This past summer, an 18-year-old woman got a job dancing in a Baton Rouge strip club. She’d lost both her parents to cancer and was entirely on her own to pay for tuition at Louisiana State, where she’d recently been accepted. But one month after she started her new job, the club told her she was out — due to a new Louisiana law prohibiting women under 21 from dancing in strip clubs.
Now, she and two other strippers are suing the state in federal court, claiming the new law violates their constitutional rights to free expression and equal protection under the law.
The state says the law protects women; the women say it’s discrimination.
All three women—identified in the complaint as Jane Doe I, II and III—are under 21, and lost their jobs stripping when the law went into effect August 1 (and October 1 in New Orleans).
The law allows for some employees in a strip club to be under 21 — just not the dancers. Specifically, “entertainers whose breasts or buttocks are exposed to view shall perform only upon a stage at least eighteen inches above the immediate floor level and removed at least three feet from the nearest patron and shall be twenty-one years of age or older,” according to the text of the bill.
In a nutshell — women.
The regulation, titled Act №395 was designed, according to its supporters, to protect women from sex trafficking. In court documents, the bill’s author, Republican Sen. Ronnie Johns, says it “is strictly an anti-trafficking bill.” (Johns declined MEL’s request for comment.)
But the women argue the opposite is true. They say that while they’re gainfully employed at a strip club, they’re less vulnerable to traffickers than they’d be if they weren’t working.
Jane Doe II, the woman who lost her parents, said in court papers she “feels safer at the club than at home due to the club’s strict safety protocols.” Doe II also said that, of the other women she danced with at the club who are under 21 and lost their jobs after the new law went into effect, “some of those women report that they will seek income through prostitution now that they have lost their legal jobs as erotic dancers.”
Another plaintiff, Jane Doe I, added that traffickers are actually using the new law to lure women to work for them, and she “has witnessed pimps and prostitutes attempt to use Act No. 395’s age restrictions to recruit entertainers who are now lawfully employed, but who will lose their jobs as a result of the Act.”
That sounds right to attorney Alan Begner, who says that unemployment could put women at more risk than working in a strip club.
“If they’re dancing, they’re probably making a pretty good living. They don’t need prostitution; they make money,” he says.
Begner, a Georgia-based First Amendment lawyer who is not connected to this case, has represented many adult businesses in his home state and won a similar case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court in 2009.
“When a city or state bans free speech rights to a whole class of people — 18-to 20-year-old adults — the burden is on the government to prove a compelling state interest,” Begner says. For example, if there were a lot of underage drinking going on, the state might be able to make a case that banning dancers under a certain age was in the interest of the state — keep people under 21 out of the club. But according to Begner, “the government almost always loses” when the burden of proof is so strict.
“It’s long established [in the courts] that nude dancing is protected under the First Amendment,” says Begner.
In the lawsuit, the three plaintiffs cite dance as a form of free expression. But it goes beyond the First Amendment: The women are losing money. Two of them are still working in strip clubs, not as dancers, but as “shot girls” which are basically cocktail waitresses who pass around shots to patrons. They make half as much they did when they were just a few feet away, up onstage, dancing.
With the nebulous language in the law about women under 21 having to cover their breasts and buttocks, the women say they aren’t even clear on what they are and aren’t allowed to wear. How low-cut can you go?
Jane Doe I told the court she can no longer support herself and “will be forced to move to a State where she is not prohibited from expressing herself through her desired professional employment.”
“I don’t see how you can ban people from working,” Begner says. “If they drink, if they violate the law while they’re working [then, yes], but I don’t see how you can ban people from working. It’s different from a First Amendment challenge. It’s a due process challenge.”
And as for the idea that Louisiana’s new law protects women from sex traffickers?
“It’s a complete ruse,” says Begner. “Nobody thinks — or almost nobody thinks — child prostitution has anything to do with adult clubs. It comes from Backpage.com, pimps, these kinds of things.”
During a legislative session before the bill was passed, Representative Robby Carter, who supported Act No. 395, said, according to court papers, “We need to do something to get these people [to] recognize that there’s another way of living, you know. I wish there was something we could do to make them [exotic dancers] go to church or something.”
Representative Walt Leger added, “often times they end up in a situation where trafficking can occur. All of the things that surround that just tend to cause great harm for these young women. And to lead them to try to strive to get out a difficult situation … The more that we can do to protect women from this type of exposure and being taken advantage of, we need to do it.”
The legislative session devolved quickly, with one representative on the floor, Kenny Havard, suggesting an amendment to the bill “which would have required erotic dancers to be no older than twenty-eight years of age, and weigh no more than 160 lbs,” according to court papers.
Horrified, Representative Julie Stokes responded: “Looking out over this body [the House of Representatives], I’ve never been more repulsed to be part of it. I can’t even believe the behavior in here. I think we need to call an end to this. I hear derogatory comments about women in this place regularly, I hear and I see women get treated differently than men. . . . That was utterly disrespectful and disgusting.”
Havard withdrew his proposed amendment and later refused to apologize for his “joke” amendment.
Just this month, a federal judge in Louisiana put enforcement of the law on hold until the lawsuit is resolved, saying the women would lose income, causing “irreparable injury” to them. A date for the hearing has not yet been set.
The women are asking for lost wages and attorney’s fees, but above all, they say they just want to work.