Concerns linger over privacy violations in a new strip club ordinance
Dori Martin's gaze is clear, direct. She has the warm but no-nonsense demeanor of a mom, of someone who’s been-there-done-that. And she’s unflinchingly open when she talks about the experiences that got her where she is today.
She didn’t plan on making a 30-year career out of being a stripper, she says, shrugging. It was just something she fell into. The work wasn’t boring, the hours were flexible and the money was great. Martin admits she’s not sure whether she’d choose the same path if she could do it all over again.
“We are, however, trying to do some due diligence in protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Councilor Dan Lewis
And yet the money she made helped pay for private school for her son and later his college education at Penn State. She was able to save enough to start her own business three years ago. The job taught her how to relate to people from all walks of life, to stand up for herself, to be direct without being rude.
Which isn't to say that she sugarcoats the experience of being a dancer. Sometimes customers behave like pigs, she says. A majority of the women she met in the strip club industry were struggling with substance abuse or some form of relationship violence. “I saw a lot of crap. But,” she points a manicured finger for emphasis, “no matter where you go—you can work as at a bank, or a bar, or as a lawyer, or doctor, or pharmacist, wherever, and find that stuff.”
That's why Martin says she's incredulous to hear the City Council passed an ordinance on Monday, Oct. 15, with a slew of regulations on what policymakers are calling "sexually oriented businesses." Supporters say the rules are aimed at combating sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation. “I've never heard of trafficking in strip clubs,” Martin says. “It's kind of shocking that that would be brought up. That was never the problem.”
Even law enforcement officials who supported the ordinance say there is no hard evidence linking strip clubs to human trafficking in Albuquerque. But that doesn't mean it couldn't happen here, says Councilor Dan Lewis, a Republican who co-sponsored the bill along with Democratic Councilors Isaac Benton and Debbie O'Malley.
Lewis takes a firm stance addressing critics who say there's no proof strip club dancers are especially at-risk. “We are not trying to prevent dancers who choose to make their living in these locations from doing so,” he says. There's ample evidence that human trafficking is a growing problem, he adds, and that strip clubs contribute to other kinds of crime. “We are, however, trying to do some due diligence in protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.”
Republican Councilor Trudy Jones, who voted against the new rules, says she doesn’t support what goes on in strip clubs but believes they have constitutionally protected free speech rights to operate.
“If we're going to be concerned about human trafficking—and I think we all should be—we should look into other businesses also,” says Jones. She cites evidence that people are trafficked to work against their will in a range of industries, including hotels, nail salons, construction and farming. “I feel very strongly that this is one more unnecessary law that we have on the books—most expressly because sexual exploitation and human trafficking are both already illegal."
Perhaps the most controversial piece of the ordinance is that clubs will be required to create registration cards for each dancer, including their full name, stage name, home address and phone number, copy of valid ID and a recent photograph, among other personal details—all of it subject to city inspection. Managers at a strip club told the Alibi they hadn't been made aware of the ordinance. One manager also expressed concern about potential privacy violations for employees.
Peter Simonson, executive director of the local branch of the ACLU, says his organization had similar issues with the measure when it was first proposed: It could infringe on dancers' privacy and violate the Fourth Amendment, which guards against unwarranted search and seizure. “It's our belief that the registration cards that the city is requiring these businesses to maintain would, in fact, be subject to public records requests,” Simonson says. Under public records rules, anyone who files the proper paperwork could gain access to the dancers’ cards, he says. “Of course, the concern there is what they have done is expose these dancers to the possibility of someone stalking them or someone using their personal information against them in some way.”
Deborah (who requested her real name not be used) left her job in a strip club about a year ago to work in a public school with special ed kids. She misses the money, she says, but her old job made her family uncomfortable, and it was emotionally draining.
Deborah is more soft-spoken than Martin and younger by about 30 years. But as a single mom trying to put herself through school, Deborah agrees that nude dancing was, “in a way, the perfect job.” She could often work just a few days every month, and it allowed her to set her own schedule.
“I couldn't have survived without having done it,” she says. “For four years, I worked normal jobs, and I would fall behind on my rent and my utilities. And this job came along, and I thought, Well, I don't really like it, but it's not that bad. I can deal with this and keep a roof over my head.”
She also says there were drawbacks. “Definitely there are men who try to push their limits,” she says. Women she worked with often installed security cameras outside their homes as a safeguard against stalkers. She says the city's new employee record requirements have given her pause. “That would definitely be a concern for me,” Deborah says. “In that industry you're already trying to fulfill a fantasy, and people try to take it beyond that. If any individual can access your personal life without your consent, it's very scary.”
During the final Council discussion in City Hall about the ordinance, Chief Administrative Officer Rob Perry seemed to corroborate privacy concerns. “That's perhaps the devil-in-the-details stuff,” he told the councilors. “We may or may not collect records, because once the records are collected, we become custodian of those records." That personal info could be sensitive, he said. "When you're in that business, I imagine that that's something you'd want to keep confidential.”
Councilor Lewis dismisses questions about the employee registration cards. He says he and the other drafters of the legislation worked hard to address the concerns of stakeholders, including the ACLU and representatives of the strip club industry. “The law is completely protective of personal information. And it's not unlike other industries where you fill out a W-9 form.”
Assistant City Attorney Greg Wheeler says the city is mindful of protecting the dancers' privacy. Any records that contain personal identifying information, says Wheeler, will be redacted by city staff if anyone files a public information request. (That would be a city policy and is not part of the new law.) “We'd be subject to litigation exposure if we did not,” he says.
For the strip club manager who didn’t know the details of the ordinance before it passed, the worries don’t end there. What if a dancer finds herself stalked by a city employee who is authorized to review her registration card? Staff from Planning and Zoning, Environmental Health, the fire department or the police department can be empowered by the city to examine strip club records. What if her stalker is granted access to her personal file?
Lawyer Wheeler pauses before answering. “I don't know how to respond to that,” he says. “I’m sorry.”
Sexually Oriented Business Ordinance
Clubs owners or applicants seeking a strip club license can have their licenses denied, revoked or suspended for:
• Owing the city money in relation to the business for taxes or fees.
• Having been convicted of any of these crimes: prostitution, promoting prostitution, accepting the earnings of a prostitute, patronizing prostitutes, sexual exploitation of children, criminal sexual penetration, indecent exposure. (There are others.)
• Providing misleading info on the application, as determined by the mayor.
• Allowing illegal drug possession, use or sale on club property, as determined by the mayor.
• Allowing sex or masturbation on club property, as determined by the mayor.
The ordinance makes private VIP rooms illegal. Clubs have about six months to get rid of existing rooms, and "adult cabaret entertainment" has to happen only in open areas where non-performer employees can see it.
Every bathroom and dressing room must have a notice about the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline.