Behind the Scenes: Strip Clubs and Sex Trafficking

Even though we’re almost a couple of decades late—and the famously ambiguous ending has already been spoiled for us— my husband and I recently decided to start watching “The Sopranos.” In a move that seems to flaunt HBOs freedom from the constraints of network TV, a topless go-go bar, Bada Bing, serves as the backdrop for many of the titular mobster family’s business dealings. The scenes were shot at an actual strip club in New Jersey known as Satin Dolls. Although they go by different names, fiction and reality bare unfortunate resemblances when it comes to the famed location. In 2013, the owner of Satin Dolls pled guilty to racketeering conspiracy, and the club was charged with prostitution and lewd activity in 2017.

Satin Dolls isn’t the only strip club to attract characters more villainous than anti-hero Tony Soprano. More recently, a San Antonio strip club’s liquor license was revoked after an investigation revealed that club owners had allowed a 16-year-old girl to work as a dancer. The girl was forced into prostitution by her pimp, who made as much as $1000 off her in a night, and is accused of trafficking 10 other women, including juveniles and runaways. The investigation has since grown into a state-wide inquiry into several strip clubs that are potentially involved.

Prostitution is not a rare, unintended product of the strip club environment. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, strip clubs are “designed” to facilitate the purchase of sex, with exchanges taking place in bathrooms, VIP or lap dance rooms, or in connection with nearby escort services, massage parlors, or brothels. Victims are often transported between clubs on pre-determined schedules. Dancers are generally considered to be independent contractors by strip club owners, who require them to pay a house fee. This practice can make even those women that consented to work in a club vulnerable to traffickers.

Freelance exotic dancer, Merry Whitney, found herself in such a situation after following the promise of a big earner to Frank Day’s Bar in Dallas, South Dakota. The bar transforms into one of many pop-up strip clubs that cater to a rush of pheasant hunters that flood the state during peak season. After arriving, Whitney quickly found herself in the hole. The trailer she slept in—provided by the bar owner—cost her $300 a week, on top of a house fee of $100 per day. “When there [are] such high fees, girls are willing to do more there,” she said. “Girls are going to do...a lot, in the back, you know? It really doesn’t surprise me, because fees are that high.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline identifies Gregory County, home to Dallas, as a trafficking hotspot. For Lisa Heth, executive director of Wiconi Wawokiva— an organization that helps victims of trafficking in Fort Thompson—the yearly rush of wealthy hunters is to blame. “When it comes to pheasant season, I cringe,” she says, “because hunting season is open on our women, as well.”

In March of 2018, after a liquor license transfer, management at Satin Dolls began restocking its shelves for a grand reopening. Perhaps this marks a turning point for the business. Perhaps, new management will keep their hands clean of pimps, prostitution, and trafficking. Perhaps every dancer will be of age, working on her own terms, and free from the trappings of exorbitant fees. But then again, the alternative is as easy as “bada bing bada boom.”

—Maggie

Proverbs 31: 8-9