Firing a Gun into a Dark Room: Strip Clubs, Sex Trafficking, and the Hidden Cost of Hedonism

a shot of a woman's legs from the knees down in a dark room. She's wearing dancing shoes, or "stripper" heels. A zig-zaggy light is behind her.
Image by Jake Guild / CC BY

Today’s post is a guest blog post from Matthew Shadrake.

Matt is a polyamorous switch and a big ole softie.

In addition to being a hell of a writer, Matt is one of the best conversationalists I have ever met and may even be a bigger psych nerd than I am. He’s definitely geekier about kink and the philosophical implications of hedonism and sex-positive shenanigans.

Matt’s regular blog is Confessions of a Hedonist. And check out what he wrote for Poly Land:

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A fundamental ethical concept is derived from a fundamental philosophical concept. Ought implies can. To say that one should morally do something is to imply that it’s possible for them to do. In ethics, that also means that in order for someone to say you should do something right, you have to be aware of the wrongness you’re committing to in the first place. Thus, knowledge becomes a burden. It’s easy to ignore the plight of, say, malaria-ravaged parts of Africa, when you’re unaware that a mere $10 would potentially save a life or two there. Ignorance is bliss in this way, a blindness of the moral eye to the harm you’re inflicting.

Strip Clubs and Sex Trafficking

I had a friend open my eyes in such a way a while back. She worked with victims of human trafficking, a noble profession that I couldn’t help but ask more about. She told me that some of the traffickers put their victims to work in local strip clubs. She even named a few such places that she knew to be used by such traffickers. One of which was a strip club that I had been to… twice.

I knew I couldn’t be faulted for having been there before – I was merely there on a suggestion from a friend who wanted to go. But I also knew I would never be okay with going back there again. From then on, I was going to have to attempt to evaluate every strip club with a burning question in my head – is that happening here? Is my money going towards something awful? Am I contributing to keeping people trapped in sex trafficking?

It might be easy to simply avoid strip clubs altogether. Financially, it would obviously be advisable. But at the same time, most people in the industry aren’t victims of sex trafficking. For those people, it’s a job that’s very lucrative. It’s a fun experience for the patrons. And I don’t believe it’s fair to stigmatize sex workers. I am a person who personally believes that sex work ought to be legal and regulated, with the aim of both protecting the workers themselves and protecting the customers. Regulating the pimps, gangs and traffickers out of business would be a nice bonus as well. Also on a personal level, lap dances are fun, and I enjoy fun things in my life.

A Private Dance at Mardi Gras

So it’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. A large drunk party is flowing in the streets. As someone who doesn’t drink, I enjoy the sea of humanity, I enjoy the brief flashes of nudity going on, but the alcohol isn’t quite my scene. After being bored with parades, bored with beads and bored with wandering around playing Pokemon Go, the next thing that seems like the thing to do is visit one of the dozens of gentleman’s clubs, cabarets or lounges that dot the streets of the French Quarter. I pick one with an attractive woman standing outside in an outfit I like. They sweep me inside and ask me what I want.

“I like private dances,” I say. It’s something I’ve done in my hometown a few times before. $10-$20 a song, a dancer in your lap for as long as you can afford. Of course, I figure, this is New Orleans. During Mardi Gras. This will probably be… $40 per song? $50? But at my word, the pretty lady is whisking me to the back. We’re behind the club. The din of the music fades. She takes me to a series of closed doors. Seats me in a dark room, barely visible to even each other. She brings along a plain dressed companion, who is handling the money. She has a credit card reader.

She explains that this is the private room. There’s no cameras in here, she assures. And depending on what I pay dictates what kind of contact I get. She says the room could be mine for half an hour… for $750. Suddenly I realize we’re no longer discussing a simple lap dance. I ask her about other prices. She tells me those would happen in a different room, with other patrons there. I play the part of the cheapskate. Partially because I’m definitely not spending $750 for anything, but also because I’m already thinking I absolutely need to not contribute to this place. The way the other lady was handling the money sets off pimp alarm bells. I suddenly feel like the absolute sleaziest person in the world. Which is funny on reflection, because I might be the least sleazy in the room.

Now, perhaps I’ve got this wrong. Maybe I’m making too many assumptions, maybe I’m just seeing things without enough experience to differentiate between real abuses and imagined ones. I’m not a professional in sex trafficking, and my friend who is a professional in that department is 3 hours worth of plane rides away. But at this point, I definitely don’t feel I should be chancing it.

Firing a Gun into a Dark Room

There’s a philosophical thought experiment that goes, is it ethical to randomly fire a gun into a dark room if you don’t know if anyone’s in there? The intuitive answer is yes, as that would be reckless and unnecessary. The question then is, if someone dies from a bullet shot in that manner, have they committed murder? Or are they guilty of something lesser? How does that change with more and less information? With a grenade that would certainly kill everyone in the room, or a throwing knife that would be extremely unlikely to kill someone in the room even on the off chance it connected?

