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Stormy Daniels' strip club arrest highlights how evangelical Americans are criminalizing sex work

Why do women like Daniels wind up with their mugshots in the paper, while club owners and customers generally skate by with a slap on the wrist?
 / Updated 
Image: Stormy Daniels
Adult film star Stormy Daniels signs autographs at Chi Chi Larue's adult entertainment store in West Hollywood, California in May.Robyn Beck / AFP - Getty Images file
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On the evening of July 11, Stormy Daniels, the adult film performer who is currently suing President Donald Trump, was arrested for allegedly motorboating undercover cops in a strip club in Columbus, Ohio. As the news media scrambled to broadcast her mugshot far and wide, attorney Michael Avenatti tweeted that Daniels had been handcuffed for performing the same act she'd been performing all across the country as part of her ongoing national tour.

Perhaps Avenatti didn't know that the laws and practices governing strip clubs vary wildly from state to state and city to city, but it's something that strippers from San Diego to Detroit are well aware of, and they know they can get arrested or ticketed for less than breast-to-face contact.

The Columbus Police Department tweeted out a statement on Thursday claiming that Daniels' arrest, and the arrests of two other dancers working in the club on the night of her performance, was part of an investigation into human trafficking. As with the January raids of eight New Orleans strip clubs, which law enforcement said were part of an ongoing human trafficking investigation, Thursday's operation in Ohio yielded no trafficking arrests or trafficking victims.

Anti-trafficking groups allege that strip clubs are gateways to sex trafficking, but trafficking investigations of clubs fail to yield victims or perpetrators in quantity. More often, women are arrested for doing their jobs, just like Daniels was. And that's ultimately what these laws are designed to do — stop women from doing jobs that conservatives, especially evangelical Christian conservatives, see as immoral.

That's ultimately what these laws are designed to do — stop women from doing jobs that conservatives, especially evangelical Christian conservatives, see as immoral.

These conservatives are often joined by liberals who consider dancers an exploited class, and developers concerned with property values. Opponents of strip clubs use a variation of the "secondary effects" argument to pass laws criminalizing behavior that typically could be considered protected speech. The argument that gets the most traction where anti-strip club crusaders has evolved over the last few decades, however, shifting from prostitution and crime to domestic violence to human trafficking.

The raid ultimately yielded no charges for Daniels, who was released several hours later. Columbus Police Chief Kim Jacobs noted in a statement that her vice officers made a mistake arresting the high-profile performer. She also said that the "presence of Vice officers at this establishment is reasonable," and didn't call into question the failure of the investigation to find the actual targeted crimes. And why would she? There are a lot of funds available for law enforcement agencies to use for combating trafficking, and local governments have discovered how to generate even more by creating strip-club-specific taxes and fines.

One of the most recent examples is in Tennessee, where state legislators passed a so-called door tax in April that collects $2 per patron from clubs for a trafficking victims' fund. More than a decade ago, however, Texas pioneered the concept with its statewide "pole tax," a $5 per head charge intended to fund social programs for victims of sexual assault. Houston has taken the step of making strip clubs pay into a human trafficking task force fund in exchange for being allowed to stay in business.

Many of the laws that criminalize various elements of sex work and stripping can be traced back to evangelical Christian organizations. The Ohio law that Daniels allegedly violated was authored by Scott Bergthold, who "has a national practice focused on the drafting and defense of municipal adult business regulations," according to his website. Bergthold was also hired by the city of New Orleans last fall to recommend ways that city could restrict its strip clubs, helped author laws in Detroit that banned lap dances and defended a Missouri law that forced clubs to close at midnight, to name but a few of his accomplishments in fighting adult entertainment. Bergthold has also worked for the Alliance Defending Freedom, a fundamentalist Christian organization that has fought against marriage equality and reproductive rights.

Women like Daniels and the two other dancers arrested at Sirens that night wind up with their mugshots and names in the paper, while club owners and customers generally skate by with a slap on the wrist or a ticket.

Bergthold was hired to write the Ohio legislation by Citizens for Community Values (CCV), a Cincinnati-based group that attracted national headlines for its contentious protest of the Contemporary Arts Center's Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in the 1990s. Controversy over that exhibit resulted in the arrest of CAC’s museum director on obscenity charges.

But the CCV was no more concerned about trafficking victims in 2007 than they were with artistic value in 1990; their agenda is right there in the open. For their efforts, they have even labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Women like Daniels and the two other dancers arrested at Sirens that night wind up with their mugshots and names in the paper, while club owners and customers generally skate by with a slap on the wrist or a ticket — that is, until a city attempts to finally eradicate clubs, usually when they're standing in the way of gentrification. It's a double standard that unfairly punishes working women while leaving those who purchase and profit from their work unscathed.

Last fall it was reported that the Ohio law was "rarely" used, and in fact had not been used in Columbus ever. Maybe it really was all a setup, as Daniels’ lawyer alleged. But while Daniels was able to skate on a technicality, other women across the country are not so lucky. Because whether or not police choose to enforce such statutes, their existence on the books means they can be enforced, with potentially devastating consequences for the women involved who are left with a charge of lewd conduct or worse on their record.

Human trafficking investigations provide a way to control the sex industry and women's bodies under the guise of protecting them, the same way that TRAP laws around abortion are regulating abortion clinics out of existence all the while claiming to be concerned for women's health. This week, a woman who has refused to be silenced by powerful men — and willing to put her bare breasts on someone's head — was sent to prison. That's not an unintended consequence of the law; it's working just as intended.

Susan Elizabeth Shepard is one of the co-founders of the sex workers' publication "Tits and Sass." She's a journalist in Montana and worked as a stripper all around the country.

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