Why Is A Conservative-Backed Bill Treating Strippers Like Criminals?

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Imagine for a second that your boss comes into work one day, calls a meeting with you and your coworkers, and says the following: You must register with the state, in order to keep your job. You need to provide a photo, disclose your criminal record (should you have one), victim status, phone number, age, home address, and other personal details — all of which will then be stored in online database, where state employees can potentially access it, not to mention hackers. All this, you’re told, is for your own protection. You'd freak out, right? This is essentially what conservative lawmakers in Pennsylvania are attempting to do with a new bill targeting employees and contract workers of “adult-oriented” establishments including strip clubs, adult book stores, and adult movie theatres. Proponents of the bill, which is primarily sponsored by State Rep. Matthew Baker (R-Tioga) and backed by the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a Christian organization which aims to restore “traditional, foundational principles and values” to public life, say that the bill is intended to prevent sex trafficking and abuse. Combatting sex trafficking is certainly a worthy endeavor, and while Pennsylvania might not strike you as a hotbed of sex crime, it’s not immune. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC), there have been 17 reported cases of sex trafficking in Pennsylvania this year, and there were 76 sex trafficking cases and five combined sex-and-labor trafficking in the state last year — with the vast majority of the victims women. Out of the roughly 20,000 calls made to the NHTRC’s hotline last year, 527 came from Pennsylvania, making it the twelfth most called from state in the country. “We don’t want to believe it because we want these places to be innocent,” Brian McGinley, director of strategic initiatives for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, told Watchdog.org. “…That’s kind of the polite fiction that we tell ourselves.” But is that actually true? Yes, the Department of Health and Human Services identifies strip clubs as venues where sex trafficking could take place, stating, “victims may start off dancing or stripping in clubs and then be coerced into situations of prostitution and pornography.” But only two percent of calls made to the NHTRC were in relation to potential trafficking at a club. Hotels and motels, commercial-front brothels, online advertisements, and street-based trafficking were much more likely avenues for traffickers to exploit their victims.
The bill also assumes that women choosing to work in the sex industry are passive victims, something that Lindsay Roth, a social worker and stripper in Pennsylvania, finds offensive. “I’m a white middle-class woman with a master’s degree,” says Roth, who graduated from Columbia University this May and now works with sex trafficking victims. “I find [this bill] to be terrifying. I find it to be patronizing. I find it to be stupid. I’m happy we are talking about labor exploitation, but this is the wrong way to go about it…"

"These lawmakers have no idea what they are doing and really have it out for women in general, and women who work in the sex industry, and I don’t trust them with our information."

Lindsay Roth, Social Worker & Stripper
Opponents of the bill see it as an infringement on the rights of strippers, with politicians using legislation targeting female entertainers as a way to pander to voters. “Sex sells, and all too often politicians will utilize fear-mongering to create a crisis where none exists in the hopes of gaining attention and votes,” says Diane Duke, CEO of the Free Speech Coalition, a trade association for the adult entertainment industry. “Unfortunately in cases like this, they do so on the backs of hard working performers who will be injured financially as well as personally by this insidious legislation.”

"Frankly, this is to shame employees of this industry."

Julie Zaebst, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Social worker Roth is no stranger to unfair judgment, especially from men. When she was a 22-year-old, she was working as a high school teacher and stripping on the side. She says a group of male teachers she worked with saw her leaving the club and reported her. “I effectively was asked to leave,” she says. “I did not know my rights. I was so intimidated, and just the hypocrisy that these men could patronize this club, but if I’m working there, I’m not capable of the same job.” She now works in Philadelphia as the executive director of Project SAFE, a grassroots organization providing support for women in street economies, and she is also on the board of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national social justice network for people working in the sex trade. Stripping has been her second job for the past 10 years, and she sees it as being less exploitive than, say, the restaurant industry. “As a stripper working contract, I have more power over my own work, and you can choose your clients at 99 percent of strip clubs,” she says. “As a waitress, if I’m getting sexually harassed at a table, I have to continue to work with them.” “A lot of people really don’t understand that there are honestly women who have made the conscious choice—not because they like the choice—but they are willing to do certain things in order to make money, whether you agree with it or disagree with it,” says Michael Ocello, an executive board member of ACE National, a trade association for adult nightclubs, and co-founder of COAST, which stands for “Club Operators Against Sex Trafficking.” (Ocello is also the president of BCG Holding Corporation, which owns 17 adult clubs across the country, and is also a commissioned certified police officer in Illinois.) He sees the bill as a misguided attempt by lawmakers to combat human trafficking. “I think most of the people involved in the battle of human trafficking are coming from the purest of intents,” he says. “They want to make a difference and they are not really sure what to do. Registering entertainers really isn’t the answer.” So what is the answer? Ocello says that ensuring that there is a crosscheck on age verification, and training workers in the adult entertainment industry to identify signs of human trafficking, would be a much better place to start. ACLU Pennsylvania project manager Zaebst echoes a similar sentiment; the only part of the bill she sees as truly addressing the issue of sex trafficking is a provision calling for mandated training for law enforcement to recognize victims of human trafficking. Supporters of the bill assert that a registry of sex workers could make it easier for officers to spot instances of trafficking; an online database would let them know if a stripper was moving from club to club, for instance, which could signal foul play. The way Zaebst sees it, this Big-Brother treatment is closer to how sex offenders are treated—not adult entertainers.

