TEXAS — Hundreds of workers at strip clubs and other adult entertainment venues in Texas lost their jobs overnight last week due to a new law prohibiting the employment of anyone under the age of 21 at so-called sexually oriented businesses.
Gov. Greg Abbott, on May 24, signed a law making it a criminal offense for sexually oriented businesses to hire 18-, 19- or 20-year-olds either as employees or contract workers. The law came into effect the day of Abbott’s signature, meaning hundreds of Texans under the age of 21 lost their jobs immediately.
Previously, clubs and other sexually oriented venues could hire employees 18 and older.
Club owners, dancers and other employees in the adult entertainment industry accused Texas lawmakers of ripping away the livelihood of not just erotic dancers and strippers, but bartenders, bookkeepers, servers and car valets who are under the age of 21 and also worked at the clubs.
“It has been devastating to hundreds of people who have now been thrown out of work with no notice and no preparation to be able to look for other employment in a post-pandemic era when we are trying to get everyone back to work,” said Casey Wallace of the Texas Entertainment Association, whose members include hundreds of club owners and proprietors of sexually oriented businesses across the state.
The law came just days after Abbott announced that Texas would opt out of the federal unemployment assistance associated with the COVID-19 pandemic starting June 26, which included an additional $300 a week from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program.
“The Texas Legislature just turned a complete blind eye to the welfare of hundreds and hundreds in this state who were dependent on an income and now have no ability to feed their children, no ability to make rent payments and no ability to sustain their lives,” Wallace said.
Proponents of the bill argued that passing the law would sever the alleged link between strip clubs and sex trafficking.
“These changes would provide necessary mechanisms to safeguard our communities and protection for our children from sex trafficking and sexual exploitation,” said State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Republican representing District 17, who authored the bill Abbott signed into law.
“Allowing individuals under the age of 21 to work in these establishments introduces them to the idea of selling their bodies for monetary gain,” said George P. Bush, the Texas Land Commissioner, who testified in support of the bill in the Senate Jurisprudence Committee hearing last month. “They are often exposed to drug abuse, underage drinking, prostitution and ultimately to what is called in the trade “The Life.”
Other testimonies including harrowing tales from victims of sexual abuse and trafficking, including Nissi Hamilton, who described in detail her experience at age 14, when a man 12 years older than her groomed and exploited and eventually made a profit from selling her for sex. Hamilton now advocates for victims of sex trafficking as the executive director of A Survivor’s Voice St. Victor, a nonprofit based in Houston.
According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, a nonprofit that acts as a resource for victims of victims and survivors of sex and labor trafficking, “Victims of sex trafficking are frequently recruited to work in strip clubs across the United States. Women, men, and minors may be recruited to work in strip clubs as hostesses, servers or dancers, but then are required to provide commercial sex to customers.”
But several current workers at Texas strip clubs testified against the bill, many of them saying that they never felt unsafe in their clubs and the money they made helped them afford to support their families, pay their bills and in many cases, pay for college tuition.
Marla Cruz, 26, has been working in a Dallas strip club for three years. As a young college graduate trying to make ends meet on a $32,000 a year salary and with large student loans, she was drawn to the club job for the money.
At her club, which Cruz declined to name because she was not authorized to speak on its behalf, the staff was split evenly between those over 21 and those under 21. That is until May 24, when those under 21 were forced out of their jobs, she said.
The passing of the law “caught everybody by surprise, even the managers,” Cruz said.
Wallace of the Texas Entertainment Association said connecting human trafficking to sexually oriented business was a “ruse” and “completely a false premise that they needed to pass this legislation.”
Adult entertainment venues such as topless clubs are heavily regulated by various state and local agencies, including the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, state laws and city and county ordinance, Wallace said. In addition, police “vice squads” keep a keen oversight of the clubs to prevent any sort of abuse or trafficking, he said.
Strip clubs make their money on alcohol sales, so no club owner wants to jeopardize a license by selling to minors, Wallace said. Because of that, clubs have adopted different methods of policing their underage staff from being served alcohol while on the premises, including issuing wristbands or other methods to identify those who can and can’t legally drink.
Forcing the 18- to 20-year-olds out of the clubs could “push them into a nonregulated business, where there’s no owner with a vested interest to make sure human trafficking isn’t going on,” Wallace said.
While similar bills had been proposed in previous Texas legislative sessions, Cruz said she believed the law passed this year because the issue of human trafficking was so frequently talked about in recent years as part of the QAnon conspiracy theory movement, which falsely believes that there is an elite group of politicians and others running a satanic cult involved in child sex trafficking rings.
“People pay a lot of lip service to human trafficking and sex trafficking and when it comes to strip clubs specifically,” she said. “But I want people to understand that we all hand our information to the state whenever we get hired in a club.”
When hired to work at a strip club either as an employee or as an individual contractor, applicants are required to go through a background check and fingerprints, she said.
“The State of Texas has our info. They literally have it in their database of every person who works in these clubs. So if they are so concerned with human trafficking and sex trafficking, why don’t they go look in the database of the people already working in there,” Cruz said.