The easy takeaway is to not take shots into a dark room. But as a metaphor, we take these shots all the time. When people drink and drive they do something very similar. When people speed they could be argued to be doing something similar. Every time someone texts and drives, they shoot a sort of bullet into a sort of dark room. Sometimes the risk seems so small, and the reward so great, that we take the risk.  Even if you’re a model driver and citizen, you likely take some form of the shot in the dark room.

And at the end of the day, we all come back to the ignorance to avoid the judgement. How could we have known, we say, that anyone else would be on the roads at 3 am? How could I know for sure that this woman was in sex trafficking? Maybe she was an independent sex worker. Maybe she was an undercover officer. Maybe she wasn’t coerced at all. And how would I ever know if the money I would have spent on her made any difference at all? Maybe she gets another mark as soon as I leave. Maybe the whole idea of matching my money to my values is self-aggrandizing bullshit, and I’m just as powerless as any other schmuck on the streets. Even if I have a weird bit of knowledge in my head. Maybe the only way I could really help, to really show I cared about the issue, would be to donate my money in time to an organization dedicated to ending human trafficking.

I return to our hotel, feeling distinctively in need of a shower for a variety of reasons.  A fellow traveler has an eerily similar story. Taken to the back, offered a blowjob by a dancer for $300. He passed on it, too. We later learn that the club he went to was recently featured in the local papers as one of a handful of clubs who might lose their liquor license in New Orleans over  alleged prostitution. A simple Google search reveals a handful of other such stories. Clubs employing teenagers. Clubs providing condoms for dancers, knowing full well the private rooms weren’t for dances. Rampant drug use by the dancers in such clubs. A recent story shows a dancer murdered by her boyfriend and alleged pimp. A group called Covenant House that houses abused teens says that a quarter of the kids they bring in were involved in sex trafficking. It lurks in those dark rooms, and a patron can never be sure where their shot will fall.

Coercion or Empowerment?

It’s the same in just about every corner of the sex trade. Cam girls might be fun loving women making extra money to put themselves through college or single moms feeding their kids. Or they might be coerced women making almost none of the money you spend on them in faraway countries like Romania, Columbia and Ukraine. Some of those models are trafficking victims, their pimps taking most of the cut, keeping them trapped. Even the ones in the US might not be on those sites by choice. People in porn are sometimes just trafficking victims with their abuse put to film. Even fashion models can be shamelessly imported from the third world like they’re livestock.

But then there are honest workers. Women plying a trade who need the money. Who might actually enjoy the work, even if it’s still a job. There are such thing as independent prostitutes, who work for themselves and reclaim their sexuality in an empowering way. There are professional dominatrixes who are only beholden to whatever dungeon they rent their space from. There are women who danced for a time on their own terms and walked away when the money was no longer worth it. There are cam models that will tell you that they love their job because it’s safer than working as a pro-domme/escort/stripper, and because the hours are so flexible. I know because I know people who used to do these things, who feel that way. I know because I’ve read ex pro dommes, ex-escorts, ex-cam models, ex-dancers and ex-other-types-of-sex-workers that share their stories for all to learn about their weird little work environment.

Shedding Light on a Dark Room

And thus the knowledge demands more knowledge. There is a void here, where we cannot be certain that anyone in the sex industry is or is not a trafficking victim. However, the lovely people at the Polaris Project have a few guidelines to help identify those who are being trafficked. They are posted below, so that you may bring a little bit of light to those dark rooms. You can never be entirely sure, but at the very least you can try to reduce the risks you take of feeding into modern human slavery.

Red Flags for Possible Human Sex Trafficking Victims

Common Work and Living Conditions:

  • Is not free to leave or come and go as he/she wishes
  • Is in the commercial sex industry and has a pimp / manager
  • Is unpaid, paid very little, or paid only through tips
  • Works excessively long and/or unusual hours
  • Is not allowed breaks or suffers under unusual restrictions at work
  • Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off
  • Was recruited through false promises concerning the nature and conditions of his/her work
  • High security measures exist in the work and/or living locations (e.g. opaque windows, boarded up windows, bars on windows, barbed wire, security cameras, etc.)

Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior:

  • Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense, or nervous/paranoid
  • Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement
  • Avoids eye contact

Poor Physical Health:

  • Lacks medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer
  • Appears malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harmful chemicals
  • Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement, or torture

Lack of Control:

  • Has few or no personal possessions
  • Is not in control of his/her own money, no financial records, or bank account
  • Is not in control of his/her own identification documents (ID or passport)
  • Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a third party may insist on being present and/or translating)

Other:

  • Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is staying/address
  • Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or of what city he/she is in
  • Loss of sense of time
  • Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

 

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