Twenty-five years ago, Jim Kelly argued before the New Orleans City Council that women ages 18 to 20 shouldn't be allowed to work as exotic dancers.
"The logic was, if you have to be 21 to drink, you have to be 21 to drink and take your clothes off," says Kelly, who is executive director at Covenant House New Orleans, a shelter for homeless and at-risk youth ages 16 to 22.
The proposed ordinance was approved by the City Council 25 years ago. but after a recent murder case involving 19-year-old dancer Jasilas Wright, Kelly realized it was not being enforced. In July, he returned to City Hall to put teeth into the existing ordinance, and City Councilwoman-At-Large Stacy Head issued a study to examine its enforcement and penalties.
On Oct. 20, the council will discuss who will be responsible for enforcing the ordinance and what the penalties for violating it will be.
Local dancers say the ordinance shouldn't exist at all.
"It's legal for 18-year-olds to vote and enlist in the Army," says Mia Smile, who started dancing at Babe's Cabaret on Bourbon Street when she was 18. "So why can't 18-year-olds decide if they want to strip?"
"Don't tell women they can't work a f—king job when they're adults," says Lilith, a 27-year-old dancer at Babe's Cabaret who started when she was 20. "To assume we're all victims and have no other options or are forced to be there is simply disrespectful."
Kelly says he is trying to protect young women. Seventy to 80 percent of Covenant House residents have been physically or sexually abused, he says. According to a recent study by Loyola University, 14 percent of 99 Covenant House residents were victims of human trafficking, being coerced into sex work. Based on the number of young people in Covenant House's care each year (approximately 615), the findings indicate that 86 residents a year are likely to be victims of human trafficking, the study says.
"Eighteen is too young to be dancing," Kelly says. "The younger a person is, the more vulnerable they are. We are not saying every young dancer is going to be involved in human trafficking, but it is an avenue to human trafficking — and to a lot of young women, it is exploitative."
Steven (not his real name) is a former VIP host at another Bourbon Street club, Barely Legal, and has worked off and on in strip clubs for 15 years. At the time, Barely Legal showcased young women who, under this ordinance, would be barred from working in strip clubs. "They wouldn't hire you if you were older than 24, and you couldn't be augmented — they wanted all-natural young girls, because that was the image of the club," he says. "They took the childlike theme ... a bit too far."
Steven agrees that a woman's first employer shouldn't be a strip club. He says the issue, however, is more complicated than the age difference.
"There are so many girls who can't handle the lifestyle; it doesn't come down to the age of the girl," he says. "The real question is: Who decides whether you're mentally prepared to take on a position like this?"
Kelly says younger people are less likely to make good decisions because their brains are still developing.
"You're an adult at 18, but your brain is still developing up to age 25," he says. "The younger you are, the more chance you have of not using sound judgment, and the more people try to take advantage of you."
Thomas Fewer, director of the New Orleans Counseling Center, says his experience does not bear out that conclusion.
"From a psychological point of view, working with people in that age range, someone who is 18 is able to make choices and be held responsible for choices they make," says Fewer, who also works at the Children's Bureau of New Orleans and previously worked at River Oaks Hospital's children and adolescents unit. "Personal development is individual and complex. I think that is a simplistic way to justify what sounds like a moral attitude."
Laura Helen Marks, a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University with a doctorate in women's and gender studies, says she is confused about some points Kelly made in his visual presentation to the City Council. While Kelly suggests that incidents of violence against sex workers would decrease if the minimum age for stripping was raised to 21, there is "no data or explanation of why this would be so," Marks says.
"Violence against sex workers is prevalent in part due to social stigma," she says. "Raising the minimum age perpetuates the notion that sex workers are naive individuals with little to no agency or understanding of their own situation."
Marks and Fewer also say Kelly is combining two separate topics: sex work and human trafficking.
"I noticed some troubling conflation of sex work and trafficking that subtly blurs the lines between forced and voluntary labor, a move commonly employed in anti-trafficking rhetoric that merely muddles the issue and makes productive discourse ... nearly impossible," Marks says
Dancers Lilith and Cinnamon say these kinds of blurred lines make it harder for them to perform their jobs without making their workplaces safer.
"We are strippers, not sex trafficking victims," Cinnamon says. "I like my job. I want to keep my job. If you want to address sex trafficking, you should find the people trafficking girls."
"Crack down on the pimps and prostitution in the clubs," Lilith says. "That would make the work environment healthier for girls."
Kelly says he's trying to do that as well — to coordinate a comprehensive approach to human trafficking that involves human services organizations and law enforcement. "We need to attack and lock up pimps and predators, and the U.S. Attorney's Office is working hard on that," he says. "But I want to keep women under age 21 out of that environment and away from those predators."
Enforcing the 21-and-up ordinance will take time, money and manpower, and right now Kelly isn't sure from where those things will come. "We are working through that right now: Should it be state police, the [New Orleans Police Department], the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board?"
Pearlina Thomas, chief of staff for City Council President Jason Williams, said the councilman could not answer questions about the issue. "We are currently exploring all possible means of enforcing the underage dancer ordinance," she wrote in an email. "Working through structuring enforcement is the primary reason this presentation was moved (from Sept. 15) to the October 20, 2015 Alcohol Beverage Control Board meeting."
Steven points out that even if it is enforced, the ordinance could be circumvented easily by unscrupulous club owners and managers.
"The only way you can really police it is by going to every single club and checking every ID, everything on file," he says. "That's taxpayer money you're talking about."
Mia Smile worries that if the ordinance were enforced, 18- to 20-year-olds would gravitate toward clubs that hire them illegally, where their safety and well-being might be even more at risk. "If the dancing age moved from 18 to 21, I fear it will push younger girls to clubs that don't listen to the rules, where they're more likely to be pushed into backroom deals," she says.
At clubs with good management, trafficking shouldn't be an issue because prostitution isn't allowed, Cinnamon says. "There are clubs that are fun and safe to work at, and [sex for money] will get you fired if it happens, because it's illegal and not a service that should be offered in a strip club," she says.
Lilith says she plans to attend next month's hearing before the City Council. "I am sure [the City Council] has good intentions, because there is a problem with a club environment where women feel pressured to prostitute when that isn't what they're doing with their lives. But this isn't the way to handle it."