red flag. It's actually pretty standard practice. "People jump clubs so often; sometimes you see people for a month or two then they're gone, they come back a year later," says Ginger. "When they're not making money for a couple days, they're off to another club."
"That's something I hadn't thought about — I'm glad to know it. I think, first of all, that ... huh." McGinley pauses, thinking. Perhaps, then, he says, law enforcement would figure out what the red flags are, then start spotting them. "The bill currently includes a certain amount of education for law enforcement, though I'm not sure that's going stay in because of the cost."
"We've talked to legislatures about other bills, especially Republicans, and it's stuff they don't want to hear," says Roth. "Human trafficking, the way I've come to understand it, is a crime of opportunity. Not everyone is vulnerable to human trafficking. It tends to be people who are already poor, people who are willing to believe an offer that's too good to be true, people who are desperate." Things that would truly decrease coerced sex work: "Reinvesting in the social safety net. Making sure everyone in this country has a good education. Making sure there are good jobs with good protections."
Surprisingly, McGinley volunteers something similar. "I fully understand that many people feel that this is their only way to make a living. This strikes me as a structural economic problem that needs to be addressed through national and state policy."
That sounds pretty Mother Jones, I observe. "Yeah, this is the problem!" says McGinley. "I obviously associate with conservative causes, but have deep sympathies with at least some parts of the economic left! We need to make structural changes so that we are not forcing people to make a living by putting themselves at risk of sexual assault." Also, he says, "permit me an aside — I'm interested in the idea of legalizing sex work but criminalizing buying sex, so the risk is taken on by the john instead of the prostitute."
So, I say, what I'm hearing is that next session I should expect Republican-sponsored proposals to raise the minimum wage and legalize sex work. McGinley laughs and laughs, then laughs some more. I guess it was a pretty good joke.