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Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series produced after a yearlong investigation of sex trafficking on Bourbon Street. Tulane Avenue and Chef Menteur Highway in New Orleans, and Airline Drive in Metairie, have all been at one time or another popular meeting places for prostitutes and their customers.
But these days, with its swirl of tipsy tourists alongside scantily clad dancers standing in dingy strip club entrances, Bourbon Street has become an epicenter of the New Orleans sex trade, according to a yearlong investigation by NOLA. Law enforcement records — some made public for the first time — and interviews with dozens of officials, club representatives, human trafficking experts and trafficking victims reveal how a patchwork of strip clubs featuring private rooms have continued to be plagued by prostitution and drug use.
Surrounded by hotels where clients can easily slip away with a prostitute, Bourbon Street has become a playground for pimps — the kingpins of a brutal and sadistic underworld that hides in plain sight. Even when authorities have compiled evidence that pimps on Bourbon are exploiting women, recruiting new sex trafficking victims and more recently using the women to rob customers, the sex trade has continued to fester.
Since the nonprofit Covenant House began tracking sex trafficking cases in early , dozens of women — some younger than 18 — have reported falling victim to trafficking and sexual exploitation in clubs both in Louisiana and out of state. Of the victims of sex trafficking Covenant House provided services to in that period, 17 have reported using private rooms or a bathroom in French Quarter strip clubs to have sex with customers. A good number of French Quarter strip clubs have been cited by law enforcement for prostitution or have employed dancers that sought shelter at Covenant House to escape sex trafficking.
While there has been no evidence that clubs knowingly employed dancers who were victims of human trafficking, victim advocates and law enforcement officers say the trafficking opportunity arises from a constant presence of pimps promoting prostitution on Bourbon Street, and in some cases demanding that women under their control use private rooms in clubs for sex.