“This type of collection of personal information by the government is really more reflective of how the state treats criminals."

Julie Zaebst, ACLU of Pennsylvania
“Their claim that this is about protecting these workers feels pretty disingenuous when you think about the data the state would require these workers to provide. If the registry were to become public or someone who works for the state government were to misuse it in any way, it would include sensitive information…and could expose [workers] to more dangers.” “It also leaves performers vulnerable to bureaucrats who misuse the information for their own personal pleasure or to support a misguided moral agenda,” says Duke. The threat of a stripper’s home address and phone number falling into the wrong hands is a real one, according to Ocello. And the nature of the work itself puts adult entertainers even more at risk. “Adult entertainers, they are performers. They get on stage and create an illusion,” he says. “There are some people who will attend a show like that and believe that the actress they see on stage is who she really is…"

"What this law does is it intentionally endangers these women and puts them in a situation where in order to make a living they have to put themselves and their families in danger. It’s ridiculous.”

Michael Ocello of Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking
Roth says she feels “personally threatened” by the bill, which has reportedly been shelved due to a flood of criticism. She’s never encountered a victim of sex trafficking her work at strip clubs, and says the bigger concern is domestic violence. “The more situations I’ve seen are intimate partner violence, which [this registry] would do nothing to mitigate,” she says. “The most dangerous person in a woman’s life is usually her husband or boyfriend or family member…they might be forcing them to work, or taking their earnings, but that’s financial abuse, not sex trafficking.” In her view, a bill that prevented some of what she calls “the messed up things that can go on in strip clubs” like garnering wages, would go further to help women. She also takes issue with the fact that the bill doesn’t offer any alternatives for women working in the sex industry. “The best way to reduce the number of women working in the sex industry would be to bolster education for women or prevent teen pregnancy, but [lawmakers] don’t fund that stuff.” Many of the women Roth works with, she says, are stripping because they don’t have the resources to get the education that could land them the sort of jobs that pay a livable salary. Some of them also have previous charges, which make it difficult to get other types of work. “Minority women. Poor women. A lot of women I’ve worked with have had charges, or they have been victims of crimes, and its more gender-based violence than sex trafficking but the state of Pennsylvania does nothing to address it,” she says. Roth is very clear: She is not a victim. “I take pride in the work I do as a stripper,” she says. Even culturally, she sees a double standard. Take Magic Mike XXL, one of the biggest movies of this summer, where women have reportedly been throwing dollar bills at the screen during showings. The movie is fictional, but its star, Channing Tatum, really did work as a stripper when he was younger. “Oh yeah, Channing Tatum can go be entrepreneurial and clever when he was younger, but when a woman does it, she’s a victim,” says Roth. It’s certainly not that these victims don’t exist—the International Labor Organization reports that there are 4.5 million people actually trapped in sexual exploitation globally. But as one of the many women voluntarily working in the sex industry, Roth says, “It’s frustrating that lawmakers can tell me what it feels like to be exploited.” If the motive behind the bill is to make it more difficult for strippers to work, then she suggests creating more pathways for women to be financially independent. “A term I love is ‘ending the supply’ for this vulnerable workforce,” she says. “These are things that politicians don’t talk about. Why are women and girls so vulnerable to exploitation? I’ll tell you: Because of lack of education. Because of lack of living wage job opportunities. Because of lack of adequate childcare.” Now where’s the bill to address that?

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