When clubs like Rick’s Cabaret and the Penthouse Club came to the French Quarter, they sought to introduce high-end adult entertainment on Bourbon Street. The clubs’ bars were stocked with pricy champagne, their public areas decorated with cushy, comfortable furniture and filled with beautiful entertainers. Club representatives said that management made it clear to dancers that engaging in prostitution in private rooms would not be tolerated.
Rick’s Cabaret and Penthouse were not among the clubs cited by ATC in 2015’s Trick of Treat operation. During the course of investigating this series, ATC records showed no evidence the two clubs had sexual activity that attracted the attention of law enforcement.
Private rooms in some clubs on Bourbon Street continue to present a challenge for law enforcement, however, because of their concealed nature. Covenant House, which receives the majority of sex trafficking victim referrals in New Orleans under a U.S. Department of Justice grant, has assisted 132 victims since January 2016, according to its records.
Of all those victims since the start of 2016, 17 have reported having sex in private rooms or a bathroom in a French Quarter strip club. Nearly half those victims told Covenant House they were under the control of a pimp who forced them to have sex in the private rooms and turn over the money they earned there to the pimp.
Law enforcement records and interviews with officials, current and former club workers and advocates for sex trafficking victims indicate that at some clubs clientele can get “the extras” – the sexual touching that is illegal under state law but can be found in the French Quarter with the right dancer for the right price.
There are Internet sites where customers exchange comments about the perceived availability of “the extras.” In one case, a customer posted on a strip club review website about a dance in a Bourbon Street club that he said included “touching,” and the customer said the dancer “definitely adjusted me in my pants.” The club posted on its Facebook page a video of a dancer responding to the review.
“It seems like for the most part you did enjoy your time here with us,” the dancer says in the video.
Most strip clubs in the French Quarter feature private rooms, a major source of revenue. During a recent visit to a different club, Larry Flynt’s Hustler Barely Legal, a sign in the main dance floor read, “Ask about Barely Legal bedrooms.”
Upon request, a reporter visiting the club during an unannounced visit was led on a tour of the private rooms, most of which were decorated as bedrooms, with two rooms featuring beds and one other a sofa. One room had a faux fireplace. The lowest price quoted for an hour in the private room: $3,600. The dancer pointed out that there were no cameras installed in the rooms and promised the “full experience.” She did not specify what that meant.
Ann Kesler, a manager for the clubs that include Larry Flynt Hustler Club, Larry Flynt’s Hustler Barely Legal and the now-shuttered Déjà Vu, said in a statement that the clubs’ “business plan is based upon providing quality entertainment within the bounds of the law.
“Because New Orleans and Bourbon Street in particular is an entertainment destination, there have always been enough customers who are satisfied with a quality, well-run venue that operates in a lawful manner,” Kesler said. “We have a long track record in New Orleans that supports this claim. We provide regular management training that emphasizes safety, compliance with city and state laws and entertainment, in that order of importance.”
Kesler added that it is “our policy to terminate any manager, employee or contract entertainer who fails to follow those policies.”
According to a purported price list for Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club provided to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune by a former employee at the club, customers pay VIP room fees ranging from $50 to $1,200. The club also makes money selling champagne at huge markups, ranging from $220 for the cheapest bottle to $4,400 for a two-hour VIP room experience with two bottles. Kesler did not respond to a request for more information on the Hustler VIP room price schedule.
In online forums where clientele trade reviews of the strip clubs, customers looking for anything ranging from manual stimulation to oral sex to intercourse will trade tips about which room in which New Orleans strip club is the most private, and which places you’re most likely to find prostitutes and at what prices.
A bouncer who has worked at several French Quarter strip clubs since 2011 saw the business model up close. The bouncer asked his name not be used, citing concerns about his safety, but a NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reporter verified his identity and work history.
The bouncer said soon after he began working at Bourbon Street clubs as a host for private rooms, he found out that what goes on in the private room at one club he worked in was up to the dancer – and was dictated by how much money customers are willing to spend.
The bouncer said he first realized the private rooms at one club were being used for dancers to have sex with customers when he booked a room for a couple who paid more than $1,000 for an hour-long encounter. Private room hosts are assigned to check on private rooms for security purposes and to see if customers want more drinks, the bouncer said.
After about 20 minutes, he opened the door of the private room and saw the man having sex with the dancer. The bouncer said he told the couple to stop what they were doing and get dressed, and left to get a manager. When the manager checked the customer’s receipt and saw they had spent more than $1,000, he “just shrugged, talked to the customer and said to let them continue,” the bouncer said.
“We tell the customer that if there’s any problems, that we have the right to stop the room and refund the money. But that usually doesn’t happen unless a customer is trying to get physical or violent with an entertainer,” he said. “I learned that day, real quick, talking to other employees who worked there longer. They said, ‘Just keep it to yourself. As long as they’re not beating on the entertainer, don’t bother them.’”
From that point on, he said, it was commonplace to check VIP rooms at that club and see dancers performing oral sex on customers. But he didn’t raise the issue with management again, he said, because it was made clear that the club tolerated dancers making such arrangements with customers.
He said at several other clubs he worked for he was either not assigned to the private rooms, or the clubs may not have had private rooms, and he did not observe any apparently illegal activity concerning private rooms at those other clubs.
But he said at some of those other Bourbon Street clubs where he has worked, dancers and VIP hosts were “coached” to give open-ended answers to questions from customers when they asked what happened in VIP rooms.
“You’ll have plenty of fun upstairs,” the bouncer said he was told to say at one club. “If the entertainer feels comfortable and feels (the customers are) not undercover or law enforcement, then they’ll explain what extra things go on.”
Customers who expressed a willingness to pay for the more expensive VIP experiences were generally assumed not to be law enforcement, he said, “because one thing that all of these clubs know is that law enforcement is not going to spend more than $1,500 just to make an arrest.”
Looking the other way when it came to prostitution also extended to a tolerance for pimps, many of whom doubled as drug dealers, the bouncer said. He said that some clubs anticipated that customers would arrive expecting to be able to buy narcotics at the same time they were arranging for sex acts with dancers.
Investigation documents from the state Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control back up the man’s observations that dancers are a vital conduit for the drug trade at strip clubs. They often call the dealer, pass along the customer’s money, accept the drugs and pass them on to the customer, according to the ATC documents.
“There were times where (managers) would tell the entertainers that if they had a pimp or a boyfriend, they weren’t allowed in,” the bouncer said. “But there were a couple of instances where the pimp would be on good terms with the management or if they were supplying drugs.”
Asked how he knew they were pimps, he said, “It was pretty obvious when they say, ‘I’m a pimp.’”