Florida strip clubs sue over dancers age requirements being raised from 18 to 21

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Adult clubs in one Florida city are suing over a new law that raised the minimum age for strippers from 18 to 21.

The law in Jacksonville was enacted March 5 in a bid to reduce human trafficking. But lawyers for the clubs, including the lead plaintiff Wacko’s, contend in a federal lawsuit that it violates the First Amendment by restricting the ability of performers to dance.

“The Constitution does not permit the deprivation of First Amendment rights based on the age of … citizens who have attained the age of 18,” attorneys Gary Edinger and James Benjamin argue in a complaint filed in the names of 13 businesses and four dancers, two of them under age 21.

The Florida Times-Union reported that after the law was signed, the clubs were prevented from using close to 100 dancers under age 21 during a two-week period, according to the lawsuit.

The 140-page suit notes that people under 21 can hold any other job at those businesses, even own the clubs.

The law also requires performers to get work identification cards from the sheriff’s office.

City attorneys have not yet responded to the lawsuit.

There is more in this story from The Florida Times Union.

In Jacksonville’s latest effort to crack down on sex trafficking, a new city law will impose tighter regulations on adult-entertainment businesses, including requiring strippers to be at least 21 years old.

Supporters hope the ordinance, which the City Council approved Feb. 25 and Mayor Lenny Curry is to sign Thursday, will help plug a pipeline of trafficking young girls from strip clubs into the sex trade.

Florida is ranked third nationally for reported cases of human trafficking, many of which involve sex trafficking, with Jacksonville third for large cities in Florida. Most victims are females 14 to 17 years old.

In addition to raising the stripper age from 18 to 21, the city will require all adult-entertainment performers to obtain “performer work identification cards” from the Sheriff’s Office. The cost of the card system will be defrayed by an increase in club license fees.

Clubs cannot hire performers without the cards, must keep rosters of them at all times and be able to produce the cards when requested. The law gives police the authority to enter at will and without cause.

“Strip clubs and hotels/motels are widely recognized as being a significant part of the sex-trafficking network used by traffickers,” according to the law. “Sex trade at strip clubs is a common occurrence in Jacksonville.”

TO GET HELP OR REPORT HUMAN TRAFFICKING

The National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline assistance is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, at (888) 373-7888 toll free.

The Florida Abuse Hotline: (800) 96-ABUSE

The U.S. Department of Justice Hotline: (888) 428-7581

Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office non-emergency number: (904) 630-0500

Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center: (904) 598-0901, seethegirl.org

Her Song: (904) 513-0203, [email protected]hersongjax.org

To read the new ordinance, go to bit.ly/3ctXjkJ.

The ordinance requires sex-trafficking education training for public lodging, gas station and convenience store employees and public awareness signs inside their guest rooms and public restrooms. In 2019 the American Hotel & Lodging Association launched a “No Room for Trafficking” campaign, with a goal of training hotel employees to spot and stop trafficking.

The ordinance also will establish a “Sex Trafficking Survivors Leadership Council” to advise the City Council.

The new regulations “will significantly impact people in our community who are at their most vulnerable,” said City Councilwoman LeAnna Cumber, who sponsored the legislation along with Councilman Tommy Hazouri.

“Sex trafficking is a particularly heinous crime. I’m proud to be a part of the solution,” said Cumber, who in January attended the White House’s Summit on Human Trafficking.

Jacksonville joins at least Orlando as cities in the state to raise the mandated stripper age to 21, but is among the last to require registration.

“This legislation is important because girls are being transported to Jacksonville because our city has had fewer restrictions,” said Vicky Basra, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville, which advocates for young women and girls. “The legislation helps create some monitoring of underage trafficking that is rampant in strip clubs.”

But she said she was concerned the law may produce “unintended consequences,” such as more arrests of victims of trafficking, especially those under the age of 21.

Also, much of the measure’s “accountability and focus is put on the dancers and less on the patrons, club owners and purchasers, which continues the culture of victim blaming,” Basra said. “The registry … impacts individual privacy and creates concerns for their safety if this information is available to the public. This will also move the sex trade underground and the black market.”

Kelly Posze is residential director of Her Song, a Jacksonville nonprofit that provides human-trafficking survivor care, victim outreach and community awareness. She said she hopes the ordinance will “hold club owners accountable” and cut off the trafficking pipeline, particularly for young girls.

“We hope to see change and reduce the numbers,” she said.

A sex-trafficking survivor, not being identified for privacy reasons, said “being a dancer in the strip club was the gateway to my exploitation.”

“This lifestyle promotes the false idea of ‘quick and easy money’ and has unforeseen impacts on young girls,” she said. “Limiting work in an environment that promotes sex through fantasy or dancing expands a young woman’s boundaries or limits.”

Such girls may appear to be working at a strip club by choice, but that is likely not the case.

“In reality I was never a dancer, but a trafficked person who was forced to be there,” she said. “A trafficked person might be dancing on the stage, but the trafficker is inside of the club monitoring their every move and even making threats to ensure the trafficked person is cooperating. Club workers and even other staff in the club are fearful of the traffickers and turn a blind eye to a trafficker’s aggressive behaviors.”

She said engaging in sex became a normal part of her job, and “soon after starting to dance at the strip club, my trafficker moved me out of the strip club and to the hotel and streets.”

Now she works at the Weaver Policy Center as a “survivor mentor.”

Basra said more support is needed for survivors, as well as more training for law enforcement and social service agencies.

“A continuum of services is needed to provide safe shelter and access to medical, mental health, educational, vocational and legal resources. This includes survivor mentors in our models and programs,” she said. “Specialized training … must highlight what to expect from these victims, including how to identify them, their unwillingness to accept assistance, their distrust and of their survival and coping mechanisms.”

Posze, of Her Song, said victims need lifelines.

“They have limited options, these clubs are familiar places to run back to,” she said. “It is so important to connect people to services.”

Such services should meet immediate needs, such as housing, but also help address “what drove people to be there in the first place,” she said. “Not just prevention, but intervention.”

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